Home » “…Then Something Goes Horribly Wrong”: 13 “Unlucky” Ride Plot Twists We Love

“…Then Something Goes Horribly Wrong”: 13 “Unlucky” Ride Plot Twists We Love

Conflict. For most of us, it’s something we go out of our ways to avoid. Maybe that’s part of why classic attractions from Walt’s time tended to be more atmospheric than aggressive. Back then, guests rocketed through the vastness of space, sailed through exotic jungles, toured through haunted mansions, and soared over Neverland without fear for their own survival – just a few of our favorite rides where nothing goes wrong!

Beginning in the late ‘80s, though, something changed. Emerging technologies yielded the Age of the Simulator  technology capable of changing guests from mere observers to actors  turning Disney and Universal parks into places to “ride the moves!” Not surprisingly, the experiences then began to match the movies in an important cinematic set-up that most of us have lived a hundred times over: …then something goes horribly wrong.” 

Image: Disney

In fact, a visit to Disney and Universal parks today can practically feel like an accident waiting to happen! Ride after ride, first-time guests must brace themselves wondering when something catastrophic will happen, jump-starting the “real” attraction and sending guests on a thrilling race to survive. While enduring “plot twist” after “plot twist” can be an exhausting premise for a day of vacation, we’ve collected some of our favorite “something goes horribly wrong” moments to see just how much fun this simple set-up can be when it’s done right.

1. Playful parasaurolophus

Image: Universal

ATTRACTION: Jurassic Park River Adventure

THE SETUP: “Come with us now to a time before man, when giants walked the Earth. Welcome… to Jurassic Park.” As the massive wooden doors swing open and the iconic score bellows, our yellow raft decked out in Jurassic Park decals drifts into the tranquil Ultrasaur Lagoon. Floating beneath the towering beast as it chews on seaweed, it’s easy enough to  believe that Universal’s Islands of Adventure really has recreated the real Jurassic Park, and that the River Adventure is a natural fit among the park’s attractions.

And just like at modern zoos, Jurassic Park engineers have gone to great care to make these animal exhibits appear barrier-free, allowing compsognathus, stegosaurus, and more to get within spitting distance of our tour. Consider it the prehistoric and aquatic equivalent of Kilimanjaro Safaris, where we’re able to mingle with plant-eaters authentically, but safely

Image: Universal

WHAT GOES WRONG: Until we arrive at Hadrosaur Cove, where the playful duck-billed dinosaurs get a little too friendly, swimming under the boat then popping up to play. Just that easily, our rafts are diverted into the backstage area (cleverly revealing all of the real hardware keeping these massive reptiles at bay) where the park’s significantly less friendly dinosaurs reside… and as luck would have it, they’re on the loose.

Ultimately, our only path forward is to be diverted through venom-spitting dilophosauruses into the Environmental Systems building where a particularly angry T. rex is on the rampage, providing one exit: a watery drop down a spillway and back into the placid park below. It’s a brilliant plot twist that really does feel like a “ride gone wrong,” and one that feels entirely plausible in the Jurassic Park we know from the films.

2. A monkey, a music box, and mayhem

Image: Disney

ATTRACTION: Mystic Manor

THE SETUP: Eccentric retired adventurer and legendary member of S.E.A., Lord Henry Mystic (with his faithful friend Albert the monkey) has spent his older years in his eclectic home deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the Modern Marvel: Mystic Manor. As luck would have it, the kindly fellow warmly welcomes fellow explorers (like you and I) to tour his international collection of oddities and antiques. And our timing couldn’t be better – their newest acquisition is a must-see: an ancient music box said to grant life to the lifeless. 

Seated aboard Mystic Magneto-Electric Carriages (really Disney’s groundbreaking, trackless ride technology), we’re whisked into the Acquisitions & Cataloguing Room where the music box is prominently on display, encrusted in gems and golden monkey carvings…

Image: Disney

WHAT GOES WRONG: Turns out the shimmering music box is too great a temptation for Albert to bear. Pulling an “Abu,” he inadvertently opens the box, sending its enchanted music spilling out in an impressive special effect. As the haunting notes spread through the home, they awaken Mystic’s collection room-by-room, leaving us lost in the chaos as the home (literally!) tears itself apart.

The simple twist of the adorable (and incredible animatronic) Albert being enchanted by the music box is amazingly fun. Naturally, order is restored when Albert manages to grab the music box at the last moment, restoring peace… and leaving us thankful that our run-of-the-mill tour turned into something much, much stranger.

