Theme Park Insanity

What makes the perfect dark ride?

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What in our opinion makes for the perfect dark ride and what ride elements contribute most when making this a reality?

When it comes to a truly immersive and inclusive experience, in our opinion there is only so much a roller coaster or flat ride can achieve!

That’s where dark rides therefore come into play! Not only do they step up the immersion of guest experience throughout the attraction, however they also have the tendency to leave guests and visitors feeling much more included throughout the whole experience.

This is due to how most dark rides are conceived and indeed designed, using everything from low lighting and set pieces to special effects, atmospheric ride scores and sound effects and even the ever popular scent pods which will be sure to leave riders feeling as though they have embarked on a journey they will not soon forget!

The one thing that does remain evident however (particularly here in the UK) is the sheer difference in level of immersive experiences provided by these wonderfully unique attractions depending on where abouts you choose to experience one throughout the world.

It’s clear that dark rides located at the likes of the Disney Parks and Universal parks are never going to be as basic as some of the ones located here in the UK at the likes of Flamingo Land, Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers, however what makes the perfect dark ride experience?

What's the formula?

For us here at TPI it’s all about feeling included in the experience we choose to have.

This can be achieved through many methods, however the most effective method seems to be the person focused approach.

This means that the rider feels as though the experience they are having throughout their ride experience is solely aimed at just them and no one else.

A number of tactics can be applied here to achieve this, however the most effective tactic in our opinion is giving the rider a direct focus throughout using the special effects and animatronics which may well be applied within the attraction to interact directly with the rider from start to finish.

This is none more evident than when you look at the likes of Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios!

The way in which guests are made to believe they are experiencing a real life capture by the first order for us appears to be next level and this is achieved a number of different ways. 

Upon entering the attraction and throughout their experience riders are approached by  costumed actors and actresses who directly interact with guests on a much more direct and personal level.

Riders also experience the same level of interaction throughout the attraction as well through the use of pre-recorded footage on screens, some jaw dropping next level animatronics and some brilliant set pieces to boot.

Not all dark rides benefit from this level of attention to detail however and the same experience can still be achieved through indirect interaction as well such as the use of scent pods to create emotion and fear in riders, ambient music to create a real sense of dread and atmosphere and lighting effects which can be used to create the illusion of space and also atmosphere throughout the ride.

In truth the list is endless, however the one thing that always stands out for us the most is storyline!  The perfect dark ride MUST have a well written and directed storyline!

This is presented particularly well by our ultimate number one UK dark ride – HEX: The Legend of the Towers located at Alton Towers Resort.

Why HEX: The Legend of the Towers?

It’s clear to us that when rider designers conceived HEX and started the creative process in bringing this highly unique attraction to life, guest experience was put at the forefront of everything they did when designing the transitions between scenes within the attraction and ride itself.

You only have to look at such aspects of the ride as the gloomy low lit atmosphere you experience whilst traversing the indoor queue line within the Towers Armoury to know that the designers wanted to create a lasting first impression on all those who dared to set foot within!

Featuring everything from sheet covered statues, to an amazing use of ‘musty’ scents and ‘relics’ within guests are immediately thrust into the world of a real life construction site as they wander ever forward to the first of  two preshows located within (yes, two!).

Riders are then presented with the ride’s antagonist and are told that out of all the predecessors to have lived within the walls of the grand and decadent Towers, it’s the 15th earl, Charles Talbot whose story is the most significant of all.

Riders are then directed to enter a second pre-show, this time in the form of a projected video telling the story of the earl’s encounter with the old beggar women and how she cursed the earl for refusing her charity and vowing to damn the earl’s bloodline with misfortune forever!

After guests have been told the tale they are then sent into the third of the four sections to make up this experience where by a well directed and choreographed sequence of lighting effects, sound effects, wind and props are utilised to create the illusion that guests are having their own encounter with the dreaded witch who cursed the earl all those years ago.

The final scene sees guests riding what we consider to be the best of the three Vekoma Madhouses located here within the UK, and certainly the most detailed! Again a perfect mixture of movement, lighting, sound and music are used to create the illusion of the ‘vault’ (which we now all know isn’t located within the confines of the towers at all, but merely an external warehouse built onto the side of the Towers) is cursed and that the earl’s arrogance all those years ago has left a lasting a deadly mark on the Towers forever!

Although the whole experience of the attraction only lasts around 15 minutes from start to finish we feel that designers have really hit the nail on the head when making this ride experience feel as authentic and also personal as possible.

