Dark rides are one of the greatest creations in theme park history. And like so many similar innovations, they stem from Walt Disney. An illustrator by trade, Disney honed his craft until he could create cinematic shorts from his ideas. Later, he illustrated any movies starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
As he constructed the Happiest Place on Earth, Uncle Walt translated his storytelling skills into a new medium while using the same tricks. His attractions had scenes, just the same as movies. These set piece-based ride structures were the basis of the dark ride. And judging by the Top 100 Attractions voting on Theme Park Tourist, it’s one of your two favorite kinds of rides. Here are the best nine dark rides as chosen by you, our wonderful readers.
9. Test Track and…
8. Radiator Springs Racers
Two fraternal twin attractions begin our list. Test Track at Epcot and Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure share the same ride structure, with the cosmetic differences a matter of theming. Test Track simulates the automobile manufacturing processes, demonstrating some of the stress tests a vehicle must pass to prove itself road-safe. The California version substitutes the Cars brand for General Motors, and it’s the superior ride experience.
Theme Park Tourist voters are decidedly passionate about both, though. Test Track is currently the #34 ride on the Top 100 while Radiator Springs Racers is slightly higher at #32. Yes, every dark ride on this is among the best 35 attractions in the world according to your voting!
7. Indiana Jones Adventure
Disney isn’t merely the inventor of the dark ride. They’re also the dominant force in the industry for this type of ride. While roller coasters are the domain of other places like Cedar Fair, seven (!) out of the top nine dark rides on the Top 100 are Disney properties. I’ll go ahead and spoil you on the fact that the other two are Universal Studios attractions. You can probably guess which ones.
The third Disney dark ride to make this list is Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland. You’ve voted it the #29 attraction in the world, presumably because it so perfectly embodies the spirit of the Indiana Jones franchise. While you don’t get to play Indy himself, you do interact with him at times during the series of misadventures at the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. It’s a thrilling way to live out the fantasy that you’re an archaeologist, and thanks to deft Imagineering tricks, the ride is always thematically bumpy. Indiana Jones Adventure is one of the most underrated Disney rides in my opinion.
6. Pirates of the Caribbean
Okay, before you grow angry that your fellow voters only ranked this as the sixth best dark ride, let’s get one thing straight. It’s the #18 overall attraction on the list. The rest of the dark rides listed here are almost all masterpieces that have stood the test of time. Only one of the top six selections is constructed in this century. You love the classics! And you should.
Pirates of the Caribbean is a perfect example of the profound skill of the original Imagineers. Famously the last ride that Walt Disney worked on before his death, Pirates displays some of the most memorable sets ever built. Why, the mere thought of changes to the Redhead Auction/Wench Sale caused angry protests and internet petitions. Guests are that attached to the fictional characters from the ride. And while I’m fairly indifferent to the removal of the Wench Sale, I understand that level of passion.
I state with conviction that if Disney ever tried to remove the set piece with the dog holding a key in its mouth, I will rant like a madman. That dog is one of my favorite childhood vacation memories. It’s a universally relatable bit that still works more than half a century after its creation!
5. The Haunted Mansion
I’m not sure if a dark ride can qualify as under-ranked when it’s #13 overall, but that’s still how I feel about The Haunted Mansion. Famously the most difficult Disneyland attraction to construct/open, it’s also in the conversation for greatest theme park attraction of all-time. Disney Imagineers engaged in a civil war about the content of the ride, bitterly picking sides about whether it should be funny or scary.
In the end, an unlikely shotgun marriage of the two premises became the easiest way to finish the ride after more than a decade of trying. And the end result is an unforgettable series of sets, each one iconic and unforgettable. I would argue that The Haunted Mansion is the first modern dark ride, as it features several key elements associated with the premise. It has a time-controlled ride system, forced perspective that requires the viewer to look a certain direction, and some of the largest sets ever built for an attraction.