To Screen or Not to Screen? That is the Question, for Theme Parks and for Fans

October 8, 2015, 9:56 AM · Great theme park attractions often employ fresh technology. Motion simulators have become a staple in the industry, and for the past few years interaction between the passenger and the ride have become more and more prevalent, which can be quite exciting! One thing many simulator and interactive rides have in common is they rely heavily on screens. Given the pace that film and display technology have advanced throughout the past decade or so, can these simulators and new shooting rides ever reach a legendary status like the rides of old? I thought it would be fun to look at the pros and cons of the digital ride age which is upon us.

When I think of the most iconic dark rides, my mind always travels right to Disney. Say the name "Pirates of the Caribbean" or "Haunted Mansion" to a park enthusiast, and you'll see their face light up with excitement. Within moments they start to pine for the day they can board their ship or doom buggies once more. These rides and others, such as Space Mountain, Peter Pan's Flight, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, all have enjoyed decades of popularity, and Disney still relies heavily on them as drawing cards to their Magic Kingdoms.

Pirates of the Caribbean

These rides all share a foundation built on physical elements. The limitations of technology from the period in which they were created made Imagineers build the whole illusion into physical worlds we could immerse ourselves within. Would you feel the same if you were staring at HD screens when the boat drops into the first scene on "Pirates"? If it was made today, that might probably be a likely scenario.

On the other hand, who's to say that's bad? If it were done convincingly, it could be quite exhilarating. In a lot of ways, these changes from physical thrills to digital ones mirror the movie industry. Both rely on fantastic special effects, and more and more in the film industry we see physical effects getting swapped out for computer graphics. Some of the new rides have beautiful, giant projections that look great and get us totally caught in the moment. Most have very long wait times as well, proving their popularity is quite high.

Technology advances. Regardless of where you stand on that issue, it is an inevitability. With simulators you can create the illusion of the thrill for a fraction of the cost of actually creating it. So we pretend to fly through space, or ride broomsticks with Harry Potter, or soar over California's orange groves. And these rides are fun.

Soarin' Over California

But will they be regarded in the same way as the classics 30 years from now? It's hard to say.

If you were to watch a movie made as recently as 2010 now — something heavily reliant on effects — there are quite a few moments you'd wind up thinking the effects were cheap-looking or dated. The technology advances so fast, it's hard for a new sci fi or action movie to look great as the years pile up. That same effect happens on the rides built today. Go from The Gringotts Bank Coaster to Forbidden Journey, and the difference in screen display is noticeable. The new ride looks new; the old ride doesn't look as clear. Not to say that it looks bad, far from it, but it's noticeable. The new versions of Forbidden Journey built around the world have their displays upgraded to 3D from the original, a ride that's not even six years old. As much as I loved the original Star Tours, by the time it closed I thought it was years overdue. (Not updating the cars you ride in to have a bigger screen was a bust in my opinion, but that's a topic for another article).

Perhaps the answer is to constantly upgrade the rides films, as we've seen with The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Star Tours, and we are going to see with Soarin' in Epcot. Keep the displays up to date, clear and fresh. Rides go through refurbishment all the time, even the classics. Throw in an exciting new character like Johnny Depp into a classic ride to keep it somewhat fresh.

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

My own personal taste always goes back towards the classic rides. I enjoy rides like Toy Story Midway Mania and Star Tours, but if I made a trip to Disney and for some reason The Haunted Mansion was closed, I'd be vocally upset. The animatronic world and physical backdrops add so much depth and realism to the world you're trying to get lost in, and as much as the simulator rides are getting better and better they can't have the same effect. One of the reasons I think the new Harry Potter rides are so popular, besides the obvious Potter-mania, is because they do a great job of blending both physical thrill with simulated. The rumors of the new Kong attraction are similar in description, which has me very excited to get my first ride. I hope Disney has a similar approach with its new Star Wars Land.

