The Status Of The Dark Ride

I love dark rides. They have always been my favorite type of ride since I slowly rode through the spooky hallways of the Haunted Inn at the Pavillion Park  in Myrtle Beach, SC in the early 80’s. (for what it’s worth, the video below perfectly captures my memories of the now defunct Pavilion at Myrtle Beach). Dark rides have been an important staple of amusement and theme parks since tickets have been sold – but what is the current status of these memorable rides?

The very act of defining a dark ride can be tricky, and like so many other aspects of theme park culture, there is a subjective nature to branding a ride a “dark ride” or labeling it another way, such as an “enclosed rolled coaster.”  There simply is no definitive right or wrong. Thus, on the one hand, we can say dark rides are not only alive and well, but they are thriving. The last major “E-Ticket” attractions at the Universal Orlando Resort have been dark rides:  Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Transformers The Ride, and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. But on the other hand, we can say dark rides have become associated so heavily with state-of-the-art technology that the creaky, atmospheric, simplicity of traditional dark rides are in danger.

We can make our case fairly clear by looking specifically at one of the best theme parks in the business – Universal Studios Florida. This one park has many dark rides, but over the course of time they have become increasingly more complex and technology driven. E.T. Adventure is a superb dark ride featuring animatronics designed by the famous Sally Corporation. The ride places guests on “bicycles” and by the power of E.T.’s touch, the bikes begin flying through the air, eluding NASA officials and ultimately find their way to E.T.’s home planet. From start to finish (an awesome finish where E.T. says your name in a voice that is terrifically unintelligible), this ride is a classic example of a dark ride done right. But over time, the dark rides at USF began to evolve into more thrilling and more advanced adventures. Men In Black incorporates the best dark ride shooting experience on the planet. Revenge of the Mummy features an incredible blend of advanced special effects and the speed of a roller coaster. Transformers 3D is an immersive assault on the senses and features the most effective 3D technology I have ever seen. And from what I’ve heard (I will be able to tell you for certain after September 25 when I ride it for the first time), Escape From Gringotts is a masterpiece of dark ride ingenuity.

Having said all that, my point is ultimately this:  Can we ever expect Universal Studios Florida to build another traditional dark ride similar to E.T. Adventure?

I think probably not. Our only hope would be an attraction that is squarely situated and designed for children (think The Cat In The Hat at Islands of Adventure). In fact, when looking at the list of dark rides built over the last decade, the only ones that come close to a traditional dark ride feel are those which are designed with the younger generation in mind.  The Little Mermaid Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at Magic Kingdom comes to mind. But what about rides like The Haunted Mansion? Pirates of the Caribbean? And the glorious Spaceship Earth? Will we ever see these traditional and effective rides built with adults in mind again at the top theme parks?

I’m not complaining here. In our recent podcast, Rex and I listed our top three favorite dark rides. Two of my three are rides that beautifully incorporate this new, advanced design (Spiderman and Forbidden Journey). The level of quality and immersion made possible by advancements in theme park technology are truly jaw dropping. And yet, they cannot capture the same kind of emotional response that traditional dark rides can foster. I am amazed and highly entertained when riding Spidey and Forbidden Journey. I am moved when riding Haunted Mansion. There is a difference. One is not necessarily better than the other, but both experiences are essential. I do not begrudge for a moment the broadening of the dark ride experience. I just hope we have not seen the last of traditional dark rides in the world’s most advanced and important theme parks. They still have something to say and they still have an audience with both adults and children.

And for this Beast, they remain my favorite.

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