3. A stowaway spy

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

ATTRACTION: STAR TOURS – The Adventures Continue

THE SETUP: For decades, guests joining the Lost Legend: STAR TOURS saw what it was like to be part of the Star Wars universe. The answer? Hilariously similar to our own! Though the films depict smugglers and soldiers racing through the cosmos in starships, it turns out that even in the fantastical Star Wars universe, regular folks like you and I travel between planets on budget airlines. Our trip to Endor was, of course, upended by the hilariously inept pilot REX, whose first flight didn’t exactly go as planned…

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

WHAT GOES WRONG: When Disney ret-conned the ride into its own prequel beginning in 2011, the plot changed, too. With C-3PO as our unwitting pilot, guests get caught up in an intergalactic mission when a (randomly-selected) passenger on the flight is revealed to be a rebel spy in disguise. The race is on to return the spy safely, perfectly framing the ride’s randomized, multi-planet journey through the stars and shuffled messages from beloved characters. 

Brilliantly, the set-up adds a personal aspect to the attraction. Rather than just being travelers at the mercy of a bad pilot who happen into a galactic confrontation, guests are now recruited into the Rebel Alliance with a mission to deliver their co-traveler in one piece… which also explains why “big name” Star Wars characters from Darth Vader to Princess Leia and Yoda would bother chasing this budget airline through the stars

4. A very unlucky day

Image: Universal

ATTRACTION: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

THE SETUP: The legendary School of Witchcraft and Wizardry perched high on a snowy peak over Hogsmeade is perhaps a sight as iconic as Disney’s castle down the street. And surely, whatever awaits within that castle must be world-class. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is indeed a groundbreaking and spectacular dark ride, even if it’s built around a somewhat flimsy premise: that Hogwarts is opening its doors to Muggles (that’s us) where an enchanted bench (a flimsy excuse to disguise the ride system) will tour us through the grounds. With Harry and friends leading the way, surely nothing will go wrong!

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

WHAT GOES WRONG: What doesn’t go wrong on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey? Though the attraction is beloved for being the headlining Harry Potter attraction (look no further than its position inside Hogwarts), it would be somewhat of a stretch to call it “coherent.” Using an inherently-chaotic ride system, the attraction functions as a “best of” montage, (literally) thrusting guests into the face of most every bad guy and magical creature that can fit along the ride’s course.

In a matter of minutes, riders are barbequed by an escaped dragon, spat on by Aragog and his hissing acromantulas, batted about by the Whomping Willow, brought to the Quidditch pitch just as it’s overrun with Dementors, inexplicably crashed into the Chamber of Secrets where the basilisk’s skeleton billows steam, and have their souls nearly sucked out by the Dementors’ kiss. What a day! While Forbidden Journey admittedly lacks a concrete sense of space or plot, it succeeds in capturing just about every iconic place and predicament guests wanted from a Harry Potter ride, and that’s saying something

5. Alien invasion

Image: Lightswitch


THE SETUP: Placed in Universal Studios Florida’s “World Expo” – modeled after the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair – Men in Black: Alien Attack is cleverly disguised as a mid-century pavilion beneath the iconic observation towers of the New York State Pavilion (which are still standing to this day). Even more spectacular, guests queuing for the attraction are made to believe they’re in line for a quaint, ‘60s-style exhibit called “The Universe & You,” complete with its own Sherman-Brothers-esque jingle.

Once inside, the mid-century exhibition melts away revealing the pavilion’s true purpose: to recruit us to the secretive Men in Black, the black-ops government organization policing aliens on Earth. As guests board sleek black training vehicles, they’re armed with laser blasters and set loose in a flat, 2-D training grounds of prop aliens and targets… But then… 

Image: The Producers Group

WHAT GOES WRONG: Rip Torn’s MIB Director Zeb radios in with troubling news: an alien prison transport ship has crash-landed in New York City, with intergalactic scum overtaking the streets. Our blasters are set to full power as we leave the training facility behind and head out into the mean streets of New York. Naturally, what follows is one of the best “shooting” dark rides on Earth, culminating in a show-down with a 30-foot tall bug. 

Men in Black: Alien Attack is full of brilliant twists from start to finish, both in the way it “recruits” guests with the framing premise of a World’s Fair exhibit, and by bothering to actually build a “training facility” for the first bit of the ride before the real aliens invade. Smart from start-to-finish and adaptable thanks to its World’s Fair “disguise,” it’s surprising that this dark ride was never duplicated beyond Universal Studios Florida.

6. The forbidden gaze

Image: Disney

ATTRACTION: Indiana Jones Adventure

THE SETUP: Dateline: 1939. Deep in a lost tropical jungle, legendary archaeologist Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones has stumbled upon his greatest discovery yet… a legendary riverside temple built in honor of the ancient lost god Mara. Ancient murals and Maraglyphs discovered in the temple’s extensive corridors tell of an ancient legend: that anyone who reaches the temple’s Chamber of Destiny will be gifted either timeless youth, earthly riches, or future sight.

