Review: Volkanu, on a Quest for the Golden Idol

The facade of Volkanu (© Dark Ride Database)

Last Saturday marked the official opening of Lost Island Themepark in Waterloo, IA (United States). The park is part of the Lost Island resort, that already contained a large water park, adventure golf, go-kart track and holiday camp. After fifteen years of development and three years of construction, visitors can now enjoy the new park, that also contains the highly anticipated dark ride Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol.

Out of the water

In 2001, the Bertch family opened a water park, called Lost Island Waterpark, on the edge of the city of Waterloo in Iowa (U.S.A.). The family kept investing in the park, which resulted in Lost Island to be ranked amongst the best water parks in the United States. It wouldn’t take too long before the Bertch family would start working on the next big thing.

The Molokini Crater-waterslide in the waterpark (© Lost Island Waterpark)

The Bertch family came with the announcement of the construction of Lost Island Themepark on 15 July 2019. Obviously, the Bertch family had been planning this park for many years. According to Laughing Place, the theme park was a 15-year long dream of owner Gary Bertch.

The map of Lost Island Themepark (© Lost Island Themepark)

The new 63 hectare (159 acre) theme park is located across the street from the water park. It features five themed zones or ‘realms’: Mura, Yuta, Awa, Udara and Tamariki. The first four zones are based on the four elements: fire, earth, water and air. The fifth zone is also called the ‘spirit’-realm and features rides especially for smaller children. The park is located adjacent to a large 12 hectare (30 acre) lake, making the park feel like an actual island. The creators of the park were focused on designing a park that was a true themed experience and not just based on rides.

The groundbreaking ceremony in Waterloo, IA (© Lost Island Themepark)

Construction began on 23 August 2019 and soon it was revealed that the park would contain two large rollercoasters: Matugani, an Intamin launch coaster that was relocated from Liseberg (Sweden) and Nopuko Air Coaster, a Vekoma Suspended Looping Coaster that was relocated from Ratanga Junction (South Africa). A third (childrens) rollercoaster, Lokolo was announced later. The park features many other rides such as a Ferris wheel, log flume and several flat rides. The last major attraction for the park was announced during the IAAPA Expo 2021 in Orlando (Florida – U.S.A.) and that’s the one that interests us the most.

From the Fires

Every year, the IAAPA Expo in Orlando is packed with press-conferences and announcements. Manufacturers present new ride concepts and parks announce new rides. For Lost Island Themepark, this was no different as they presented one of their rides in a press conference together with design company Sally Dark Rides.

Press conference at IAAPA Expo 2021. Left to right: Lauren Wood Weaver, John Wood (Sally Dark Rides), Eric Bertch and Gary Bertch (Lost Island Themepark) (© Sally Dark Rides)

The two presented the first dark ride for Lost Island Themepark, called Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol. In contrast to the two major rollercoasters that are second hand, the dark ride is a brand new attraction. Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol is an interactive dark ride that features 3D multimedia.

The dark ride is located in the Mura (Fire)-realm of the park. “Designed to create a seamless experience with the park’s mythical island theme, the ride is inspired by the great god of fire Volkanu – a legendary bestial being of molten rock living deep inside Lost Island,” states a press-release of Sally Dark Rides.

Visitors of the ride will be taken on a thrill-packed adventure to find a sacred statue, called Ora-Tika. The statue is responsible for keeping Volkanu dormant and has to be returned to the altar to restore peace on the island. Riders will be equipped with a powerful weapon, called the ‘Thermal Blaster’. With this weapon, they can battle the minions of Volkanu and head to the Temple of Fire to return the statue to its altar.

Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol
Artwork for the Thermal Blasters (© Sally Dark Rides)

Lost Island hired Sally Dark Rides as the turnkey supplier for the new ride. Creative director Drew Hunter was put in charge of the design of the new ride. Together with his team, he designed a total of 13 scenes for the ride, that will last over 5 minutes. The ride includes a couple Easter eggs and even a bonus point target, something that has become a running gag in Sally-rides.

The company, that specialises in dark ride design and theming/animatronics manufacturing, cooperated with several other companies for the creation of the ride. Most notably ETF Ride Systems as the supplier of the trackless 6-seater ride vehicles, Alterface for the interactive technology that combines physical and digital targets and Pure Imagination for the multimedia.

Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol
Design for the ride vehicles supplied by ETF Ride Systems (© Sally Dark Rides)

Whoever visited the stand of Sally Dark Rides on the IAAPA Expo, came face to face with the last eye-catcher of the presentation. A life size animatronic of a Shaman, destined for Volkanu was on display for the length of the expo.

Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol
Animatronic of the Shaman for Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol (© Sally Dark Rides)

With the Expo being in November, the construction of the ride should have been well underway during the presentation. The ride is located inside a 900 m² (9,750 ft²) building on the east side of the park. A facade was erected in front of the building, that is partly a large volcano and partly a fire temple.

Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol
Construction of the facade well under way (© Sally Dark Rides)

The park was originally scheduled to open on 10 June 2022, but finishing touches on the park took a little longer then expected. The park eventually opened a week later on 18 June.

Conquering Volkanu

Volkanu is the centrepiece of the Mura themed area. In the front of the ride several Asian-styled buildings can be found, with an erupting volcano in the background.

The facade of the ride (© Dark Ride Database)

During the first part of the queue the backstory of the ride is explained by UIaka, one of the guardians of Lost Island. He explains that you, the visitor, is going on a quest to defeat Volkanu, a creature of devastating fire and rage which emerged from his molten lair long ago. He was confined in the temple of fire by the power of the four friends, who forged a magical Ora Tika idol which imprisoned him. The Ora Tika however was stolen, setting Volkanu free once again. The Ora Tika is now located and guarded by six stone figures. The quest will be to defeat these and put the Ora Tika back in place. The same video is also used to explain the boarding procedure and the use of the thermal equalisers.

Queue video of Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol (by Sally Dark Rides on YouTube)

During the queue you also meet the amazing Mura Shaman animatronic, who once again tells about the quest you are going to embark on.

Shaman in the queueline (© Dark Ride Database)

The ride starts when the doors out of the station open and you make a left turn. Ominous music can be heard while you look at some skeletons which are embedded into the walls. Right after that you come eye to with the six statues, an erupting volcano and Volkanu. The car turns away and once again you see the shaman from the queue accompanied with a real fire blast! The car moves forward, showing stone columns with a fire mural on the wall behind then. The scene ends with a three-headed Cerberus like creature looking at you angrily.

The three-headed creature (© Dark Ride Database)

The next scene brings the riders to the first interactive scene where flaming scorpions, bats and snakes greet you while getting closer to the temple of fire. After defeating these foes the car once again turn around and you are greeted by a huge firey bat all the while small faces in the rocks grin at you. This impressive looking setpiece is followed up by a fire breathing statue, before once again coming face to face with an interactive screen.

The fire breathing-statue (© Sally Dark Rides)

This screens starts out with two fire demons attacking the riders while on a pathway to an arch. After defeating them, the riders are transported forward on the screen (accomplished by movements of the vehicle) and enter the Temple of Fire!

In this final scene, that is located in a projection dome, the riders come face to face with Volkanu. The Idol is placed back inside the temple, after which Volkanu tries to catch you. The cars back away from the temple, while Volkanu reaches out with his hands. Now that the Golden Idol is back in the temple, Volkanu is unable to leave, which enables the car to escape from the temple and from the evil creature.

The ride ends with a scoreboard and onride photagraphs of the riders. Right before the cars re-enters the station, a figure of Volkanu can be seen, giving guests a final scare.

Not convinced by our description? Watch the onride video below:

Onride video of Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol

Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol is a world class dark ride for a regional park. The ride gives a perfect mixture of scenery, multimedia screens and special effects. The story is simple, refreshing and the pre-show sells it well. With the scary Volkanu chasing the riders, it feels like a thrill ride compared to the traditional dark ride. Though it might not be suitable for young children, the ride will be an exciting experience for those who are old enough.

The physical scenery in the ride is stunning. Especially the bat-creature opening its wings and of course the two fantastic Shaman-animatronics. Touches like the puff of smoke towards the riders or the blast of fire are spectacular additions.

The bat-creature with its wings wide open (© Dark Ride Database)

The finale in the large projection dome works very well together with the vehicle motion. It gives riders a real disorientating ‘pulling back’-effect, a trick we’ve seen Sally Dark Rides also pull in Sesame Street: Street Mission and Justice League: Battle for Metropolis.

The media was still lagging a bit during the ride, especially when a full car of riders was shooting at the same time. Though, the ride is still in a sort of soft-opening and Alterface is still optimising the media and interactive system. They also told us that they would revise the scoring during the ride. That seemed a bit high during this opening day.

A small downside in this ride is the building infrastructure. The warehouse that houses the ride is clearly visible behind the facade of the ride and there are moments where the cars move from room to room inside the warehouse. These moments could create small gaps in the immersion. However, the designers managed to keep the focus of the riders elsewhere, so most riders will probably not notice these moments.

