The dark rides in Disney theme parks have delighted—and sometimes terrified—millions of people. The history of these attractions is a fascinating story of creativity, engineering, and pop culture, and it's told here for the first time.
From their primitive beginnings in the 1800s, to their perfection by the Disney Imagineers, dark rides are an ingenious way to tell a visually exciting story to guests who "travel" through the action, scene by scene, aboard vehicles ranging from boats to (Doom) buggies.
Despite their popularity, dark rides still retain an aura of mystery: when did they originate? how did Disney transform them from curiosities into crowd pleasers? why are they such a draw to young and old?
Shawn Farrell dispels the darkness with the definitive history of Disney's dark rides, from Disneyland's Peter Pan, Mr. Toad, and Snow White, to Disneyland Shanghai's cutting-edge version of Pirates of the Caribbean. Farrell also explores notable dark rides not in a Disney park, the many that have gone into the gloom, and some hints of what's to come.
Chapter 1: Engineering Terror
Chapter 2: A Trick of the Brain
Chapter 3: The Genesis of the Disney Dark Ride
Chapter 4: World’s Fairs, Pirates, and Happy Haunts
Chapter 5: Go East, Old Man
Chapter 6: Dark Rides in the Land of the Rising Sun
Chapter 7: Dark Rides in the World of Castles and Kings
Chapter 8: Culture in the Dark
Chapter 9: Bringing Magic to the Mainland
Chapter 10: The Dark Ride Genre Outside of Disney
Chapter 11: Gone into the Gloom
When recounting an experience in the Reptile House of the London Zoological Gardens, Charles Darwin, the British naturalist and geologist, and arguably history’s most revered voice on the subject of evolution, wrote in his ground-breaking book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals:
My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.
Pressing his face close to the glass barrier and determined to remain perfectly at ease, each time the venomous puff adder he was observing lunged forward in an attempt to attack him, Darwin could not help but jump back out of fear.
While he had never personally experienced the bite of a deadly snake, he knew instinctively how to react, recoiling as quickly as possible despite the safety of the glass. Darwin continued:
Terror causes the body to tremble. Skin becomes pale, sweat breaks out and the hair bristles. The secretions of the alimentary canal and of the kidneys are increased and they are involuntarily voided... The breathing is hurried. The heart beats quickly, wildly and violently... The surface seems bloodless and the strength of the muscles soon fails... The mental faculties are much disturbed... Utter prostration soon follows, and even fainting…
Nearly a century and a half later, while we live in a dramatically different world, the symptoms of terror as described by Charles Darwin have not changed. The instinctive reaction to thrills, fear, and terror have remained decidedly the same.
Yet even as renewed threats of global nuclear catastrophe surface; even as society continues to be ravaged by plagues ranging from AIDS to Zika; even as science has long dismissed many of the supernatural phenomena still believed in Darwin’s day, humanity relishes the opportunity to mingle with the macabre. At the dawn of the 21st century, fear is more boundless than ever before: from an endless supply of comic books, music, and movies, to video games, toys, and even breakfast cereals, our taste for fear cannot be confined to a single genre. While nowadays we have come to fear the menace of the sinister Count Chocula more for his sugar content than the more nefarious designs a vampire may have on our well-being, our fascination lingers. Can you imagine a child anywhere on this earth unfamiliar with vampires, or given the current obsession, clueless about zombies?
In his introduction to H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, which examines the horror genre in British and American literature over the course of two centuries, E.F. Bleiler states:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
This instinctive reaction to fear, coupled with our cultural fascination with being scared and just as importantly the curious habit of anticipation, which allows us through a shared experience enriched by mass media, whether it may be an earthquake, plane crash, or deadly chase, to understand and feel a similar response to any such stimuli, without actually having experienced it, has been of tremendous benefit to those tasked with the design of amusement park rides, who have been trained to anticipate how these fears manifest within us and how best to exploit them for maximum thrills. For if we know what might happen as we board any ride meant to scare us out of our wits, we are that much closer to believing that it will.
