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 100-million pound ($160 million, €120 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 opening last weekend.
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.