The Return of The Family Dark Ride

November 1, 2012 No Comments

New rides in the amusement industry often seem to follow a cyclical pattern.  Over the years, a wide variety of ride types have ebbed and flowed in popularity, including times when simulators or 3D or raft rides were the latest hot option.  Through it all though two ride types have seemed to endure longer than others.
The first and most obvious example is the roller-coaster.  While the sub-categories have spanned from standing coaster to inverted ones to flying versions (and many others), as a whole, coasters have remained consistently popular.
Though coasters are king, another ride type that has aged well is the dark ride.  Like roller coasters, the subcategories of dark rides have evolved in many different directions.  This has included several instances (such as Universal Orlando’s Spiderman and Harry Potter attractions) where the dark ride and coaster types almost seemed to merge.
Indeed, over the years, dark rides seemed to have taken on edgier and more thrilling themes and execution.  Examples include Universal’s Men in Black and its alien battle theme as well as the award-winning Curse of DarKastle at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Universal Hollywood’s $100 million dollar Transformer attraction.  In each of these cases, either height restrictions and/or more intense theming made the dark rides less oriented to all ages than classic predecessors such as It’s a Small World and Spaceship Earth at Epcot.
This trend toward the darker side of dark rides seems to be shifting in recent years though. Several large parks are installing major new dark rides whose level of intensity is dialed down to something much closer to earlier dark rides that entire families enjoyed together.
The leader in this trend is Disney and the $250-plus million dollars it has spent in recent years to introduce new family-centric dark rides.  In each of these instances, Disney eschewed height restrictions and intense theming for calmer rides that, even when they contained an interactive component, did so in a more whimsical way.
A perfect example of this is the Toy Story Mania attraction at Disney California Adventure, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Tokyo DisneySea.  According to two former Imagineers we spoke with, Toy Story Mania was intended from day one to replace heart-stopping thrills with eye-opening visuals.  While it does contain a shooting element similar to Universal’s Men in Black, the 3D visuals are decidedly less intense.
Instead, Toy Story Mania took the shooting dark ride concept and revamped it into a series of fair-like games, none of which involved killing bad guys.  This repurposing has allowed all ages to ride the attraction and, by doing so, has, according to several sources, made the Toy Story Mania attractions one of the most popular rides at their respective parks.
Apparently sensing the value in moving away from thrill-based dark rides, Disney recently took another step back toward the classic dark ride when it debuted Little Mermaid dark rides at both California Adventure and as one of the signature pieces of its re-imagined Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.  These rides even more closely resemble traditional dark rides such as Peter Pan’s Flight and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in that they replace the shooting element with a series of set pieces that take the rider through a story.
Being that we are in the age of thrills, thrills and more thrills, this much tamer approach might seem counterintuitive.  That assumption, however, would miss the larger picture that a park filled with height-restricted dark rides aimed at teens and young adults makes for a fairly narrow audience reach.
Disney has seemed to sense that, in recent years, the move toward thrill rides might have gone too far in one direction.  Indeed, in many ways, it was Walt Disney himself who originally advocated for and generally built attractions that entire families could enjoy together.
This means, of course, that family-centric dark rides cannot be too tame so as to become boring for everyone except young children.  That’s why Disney developed cutting edge imagery and effects for both the Toy Story Mania and the Little Mermaid dark rides.  The result is something similar to a Pixar movie:  an experience that appeals to different individuals on different levels.  By adding this “depth of experience” to a family dark ride, parks can broaden the potential guest pool and protect new dark rides from being stereotyped as a “kiddie ride.”
Sure, you might end up losing some of the hippest teenagers who wouldn’t be caught dead on a cartoon character-themed ride, but that’s a small segment compared to what your facility might gain in everyone else.
Whether Disney’s move toward family dark rides is an exception or a new norm is yet to be decided.  But, even a casual walk through the floors of the IAAPA Attractions Expo reveals that family friendly attractions (including dark rides) are growing in popularity.
Indeed, now might be the perfect time to reconsider those high dollar plans for the latest high tech thrill coaster and replace them with a richly themed family dark ride.
(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at chaddemerson@gmail.com.)

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