Many theme park guests cut their teeth on old dark rides, from the spooky chambers of Snow White’s Scary Adventures to the harrowing ride through Toad Hall (and hell itself) on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Dark rides have long been considered one of the premiere staples of theme parks and are remembered best for their straightforward storytelling capabilities, black-lit backdrops, and theatrical tricks and gags that keep the rider on their toes from start to finish.
As with any classic attraction, however, most modern-day theme parks—the Disney Parks and Universal Studios included—have moved far beyond painted scenery and visual sleight-of-hand.
Today’s most popular attractions often incorporate some form of advanced technology, whether in the form of 3-D elements (Star Tours – The Adventures Continue, Toy Story Midway Mania), large screens (Soarin’ Around the World, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), or interactive capabilities (Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Men in Black: Alien Attack), leaving less and less room for the classic rides of yesteryear. While dark rides currently make up 32 percent of all moving attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and 17 percent of all moving attractions at Universal Studios Orlando, they draw considerably smaller crowds than the ones that flock to the parks’ roller coasters and motion simulators.
Is it possible that dark rides no longer have a place in the future of modern theme parks? Or is there still a compelling case to be made for the simplicity and charm of the old classics?
Defining the modern dark ride
What do we mean when we talk about dark rides? The definition of a “dark rides” varies from source to source and can be incredibly broad; Trip Savvy, for example, defines it as “any amusement park or theme park ride that uses vehicles to send passengers into an indoor environment and through a series of scenes or tableaus.” Within these parameters, a dark ride can be used to describe parts of many different attractions, from Pirates of the Caribbean to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train to Space Mountain.
For our purposes, however, we’ll limit the definition of a dark ride to vehicle-based, track-guided indoor attractions that do not depend on technology (interactive elements, projections, numerous Audio-Animatronics) and cannot be classified as roller coasters. In other words, we’re talking about some of the oldest attractions at theme parks like Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Universal Studios: Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, E.T. Adventure, and The Cat in the Hat, among several others.
The evolution of dark rides: From the Old Mill to the pretzel ride
Although dark rides were some of the first attractions guests experienced during Opening Day at Disneyland on July 17, 1955, we can trace their genesis back to the late 1800s, when “mill rides” ferried its passengers on two-rider boats through manmade tunnels that were designed to delight and frighten with their various themed tableaus. The first mill ride to be installed in an amusement park may well have been the Old Mill Ride at Sea Lion Park on Coney Island, which premiered in 1895; others included Garfield’s Nightmare (1901, Kennywood Park), The Red Mill (1907, Luna Park), and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1927, Dorney Park).
The mill ride wasn’t just an early predecessor of dark rides, but of log flumes like Splash Mountain and Frozen Ever After—at the end of its meandering trip through caves and tunnels, several mill rides sent their guests tumbling down chutes for a heart-stopping finale. One of the most famous attractions of this kind was Valhalla, a six-minute indoor boat ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in Lancashire, England. With awe-inspiring fire effects, water cannons, and multiple drops, it still tops the list as the longest such ride among any still standing at today’s theme parks.
While attractions like Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and “it’s a small world” share varying similarities with mill rides of decades past, dark rides like Peter Pan’s Flight and Spaceship Earth don’t fit so neatly in that category. In 1928, inventors Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer siphoned elements of the mill ride to create their own land-based version, which was eventually termed the “pretzel ride” and featured small ride vehicles that traveled along a single electric rail through indoor pavilions. The original pretzel ride was constructed as the centerpiece of the now-defunct Tumbling Dam Amusement Park in Bridgeton, New Jersey; in the decades to follow, over a thousand similar themed rides became staples at amusement parks and state fairs around the United States, from Coney Island’s infamous Spook-a-Rama to The Haunted Pretzel at Pennsylvania’s Bushkill Park.
