BELFAST, Northern Ireland — One minute you're being whisked through the busy Belfast shipyard where the Titanic is being built. The next you're contemplating, amid a chilly piped-in breeze and lights mimicking darkened waters, the horror of freezing to death in the North Atlantic.
In between, Belfast's impressive new tourist attraction — the $160 million Titanic Belfast visitor center — offers a loving portrait of the excitement, ambition and opulence surrounding the doomed trans-Atlantic liner.
The Associated Press received a sneak preview of Titanic Belfast before its Saturday opening.
With 100,000 tickets already sold, Belfast is betting it will deliver a lasting tonic of tourism to the conflict-scarred city. A three-week festival featuring talks, walks and seven Titanic-themed stage shows — including "Titanic The Musical" — also begins Saturday to mark the 100th anniversary of the ship's launching.
Any visitor's first impression will be of center's stunning exterior: four jutting prows of the ship, lined in silver steel paneling, six stories high.
The Belfast Titanic marketing director, Claire Bradshaw, said the aim was to create an icon that people would come to associate with Belfast — like the Eiffel Tower for Paris or the Statue of Liberty for New York.
The center sits beside the Belfast Lough dockside where the 46,329-ton vessel was built from 1909 to 1911 and set sail for her sea trials on April 2, 1912. Titanic began her fateful maiden voyage from the English port of Southampton eight days later, striking an iceberg just before midnight April 14 and sinking within hours with the loss of 1,514 lives.
A roller coaster-like ride takes visitors, up to six per carriage, up and down three floors of a re-creation of the Harland & Wolff shipyards that made the ship for Liverpool's White Star Line. No, there's no thrills or spills, just a panoramic tour suggesting the scale of the hull and the energy of the dock workers, all of them video projections of actors in period costumes. Those aboard can hear the commentary in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian or Chinese.
Next, visitors see a 4-minute CGI tour (computer-generated imagery) of the finished Titanic, rising deck by deck, from engine room to the famed first-class cabin staircase made famous in James Cameron's 1997 epic movie "Titanic." In the same room are re-creations of first, second and third-class cabins, again with video projections of fictional passengers going into their bunks or getting ready for dinner.
There's no skimping on historical detail for true maritime and Titanic junkies. Every available wall is plastered, in logical chronology, with details about every phase of construction, every firm and engineering speciality involved, and every part described from the ship's four 24-foot-wide funnels to its six onboard pianos.
The ship's voyage to Southampton, then to its other European ports of call in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, are detailed in turn: The numbers and notables who boarded, their stories and tales of excitement about the voyage to New York ahead.
An entire wall is given over to a reprint of the final surviving photograph taken of Titanic on April 11, 1912, as she sailed away from Queenstown, the County Cork port today renamed Cobh.
Around the next corner, Titanic Belfast plunges into the disaster. A series of panels reprints the confused wireless messages among ships as Titanic appeals, minute by minute, for help from other vessels. The room is deliberately chilly as light projections create an image of dark lapping waters underfoot.
"What is the matter with you?" asks the Frankfurt at 12:34 a.m. after the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 p.m.
"Cannot last much longer," the Titanic tells its sister ship, the Olympic, nearly an hour later.
"We are rushing to you," says the Baltic at 1:37 a.m.
Eight minutes later, the Titanic issues its final call to another ship, the Carpathia: "Come as quickly as possible old man: The engine room is filling up to the boilers."
After that the ship's calls fade with its dying electrical power into simple pleas for "CQ," code for "calling all ships."
In the next section, visitors are invited to explore the stories of survivors and the final words of those who perished, most impressively by using interactive touch screens that link to family photos, diaries and related newspaper articles. The role of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in receiving 209 bodies buried in the town's Protestant, Catholic and Jewish cemeteries is detailed.
Down a stairwell with a wall filled with ghost-white life preservers, visitors can hear and read testimony from the British and American inquests into how the disaster happened. Or they can explore one of several slick touch-screen databases of every passenger and crew member indexed by name, age, sex, nationality, job, cabin class, port of embarkation — and whether they perished or survived.
More touch screens on this room offer light brain-teasing relief as visitors are asked to separate fact from fiction in a true-or-false format.
Spoiler alert — here's some tips that could improve your score:
Did the lookouts have no binoculars? Yes.
Did people with tickets fail to board? Yes.
Did the Titanic nearly collide with another vessel in Southampton? Yes.
Did Cameron base Leonardo DiCaprio's character Jack Dawson on a real passenger? You will have to answer that one yourself.