Sally Dark Rides, along with their partners ETF Ride Systems, Alterface and others, have once again created a state-of-the-art dark ride. One that will ultimately end up high on lists for best new ride of the year. Its a ride that everyone involved and especially Lost Island Themepark can be proud of.

The creation of the quest

A talk with Chris Weaver

To celebrate the opening of Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol we had a short talk with Chris Weaver, project manager of Sally Dark Rides, about the ride and the future of dark rides.

So are you happy with how the project turned out overal?

Chris: “Yeah, the project turned out great. I think it is a great ride for the park and a great ride for the Midwest region. I couldn’t be happier and I think my team is also happy.”

Did you face any setbacks during the creation of the ride?

Chris: “No real technical setbacks. Everything worked smoothly. We have worked with ETF prior, with their ride system on some of our rides. We have worked with Alterface and Pure Imagination and so for this ride I have brought all those teams back and we really worked well together. So I expected the same out of this ride and everything ran as expected and really smooth.

But yeah you get a couple bugs when you get into the fine details. That’s why we like to stress test the system before you open to the public, to figure out those bugs. And unfortunately we just found a couple of bugs in one of the media assets and we were able to dive into it and get it fixed real quick.”

So, You are using a trackless ride system. Creatively do you prefer using a trackless system?

Chris: “Ah man, I think you have pros and cons for trackless and tracked. I think for this ride a trackless system is perfect. The ETF ride system, we have in here, the motion we get out of it is on par with a tracked ride. We don’t get a lot of the high speed accelerations that you get on a track, but that’s not what we needed with this ride. So I think you got to weigh the pros and cons for the ride you are trying to put it in.”

Do you think that the interactive story elements complement the story of the ride?

Chris: “I do, in this one you are trying to help the Mura tribe. The Ora-Tika statue that protects Lost Island and its five realms from Volkanu has been stolen and it’s up to us to defeat the monster and save Lost Island. The story compels us to play along and the interactivity allows us to join in.”

Is it possible that some of the details might be missed while guests are engaging in interactivity?

Chris: “Yeah, I do think that. You know sometimes I ride and play the game and get immersed in that. And sometimes I just like to sit there, ride the ride and enjoy the scenery and enjoy the story, enjoy the media and not play. So I do think that at some point you do lose a little bit with the interactivity. But it also creates repeat ridership. I think you get to play the game and then you get to enjoy the scenery and look at those details. But then again, there is a lot of details in the gameplay too that, if you are not paying attention, you are really going to miss. We have a lot of Easter eggs in this ride and one of the cool things about it is if you don’t hit this Easter egg you don’t get the next Easter egg, because you didn’t get the previous one. That’s kinda cool.”

Can you elaborate one of those easter eggs?

Chris: “Nah, but I think if you play a few times you will get it.”

How many animatronics does the ride feature and have you got a favorite?

Chris: “We have an animatronic shaman, we have two of those: one in the queue and one in the ride. We have animatronic shaking columns and also have a animatronic three-headed creature, as well as an animatronics bat. I would say our shaman is an amazing animatronic, it looks really good. The bat is just one of my favourites, I love how it looks, I love how he is blacklit and the wingspan is just enormous. It is not anything we have done like that in a long time

The second Shaman-animatronic during the ride (© Dark Ride Database)

Is there anything you would have done differently having the chance?

Chris: “Ow man, I mean, always. You could keep adding layers, you could keep adding more. So, I think that if we had the budget we could keep on going with it. Overall this is a really good ride, I like how it turned out.”

What do you think is the future of dark rides in your opinion?

Chris: “I think we are seeing some of the future happening right now. I think technology is getting at a price point where we can utilize a lot of really good things, like these projectors in here. We now have high quality projectors at a price point where we can put then in a regional park. We are utilizing fiber optic cables now so you are getting better media. 4K is here, it’s right around the corner and I think that price point is coming into where you will start seeing high quality media. Our animatronics, they are always getting better, they are getting smoother. I think our processing rate with our targets and with the whole system is getting quicker and smoother. I think you are going to start seeing those high quality dark rides at a really good pricepoint.”

Is there still a place for practical effects in dark rides in the industry?

Chris: “I think you will have to have the perfect formula and that formula is going to change per ride. But I think practical effects are a definite. Media is great and all, but we can put effects in here that you can see and smell and that is what it is all about. You cant just stick a screen in front of somebody and think that is going to be it. I think if you do that you are missing the mark.”

Do you think there will be a resurgence of old school dark rides?

Chris “Of course, there is an nostalgic, everybody loves this. Personally some of my favorite dark rides are still some of the old ones, that have no interactive video, they have older animatronics. It’s just there and I think it all depends the park, on the storyline and how you want to approach it.”

