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The 2000s were the decade of the roller coaster. Can dark rides come back in the 2010s?

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Published: April 8, 2010 at 2:04 PM

It wasn't until I dug into the numbers from this year's Best Theme Park Attraction Tournament that I really understood how much more exciting the roller coaster side of the theme and amusement park industry has been than the dark ride side over the past decade. (Hey, I am a numbers geek; I need numbers to fully understand things.)

Let's take a look at the attractions that you nominated for this year's Best Attraction Tournament, by your high average reader ratings. Except let's restrict this list to attractions that debuted in a year that started with the number "2."

We had nine 10 rides from the 2000s among the top 16 in the Best Roller Coaster bracket. That's about one new great coaster every year over the past decade:

1. Cedar Point's Millennium Force [Intamin Giga/Mega] *(whoops - forgot this one initially)
3. Six Flags Great Adventure's El Toro [Intamin Wooden]
4. Dollywood's Thunderhead [Great Coasters International]
5. Holiday World's The Voyage [The Gravity Group]
6. Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Griffon [Bolliger & Mabillard Dive]
9. Cedar Point's Maverick [Intamin AG Custom]
10. Six Flags Magic Mountain's X2 [Arrow 4D]
11. SeaWorld Orlando's Manta [Bolliger & Mabillard Flying]
12. Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster [Intamin AG Accelerator]
13. Dollywood's Mystery Mine [Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter]

But only six dark rides from the 2000s made that bracket. That averages about one ride every other year:

3. Universal Studios Florida's Revenge of the Mummy
4. Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom
10. Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's California Adventure
11. Universal Studios Florida's Men in Black Alien Attack
13. Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Curse of DarKastle
15. Soarin' Over California at Disney's California Adventure

Take a closer look, and picture becomes even more lopsided. The top two of the recent rides in the Best Themed Ride bracket are based on roller coaster ride systems. They were included in the Themed Ride bracket due to their animation and story elements, but each has been criticized for non-functioning animation elements. And in the case of Everest, the non-functioning element is the Yeti that's supposed to be the heart of the ride. Not good times.

DarKastle's taken lumps for occasional break-downs, as well, even as uptime on roller coasters has been increasing over the decade, at least according to what I've heard from people in the industry. (The highly popular Bolliger & Mabillard models have outstanding uptime records.)

So what's left on the dark ride side?

Soarin' Over California - an IMAX-style movie with a mild ride element to move viewers into place in front of the screen.

Toy Story Midway Mania - a fun 3-D video game, but one that reduces to a spinning cart moving you from one giant TV set to the next.

Men in Black Alien Attack - a truly immersive, interactive dark ride, but that hits its 10th birthday this year.

Sure, we've got some fun rides here, but, frankly, I'm not surprised that they failed to generate the excitement that their roller coaster cousins delivered. Perhaps that's why the winner on the Best Themed Ride side was a 40-year-old Omnimover ride (Disney's Haunted Mansion). And that ride got slaughtered by Holiday World's The Voyage, which endured much tougher battles in the roller coaster bracket than it did with Mansion or the winner from the Show side of the tournament (Disney's Fantasmic!)

What's a dark ride fan to do? Well, like many of us, I'm looking longingly at the impending opening of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal's Islands of Adventure, hoping that its blend of an immersive walk-through, Kuka robot arm technology and high-definition film-making will reinvigorate the dark ride side of the industry, inspiring more companies to invest in this form of theme park storytelling.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Our savior?

Help might be on the way from Disney, too, as the company invests in major new dark rides at Disney's California Adventure, including The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Adventure and Radiator Springs Racers in the park's new Cars Land.

Let's face it - the 2000s were an underwhelming decade for themed dark ride fans. Here's hoping that the 2010s turn out much, much better.

Readers' Opinions

From Elizabeth Gray on April 8, 2010 at 2:51 PM
The only truly unique dark ride to come out in the last decade was The Knights in White Satin at Hard Rock Park and alas many of us never actually got experience it. A real shame. However it is still posted on the internet.

Being that my first park was Disneyland, dark rides are in my blood. One of my favorites was the now Defunct BEARRY TALES at Knott Berry Farm (remember that one?).

I am hoping for a comeback.

From Anthony Murphy on April 8, 2010 at 3:19 PM
I think Dark Rides will make a comeback because there have been much innovation lately and not much creative side to it!

Then again, Dark rides rule at Disney with Haunted Mansion and Pirates!