Naturally, Indy’s enterprising assistant Sallah has found a way to cash in on the legend, inviting rich explorers from around the globe for tours of the temple aboard re-used troop transports from the Great War. But beware: recent disappearances within may be the result of the ancient offer’s fine print: anyone who looks into Mara’s eyes in the Chamber of Destiny forfeits his gift and is instead cursed to the Gates of Doom!

Image: Disney

WHAT GOES WRONG: Once on board the rumbling Jeep, guests find themselves sputtering up to three ancient, sealed doors – one for each of Mara’s gifts. As Mara’s booming voice decrees his choice, one of the doors unlocks, ushering guests into the Chamber… where, without fail, someone gazes into the god’s eyes. As his stone visage cracks, Mara’s fury triggers to temple’s collapse, thrusting guests into a wild, off-roading adventure.

Though this instance of “something going wrong” isn’t much of a twist, it’s a favorite story moment among Imagineering fans. Not only do the three “gifts” of Mara each signal a different intro for the ride (immensely increasing re-ridability), but the moment of peering into Mara’s eyes also signaled a big change in Disney Parks storytelling… unlike past classics like Pirates or Haunted Mansion, guests on Indiana Jones Adventure aren’t just watching a story unfold… they’re the reason it’s happening! That’s why the ride earned its own in-depth entry, Modern Marvels: Indiana Jones Adventure.

7. Voice-activated villains

Image: Universal

ATTRACTION: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

THE SETUP: A groundbreaking technological wonder, Universal’s iconic Spider-Man attraction begins with absolute simplicity by setting guests in the sketched-in offices of the Daily Bugle newspaper. The paper’s editor-in-chief, J. Jonah Jameson, is “welcoming” visitors in to show off his newest news-gathering technology: a revolutionary, tank-like vehicle called a SCOOP.

As luck would have it, the newspaper offices are empty, phones ringing off the hook, as the local news reports that the villainous Sinister Syndicate is on the attack. The evil Doctor Octopus has even used his anti-gravity cannon and its radioactive green glowing beam to steal the Statue of Liberty. Since his news reports flew the coop, Jameson recruits us to step aboard the SCOOP. “You know what trouble means… headlines! National coverage! So don’t screw this up!”

Image: Marvel / Universal

WHAT GOES WRONG: After a warning from Spider-Man to lie low, our SCOOP heads for a nose-to-nose collision with a garbage truck, careening off-road and into a rat-infested warehouse… that just happens to be the villains’ secret lair, where they’re hard at work using the anti-gravity cannon to stash Lady Liberty’s limbs… As the SCOOP quietly sneaks up on them, Jameson’s voice crackles over our radio: “WHAT WAS THAT?” 

Alerted to our position, the villains quickly dash into a mad race to kill us… an experience that’s so much fun, it’s considered one of the world’s best rides, earning its own in-depth making-of feature here, Modern Marvels: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

8. Yeti’s attack

Image: Disney

ATTRACTION: Expedition Everest

THE SETUP: The Modern Marvel: Expedition Everest is practically a masterclass in environmental storytelling. From the spectacular mountain range (with the legendary Forbidden Mountain featured most prominently) to the spectacular Yeti Museum queue and the village of Serka Zong it resides in, a story naturally unfolds around guests. The idea is that guests are signed up for a tranquil train journey to Everest via Norbu and Bob’s Himalayan Escapes, Tours, and Expeditions company. The only downside is that the rail line passes through the legendary Forbidden Mountain, said to be the home of the formidable mountain guardian, the Yeti.

As the train heads out from the depot, it passes through bamboo fields and underbrush before heading upward, slowly passing through a cliffside temple with shrines meant to appease the great Yeti. 

Image: Disney

WHAT GOES WRONG: Once hoisted to a mountain pass, the train dips through a snowy crevice, chugs through a bored tunnel, and then… comes face-to-face with disaster. 

If it weren’t one of the most publicized images of the ride, the sudden appearance of uprooted, mangled, gnarled track ahead might be one of the best “plot twists” on any Disney ride, sincerely catching guests by surprise. Still, the evidence of the legendary guardian being just one step ahead of us provides for a memorable moment, literally forcing the train to reroute backwards through pitch black caverns and ultimately forcing guests even deeper into the Yeti’s sacred domain. 

9. Power Outage

Image: Disney

ATTRACTION: Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!

