Tracking the Evolution of the Dark Ride

February 24, 2016, 2:23 PM · 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?

Replies (23)

February 24, 2016 at 2:43 PM · 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.
February 24, 2016 at 2:50 PM · "Is there a longing for a return to attractions like The Great Movie Ride, Horizons and it’s a Small World?"

Speaking only for myself, the answer is an absolute "Yes." It's also worth noting that I consider The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man to be the greatest ride ever built, so I'm not some kind of "screens hater." I just tend to find practical, physical elements (sets, animated figures, water, fire, sparks, smoke) to be FAR more impressive to me (in general) than being jostled around in front of a screen. Indiana Jones would not be improved by replacing the boulder at the end with a screen, nor would Pirates of the Caribbean become a better ride by replacing most of the pirates with projections.

I'm by no means saying I dislike 3D dark ride/simulator hybrids, but not every ride needs to follow that approach in order to be deemed "exciting." Radiator Springs Racers and Mystic Manor, for example, incorporate projection effects, yes, but they're primarily physical experiences, and they look to be pretty popular, fun rides.

Also, the Ripley AA in The Great Movie Ride may not be as impressive as the Helena Bonham Carter projection footage in Gringotts, but the Wicked Witch AA is most certainly a more impressive effect to me.

February 24, 2016 at 3:04 PM · 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.
February 24, 2016 at 4:20 PM · 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.

Universal given us the best simulator experiences in the whole world. I have yet to experience Forbidden Journey, but the Youtube experience was terrific. The best combination of practical and screen effects.

The future should be a ride that is truly different each time. This means it should be randomly generated or filmed in numerous iterations. This may take great effort, but since most rides are 5 minutes in length, they should generate a few hours of footage that can be experienced from many different perspectives.

Adding an element where the guest can affect the outcome would be impressive while not being a mere shooter. The Millennium Falcon ride will try to do this. We can pilot the craft while shooting at the enemy.

This leads to show scenes that could be the ultimate in practical sets. The former Terminator 3D attraction at USH had some huge animatronic figures. The earthquake scene is still impressive.

What is lacking in the new rides is speed. They are simulated speeds generated on a screen. Could they make it fast in reality without causing a headache like in Epcot's Mission Space. The new and improved Test Track is starting in that direction.

February 24, 2016 at 4:31 PM · 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.

One thing that disappointed me about Gringott's was that it literally just stops you in the middle of the coaster parts to show a movie. Can't help but feel it breaks up the ride.wish it had more coaster/ dark ride sections and mixed it with the screens.There's a portion where you can see a Goblin running away during a turn which I felt was really cool, as simple as it was, and I'd like to see more of that.

Or even just in Everest, where you can see the silhouette of the Yeti breaking the tracks before the big drop. Not really part of the speedy sections, in fact it can leave you there for a variable amount of time due to it waiting for the previous train to clear the line so they can't really have a set story scene there, but it was a nice atmosphere builder that I think was a good idea for other dark rides.

February 24, 2016 at 4:37 PM · 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.
February 24, 2016 at 4:39 PM · 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.

And yet, I enjoy Mummy more, because it doesn't have so many screens. As amazing as Gringotts is, I feel like I'm being driven from one screen to another, to watch a part of a Harry Potter movie. I don't feel like what I'm seeing on the screen is really happening to me. Add in the CGI backgrounds and dragons, and I feel less engaged with the ride. Mummy may be way more cheesy in its execution, but there's real mummies and real flames, and it feels more like I'm sharing the story's reality.

Similar in Forbidden Journey, where the best and most affecting parts are the scenes that are practical sets. Sure, seeing the screens of flying through a Quiddich game, or being chased by a dragon is kind of neat (heavily augmented by the amazing ride system), but when you go into the caves with spiders and dementors, or see a real dragon's wing slip by the window of a set, it is far more tangible.

Taken on a more simple level: When the characters on Gringotts screens talk to me, I feel like I'm watching actors in a movie. When animatronic Jack Sparrow is singing at the end of Pirates, I feel like he's actually there.