What is your dream dark ride that you want to build?

Chris: “Ow man, dream dark ride I haven’t build yet. I think that would be something a rider would come off and have a better understanding of something. Rather that’s taking care of the land, the animals, just our earth. I think it would be really cool to do something that would really have an impact on people and our relationship with the land, the animals, the oceans and so I think that I would love to do something that has more of an impact to the humans and our earth.”

Chris Weaver in front of Volkanu (© Sally Dark Rides)

Questions for Drew Hunter:

We were also supposed to meet with Drew Hunter, Vice President Creative Design of Sally Dark Rides and lead designer of Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol. Unfortunately, due to travel issues, he was not able to make it to Lost Island Themepark. We were able to ask him a few questions later:

Volkanu is the newest dark ride of Sally Dark Rides. As the lead designer of the ride, are you satisfied with the result?

As lead designer of Volkanu, I am extremely pleased! And that is due to the wonderful team we had to make the dark ride a reality. From beginning through opening this was a classic collaborative experience.  Our Sally Dark Rides team — our subcontractors plus other involved parties — and the absolutely amazing team at Lost Island Themepark – all worked together to create this original and exciting new attraction. Yes, we are very proud of the result!

Lost Island Theme Park is based on 5 realms and all kinds of legends. How does Volkanu fit in with the park?

“The backstory of Volkanu works perfectly in context with the overall mythology of Lost Island Themepark’s five realms. It allows guests to not only experience part of the history of the Mura realm, but to assist in saving Lost Island from destruction by the fire god Volkanu!”

Who came up with the concept/story for the ride? Was it Sally or Lost Island?

“Well over a decade ago Sally Dark rides developed an attraction known as ‘Forbidden Island’ which we showcased at IAAPA. A few years later we enhanced and expanded the concept and re-titled it ‘Volkanikus’. This version was presented via an impressive display in the Sally booth at IAAPA for several more years. Eventually the Bertch family – owners of Lost Island Waterpark who were planning to build an adjacent theme park – saw our display and knew that Sally’s ride would segue nicely into the backstories they had developed.  And they knew that the dark ride could become the signature attraction of their new park. So once the deal was finalized, the Sally Dark Rides design team and the Lost Island management joined forces to effectively blend what Sally had conceived with the characters and story of Lost Island. It was a total delight to collaborate with Eric and Molly Bertch throughout every detail of finalization of the ride story, the audio recording, the music score and so much more. Along the way, they suggested altering the title to ‘Volkanu’ because they reasoned that ‘Volkanikus’ sounded a bit too classically Roman. And that was a good call – as today Volkanu stands alone as a one-of-a-kind, original, thoroughly unique, thoroughly entertaining dark ride attraction!”

Volkanu is the first dark ride for Lost Island. Does that set a bar for the park to come with new ride dark rides in the future?

“Any amusement or theme park which doesn’t have at least one dark ride is really missing something! Having a dark ride is a significant element of any quality amusement or theme park’s mix of attractions. So of course we at Sally Dark Rides were thrilled to hear that the brand new Lost Island Themepark was planning to include a dark ride in the list of opening day attractions. And, even better, it would be a Sally dark ride! As to the question if one dark ride in a park sets the bar for future dark rides in the same park – I will say that one park can’t have TOO many dark rides! And each dark ride can have a different flavor, different theme, different ride system, different technology, and so on. We at Sally Dark Rides are passionate about what we do, and we want to bring at least one fabulous dark ride to every park on the planet!”

Have you learned anything new in the process of designing and building Volkanu that you’re taking with you for rides in the future?

“In my 25 ½ years being a designer at Sally Dark Rides, I have worked on all types and forms of dark rides. But working on Volkanu has been the most challenging and educational – and all in good ways! My forte’ is storytelling, ride layout, show, scenic & character design, art direction and related areas. The technical aspects of Volkanu are all highly involved and extremely complex. Happily, throughout the ride development, I have learned a great deal more about the technical end of things. And that is thanks to the astounding expertise of our Sally Dark Rides technical department as well as the various subcontractors with whom we worked in close association as we realized the ride. Every ride we create at Sally proves to be a positive learning experience for future projects – and Volkanu was no exception!”

Lead designer Drew Hunter in front of the Shaman-animatronic (© Sally Dark Rides)

And that concludes our report on the opening of Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol. We would like to thank Lauren Wood Weaver, Drew Hunter and Chris Weaver for their help and insights for the article. We had a blast with this quest!

Concept-poster for Volkanu (© Sally Dark Rides)

© Dark Ride Database
Visit by: Steven
Article by: Erik & Johan
Photos: See credit