THE SETUP: Transforming the elegant and palatial Lost Legend: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror into an intergalactic alien prison was a tall order for Imagineers, with almost every art-deco ornamentation of the doomed Hollywood Tower Hotel stripped away. One thing that remained? The tense, atmospheric wait leading to the ride’s signature elevators. Though the eerie sounds of Hollywood are gone, guests still find themselves in a nerve-wracking wait through an industrial museum of artifacts (and aliens) when the escaped Rocket catches guests up with his plan.

Rocket plans to use our approved tour credentials to hitch a ride atop the Collector’s Gantry Lifts, which will take us to the top of the fortress where the still-trapped Guardians are on display. With Rocket at the helm, our lift will instead travel to the generator room where he’ll cut the power, open the cages, and free his friends. Easy, right? Even once seated, the ominous and creepy atmosphere continues… until Rocket (literally) unplugs the enigmatic character’s narration and turns on the series’ classic tunes. 

Image: Disney

WHAT GOES WRONG: Turns out Rocket’s manual controls hacking into the Gantry Lift are a bit… touchy. Rather than Tower of Terror’s slow rise to the hotel’s height, riders “blast off” into a randomly-selected show sequence. At once reaching the generator room, a blast from Rocket powers down the system… including our Gantry Lift (duh), which plummets into the basement before Rocket can regain control. Cleverly, his inability to stabilize the elevator makes the Gantry Lift itself feel like a character. 

While a “tour” of the Collector’s prisoners would’ve been an interesting ride itself, Rocket’s breakout plan (and his nonsensical plan of cutting the power and releasing every creature) turns out to be a fun twist.

Cleverly, guests visiting during the Halloween season even get to see the ramifications first hand when, at night, the ride becomes a continuation of the story. Literally set the evening after the Guardians’ breakout, Monsters After Dark sees Rocket return to the fortress to rescue Groot, with the released aliens wreaking havoc on the now-locked-down tower. It’s a fun opportunity to see the actual results of the famous “something goes horribly wrong” plot device long after guests have exited into the gift shop.

10. Accidental alien

Image: Disney

ATTRACTION: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter

THE SETUP: When Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland was redesigned from the ground up in 1994, the results were an early (and impressive) example of the kind of immersive, connected world-building that’s gone into overdrive today. The idea was that Tomorrowland was a real, functioning city of the future with each of the land’s rides, shows, and attractions playing a role. The most legendary was the Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center, hosting a Martian technology firm called X-S Tech. 

Guests queuing for the attraction learned that they would bear witness to a living demonstration of groundbreaking interplanetary teleportation. In fact, X-S’s Chairman Clench would bravely volunteer to be beamed from the X-S homeworld right into the Convention Center in a dazzling display of the power of technology and innovation. But then…

Image: Disney

WHAT GOES WRONG: Despite readings signalling that something had been caught in the teleportation beam, X-S technicians pushed ahead with the demo… When the smoke cleared from the central tube, it wasn’t Chairman Clench inside, but a horrific, insectoid alien. Smashing glass plunged the theater into darkness where the Lost Legend: Alien Encounter descended into a chaotic and unexpected multi-sensory special effects show that terrorized a generation.

While the attraction’s name (and ample warning signs) clearly set the stage for the demonstration-gone-wrong to follow, its “something goes horribly wrong” moment was iconic (and traumatizing) for a generation of Disney World guests. Plus, the plot was both entirely original and connected to the larger premise of the land – a creative feat we’re unlikely to see again from Imagineering anytime soon.

  1. JAWS

Image: Universal


THE SETUP: Since the summer of 1975 when Jaws debuted in theaters and scared a generation out of the water, Universal Studios Hollywood’s celebrated Studio Tour has whisked guests past a recreation of the film’s Amity village, where a mechanical shark would chomp down the length of the tram in a special effects demonstration for guests. When Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, short vignettes like Jaws were expanded into full, standalone attractions, like the celebrated Lost Legend: JAWS – a headlining ride for the new park.

In classic “studio” park style, Universal’s explanation of the “where, when, why, and how” of JAWS was wildly convoluted… Guests were essentially told that they were tourists boarding Captain Jake’s Amity Boat Tours for a cruise around the real town of Amity, where a real shark did attack back in the 1970s, merely inspiring Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film. The set-up leads an on-board tour guide to chatter over nautical tunes, pointing out the homes of Amity’s real heroes (later played by celebrities in the film, we presume). It’s a peaceful and informative look behind the movie… Until

Image: Bones 84, Flickr (license)

WHAT GOES WRONG: A distress call from the tour boat dispatched before our own comes over the radio and, as we round the corner by the old lighthouse, we see the last remnants of the boat plunge beneath the murky water… Could it be? Of course it could… A (new?) shark has made its way to Amity just as supposedly happened all those years ago!