I think the screens work better in Spiderman, because the characters are from comic books to begin with. I'm the 3D intruder on their 2D world. The exact same ride (Transformers) isn't as effective, to me, for the same reason. They are supposed to be real robots in the real world, but they seem like cartoons on screens.

Anyway, in my humble opinion. I hope the Star Wars escape ride, which from the limited glimpses they showed, looks like it will employ screens, will do so in such a way that doesn't feel like I'm being driven to watch movie clips of Storm Troopers shooting at the camera-man.

February 24, 2016 at 5:17 PM · I'm not entirely sure I would agree with the term "screenhater."

My favorite ride of all time is HPFJ because it incorporates both.
while I, admittedly, enjoy the practical set scenes more than the screen
that is not to say I dislike those sections.

What I do dislike is when rides lean to heavily towards the screen.
While the action on the screen in Transformers is top notch, one of the best parts of the ride comes from the end seeing a large AA of Megatron protruding through the ceiling. I do enjoy the ride overrall but I do
think there is a missed opportunity not adding more practical effects i.e. Amazing Spiderman to add variety to the experience.

The same goes for Gringotts. As a HUGE Harry Potter fan I was very disappointed with the lack of practical sets; something that set FJ so far above the known standard imo. As one reader above pointed out, I felt as if I was being dragged to each screen.

February 24, 2016 at 5:33 PM · 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.

You bring up a good point about the importance of staging during the queueing process. I think it was the original EPCOT park that first perfected this concept, making the queuing process part of the attraction itself. After all - captive audience!

The original "Living Seas" is one of the best examples of this. Rather than having people slowly wind through a queue for say, 40 minutes, the process was broken into multiple shows, including a short film, an elevator, and then a short dark ride to transport patrons to the main showroom. Each show was so significant and fitting it's hard to say where the "attraction" actually started. In my mind, the Living Seas was just as much about the movie, elevators, and dark ride as it was the aquarium at the end. This art seems to have been lost for decades, but appears to hopefully be making a comeback thanks to the latest Harry Potter attractions.

February 24, 2016 at 7:48 PM · 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.
Star Tours is much gentler, so the use of screens didn't bother me as much. Future technology should improve this, but for me, we're not quite there yet. Star Wars to me would be best done in animatronic, since storm troopers and Darth Vader/Kyle Ren can easily be done without facial expressions.

As with B Goodwin , I think the mummy is a great ride due to its simplicity and great, appropriate themeing.

February 24, 2016 at 6:47 PM · 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.

I think what happens outside the theme park world is going to be a huge influence on the future of these attractions. At the moment, 3D films are still a relatively special experience, thus they are a popular choice for theme park attractions. But what happens when 3D movies, 3D televisions, 3D video games, etc. become the norm? If you can watch essentially the same video at home, why pay to go see it at a theme park? Forbidden Journey is somewhat of a hybrid ride, and from everything I've heard the First Order Battle ride in Star Wars Land is as well. I think this is likely the future of E-ticket dark rides...use screens where necessary, but keep the sets whenever possible, and I do think as time goes on the two will be blended more seamlessly.

February 24, 2016 at 9:27 PM · 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.
February 24, 2016 at 10:02 PM · 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.
February 24, 2016 at 10:29 PM · 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.
February 24, 2016 at 11:07 PM · 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.
February 25, 2016 at 8:33 AM · 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.

I'm not sure why the discussion always turns into screens vs. not-screens. There are many pieces of technology available at any time, and so the end result is much more complex than that. Gringotts takes me out because it relies too heavily on screens, but I would have the same complaint if it relied too heavily on animatronics. I think the ultimate objective is moderation with all features.

February 25, 2016 at 2:40 PM · Indiana Jones's so-called "amazing physical sets" are quite disappointing to me. I'll list them one by one.

1. Opening portal doors. Constantly broke down. To realize the effect, you must look at the tiny mirror to see where the previous jeep went in one of three doors. If you didn't look, you can't compare it to where you're going. The effect is largely wasted if you didn't look and remember where you're going next. This effect didn't work for years and they permanently docked the doors. They replaced the moving doors with a lighting effect that simulated the effect.