From 65.24.209.81 on April 8, 2010 at 5:29 PM
I think Spider-Man has ruined dark rides. When it came out, it was a technological acheivement. People expected the latest and greatest, and most rides failed to deliver. I do expect Harry Potter will be the next step when it opens.

Also not to nitpick, Robert, but you forgot the #1 ranked coaster on the list. Millenium Force opened in 2000.

From Robert Niles on April 8, 2010 at 6:25 PM
Fixed. Thanks.

Just makes the point stronger, though, doesn't it? :-)

From Rod Whitenack on April 8, 2010 at 6:37 PM
My user name ain't Darkride Rod for nothing! I've got a horse in this race. I love darkrides more than anything else at amusement parks, and I'm always disappointed that Six Flaggs parks generally focus more just on rollercoasters. I suppose it's because good darkrides are more expensive than coasters. I think the future is in hybrid rides like "Revenge of the Mummy" at Universal Orlando or "Journey to Atlantis" at Sea World. My hope is that ride imagineers will continue to create elaborate sets with props and animatronic characters instead of only using film and 3-D like the "Curse of Darkastle" or "The Simpsons Ride" (or "Soarin'"). You just can't beat the experience of moving through a real space instead of just "feeling like" you're moving through a filmed simulation. "Spider-man" still represents the best of both worlds until we see what "Harry Potter" and "King Kong" have up their sleeves this Summer.
From Scott Sanders on April 8, 2010 at 7:08 PM
I love dark rides and wish there were more closer to me. I really enjoy Darkastle, but I will always inevitably get behind someone who will snottily say, "it 's not as good as spiderman." I actually had more fun on Boo Blasters than on I305 on my recent trip to KD. I'm planning on hitting up Hershey this summer. It looks like their dark ride got so-so reviews. I wish it wasn't so far away/expensive to go to Disney or Universal. I'd like to ride some of their dark rides.
From Sylvain Comeau on April 8, 2010 at 7:47 PM
Everest isn`t a dark ride, it`s a themed coaster. But Robert does have a point; the 2000s were not exactly a golden era for new dark rides, especially since Spider-Man opened in 1999. I do think a video/screen based ride can provide an extraordinary experience, but among those, maybe only Spider-Man had a real chance to win this tournament.

In terms of a comeback for dark rides, let`s not forget The Little Mermaid, which is expected to be a full blown E ticket with lots of immersive scenes and state of the art AAs.

From Tyler Stover on April 8, 2010 at 10:05 PM
Movies, especially of the 3D or 4D variety, are the true enemy of dark ride revival. If the 2000s were the decade of anything, it was the movie-based attraction. That's one trend I really want to see reversed.
From Derek Potter on April 8, 2010 at 10:37 PM
I really liked Nights In White Satin too...such a cool experience, even down to the patchouli incense. Why did management have to screw that park up so badly...

The issue with creating a good modern dark ride is money. If you cut corners and scrimp on the budget, the ride will suffer. Would Spiderman be Spiderman if they only spent half the money? How about Haunted Mansion or Pirates? If Disney only spent half the money on them, would they be as good? Most parks don't want to spend the money necessary to create it because they either don't have the money, or they aren't sold on the notion that the ride will draw as much as a new roller coaster. A lot of parks have this question. Why spend 50 million on a dark ride when you can spend 10 million on The Voyage?

That's not to say that dark rides shouldn't or won't be built. I would love to see some really good dark rides make their way into the seasonal parks.

From Rob P on April 9, 2010 at 1:05 AM
I think Darkride Rod is absolutely right on the money. The future lies in , what he calls, hybrid rides.
Atlantis attempts to provide a little of both genres and The Mummy has taken up that mantle with greater effect.
I agree also with the other poster who feels that Spiderman raised the bar so high that it's tough to top.
Technological advancements are almost a given but the real factor is going to be that old chestnut.........finance.
No business can survive by spending more than it can generate in income. Disney , as we already know, elected to decline the Harry Potter option for this very reason. High investment with no increase in profits.
In the meantime the Parks want to, and need to, periodically refresh with new rides. I honestly don't know the figures involved ( I'm sure one of you will know ) but I suspect that , despite being seemingly astronomical, coasters may be more cost effective in terms of build costs , revenue and longevity.
So unless we see a dramatic upturn in the economy I can see roller coasters continuing to dominate over the dark rides unless they opt to invest in quality hybrids.
From Joshua Counsil on April 9, 2010 at 3:42 AM
One dark ride from the '00s that nobody seems to mention anymore is Mission: Space. I absolutely love that ride, from its exterior to the moment I land on Mars. It's been somewhat of a taboo for obvious reasons, but I think it's an amazing attraction.