JAWS was renowned as one of Universal’s best rides ever, combining a sincerely-tense trip with a comedic guide and several stunning special effects (including the shocking shark itself). The ride played like a twisted, Universal-ized version of Disney’s Jungle Cruise, terrifying a generation of children with the hidden shark literally popping out of the blue at every twist and turn. By time JAWS was sunk in 2012 to make way for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley half, some claimed the ride’s time had come. But for everyone else, it’s good to know that JAWS is still terrifying riders at Universal Studios Japan, and in the original 1975 scene on the Hollywood Studio Tour.

12. Subterranean earthquake

Image: Disney

ATTRACTION: Journey to the Center of the Earth

THE SETUP: Located deep within the rumbling Mount Prometheus at Tokyo DisneySea lies one of the most legendary Disney Parks attractions of all time – the Modern Marvel: Journey to the Center of the Earth. The starring attraction in the park’s historic and celebrated line-up, the ride represents a pinnacle of Imagineering and the fulfillment of many attempts to incorporate the literary works of Jules Verne into the Disney Parks canon.

Walking through an elaborate queue passing through Captain Nemo’s underground lair, guests find themselves in “terravators” seemingly descending miles into the Earth’s crust. There, they emerge in a steaming, industrial cavern blasts from the rock where shovel-fronted vehicles await. On board, the dark ride twists and turns through the planet’s layers, passing gem-filled caverns, bioluminscent underground jungles, and a subterranean sea with its own weather. The journey is an epic, literary, sci-fi journey on a massive scale… Equally beautiful and thrilling… Until

Image: Disney

WHAT GOES WRONG: Just as guests approach the deep-earth research station where their journey would normally continue on foot, a violent earthquake seems to derail the plan. A cave-in ahead blocks the path forward, and as the brakes on our vehicles squeal and spark, the only choice is to be diverted down a previously-unexplored pathway – one where the once-elegant rockwork begins to look twisted and gnarled, as if formed by a much more violent seismic process…

Our harrowing trip into the more fluid, steaming, molten passages signals our arrival at the center of the Earth. But far more frightening are the massive basketball-sized eggs encased in slimy sacs dangling from the fiery ceiling… almost as if we’ve stumbled on a nest. Naturally, the ride’s climax is a face-to-maw encounter with one of the Best Audio-Animatronics on Earth – a spectacular highlight of this incredible, technological, storytelling adventure.

13. The road to hell

Image: Disney

ATTRACTION: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

THE SETUP: Disneyland’s opening day dark rides are considered standards of their time; classic, beloved mid-century attractions that have been duplicated across the Disney Parks. In fact, even some of Disney’s newer fairy tale dark rides have purposefully foregone modern techniques in favor of duplicating the blacklight simplicity of yesteryear. Though Walt’s Fantasyland originals are often thought of as easy-going storybook journeys, they – like the films that inspired them – are full of conflict; evil queens, militant playing cards, evil puppeteers, and more.

But none can beat the Lost Legend: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, based on the Wind in the Willows segment of Disney’s Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The dark ride sends guests crashing through Toad Hall in a jalopy, experiencing the “motor mania” of the auto-obsessed J. Thaddeus Toad. After rumbling across boardwalks, zipping through the countryside, causing warehouse explosions, and narrowly plowing down police officers, riders find themselves blasting through a bar and… into a courthouse. It’s there that guests are found “Guilty!” by a judge and sentenced to prison. But on the way…

Image: Disney

WHAT GOES WRONG: En route to jail, guests find themselves heading down the railroad tracks and directly into the light of an oncoming train! With a crash, guests… well… die. Rounding the corner, bellowing pits of steam and fiery red rock signal our journey’s end: Hell. Laughing demons with pitchforks and Satan himself (looking suspiciously like the judge who sentenced us) show that we’re sincerely doomed

It’s a plot twist no first-time rider could ever see coming, and one which continues to make the ride a beloved classic even sixty years later

Something goes right

From unexpected earthquakes to accidental aliens; detouring dinosaurs to unlucky days, there’s one thing all these “something goes wrong” moments have in common: we’re glad they happened! Though many of our favorite rides where nothing goes wrong are classics, this list proves that the modern “plot twist” can create a generation of beloved classics, too! Sending us on cinematic and elaborate adventures, these unexpected moments might be overused in today’s parks, but they can also be memorable, moving, and heart-pounding examples of epic storytelling.

Put another way: if our day at Disney and Universal Parks went exactly as planned, our days wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.