Sunday, January 4, 2009

On the future of dark rides

Hi! Sorry it's been so long between posts, but things have been hectic. Also, due to some stuff going on at work, it looks like I'll have to postpone my November trip to Disney World until January 2010. So about a year from now you can expect the first of many posts filled with recent pictures from all over WDW (with a heavy bias toward EPCOT, of course) and my impressions of the Siemens rehab of Spaceship Earth. But on to the topic at hand-

I love Disney's Audio-Animatronic dark rides. They offer an immersive experience like none other. Unlike thrill rides, which primarily rely on the ride system itself to deliver the attraction's experience, dark rides are all about theming and detail. The great dark rides (Pirates of the Carribbean, Horizons, Journey into Imagination, World of Motion, and Peter Pan's Flight, to name a few) make you forget that you're in a Florida theme park. Returning to the "real world" after a good dark ride is always a bit of a shock.

Unfortunately, Animatronic-based rides tend to suffer the worst when Disney goes into Clueless Cost Cutting mode. During Spaceship Earth's sponsorless period, the movements of the Animatronic characters were stiff and jerky. The ride system was loud and creaky. It was painfully obvious that Disney was skimping on maintenance because there was no sponsor to help foot the bill. This is perhaps the Animatronic dark ride's biggest flaw: all the Imagineers' brilliant work can be completely undone by a miserly maintenance schedule.

All of this was running through my mind recently when I saw the Horizons ride vehicle that's for sale on eBay. It occurred to me then that, if you placed the vehicle in front of a large-enough screen that was playing a good-quality Horizons ride video, you'd have a pretty fair approximation of the Horizons experience. Then it occurred to me that, with today's technology, a good CGI artist (or a team of them), could essentially re-create the ride in CGI, and do it so well that only a hardcore EPCOT fanboy would be able to tell they weren't watching an actual ride video. And then I remembered how impressed I was with the 3-D version of Meet The Robinsons, how the Disney artists really made it appear as though you were looking into a diorama, as opposed to watching a movie screen.

I think you can see where I'm going with this: if you created a stereoscopic 3-D CGI Horizons ride movie, projected it onto an Omnimax-like screen positioned in front of a row of ride vehicles similar to the ones from the original pavilion, then topped the whole thing off with piped-in smells (oranges, anyone?) and simulator effects, you would effectively re-create Horizons without having to construct a huge pavilion with hundreds of Animatronics and set pieces. Ah, but would it have the same immersive quality as a "real" ride with physical sets and characters? That's a matter of personal opinion, I suppose. However, my experience with Soarin' makes me think it could. As an old-school EPCOT fan, I was skeptical of Soarin' at first. There is almost no theming at all. The ride system is basically a giant Erector-set construction in front of an Omnimax screen, and absolutely no effort is made to hide this. Then the ride starts, and you forget that you're sitting inside a giant Erector set construction in front of an Omnimax screen. The combination of scented air blowing at you and subtle ride carriage movements synchronized with the film completely sells you on the idea that you're really flying. It's amazing. When I rode it, I sat at the leftmost edge of the carriage and I could clearly see the edge of the movie screen, but it didn't matter. The ride sucked me in and made me believe in it. So, if Disney can deliver an immersive experience with metal benches, scented air, and a 2-D movie, I believe they could do the same thing with a 3-D movie, a more enclosed ride vehicle, and a bit more theming. Maybe some "real" foreground elements could be added to hide the edges of the screen and blur the line between what's physical and what's not. Of course, there's still one major problem to consider: to un-immerse yourself from the ride, all you'd have to do is remove your 3D glasses. Or would you? Glasses-free stereoscopic 3D screens do exist. Sure, it's still brand-new technology, but after a few years I imagine the bugs will be worked out and the price will come down.

The way I see it, 3D movie-based dark rides would stand the test of time much better than Animatronic rides, if for no other reason than that they'd need much less maintenance. Animatronic dark rides are hugely expensive to build and maintain. A dark ride like this would still be expensive to create, but it would probably cost less to maintain in the long run. And when the guests begin to tire of a certain ride, all you have to do is re-theme your queue area, commission a new film, reprogram some vehicle movements, and mix up a new batch of scented air and boom!- you've got yourself a brand-new ride.

Just to be clear, I am NOT suggesting that Animatronic dark rides need to go away. They're an irreplaceable part of the Disney World experience. I'm just speculating on what the future could hold. Hopefully, it's a fun synthesis of the old and the new.


  1. As a first-time reader (EPCOT Central link), I'm impressed by your opinions, most of which I agree with. The suggestions for "Horizons II" are interesting, and by no means impossible.

    Your feelings on "Soarin'" are a mirror of my own. Sceptical, then approving. Thanks for a good read!

  2. I agree with you on Soarin', it is such a beautiful film, and the ride mechanism makes you feel you are actually moving above the planet, that it quickly becomes immersive. (The feet hanging above you detract only a little, unless you're in the first row.) I think you're right in that a ride system that sort of puts you in a movie could likely be a worthy and cost effective addition to the attraction mix. Interesting post!

  3. Thanks for the feedback, guys.

    Josh, welcome! Thanks for reading! You too, Scott. I appreciate y'all.

  4. I like the concept of a virtual Horizons. One of the drawbacks would be the inability to look around the expansive sets if you are watching on a big screen. The perspective would always be that of the camera's lense which would always remind you that you are watching a video.

  5. Hey, love the blog.
    I agree totally on the idea of expanding dark rides like this to be more matching in the style of "Soarin". God knows we're pretty much there tech-wise.
    I'm linking your blog to mine, if that's ok. Take a look and tell me what ya think!

  6. Thanks for reading, Rob and AnonyMOUSE! And AnonyMOUSE, thanks for adding a link to your blog, I really appreciate it.

  7. I'm guessing dark rides will go the way of the Spiderman ride at Islands of Adventure, which combines both physical and CGI scenes. The result puts Epcot to shame.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Sarah. It mirrors something I'd been thinking: dark rides just don't appeal to the younger generation the way they did to me when I was a kid. They're seen as quaint. The kind of system I wrote about would really only work for rides like Horizons or 20,000 Leagues that were only meant to be viewed from a limited angle, but Disney definitely needs to put more zazz in their dark rides if they're going to continue capturing the kids' imaginations.


Thanks for taking the time to comment!