Tracking the Evolution of the Dark Ride
Until a few years ago, if a theme park wanted to add an attraction that could tell a compelling story, the ride systems available to it were limited. Generally slow-moving Omnimovers, boats, or individual cars on a track would take riders into highly-themed environments where animatronics, music, projections, special effects, and narration would blend together to tell a story. The ride system was more about conveying the rider through the scenes and was typically not that thrilling on its own. Anyone who has ridden Disney's Haunted Mansion, Universal's ET Adventure, or Knott's Calico Mine Ride can relate.
Telling complex stories on thrilling rides always has been much more difficult because of the dynamic motion of the ride and the speed at which it travels. Props, visual effects, lighting, and music during the ride can enhance the still-mostly-standard thrill experience. Big Thunder Mountain, Rock 'n’ Roller Coaster, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds all do this, but these rides still are mostly about coaster thrills.
While the story onboard a traditional thrill ride might not be as rich, the placemaking prior to boarding the vehicle can help set the tone. The best examples of this are the coaster now known as Dragon Challenge and Disney's Expedition Everest. Years before Hogwarts opened its doors to Muggle visitors, the walk through the Dueling Dragons castle had been described as an attraction unto itself. Anybody remember the brilliant stained-glass window show in the first room, or the comic threats from the ice and fire dragons scratched into the walls of the castle? The placemaking at Expedition Everest sets the rider up perfectly for the experience to come on a well-themed and exciting coaster.
Combining a thrilling ride experience with complex storytelling began with the early screen-based motion simulators. When they premiered, rides such as Star Tours, Body Wars, and Back to the Future: the Ride were revolutionary and commanded a lot of attention.
Advances in vehicle technology soon allowed for additional levels of motion to be engineered on the vehicle. Designers could take us through practical environments with large-scale effects and accentuate the sometime still-slow-moving ride with additional thrilling motion. Some attractions that fit this category are Kongfrontation, Indiana Jones Adventure, and Pooh’s Honey Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland.
The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman was a game changer. For the first time a ride included vehicles with multiple axes of motion could move with aggressive speed and the ability to spin through physical sets, blended seamlessly with 3–D visuals and 4-D effects. Spiderman set the bar for the new age of dark ride. While many other rides have been built on its inspiration; many believe it still gives the best overall experience.
Now we are at the point where immersive story rides and thrill rides can be one in the same. There are several examples - Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringotts, Disney's Tower of Terror, and Radiator Springs Racers thrill park guests. But it’s not always about thrills. The Hogwarts Express and Soarin’ combine gentle movement with (gasp) 2-D projections and provide us with family friendly experiences that have some of the highest guest satisfaction scores on Theme Park Insider. There are others soon to open: the attractions in Star Wars Land, Avatar's Flight of Passage, USF’s version of Fast and the Furious, Shanghai Disneyland’s new take on Pirates of the Caribbean, and Skull Island: Reign of Kong, coming soon to Islands of Adventure.
These mega dark rides seem to be the pinnacle of combining thrill and storytelling as a ride. So, why are so many people already poo-pooing upcoming attractions where screens play a major role?
Read through the comments on this or most any other theme park blog and it seems as if there is a revolt against screen-based attractions. Why are people already railing against the technology? Do people feel like 3-D screens are the easy way out? Is there a longing for a return to attractions like The Great Movie Ride, Horizons and it’s a Small World?
As much as I like seeing Captain Jack Sparrow among the pirates, the figures of Johnny Depp just aren’t that realistic. The rest of the cast have that Marc Davis caricature look, they look just real enough. The Sparrow and Barbosa figures are attempts at faithfully recreating a recognizable human. Seeing poorly rendered celebrities as animatronics brings me out of the experience. I think to myself, “Man, Ellen’s hair and nose look weird.” You can’t deny that seeing a 3-D projection of Helena Bonham Carter in Gringotts isn’t more satisfying that Sigourney Weaver’s creepy audio animatronic in The Great Movie Ride. This is perhaps the one thing 3-D has going for it most in theme park dark rides. It brings the original actors into the attraction.
