Shining a Light on Dark Rides
Posted by Sasha on Monday, February 9th, 2015
It starts with a height test. If you can’t pass it, you’re forced to slink away as others glide gleefully past. When you’re finally tall enough, you walk proudly past the measurements and take your place in an exceptionally long line. You then wait for what feels like a lifetime, twisting and turning through a crowded, dimly lit series of rooms. Your prize: an experience guaranteed to last no more than a few minutes. Most of us wouldn’t subject ourselves to such a thing if it weren’t housed in a theme park; but when it’s a well-crafted dark ride, the slog is more than worth it.
Dark rides are a special breed of attraction that represent the pinnacle of fantasy immersion. Although they are short-lived, they have the power to make a deep and lasting impression. For many of us, going on dark rides is a childhood rite of passage, like passport stamps in a book of memories that we look back on for years to come.
The modern dark ride is a careful choreography of scenic elements and technology. When executed well, it reveals very little about how it’s put together. The creative and technical teams behind dark ride design are masters of direction and misdirection, yet never receive the public accolades of their counterparts in Hollywood. Designing rides is a particularly complicated art, with no standard procedure and plenty of pitfalls. But since the days of the first ever dark rides, enough wisdom has been accumulated to give today’s entertainment designers a strong foundation for success.
THE EARLY DAYS
The first contemporary theme park dark rides were evolutions on the traditional “ghost trains” found in carnivals and amusement parks in the early 1900s. Dark rides became even more mainstream with Disneyland’s “old-timey” C-ticket attractions: small vehicles that moved through box-like, windowless buildings (hence the term “dark ride”), telling familiar Disney stories – such as Snow White – with largely two-dimensional sets and ultraviolet light. The rides in Disney’s Fantasyland today are second generation versions of those first 1950’s dark rides, but they retain their simple charm.
A look at the progression of Disney dark rides reveals a giant leap in design sophistication over a relatively short period of time. The original Disneyland dark rides (Snow White, Peter Pan, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), which debuted in 1955, were outdone just nine years later by It’s a Small World, which incorporated water, more immersive sets, and much more audio-animatronic synchronization. But even that timeless classic was relatively simple by today’s design standards. Explains Adam Bezark, Creative Director and Owner of The Bezark Company, “If you look closely at Small World’s scenes, you’ll notice that they seem a little odd by current standards. Some characters seem to be in the wrong places: they’re up too high, or too far behind you when they should be in front. Disney’s original Imagineers were still figuring out how to lay out a ride. They hadn’t fully learned that placing props on the outside of a curve is usually better than putting them on the inside, which makes for an awkward perspective. This was partly because they designed the ride looking down on a tabletop model the size of a sofa; they didn’t look at it from the guests’ eye view.” But the Imagineers learned quickly: with Pirates of the Caribbean in 1967, the Disney team expertly choreographed sightlines by splitting the ride model into left and right halves and raising them on stilts, allowing the team to design the experience from the boat’s viewpoint. By 1969, Disney had sightlines and throughput (number of people per hour) down to a near science with The Haunted Mansion, one of the longest-running Omnimover rides. Todays’ attraction designers still reference these classic rides as the gold standard for sightline control and seamless three-dimensional visual flow.
Over the years, Universal Studios emerged as a major challenger to Disney’s dark ride prowess, adding fuel to the back-and-forth competition between the theme park giants that began well before Universal even opened (for an excellent history on this, check out the book Universal Orlando: The Unofficial Story). One of the major contributions Universal made to the dark ride “arms race” was The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the first 3-D dark ride. The arms race for the best rides keeps Disney and Universal locked in competition, much to the benefit of the public. More recently, regional parks such as Six Flags have begun to embrace dark rides as well.
Dark rides today still have the same intent as their predecessors: to bring stories to life in three-dimensional space. But now ride designers have a multitude of technologies and ride systems to play with. The basic rules for creating a good experience haven’t changed, but there’s more to work with to achieve those old-timey goals of thematic immersion and storytelling.
HOW DO YOU BUILD A DARK RIDE?
A dark ride is a massive puzzle and it takes a clever team to solve it. If there were closing credits at the end of a ride, their length would easily rival those of a Hollywood movie. That’s because a dark ride is essentially a movie that exists in three-dimensional space. The team needed to build a ride includes producers and directors, artists and graphic designers, audio and visual technicians, lighting designers, engineers, architects, and set designers, among many others.
Fitting all the pieces of a dark ride together is no easy task, and the stakes are high. When a dark ride isn’t successful, a theme park or leisure venue can’t change it out for a better show any easier than a multi-story building can be dismantled piece by piece. “When a movie gets made, it may have the best of everything, but it still may not come together. It could be a flop. We can’t have that happen with our dark ride designs. All the elements –the story, ride system, animatronic characters, interactivity, scenery, sound, lighting and special effects – must work together as a unified whole,” explains John Wood, CEO of Sally Corporation, which is responsible for Six Flags’ upcoming ride Justice League: Battle for Metropolis.
