What is a Dark Ride?

Jessica Ellis

A dark ride is an indoor amusement ride that carries riders through animated, painted, or special-effect created scenes. The ride is not always truly dark, although selective use of light can conceal mechanical equipment and create a more realistic atmosphere, as well as direct the riders’ attention. Originally used in the 19th century, dark rides are popular throughout theme parks today and employ ever-advancing methods of technology.

Young boy eating an apple
Young boy eating an apple

The first dark rides were built in the 1800s, and called scenic railways. On these rides, passengers would board trains or small boats and be carried past a variety of lit, painted scenes or brief attractions and feature music and sound effects. These rides were typically either themed as haunted houses or romantic escapes, and became popular throughout amusement parks and fairs. In 1939, at the World’s Fair in New York, designer Norman Bel Geddes displayed Futurama, a dark ride that showed a vision of the world in 1960. Shortly after this, entrepreneur Walt Disney incorporated the technology to build and perfect many of the rides at his new California park, Disneyland.

Disney and his team of designers may have been inspired by Futurama to use a dark ride as a means of conveying riders to impossible worlds. When the park opened in 1955, Disneyland had several early dark rides, including Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Adventures, and Peter Pan’s Flight. All three of these rides still operate today, and are considered classic attractions. These rides were fairly basic, employing music, paintings and some early animatronics.

Disney’s greatest contributions to dark ride technology were to come over the next few decades. In Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney combined basic technique with thrill elements and completely immersive scenery, so that riders were placed in the middle of action sequences. The Haunted Mansion employed the use of holographic technology to create truly transparent and misty ghosts, capitalizing on the early haunted-house themed dark ride. With Space Mountain, dark ride technology met the roller coaster, using room-filling projections to give the illusion that the indoor coaster rockets through space.

Recent new technology has lead to the invention of user-active dark rides, including shooting rides. In these attractions, such as Disneyland’s Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters or Men In Black: Alien Attack at Universal Studios Florida, vehicles come equipped with a gun or laser that the rider uses to shoot targets throughout the ride track. Some shooting dark rides keep tallies of the riders’ successful hits, and some even keep a daily tally of high scores.

Since their invention, the dark ride has proved a successful way to transport the rider to an alternate or impossible universe. By enclosing the ride track indoors and using light to selectively highlight or hide features, designers can create a totally immersive experience for the rider. With innovations such as personal vehicle sound systems, shooting mechanisms and advanced lighting techniques, dark rides continue to thrill riders and advance amusement park technology over a century after their invention.

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Discussion Comments


@croydon - It might have it's place, but I think it would actually take away from a decent roller coaster. I mean, I think that adding a few scenes in a dark ride is a good idea, because it can distract you from a fall or a crash in the ride and that can make it a little bit scarier and therefore more fun.

But if you get carried away with distracting people from the motion they might as well be riding on a sedate train or even walking.


@umbra21 - The Pirates of the Caribbean is definitely a classic but I have to say that I prefer the 3D rides that have been built more recently. They manage to make it feel like the audience is actually interacting with the story, rather than just watching a show.

I haven't actually been able to try one that lets you shoot while you are on the ride, but that sounds pretty awesome. I would love to try something like that.


Dark rides are my favorite kind and have been since I was a child. I think there is just something that's a little bit more satisfying about having a story going on while you are taking the ride. The Pirates of the Caribbean is an excellent example and a really fun ride. There are hardly any real scares in terms of the ride itself, but the scenes you pass are so interesting that it hardly matters.

One of the things I really appreciated about the films was that they put several picture perfect recreations of scenes from the ride in the film, rather than just using the name and the theme.

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