Think about the potential Star Wars attractions that could be built based on vehicles we already know from the films. There are many to choose from, but the one that is most appealing to me is the speeder bike from Return of the Jedi. But what kind of experience on a speeder bike do I want? Should I want to get dropped into a scene from the movie, chasing Stormtroopers who may blow my cover, or do I just want some time cruising through the forest at high speed? For big story, the ride would most likely be a simulator. I imagine a speeder bike at the end of a Kuku arm moving through a building filled with 3-D dome screens showing the backend of the Stormtroopers attempting to escape. The real speed and excitement of a coaster may be sacrificed, but an immersive story would result. If the preference is for a speedier thrill ride, I imagine a physical roller coaster much like the new Tron Light Cycle Coaster at Shanghai Disneyland, but in a heavily-landscaped outdoor environment. Yes, we’d see track and know that we are not really flying on a speeder bike, but the thrills of actual motion would be there. What’s more important: story or thrills…or both?
So, what’s the future? Do we sacrifice the immersive magic 3-D delivers in favor of more practical sets and animated figures, or are we willing to spend all our time on rides wearing 3-D goggles? As much as I love If You Had Wings, Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, they are rides from a different era. Will tomorrow’s theme park guests embrace yesterday’s technology, or have people become too sophisticated to enjoy seeing dolls dressed in international costumes sway back and forth while singing in brightly colored show scenes?
As a parting thought on this subject - how do you think Disney’s 1964 World’s Fair attractions would have turned out if today’s technology were available then?
Tangent: I think Rodger Rabbit's Cartoon Spin should be rebranded as Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Road Rally. Toon Town can morph into the Micky Mouse Clubhouse.
"Is there a longing for a return to attractions like The Great Movie Ride, Horizons and it’s a Small World?"
The key there is make-up. The green face on the Wicked Witch - the Wizard of Oz wicked witch, to be clear... ;^) - provides just enough distraction to avoid the "uncanny valley" problem that plagues more "realistic"-themed animatronics which try to replicate an actual, unadorned human face.
Disney touched on this briefly, but was never truly fulfilled. They tried the random approach on Indiana Jones and Star Tours. We were promised to never get the same ride twice. The reality is you'll won't notice because you'll likely the see the same scenes and special effects on numerous journeys.
Spiderman is by far my favorite ride (aside from Popeye but that's just because of all the water they dump on you, technically Spiderman is the better ride) but a lot of that has to do with the real life parts like the Hobgoblin's pumpkin grenade being thrown from the screen and exploding in real life. Transformers isn't as great despite essentially being the same ride because it pretty much is only on the screens and not as much "4D" interaction. So I don't want just on the screens, I mean old school 3D shows like Muppets or Philarimagic or even T2-3D wouldn't fly today, they need more of a mix I feel.
My problem with these new Dark Ride is that while they are cool when they first open but over time and years something always seems to be broken or they are broken down. I remember when I went on the Curse of the Darkastle for the first time years after it has opened and my first impression felt like things were broken. I later found out that some of the effects were either broken or turned off because the ride cost a lot to maintain. That's a big bummer for a ride that had rave reviews when it first opened up.
When I compare Gringotts with Revenge of the Mummy at USO, there's no comparison to overall quality - Gringotts wins hands down. The ride, the sets, the atmosphere of the caves, the track system: all better.
I'm not entirely sure I would agree with the term "screenhater."
I agree with the others. Until we're projecting at 8k|60fps and perfect the synchronicity of audience movement with the the screen's camera movement (that last scene in Gringotts is atrocious!), it's just not going to be as immersive as practical sets and effects.
I think I'm with the majority here. DLR's Indiana Jones is my favourite ride since the sets are fantastic and the ride is so much fun. I've only ridden Forbidden Journey and Spiderman a couple of times (and was unwell at the time, which may have influenced the experience) but I found the screens there made me a little nauseous - not enough to not enjoy the ride or stop me riding again, but enough to not make it my favourite ride.