Dark rides can start in many different ways, depending on the design group and the client. Sometimes a client will have a parcel of land or an existing building that they want to fill. Other times, the client has a ride vehicle but no building. Each new ride project has different parameters to solve, including the property or site, vehicle type, story, budget, and throughput needs. Each segment of the ride design process has a “drop dead date,” as Attraction Designer Phil Bloom of American Scenic puts it. The design team needs to make decisions about the size of the car and building, length of each scene, and so forth by certain milestones. This isn’t just for the sake of staying on time; it’s also to make sure that the pieces fit together correctly.
Taylor Jeffs, Director of Design at The Goddard Group, emphasizes the importance of starting the project off on the right foot: “Getting the idea right at the beginning is critical; if the idea isn’t right from the start, there’s no chance of it recovering down the road.” Taylor starts every new dark ride project by answering 4 key questions:
1. Who is the ride for?
“It’s important to define the primary audience. This will literally guide every decision made. Most designers’ knee-jerk reaction would be to say, ‘it’s for everyone,’ but that’s of course the hardest demographic to please.”
2. What’s the story?
“There’s a common misconception that every project starts with a ‘blank page.’ In reality, that’s almost never the case; there are a lot of variables going into any new project, many of which will be dictated by the client. One of the biggest variables is the IP (intellectual property). Are we using an existing IP? Do we have to find a public domain story? Create a story from scratch?”
3. What’s the best way to tell the story?
“It’s not as simple as just picking the right ride system (such as trackless vehicles, an Omnimover, or boats). The client will likely have a great deal of input related to the budget, hourly capacity they need to achieve, and the parcel of land.”
4. What are the big moments that people will leave talking about?
“Each time we start a new project, we come up with lists of key beats and then build a story that weaves those beats together.”
Even with a tight list of answered questions, the design process can and will take unexpected turns. Fabrication – one of the last steps of the process – is often the first time that all the parts are in the same place. “Most of the time, you can’t mock up the whole thing until you’re on site, which is only 6 months before opening. This is when all the pieces finally come together and you get to fine-tune them. For Ratatouille: The Adventure ride in Paris, fabrication took place all over the world: the ride was designed in Glendale; the movies were made in Emeryville; the vehicles were built in Michigan; the ride building was constructed in Paris; and the sets were made in Ireland, England, Holland, and Romania,” explains Phil Bloom.
One way that design teams mitigate potential problems during fabrication is by pre-visualizing how a ride will come together with physical and digital models. Disney Imagineer Tom Morris believes that modeling is a must for figuring out timing in a ride before it’s too late: “It’s important to include the element of time right from the beginning. Every ride that we do (especially dark rides) are like little clocks with a specific tempo based on the dispatch interval, story, length, and scale.” If the timing is off, the magic will be broken. Ideally, riders should feel as if the story they’re seeing and hearing is a unique instance, when in reality, the story repeats in shifts for each vehicle. As Tom points out, “There’s always another group of guests behind you coming in, which means that the scenes and dialogue we create need to be concise.” For Radiator Springs Racers, the Imagineering team digitally modeled the entire attraction from start to finish to work out timing and synchronization.
When things aren’t lining up, clients sometimes need to enlist help. Adam Bezark assisted Universal Studios Florida in revitalizing their original 1990 Jaws ride, which had legendary mechanical and operational troubles and constantly broke down. Universal replaced the attraction in 1993 with a major upgrade. There were many aspects of Jaws that needed redoing or replacing (including the sharks, boats, and virtually all of the special effects). Adam directed and staged the creative elements for the successful working version. Based on that early experience, The Bezark Company has since been called on to design and direct numerous other ride projects.
“Ride design is a mystical, magnificent hybrid of disciplines,” he explains. “A lot of companies will know one area really well but not another, and clients won’t realize that it’s not going to just come together. Having a director is sometimes an afterthought.” For a recent project in China, Adam recalls, the client hired one vendor to build the sets and another to create the media and didn’t understand that they needed careful creative direction in the middle to integrate the whole design. “That’s where we came in.”
Phil Bloom also coordinates the many parts of a dark ride: “If a wall needs to be moved for an evacuation route, I’m the one who knows exactly how and where it can go. Dark rides are full of cool stuff, but they’re still enclosed rooms that must have air ducts, catwalks, gas lines, and the like. I know the purpose of everything in the building.” A big part of Phil’s job is “managing compromises,” as he describes, “From the lighting person to the projection designer, not everyone gets what they want. Everyone fights for his or her aspect, but nothing comes out absolutely perfect because compromises have to be made. But imperfect things can still make a perfect scene.”