The pretzel ride was so-named for its layout, which snaked through show buildings and created frequent, sharp turns that made the track ideal for cloaking surprises and gags—at first, just with sound effects, and later, with track-triggered visuals. As a result, many pretzel rides were outfitted as haunted houses, of which Disneyland’s ghost-ridden Haunted Mansion is a prime example. The twists and turns that so characterized the pretzel ride had myriad uses outside of the traditional haunted house, however. Riders could be directed through a straightforward storyline with key scenes separated by strategic turns in the track, and the simple one-track system provided a stable framework around which future ride designers implemented elaborate tableaus of Audio-Animatronics, layered 3-D visuals, and various interactive elements.
Disney puts their own spin on the dark ride
In the 16 years it took to imagine, plan, and develop Walt Disney’s first theme park, his team of engineers started to consider how they might integrate the pretzel ride system that had swept through other amusement and theme parks in the early decades of the 20th century. According to Imagineer Claude Coats, they ultimately decided to use it as a vehicle to immerse guests in the company’s animated films, from Walt’s first feature-length picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to the short film The Wind in the Willows. Together with Ken Anderson and Bill Martin, they storyboarded each ride, keying in on important scenes from each film and figuring out a way to fit it inside the assigned building.
After researching different types of dark rides at amusement parks scattered along the East Coast, the trio came up with two key modifications that would set their dark rides apart: ultraviolet paint and character-based perspective. Instead of illuminating gags and props with incandescent spotlights, as riders experienced while riding Laffland at New York’s Sylvan Beach Amusement Park, Coats and Anderson drew guests’ attention to important parts of the scenery by coating them in ultraviolet paints and making the sets glow under black lights. Suddenly, the Evil Queen’s castle lair took on an especially eerie countenance and riders began to cower at the sight of Monstro rising from the waves to swallow Pinocchio and his cohorts whole.
More striking still was the way the Imagineers guided guests through familiar animated stories by placing them in the protagonist’s role. Riders who stepped aboard Snow White’s Scary Adventures (originally termed “Snow White’s Adventures” before terrified guests began complaining about the attraction’s unexpectedly dark nature) stepped into the shoes of Snow White herself. They were the ones fleeing from the Evil Queen-turned-Old Hag and the ones who found solace inside the seven dwarfs’ cottage. They were also the ones who took the wheel of Mr. Toad’s snazzy automobile and dashed through the streets of London, wreaking havoc until they collided with a train and were subsequently immersed in the flames of Hell itself. Although guests didn’t always understand their role in the ride, Disney’s unique way of bringing its classic stories to life was widely regarded as an improvement on the standard themed pretzel rides of the 1950s.
Motion simulators, Omnimovers, and drop towers, oh my!
Of course, the Imagineers’ push for innovation didn’t stop with a bucket of paint and good story to tell. Disney continued to refine and restructure its dark rides in the years that followed the park’s opening, bringing new technologies to life and expanding the very definition of the modern dark ride. Today’s dark rides include massive drop towers like Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Disney California Adventure’s Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!, enhanced motion vehicle-outfitted rides like Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure, and combo shooting gallery-dark rides like the Magic Kingdom’s Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters. And the Disney Parks haven’t been the only theme parks to make improvements to classic dark rides, either. Universal Studios Orlando debuted Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts in the summer of 2014 and classified the attraction as a hybrid steel roller coaster and 4D dark ride. With screens that guided passengers through a harrowing journey in the deep recesses of the goblin-guarded vaults, Escape from Gringotts was ranked among the top five dark rides in the world for four straight years during Amusement Today’s annual Golden Ticket Awards.
By 2018, most modern dark rides have moved past the layered black-lit backdrops and cut-and-dried storytelling techniques behind Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin and Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, and for good reason. Technology has not only made it possible to “plus” traditional attractions, but it has provided new, ever-changing ways to keep fan favorites like Indiana Jones Adventure and Star Tours – The Adventures Continue fresh for each ride-through.