The first Haunted Mansion opened at Disneyland in 1969, using some old magician tricks to display the physical animatronics in a surreal, transparent way. Forty-six years later, it's a beloved icon of the parks we all love so much. With all the changes in technology, do you think the simulators that are built today will still be in the parks 46 years from now?

Replies (26)

October 8, 2015 at 10:32 AM · Imagine It's A Small World without the animatronic dolls but existing on 3d screens
October 8, 2015 at 10:44 AM · Both....

There needs to be a good mix. The new additions in the haunted mansion is a great example. Combination of animation and video. Also, notice the mermaid tail at Pirates of the Caribbean? That a projection focused on bubbles in the water. Both animation and projection.

October 8, 2015 at 10:50 AM · Dark ride's always show you show scene's. There is always a disconnect from your vehicle and how everything is presented to you. You are never there. Take Haunted Mansion. As soon you get in the ride vehicle you are a spectator, not a participant. Even at the end where the ghost get into the vehicle you spectate that.
Placing you into the ride is much more difficult but done perfectly in Tower of Terror. The ride depends heavily on screens to tell you the story and make you part of it. Even Sourin fails to put you into the action with bad screen transitions, no story and you constantly see and experience the ride vehicle.

What get's older faster or has staying power depends if it's a good dark ride or screen ride not on the medium used.
For what it's worth (and it's worth nothing), I think Spiderman is the best dark ride ever, and I don't even care for super hero stuff. On the second place I have Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey because I actually could believe I was flying. I couldn't see the machine placing me there.

Walt was always on the cutting edge of what was possible and pushed it beyond that. Because of that I said his park would never be finished. I'm sure he would hate how his parks look now. Old relics of the past as museum pieces lined up as dead corpses. I won't say he wouldn't have It's a small world in his parks but he would plussed the hell out of it, making sure you couldn't see the ceilings and maybe added projections on the back to extend the scene's.

October 8, 2015 at 10:50 AM · Actually the movies are trending back to using practical effects. Not saying technology is still majorly used but they can't be primary as CG isn't always believable. Many Star Wars fans are hoping for this in the upcoming movie. I personally believe practical sets are better for sure in rides and definitely help balance movies.
October 8, 2015 at 10:53 AM · Those old Disney rides were expensive, and are continually expensive to upkeep - if upkeep happens regularly and properly at all. But they can never replicate the high-speed action, or over-the-top moments, of Transformers or Forbidden Journey. The expense of building a detailed set and rushing you through a scene quickly would be lost.
October 8, 2015 at 11:21 AM · Let's be clear. Universal has a different strategy than Disney. Film based attractions works better for Universal. Disney can have a mixed approach. This doesn't mean Universal won't use animatronics. They used it to some extent in Diagon Alley. Universal uses dinosaur animatronics in Jurassic Park river adventure. It seems like practical effects depends on the attraction. Disney will have more film based attractions for Avatar and Star Wars. The Little Mermaid was almost all animatronics expect for a few animated sections.
October 8, 2015 at 11:49 AM · I don't really see it as Disney vs Universal, both parks use a lot of screens with their newer attractions, and other company's use them as well. I love both parks, nor do I don't hate screens, Sometimes they are a great fit. There are great uses for it and bad ones too. If you read the amount of money they spent on Mission Space to have it look as dated as it does now, you have to figure these talks go on in the industry as well
October 8, 2015 at 12:11 PM · I will always find real sets and AAs to be more impressive to me than watching video on a screen (and I say that as somebody who considers Spider-Man to be the greatest ride of all time), simply because - rightly or wrongly - I think screens can become a crutch that designers go to when actually doing it "for real" would be too difficult. When I'm on a ride, I prefer to physically move through real sets and see actual, physical things in front of my eyes, rather than watching a ride film.

That's not at all to say I dislike screen-heavy attractions or simulators, because I don't, but I do hope (going forward) that there will be a balance of ride experiences.