Leaping forward from Darwin and Lovecraft to Walt Disney finds us in the realm of another legendary historical figure. When the cartoon maker turned theme park impresario opened Disneyland in 1955, it included three attractions based on some of his most beloved properties: Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Peter Pan’s Flight. These are stories that had been familiar to Disney audiences for some time, and longer still to those familiar with their celebrated source material. Some years later, after virtually re-inventing the concept of the theme park, Disney’s innovations continued, as park guests first became acquainted with the Pirates of the Caribbean and wandered through the creepy corridors of the Haunted Mansion.
By the time Walt and his Imagineers began to dream up Disneyland, the concept of the dark ride had become quite familiar to amusement park guests. Understood generally as indoor experiences that used a minimal amount of lighting to gradually reveal spooky scenes with music and sound effects, the earliest incarnations of dark rides predated Disneyland by several decades. Far different from traditional amusements such as carousels, merry-go-rounds, and Ferris wheels, these rides played on our delight in being scared and had been of interest to thrill seekers for some time.
The Disney difference, and its core appeal as evidenced by the enduring popularity of these attractions, rests not entirely in their ability to scare audiences outright, as is the common aim of more low-brow amusement park rides, but in a careful and balanced mix of the fun and the fearful, and in what we know with what we may not, along with the resultant thrills and delights provided by that uncertainty.
For over 60 years, it has been that careful balance, coupled with a flair for innovation that has left Disney unique among its peers and has enabled Disney to find the heart within the darkness. As riders journey into the dimness of the unknown, they draw comfort in that whatever frights may await them, there is always going to be light at the end.
Though I would not begin writing this book until the fall of 2016, its genesis dates back to the first time I watched Disney’s Peter Pan as a young boy and dreamed that I, too, could one day take flight to Neverland, a feeling shared by countless others since the film’s 1953 debut.
A native of Buffalo, New York, it was not until I was in my late twenties that I visited a Disney theme park. During the iconic dark ride’s 40th anniversary celebration, cranky spirits would interrupt my first-ever ride through the Haunted Mansion, when a 5.2 magnitude earthquake rocked southern California and passengers were escorted through the length of the attraction with the lights turned on, to the comparative safety of New Orleans Square.
Since that day when the curtain was pulled back, revealing so much of the magic, I have been a frequent visitor to Disney’s resorts, along with other theme parks around the world, delighting in the sense of wonder, escapism, and innovation offered by the dark ride genre.
A dark ride, Disney or otherwise, is more than just a ride through the dark...
Exactly what is a dark ride? Of course, with the near global popularity of the most enduring examples found in Disney theme parks, most everyone is familiar with the term, but not everyone agrees with its meaning. Before proceeding any further, it would serve us well to state firmly what a dark ride is, as the remaining focus of this text will center on how the Disney Company adopted, modified, and exploited this type of attraction for its theme parks.
In his 1952 book The Outdoor Amusement Industry: From Earliest Times to the Present, William F. Mangels describes the dark ride as follows:
Greatly popular at some resorts are the attractions known as Dark Rides. In these, passenger-carrying vehicles, which may be boats, cars, or small trains, pass through dark tunnels or closed-in passages at a very slow speed. Along the way, surprise scenes such as mechanical ghosts, flirting devils, and similar devices pop up to scare or amuse the slowly passing riders. These devices bear various names. The well-known Tunnel of Love is typical.
While old mills, chutes, scenic railways, and ghost trains all included elements of the Disney dark rides that would follow in the decades to come, from the rudimentary technology of their design and showmanship of their promotion to their scattered attempts at theming, few of these early examples came close to the cohesiveness of the Disney model, and a mere three years later, Mangels’ once fitting definition would be in need of considerable revision.