Regardless, the '00s were the years of the roller coaster.

From Rod Whitenack on April 9, 2010 at 8:00 AM
Good darkrides cost a lot. Cheaper, Sally type darkrides, are more cost effective, but don't impress customers as much. I was hoping that King's Island would create a new darkride for their darkride legacy (which includes the Enchanted Voyage, the Smurf's Voyage, the Phantom Theater and Scooby Doo and the Haunted Castle) to match the new Planet Snoopy theme. I got excited about the possibility of a Great Pumpkin ride (keeping the spooky Halloween atmosphere in the classic Peanuts mold), and Robert suggested to me an interactive Snoopy VS the Red Baron ride. Both ideas would be really cool, but instead they just decided to cheaply refit Scooby Doo and the Haunted Castle by taking out all the Scooby characters and replacing them with generic ghosts to create Boo Blasters on Boo Hill. I might say, "Boo to you, King's Island."
From Nick Markham on April 9, 2010 at 8:16 AM
Ahem.. Are we forgeting Curse of DarKastle? How about the ride that held the best ride in America title for 9 years, Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man? I could go on and on, but the point is, I disagree and think there have been plenty dark rides for those fans.
From 199.159.146.183 on April 9, 2010 at 10:27 AM
It may not be a blockbuster, but The Seas with Nemo and Friends at Epcot is a cute little dark ride. And I think it demonstrates exactly how screens aren't quite as good as actual AAs. The only truly impressive part of the attraction is the angler fish on the Kuka arm. The effect of the characters swimming with the real fish isn't too bad, but it just doesn't stack up against the AA.
From Derek Potter on April 9, 2010 at 1:21 PM
I think Kings Island will rehab Scooby Doo/ Boo Blasters soon to fit with the Snoopy theme. This year they had to dump the Scooby label and had little time to design a new concept.

I think it would be a hit if they tapped into the spirit of the old Enchanted Voyage/Smurf ride that used to be there and do something like that with the Peanuts.

From Rod Whitenack on April 9, 2010 at 4:15 PM
I guess the concept I was hoping for at King's Island is similar to "The Cat & the Hat" ride at IOA. It would tell the story of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" scene-by-scene with the great Vince Guaraldi music playing in the background. Even kids today are familiar with that special, as their parents play it for them every Halloween. Big scenes would include the Halloween party with lots going on (dancing, bobbing for apples, etc.) and the pumpkin patch scene. The bobbing for apples scene is good opportunity for Snoopy to pop up and spray unsuspecting riders with a little water. You could do a whole Snoopy/ Red Barron scene in the middle, and then Scoopy makes his way across the countryside to the finale. You could have the ride go door-to-door for the trick-or-treating scene in a little mock up neighborhood, ending with everyone saying what they got and Charlie Brown saying, "I got a rock." Oh lord, I've let my inner frustrated imagineer out for all to see. I must stop now!
From Ted Heumann on April 9, 2010 at 4:43 PM
Dark rides work best with recognizable characters and make most sense for the license holder. That's why Uni and Disney make them. They are ways to keep your characters alive (and relevant) and to sell merchandise. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to spend a fortune to promote someone elses characters.
Plus dark rides and coasters GENERALLY have different audiences. Dark rides usually draw a family audience (I heard once that 75+% of guests at Disneyland ride Pirates) and wouldn't go over too well in a steel park.
Most of the dark rides that exist in the "coaster" parks are left over from their previous owners. Look at Knott's it has a GREAT attraction called Mystery Lodge that they have allowed to go to pot and they closed an OK dark ride, Kingdom of the Dinosaurs. They also have not upgraded nor done ANYTHING to the log ride or the Mine Train and closed the Haunted Shack. Cedar Fair doesn't know what to do with non-traditional, non-coaster attractions. And I suspect that Six Flags would have the same problem.
From Sylvain Comeau on April 12, 2010 at 12:11 AM
Mission: Space isn't a dark ride, it's a flight simulator. You can't categorize something as a dark ride when it doesn't go anywhere.

That brings up an interesting point. Because of new technologies, dark rides will never dominate the new attractions because technology allows for such a variety of new kinds of attractions, including hybrid rides, which are hard to categorize. I'm in favor of new dark rides with AAs,
but I think most new attractions will be more of a hybrid, sporting various combinations of dark ride elements, motion simulator, 3D/4D technology, indoor coaster, etc.

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