On the other hand, that doesn’t explain why a conventional dark ride like Peter Pan’s Flight often commands one of the longest wait times at the Disney Parks, or why the dark-ride filled Fantasyland is often one of the most crowded areas in Disneyland despite its lack of high-speed roller coasters and thrill rides.
So, which is it? Are the simplistic dark rides of the 1950s destined to fade into the past alongside their pretzel ride predecessors? Or have they managed to tap into something that 3-D screens and 35-m.p.h. roller coasters still can’t deliver?
Predicting the future of modern-day dark rides
What makes a dark ride compelling? Even without the flashy effects and meticulously-crafted Audio Animatronics of newer rides, Disney’s twist on the standard dark ride hasn’t been considered cutting-edge in over 60 years. Perhaps, however, the appeal of attractions like Peter Pan’s Flight and E.T. Adventure have less to do with innovation and technological enhancements and more to do with the deep-set nostalgia that keeps fans returning year after year.
After all, dark rides aren’t just vehicles (literally) for nostalgia, they are nostalgic in and of themselves. Most of Disneyland’s dark rides were constructed between 1955 and 1994, helping shape the first impressions of many an adolescent parkgoer as the park took on wider demographics and continued to ramp up the intensity and overall quality of their E-ticket attractions. Kids who were too short or too timid to try the Matterhorn Bobsleds or Jurassic Park River Adventure practiced summoning their courage on the much-tamer Alice in Wonderland and The Cat in the Hat (though it’s more than one child who still carries scars from the chill-inducing twists and turns of Snow White’s Scary Adventures).
Although dark rides may be fairly unassuming in the shadows of flashy roller coasters and elaborate 3-D simulators, they’re still the bread and butter of any major theme park. Nowhere else can you get a front-row seat to the Evil Queen’s transformation into a wicked old hag; nowhere else can you get up close and personal as Ursula cackles during “Poor Unfortunate Souls” or enter the willow-canopied grotto where Ariel and Eric contemplate their first kiss together. Dark rides remind its riders of the reasons why they fell in love with these stories in the first place and keep them returning for a fresh dose of sentimental feeling every time they step foot aboard a pirate vessel or mine cart.
Over the past decade, however, the number of new dark rides has significantly dwindled. Since 2008, 12 new motion-based attractions have cropped up at the Disneyland Resort, but only four might be classified as partial or complete dark rides—and only The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure meets the above criteria for classic dark rides. Over in Walt Disney World, five of eight new attractions at the resort’s four parks featured dark ride elements, though again, only the Magic Kingdom’s Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid fits the traditional dark ride category. There are even fewer dark rides over at Universal Studios Orlando, which has seen 13 new attractions since 2008 and just three with select dark ride elements.
Meanwhile, it’s high-speed and/or tech-based attractions that have sprung up tenfold, from refurbished screen-based drop rides (Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!) to simulated flights (Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon) to competitive, interaction-enabled rides (Men in Black: Alien Attack). Even beautifully-decorated boat rides like Pandora’s Na’vi River Journey have received less fanfare than instant E-tickets like the immensely popular motion simulator Flight of Passage, and that’s not likely to change as theme park engineers find exciting, innovative ways of creating new experiences for parkgoers.
Does this mean we’ll never see another Journey into Imagination with Figment or The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh installed in today’s theme parks? Of course not. Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway filling the void left by The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, while Epcot is scheduled to receive a trackless Ratatouille dark ride and Tokyo Disneyland anticipates the eventual opening of a Beauty and the Beast musical dark ride. Granted, these attractions are designed to go slightly above and beyond the standard fluorescent-painted, backdrop-heavy dark rides of the 1950s and 1980s, but that’s firmly in keeping with Disney’s M.O. of improving and expanding the definitions of traditional theme park entertainment.
More importantly, the dark rides of days past haven’t been forgotten. They may no longer top the charts in design or popularity, but the stories they tell will always contain an irreplaceable part of the theme park lore that keeps us returning to them again and again.