October 8, 2015 at 12:14 PM · I think screens are a good thing when used appropriately, and I have no objection to using them to depict something that would be impractical to do with practical effects. However, screens will never give the same experience as a ride that is all practical effects. With practical effects, you feel like you are in the middle of the action, while with screens, no matter how well they are blended into the scene, I've always felt I was watching the action from the sidelines. Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones Adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean...if these rides were simply screens they would be average rides instead of being the best in the world. For motion simulators and interactive attractions, screens make sense, but for everything else I would rather have a practical set with limited (if any) screen usage.
October 8, 2015 at 12:44 PM · In reference to screen rides, you write: "Most have very long wait times as well, proving their popularity is quite high."

True, but I think almost any new ride or e-ticket ride, screen or no screen has long lines these days. I don't think it's a fair or true measure of what's better based on wait times. It's personal preference, but I venture to guess most people prefer the practical effect route. Look at the brilliance of Radiator Spring Racers. As an IP, I think it's pretty mediocre in the minds of many theme park goers. As a ride, it's arguably one of the absolute best Disney Parks has to offer.

October 8, 2015 at 2:13 PM · I think it's silly to make an argument for screens or not screens. Ride developers must use the technology at their disposal to make for the most compelling ride experience possible. This may include practical effects or it may include screen effects, but it's the balance that makes it work. I have ridden rides that employ all animatronics that bored me to death, and I have ridden rides with all screens that fell flat. And 50 years from now, when children have grown up loving screens as a technology, the next big thing will come along and we will argue whether or not it amplifies the ride experience or not. The most important thing is to tell the story, and the rest solves itself. Spiderman is not a great attraction simply because it balances screens and practical effects so well; it is a great attraction because it's the most fun I've ever had on a ride.
October 8, 2015 at 2:15 PM · Oh, I agree, that statement is merely reflecting that the general population hasn't shown an issue with screen based rides. This includes older ones, Soarins been in Epcot for over 10 years and the lines get up to 120 minutes often. Some of the older screen based attractions have definitely not maintained waits like the classics, which is what made me think to write the article. I loved radiator springs, great ride, and I bet people are gonna love it for many years, fantastic blend of immersive physical backdrops with thrills.
October 8, 2015 at 3:44 PM · I go to a theme park to be immersed in a physical fantasy environment. I can get a screen based CG environment at home on my game console or at the local multi-plex.
October 8, 2015 at 8:32 PM · I love simulator rides and I don't see why they won't remain classics as long as they are constantly updated. Screen based rides are amazing, but I wish my home park, USH, would have more physical props. Spiderman won the best attractions award every year and showed how great a screen based ride truly can be.
October 8, 2015 at 10:36 PM · I think screens and animatronics are not exclusive. Mystic Manor in HK Disneyland use both to great effects.
October 9, 2015 at 1:59 AM · Digital animation in movies or rides is the same. It should be used only when the real practical effects are too difficult or impractical to use. Rides like Despicable me and Simpson's are just lazy and cheap imo. They should have been Disney style dark rides.

Soarin is a perfect use of protection. You could not realistically simulate flying over yosemite, downtown LA etc. with practical effects.

You could use all screens and sprits of water to replace the entire grizzly river run in DCA but how lame would that be!

Forbidden Journey is my favorite mix of digital projection and practical effects.

October 9, 2015 at 7:07 AM · I think it's good to have a mix, though I think the use of 3-D is getting out of control. I still think one of Disney's most immersive rides is Mission: Space (I still have yet to figure out why this attraction doesn't connect with guests). You are sitting inside a practical set that looks and feels like a space capsule, and the projections right in front of you fill in the rest of what would be impossible to pull off with practical effect or animatronics. The idea is to make the experience as real as possible, and even if the ride mechanism allowed for the capsule to move past practical scenes (like Nemo's Submarine Voyage), the screens offer a better solution to moving slowly past relatively static scenes.