I wouldn't say that I hate screen-based attractions, but I have yet to experience one that felt real. My all-time favorite dark ride is Indiana Jones Adventure, and with one exception everything in that attraction is a physical element. When you ride, it feels like you are actually driving through a temple and attempting to escape. Transformers is a similar concept where your mission is to escape the NEST facility, but every single time I ride it something ruins the illusion. Either the image blurs slightly due to being out of sync, or because of the angle something doesn't look quite right between the image and the real world, or you happen to see the point where the screen meets the set. Now, Transformers is still an outstanding ride and I haven't been on Spider-Man or Forbidden Journey yet, but I have my doubts that any screen-based ride could ever feel real in the same way one full of practical sets can.
Count me as another screen-hater. My favorite ride is Indiana Jones which is all amazing physical sets where I feel like I'm a party of the action at all times. Screens are fine to use sparingly in conjunction with great sets such as in Mystic Manor, or even the Little Mermaid (not a great ride, but the use of screens is sparing and appropriate). I find Transformers to be such a bore, to sit in a ride vehicle and be transported from screen to screen. Most of Universal Hollywood is a miss for me due to all the screen rides, including Minions, Simpsons, and Shrek. I'd rather have an animatronic Bellatrix than a screen version. She just doesn't feel "there" when she's on screen so I feel separated from the action, not a part of it.
I forgot to include in my original comment ^^ how well a ride like Dinosaur! has aged (not counting the pterodactyl) which sits right next to FJ as my top dark rides.
In addition to my initial (anonymous) (new to the club) point. We can say what want about screens in dark rides, the bottom line is Universal (who is relying the most heavily on this type of attraction) business model is much more appealing than what I've seen Disney do in many many years. They are able to competently make a crowd bringing new attraction every single year. If that attraction includes screens, so what? I'd rather ride that then Ellen's Energy Adventure for the umpteenth time.
I greatly prefer to physically move through an immersive set, with animatronic figures, special effects, lighting and sound, than to sit in front of any screen. When you're in the Haunted Mansion, and moving out of the dark attic, traveling down toward the mysterious graveyard, that is truly enjoyable. Or how about moving through the underground caverns in the Pirates of the Caribbean. You're on a real adventure. To me, a screen is the cheap way out. I don't want to watch television. It's boring. I want to physically go somewhere.
I think the key in this discussion is maintaining a good balance of technology which serves to strengthen the story. Spiderman works for me because it combines every available technological element to bring us along with an entertaining story of the character.
Indiana Jones's so-called "amazing physical sets" are quite disappointing to me. I'll list them one by one.
Nice article Rob. It certainly primed a lot of pretty interesting comments from posters. There's lots of views out there concerning likes & dislikes. That shows how tough it is for Universal Creative or Disney Imagineers to build an attraction that "nearly" everyone likes. I don't think the attraction has yet been built that doesn't elicit some negative opinions from certain segments of theme park fandom.
I have no problem with screens or practical effect. It just depends on which enhances the story and experience more. I am tired of Universal using so much 3D, however. Some examples are thrthe new Forbidden Journey. This ride was perfect in 2D. Why hassle guests with yet another pair of 3D glasses? Deslicable Me: this was Universals missed opportunity at building a classic fantasyland style dark ride. Fast/Furious: this could have been an exhilirating Cars/test trak attraction. This isn't the 80s Universal, 3D is not thrilling anymore!
A note on Nick M's comment...if Gringotts was loaded with AAs, I highly doubt that anyone would complain about that!
Rob, I enjoyed your article and you made some good points. But I don't think that practical sets and animated figures = yesterday's technology. Advanced tech can make AAs more lifelike, practical effects more impressive and sets more interactive with you and your ride vehicle. Tech is not all about 3D/4D getting in your face.
It's all about balancing budget costs with design and engineering. Even iconic Disney rides like Small World vary in size and content in their Parks.
Lack of Tokyo DisneySea's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is discussion of potential of dark rides = regrettable. There's no better synthesis of queue, dark ride practical effects, coherent storytelling (so good that you don't need to speak Japanese to get with it), thrill ride whizbang, and weenie spectacle to be found. AND it's based on old intellectual property.
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