Everything from the use of low lighting to the fantastic consistent use of special effects throughout is enough to make anyone forget the real world outside the wall of the attraction itself and fully immerse them in the tale within which the narrative is set to take place.

This in our opinion creates the ultimate escapist experience and when it comes to entering a dark ride it’s fair to say that this will very likely be the main aim of anyone who chooses to ride it.

Dark Rides come in many forms!

The one thing that does remain evident to us however (especially here in the UK) is that a great dark ride doesn’t necessarily have to be a tracked experience (or indeed a dry one) to achieve the end goal of taking guests into a whole new world separate from the one beyond on the confines of the attraction in question.

The perfect example (and possibly one of the most well known) is Valhalla located at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

This fantastic and highly unique water based dark ride immerses those brave enough to enter into the legendary afterlife of Viking Mythology – Valhalla!

Opening in the year 2000 and replacing the former burnt down Fun house this truly epic Indoor Intamin boat ride takes riders on a journey into the afterlife and as they navigate the various different primal elements such as Fire and Ice they are bombarded with everything from huge drops in the dark to huge battle based animatronics, fireballs and a few good absolute soakings along the way.

It’s fair to say that Valhalla has amassed what amounts to a rather cult following since it’s opening, however in recent years as we all know the ride itself has been in desperate need of not only an update, but also a complete refurb as well.

It was therefore at the end of 2019 that the imminent news of the ride’s closure for the full duration of the 2020 season was shared by the resort boasting that Valhalla would be closed for what has been put forward as a ‘re-imagining’ and as such the current estimate re-opening of the ride stands as Summer (July) 2021 in time for the peak of the resort’s 125th Anniversary celebrations.

It has been put forward by the resort that a completely up to date ride experience featuring everything from brand new state of the art special effects to an updated ride system (which we really hope rectifies the swamp in the boats situation) will be ready for guests to experience once the ride is ready to reopen next season and we for one can’t wait to see exactly what this means.

What is true however is the fact that despite being a water based dark ride Valhalla still achieves exactly what any other type of dark ride attempts to achieve and that’s immersing riders into a whole new world as per the likes of Hex and other dark rides throughout the world!

Why Simplicity is just as effective as any over use of special effects!

One thing that is evident (especially here in the UK) is that there doesn’t always need to be an over use of special effects to leave a lasting impression on all those who ride however.

Sometime simplicity and good old fashioned effects can be just as effective in creating an immersive experience as an huge budget special effects spectacular!

This is presented the most by the absolute classic that is the Ghost Train at Blackpool Pleasure.

This is one ride which really does have a cult following, and yet the special effects used within are not only simple, however they are also practical as well.

This therefore means that you don’t always need to shell out huge sums of cash just to create a ride experience which will thrill, frighten and even entertain all those who choose to ride it.

As we all know the effects used inside the ride appear extremely outdated in some parts and this in our opinion just adds to the charm of the ride experience.

We can see why despite the simplicity of it, The Ghost Train still continues to draw in the crowds the same way it did when the ride opened just under 100 years ago.

Ghost Train was not only the first ride of it’s kind, however it was also the first ride of it’s type too.

Ultimately what makes the perfect dark ride?

It’s clear that after taking a look at the various ways guest experience is achieved within these types of attractions the one main element that remains true is the fact that the main aim of all is to leave a lasting impression on all those who ride.

Now, in our opinion the only way to do such a thing is to create inclusion (as previously mentioned) and through doing so you will create memories which will last a life time.

Everyone who rides a dark ride (no matter the genre) wants to come away feeling as though they have been pulled out of reality for a brief amount of time and thrust into a different world full of entertainment and wonder.

If you do manage to pull this off then not only will the rider go away feeling refreshed and entertained, however they will also go away with memories of their experience they will cherish forever!

This therefore means that in our opinion in order to be the PERFECT dark ride you have to create lasting memories of the experience you convey!

This also therefore means that any PERFECTION is subjective and this therefore means that whatever one individual finds to be perfect for them may well not be the case for many others.

This ultimately means that the PERFECT dark ride doesn’t technical exist, however personal perception of perfection does.

This therefore means that as long as the the designers do all they can to pull the rider into the narrative, the likelihood is that somewhere along the lines they will more than likely have achieved perfection in someone’s eyes.

This also therefore means that they will have left the individual with ever lasting memories they will cherish for the rest of their lives and this in eyes is enough by itself to make any ride or attraction perfect.

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