2. The Eyes of Mara corridor is merely the change of light. Otherwise, you barely notice that there are three things you might see as represented by yellow, red, and blue/green. You can see different images on the walls that reflect the light. That's about it. It doesn't matter anyways because whatever door you went thru, the journey is the same. Recently, they changed the voice over and the lighting effects. They added smoke that appears to come out of the eyes. They are a slight improvement. I hope they don't stop working.

3. Menacing doors with Indiana Jones. This is a fine effect and physical set, but it doesn't tell you anything and it doesn't do more than show the doors move slightly and the Indiana Jones animatronic telling you things that you probably won't remember.

4. Down the fake stairs and get a laser blast from the skull eye on the right side. This is actually a good effect although from a limited view. They need to increase the effect to where the passengers are overwhelmed.

5. Skeleton room. Face three skeletons. That's just about it. One on the left, one on the right, and one from above. Is that all they can afford? I seen more skeletons from the Indiana Jones movies. There should be hundreds of skeletons from all around.

6. Bug room. This is a projected effect and rather limited. Sometimes it doesn't work either. I went a few times where the result was just a dark room. I recommend they project bugs throughout the whole room and add some gigantic spiders too so there's no mistake in what you're seeing.

7. Bridge. A little like the Universal tram ride bridge. The thing is it's just the bridge. Couldn't they do more this this? Bridges were featured in the movies. The jeep needs something to escape from, not merely getting over the bridge.

8. Snake room. This is the most disappointing. You go around the snake body and the payoff is just a large snake head that snaps at one passenger somewhere on the jeep. This doesn't work all the time. Like the skeleton and bug rooms, increase the effects so it works on the entire jeep.

9. Drive down to the tunnel. You see the image of the ghost or ghoul on the wall that's obviously painted on. Not exactly much effort put into this. You enter the tunnel then nothing happens for a few seconds. The jeep sometimes makes a stalling effect here or before the arrow room. This is wasted space.

10. Fog room. You see some rats projected on the fog. Not scary and a limited view. Is this the best they can do?

11. Arrow room. Arrows are simulated through compressed air. This is so phony. It worked back in the 80s, but today, it is so fake that it's embarrassing.

12. Boulder room. This is probably the only real physical set that's worth talking about. Of course, it doesn't always work and it works worse today than when it opens. The climax is great (if working) and that's the payoff.

13. Last scene with Indiana Jones with boulder. That is fine, but please give up more.

Throughout, the random feature is all but forgotten. The narrative didn't hold up throughout the ride. The special effects improved and replaced the previous version, but still shows the weakness of the results. You notice that Indiana Jones uses plenty of screen effects in limited ways and limited field of view.

February 25, 2016 at 3:40 PM · 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.
February 26, 2016 at 8:04 PM · 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!

On the opposite note though, I feel that Transformers and Star Tours use 3D well and could not tell the same story using 2D or Practical sets.

My favorite rides all time are: Journey to the Center of the Earth, Forbidden Journey 2D, and Splash Mountain.

February 27, 2016 at 9:42 PM · A note on Nick M's comment...if Gringotts was loaded with AAs, I highly doubt that anyone would complain about that!
To me, there is nothing more amazing then bringing something to life right in front of you, and it is actually solid, not just an image on a screen. Consider the dazzling animatronics in Enchated Tales with Belle, in New Fantasyland. If they were images on a screen instead, they would be ho hum. As it is, they are a jaw dropping sight!
I think screens and 3D should be used when those tools can accomplish an effect that sets and AAs cannot. For example, when Spiderman jumps on our ride vehicle or when the villains get in your face. Or when we get dragged through an office building in Transformers. Those kind of experiences would be impossible to pull off with practical effects.
February 27, 2016 at 9:50 PM · 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.
February 29, 2016 at 1:16 AM · 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.
March 1, 2016 at 11:24 PM · 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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