Seamless storytelling, safety, and entertainment value are all obvious must-haves for a dark ride, but one of the most important factors is throughput, or how many people go through each hour. Something as mundane as vehicle turning radius can change the entire ride’s timing and story: “Turning radius has a lot to do with how quickly you can reveal or conceal something until the last minute. A larger turning radius is hard to deal with. A tight turning radius, such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, can swing a car around quickly and reveal the next scene,” Tom Morris explains. A small vehicle can be speedy on the turns but will hold fewer people. A large vehicle will fit more riders but the pace of the story will be slower because of the wider turns. Large cars also need wider building envelopes to move through, making the sets farther away from the riders and therefore less intimate. Even the type of lap bar can change the overall capacity of a ride; safety restraints need to be as simple as possible to allow just a few seconds for loading and unloading. Designers need to address and tweak all of these seemingly mundane factors in order to tell the ride’s story effectively.
Throughput drives everything for a dark ride —park owners don’t want their guests waiting in line all day, and rides have to pay for themselves. According to Phil Bloom, the magic number for a ride to achieve a good return on investment is 2,000 – 2,400 people per hour. Some of Disney’s oldest dark rides are prime examples for throughput: The Haunted Mansion clocks about 2,000 riders per hour and Pirates of the Caribbean puts through 4,000 people in an hour.
Ultimately, rides are a numbers game for park management and shareholders, and a “pushing the envelope” game for the designers meeting guest expectations. With seamless storytelling, safety, quality entertainment, and good throughput, a dark ride will achieve the most important thing of all: longevity.
THE FUTURE OF DARK RIDE DESIGN
Today’s “dark ride toolbox” is considerably larger than those of the early days of blacklight paint. Modern dark rides use clever technology such as rear and front projection systems, movable tracks, and giant robotic arms. But ride designers also make use of theatrical illusions that date back to the early days, such as forced perspective and the Pepper’s Ghost effect. As Tom Morris says, “Sometimes less is more. It doesn’t always have to be the most expensive solution; sometimes a combination of five-and-dime effects mixed with state-of-the-art technology can make the most amazing scene.”
A big trend for ride design today is interactive gameplay, wherein riders shoot at targets and help determine the outcome of the ride. Similar to other Sally Corporation dark rides, Justice League: Battle for Metropolis will respond to how well the riders do at battling the bad guys. A good score will allow the riders to keep playing, while a bad score will end the ride early.
Most new rides today also make heavy use of 3-D projection to tell their story, thanks to the advances made by Spider-Man. In order to use 3-D projection in conjunction with a moving ride, the creative team at Universal had to deal with “squinching,” a visual effect where a 3-D image appears to point at the viewer wherever he or she is in relation to the screen. In this sense, Spider Man would appear to point at each rider individually as they move past in a ride vehicle, but the background scenery would also shift perspective, breaking the illusion of a static, realistic environment. The way to solve this was to animate the buildings in the background to make them move in the opposite direction as the ride vehicle, thereby canceling out the squinching effect.
A large percentage of recent dark rides use 3-D to tell their stories: “We have used 3-D projection in rides as a way of expanding the physical environment and to get more dynamic motion from characters than we can get from audio-animatronic figures,” explains Phil Bloom. Though 3-D is popular now, Phil sees it reaching a saturation point: “3D glasses are a problem. Handing them out, collecting them, and cleaning them is a hassle and they’re annoying to wear.”
The ride industry is also starting to use traditional roller coaster tracks for themed dark rides (ex: Radiator Springs Racers, and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts), which allows for more movement, faster speeds, and dynamic level changes. Another track innovation that continues to be on the rise is the trackless ride system, used in Sea World’s Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, Disneyland Paris’s Ratatouille: The Adventure, and Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor, among others. More and more companies are perfecting their own version of the trackless ride system, which allows designers a lot more flexibility and variability in how the ride moves through space.
One of the most noticeable trends in dark rides is basing them on popular movie properties. Films and even TV shows provide a good basis for rides because park visitors already know the stories and characters. Choosing a story that many people identify with is the best way to ensure a return on investment, but park owners and designers must pick carefully; not all movies and TV shows have the staying power to merit a ride.
The unpredictable nature of fads is one of the reasons why regional parks (those not owned by Disney or Universal) tend not to invest in dark rides. Coaster thrills are easier to rely on, while dark rides run the risk of going out of style. Taylor Jeffs points out that dark rides often get a bad rap: “When a ride fails to live up to a park’s expectations, it gets the blanket ‘dark rides don’t work’ dismissal, when in actuality it’s just bad dark rides that don’t work. My hope is that regional parks in the states and Europe will really learn the value of these dark rides.” This seems to be happening already. Both Six Flags and Cedar Faire have upcoming dark rides (Justice League: Battle for Metropolis and Voyage to the Iron Reef, respectively), which may pave the way for other parks to add dark rides to their attractions lineup.
The hope for dark ride enthusiasts is that these one-of-a-kind attractions will keep getting built. Like Taylor, we too believe that “nothing will ever completely replace the big grand dark ride.” After all, there’s a reason millions of people each year wait hours just to escape for a few minutes into the dark.