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Are Dark Rides Dead?

Predicting the future of modern-day dark rides

Sketches of future Beauty and the Beast ride at Tokyo Disneyland

Image: Disney

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.

Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid

Image: Christian Lambert, Flickr (license)

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.

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