Home » How an Idea Becomes a Ride: Dark Rides

How an Idea Becomes a Ride: Dark Rides

Star Tours at Disney

In our first entry into the “How an Idea Becomes a Ride” series, we ventured into what goes into making your favorite stomach-dropping, scream-inducing roller coasters, and today, we’ll be digging into dark rides.

Today’s topic does beg the question: what is a dark ride, anyway? I can almost guarantee that if you’ve been to a theme park, you’ve been on a dark ride. 

Star Tours at Disney
Image: Disney

Dark rides are indoor attractions featuring a mix of screens, practical effects, and some sort of moving vehicle. They are heavily-themed and story-based attractions, varying in intensity and duration, and are broken up into a few notable sub-categories: motion simulators, track-based dark rides, shooting dark rides, and the ever-growing “miscellaneous” category. 

There is not a defined line of what is and is not a dark ride—some rides may toe the line, somewhere between a roller coaster and a dark ride, a drop tower and a dark ride, a water ride and a dark ride, etc.—so the best advice I’d give to spotting a dark ride is you’ll know it when you see it. This ambiguity is in stark contrast to roller coasters, which have specific elements that set them apart from other forms of rides.

Dark rides are often totally immersive and vividly-themed, making you part of the story and conflict. A park’s creative team must join forces and collaborate with manufacturers to make their dreams a reality.

Creativity and Collaboration

Escape from Gringotts at Universal Studios
Image: Universal

So who comes up with the aforementioned stories that drive dark rides? Many parks, especially intellectual property-driven parks such as Disney and Universal, have creative teams working behind the scenes to develop new attractions. Their job is to pull you into the world of the attraction and to make you part of the story. You’ll often play a role—a trainee or a citizen in danger—placing you in the center of the action.

But creative teams, first and foremost, are storytellers. Not engineers. Their job is to promote and develop their intellectual properties (be it Harry Potter, Star Wars, or even the Bourne universe) through cohesive and immersive stories their guests can play a role in. So in many cases, third-party help must be brought in.

(For behemoth parks like Disney, the Imagineering team is large enough to support a staff of ride engineers, maintaining that many of their rides, including the acclaimed Rise of the Resistance dark ride, are made completely in-house. This is sometimes, but not always, the case.)

This much-needed collaboration between parks and manufacturers breeds innovation that can not always be found by strictly in-house teams. Escape from Gringotts at Universal Studios Orlando, for example, is a dark ride (that can make an argument as a family roller coaster) that was bred through collaboration. Universal Creative joined forces with Intamin Amusement Rides to bring this journey into Gringotts Wizarding Bank to fruition. Intamin is a major player in modern theme park rides, responsible for record-breaking coasters like Millennium Force, the world’s first Giga-coaster, and Kingda-Ka, the world’s tallest coaster. Bringing Intamin in to help execute Universal Creative’s vision for this attraction not only made for one of the best rides in the park, but laid a foundation for a partnership which would later lead to prestige coasters such as Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and the recently-announced VelociCoaster. Collaboration between parks and manufacturers is not only necessary, but highly beneficial to the innovation and growth of theme parks to come.

In our previous piece in this series on roller coasters, we explored how to find “the gap” in your local park’s roller coaster lineup in order to predict what may come next. Though dark rides are more varying in ride system and theme, making it more difficult to spot specific gaps and predict future attractions, you can still find gaps in your hometown park by knowing the main subcategories of these rides.

You Love Them or Hate Them: Motion Simulators 

Simpsons Ride at Universal
Image: Universal

Motion simulators are perhaps the first thing one may think of when they think of dark rides. This includes your iconic Star Tours, your infamous The Simpsons Ride, your innovative Soarin. These are entirely screen-based attractions, meaning they rely on the use of screens and (frequently) 3D glasses to tell the story of the ride. Typically there will be a ride vehicle that features movement, but is not on a track (we’ll get to those later). 

These are the rides that certain crowds might despise—for those with motion sickness they may not be the move—but are also some of the original dark rides.

One would think that as parks have grown and dark rides have evolved, these rides would become obsolete, but in reality, the opposite is true. Though larger parks are opting for new options in the arena of dark rides, motion simulators are more cost-friendly and malleable. Even after motion simulators are made, they can easily be improved upon and updated with the culture. Even Universal has invested somewhat recently in a motion simulator, with the addition of Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2017. This ride is a textbook example of a motion simulator, and has kept guests smiling for the past three years with its virtual queue, cool air-conditioned pre-show area, and light-hearted storytelling.

The Crowd-Pleaser: Track-Based Dark Rides 

The Amazing Spider-Man at Universal's Islands of Adventure
Image: Universal

Track-based dark rides blur the lines between motion simulator and indoor coaster by utilizing a mix of screen-based sections, practical effects, and a ride vehicle moving through a track to tell the story. Just about everyone’s favorite track-based dark ride is The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, found at Universal parks. This attraction follows Spider-Man through “the most dangerous night of [his] life…and yours,” and features villains like Doc Oc, the Green Goblin, and more, not only bringing comic books to life, but placing the rider on the pages. 

These rides can be easily confused with motion simulators by the unknowing eye, but their practical effects and ride vehicle movement is a dead ringer. These rides can vary in intensity, and many are quite quaint. Examples of more gentle track-based dark rides include The Great Movie Ride, E.T. Adventure, and Living With the Land. More intense track-based dark rides can be Indiana Jones and the aforementioned Escape from Gringotts.

The Nostalgic Pick: Shooting Dark Rides

Toy Story Mania at Disney
Image: Disney

Toy Story Mania. Men in Black Aliens Attack. Justice League: Alien Invasion.

It’s the dark ride that requires no introduction: the shooting dark ride. 

Just about every park—whether it’s your hometown boardwalk or a Disney park—has a shooting dark ride. These rides, while track-based and offering a mix of screens and practical effects, differ from track-based dark rides in their competitive edge. Though they are more mellow ride experiences, shooting dark rides can feature intense spinning sections, triggered by riders scoring points.

Miscellaneous Dark Rides

The Kuka arm utilized on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Image : Theme Park Tourist

Because the definition of dark ride is so broad, the category is continuously expanding and one-upping itself. Attractions like Rise of the Resistance, which utilizes a state-of-the-art trackless ride system and groundbreaking animatronics and practical effects, have caught the public eye as of late. Or look at a ride like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This attraction, which opened with the new Harry Potter-themed Wizarding World in 2010, utilizes KUKA arms, similar to the robotic arms used to construct cars, in lieu of a more traditional flying theater or track-based model.

These miscellaneous rides have asked: what if? And thus, a new breed of dark ride is rising, one that knows no limits and shows no signs of stopping.

Rise of the Resistance at Disney
Image: Disney

Dark rides allow parks to tell stories in exactly the way they want, to think bigger and work harder to the guest experience. Though some parks (such as Universal Studios Orlando) have been criticized by their over-saturation of dark rides and screen-based attractions, dark rides remain the best way to tell a story through a ride. These rides are more frequently found at theme parks over amusement parks, so you may not see one of each of these dark ride subcategories at your standard Cedar Fair or Six Flags park (theme park hub Cedar Point doesn’t even flaunt a dark ride in their massive park), but you can use this guide to see where your park’s gap is. 

As technology expands and guests become more hungry for thrills that tell a story, dark rides will only gain popularity and strength in the theme park landscape.

What’s your favorite dark ride?