Disney animator and set designer Claude Coats explained how Disneyland’s earliest dark rides aimed to distance themselves from the cheap thrills of tunnels of love and carnival spook houses and instead distill the essence of their popular stories into spirited three-minute attractions:
At that time, most of the little scare rides (at other parks) had very little mood or storytelling qualities. Ken Anderson’s storyboards had shown that Peter Pan or Snow White could be told in, not quite a story, but at least a mood that gave the feeling of that story and gave you more than you had if you just went through and saw little scary things.
As we would learn from even their earliest offerings, the Disney dark ride features four key characteristics: physical movement over a track, waterway, or other method, primarily through an enclosed space; a sense of immersion enhanced by scenery, animatronic or stationary figures, and music, narration, and sound effects; the manipulation of light to frame perspective or enhance special effects; and a narrative arc. Disney rides are not dark for their complete absence of light, nor are they excessively dark in terms of content and tone. This definition is flexible enough to fittingly apply to Disney attractions from Anaheim’s Snow White’s Scary Adventures to Shanghai’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure.
Excluded from the definition are those attractions such as roller coasters and motion simulators that simply take place in the dark, like Space Mountain and Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, or thrill rides that may have moments in the dark and no small measure of theming, but lack any sustained narrative element, such as Toy Story Midway Mania, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest, and TRON Lightcycle Power Run. For these attractions, the emphasis is more on speed or thrills.
According to Michael Valentino, principal show lighting designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, the main function of show lighting is to help tell the story:
So we start out with identifying the need. How can we design lighting that creates the mood and feeling of the ride’s story? First we look at concept art to get a sense of the overall feeling of what the creative team wants. Next, we brainstorm on ideas on how best to reveal the drama in each scene with just the right lighting.
To visualize the scenes, Imagineers will sometimes map out the attractions with scale models, moving lights around the scenes to get the best sense of what the lighting will do in the fully realized show. Often in a dark ride, the limited lighting must appear to be sourced from whatever direction the viewer is experiencing the scene, which can sometimes present challenges for the Imagineers, who are determined to present their story as realistically as possible, even in a fantasy environment. We can also see the Imagineers’ use of color in lighting in various dark rides to further convey certain feelings and emotions in the short amount of time guests view each scene. The flashes of red in the Indiana Jones Adventure suggest the heat of fire and lava and the dangers each present as guests move deeper into the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and the cold blues and purples of the Haunted Mansion psychologically hint at the icy specter of death.
What guests hear as they progress through the dimly lit corridors of the Haunted Mansion or prepare to do battle against Emperor Zurg plays as crucial a part as light in the storytelling of the Disney dark ride. Sound begins to play a role in the narrative as soon as guest enter the land where an attraction is located. Guests are acclimated to the ride experience gradually and by the time they have boarded their ride vehicle and set off on their journey, they become more and more immersed in the narrative, whether it is the goings-on behind closed doors in the seedy streets and alleys of Toontown, or what they hear off in the distance as passengers set sail into the bayou for a swashbuckling pirate adventure.
“As you continue the experience, the soundscape twists and turns right along with the story,” said Joe Herrington, principal media designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, and often makes use of particular elements to punctuate a story point. Speakers may be placed in the ride vehicles, or throughout the attraction at different distances and heights, to create as realistic an experience as possible.
New technologies and renovations of existing rides might allow for the types of attractions listed above that are not considered dark rides to become them by adding the missing component. Disney’s Imagineers have always made extraordinary efforts at theming even rides such as roller coasters, where the emphasis is on thrills, so if the attraction’s story elements or the manipulation of light were modified, some might more accurately be considered traditional Disney dark rides.