I would contest that Soarin' is actually a pretty terrible use of projection because the way the current film is edited you might as well be flying through a dark ride building past static sets like Peter Pan's flight or E.T. There's no story or context to why you jump from scene to scene, which would be a perfect use of screens to have better transitions. The only thing Soarin' is missing from the classic static scene-based dark ride is the ability of guests to look into the next scene or back to the previous scene when they get bored of what's right in front of them.

Forbidden Journey is obviously the best right now because there aren't a lot of examples currently that truly mix practical and screen effects, but I think a lot of people forget that Revenge of the Mummy really was the first major attraction to blend full-size animatronics and screens into a full ride experience. Now it seems that designers are moving away from animatronics (probably because they're expensive to create and maintain along with difficult to make look and be life-like), but perhaps Kong will start pushing it back. It makes sense if you think about it, because why use an animatronic Daniel Radcliffe that might not move or look exactly right and will require thousands of dollars of maintenance every single month when you can pay the real actor a few quid and capture his acting on a film that can be shown thousands of times a day with the only maintenance a few bulb replacements per year and a projector upgrade every 3-5 years.

October 9, 2015 at 1:07 PM · I personally like MIB the best because it's a huge ride with lots of detail and changing scenes that has a lot of hidden stuff and it's screen based ending changes every time you go on it.

As a local its the only ride that I like to ride over and over again. Toy Story does not have a plot and is just playing a video game in front of each screen. Haunted Manson is way to bright now (you can see the wire holding the floating head) and the walk into the ride is hooky now with the bubble machine, disappearing reappearing ink, and musical grave stones. The wait was better before when it was just a creepy graveyard instead of a cartoon treasure hunt play zone.

Pirates has been hurt by not allowing the pirates to chase women but still allowing them to sell women like the red head. A human trafficking scene is worse then a chase scene. Let pirates be pirates. Johnny Depp does not fit into the ride at all and makes everything around him look fake because they are not based on actual people. Now there is a ghost in beautiful technicolor and a dead mermaid skelton at the beginning of the ride ok. The ride is like a bad music video now because the same song plays but there is no plot or explanation for all the weird stuff you see.

One benefit of screens is that when they get updated its the whole ride so it never becomes a mismatch of technologies but they can become stale quick. The future I think is more rides like Men in Black where you determine the ending by how well you shoot aliens. When I go on the so called classic dark rides now most people are on their their phones not engaged at all

October 9, 2015 at 2:36 PM · Another generation coming along folks. Our favorites are old fashion already to some, and obsolete to others. Sad but true.
October 9, 2015 at 9:03 PM · I'm screened out. And enough with the 3-D glasses already.
October 11, 2015 at 7:03 AM · I think forbidden journey is the best example in how to make a modern dark ride, they have actual sets and automactronics as much as screens.
October 11, 2015 at 5:20 PM · As crazy as it is, I wouldn't be surprised if one day they found a way to work your phone into rides, not just treasure hunting apps like they currently have. The one comment above is right, another generation is coming along and most people have a screen in front of their face several hours a day. You'd figure they'd like a break from that to be immersed in a more physical environment, but it's our culture now, like moths to a light....
October 12, 2015 at 1:02 AM · Spider-Man at IoA I would say is the best dark ride. The moment Spidey jumps on the front of your Scoop might as well be an animatronic it feels that real and draws you in better than Pirates or Pan. It also makes good use of limited set walls.
Soarin' isn't a dark ride, it's just the new version of Circle-Vision or Cine360.
October 12, 2015 at 8:28 AM · The key is simply use the technology that best tells the story being told.
October 12, 2015 at 7:30 PM · I enjoy many screen-based attractions and 3D rides. But lately, Universal has been creating little else, while Disney has offered us more variety. It does look like the upcoming King Kong ride will be a step in the other direction.
October 12, 2015 at 10:26 PM · Humans are too complex to realistically recreate with audio-animatronics, so "screens" will always be superior to jittery mannequins. The 7dwarves Mine Train hybrid is ideal.

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