The format of the true Disney dark ride owes its roots to Walt Disney and the early studio work of his animators, as without fail, these rides mirror the narrative structure of a film, in that they each feature a collection of scenes or episodes meant to guide passengers through a fully plotted narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. When combined with special effects wizardry, immersive sound, propulsive musical accompaniment, inviting narration, and the careful manipulation of light where the darkness is used to the designer’s advantage, they result in the ride format that Disney all but mastered with even its earliest attempts. As the Imagineers put it,“The match of media and story is a crucial step that blends technology and artistry, engineering and environment.” Even as long-standing dark rides and perennial favorites are renovated to include the latest technologies and effects, it is done in service of enhancing the narrative and further immersing riders within that fantasy environment.
Yet, according to Jeff Kurrti and Bruce Gordon, in The Art of the Walt Disney World Resort:
Walt Disney and his creative heirs are often superficially lumped into the category of “fantasy,” and too often in a negative way, with a meaning of an unsophisticated lack of reality, a silly insincerity, or a juvenile lack of factual astuteness.
However, the Disney depiction of fantasy is less about the depiction of cliché symbols than it is about how the stories told through their films, and in turn their attractions, have continued to endure for decades. While common archetypes of princesses, wicked queens, and sinister villains may recur in their storytelling, the qualities they have come to represent are exceedingly more important to Disney’s longevity and appeal: bravery, wonder, love, hope, imagination, and trust. If a theme park attraction can inspire any of those same feelings in its guests, then it has unquestionably succeeded.
Continued in "Heart and Darkness"!
The classic premise of the dark ride meets cutting-edge Imagineering in Shanghai Disneyland's version of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Launching from within an abandoned fortress of the Royal Navy where Barbosa’s Bounty restaurant takes the place of Disneyland’s Blue Bayou, we board updated boats and set sail into the lagoon. A talking skull warns of danger ahead as we pass through a cave and into a grotto to come upon many seemingly familiar scenes, including one of imprisoned pirates who had been trying to coax the key to their cell from the guard dog for so long that they all died.
Rounding the bend, another skeleton standing at the helm of a marooned ship is suddenly struck by a surge of lightning, which after coursing through its bony figure, gives life to none other than Captain Jack Sparrow. It now becomes clear that this is something more than the traditional take on Disney’s classic pirate attraction. It is the first time the characters of the hit film franchise have directly inspired a new dark ride adventure, and here the wily captain enlists riders as crew in his attempt to recover the lost treasure of Davy Jones hidden somewhere beneath the murky sea.
Mixing Disney’s storytelling expertise with the state-of-the-art technologies perfected by Imagineers, we are then made to feel as if we are swallowed by the ocean, plummeting to a graveyard of lost ships where pirates busily plunder the gold from rotting hulls. The boat rouses the beastly Kraken and then seeks refuge within the remains of Davy Jones’ battered ship.
Sailing next to mermaid territory, we encounter two winsome sirens and follow a path of glittering treasure, before a hammer-faced crewmember of Davy Jones’ ship appears to inform us that “the captain be wantin’ a word with with ye!” Moving through a cavern, we hear a propulsive, yet melancholy tune being played on an organ and soon see that the instrumentalist is none other than Davy Jones, who it is clear will not be giving up his riches so easily.
A fleet of ships rises to the surface and we are caught in the middle as both sides fight over the fate of the treasure. Cannons fire above and below as one by one ships are blasted back beneath the sea and we soon find ourselves trapped inside the hull of a badly damaged vessel.
With water rushing in from all sides, Davy Jones takes up arms against Jack Sparrow, who has been hoarding what he can of the treasure on board a row boat. Just as Jack loses his sword, he swings to safety, momentarily out of reach of Jones’ deadly blade, and aims a cannon in his direction. Though he misses, he creates a hole in the ship, unleashing a massive rush of water that sets his own boat free in the current and propels us backwards while Davy Jones is lost in the waves.
We next see Captain Jack’s rowboat washed upon the shore, where he stands with his newly acquired riches. But does Davy Jones have one last curse in store? The boats turn a final corner and move up an incline before reaching the dock to unload.
Continued in "Heart and Darkness"!