Next generation of theme park attractions pairs coasters and dark rides
Ride makers have finally figured out how to combine two theme park staples that rarely go together: roller coasters and dark rides.
A host of new combo attractions mashing up roller coaster thrills and dark ride storytelling opened this summer in the United States, Canada and Germany, with more iterations on the way.
Speed has always been the key issue: Hair-raising coaster drops and turns don’t mesh well with the lumbering pace of a classic dark ride. Even the slowest traditional coaster travels far too fast for riders to fully appreciate the audio tracks, special effects and animatronic figures inside a typical dark ride.
There have long been themed coasters. Disneyland’s 1959 Matterhorn Bobsleds was the world’s first tubular steel coaster while the park’s 1979 Big Thunder Mountain Railroad just added an explosive scene to one of the ride’s three lift hills.
Likewise, indoor coasters have been popular for decades – from the 1975 Space Mountain at Walt Disney World to the 2010 Space Fantasy at Universal Studios Japan to Laff Trakk coming to Hersheypark in 2015.
But coaster-dark ride combos are more rare. The two oldest – the 1972 Fire in the Hole at Missouri’s Silver Dollar City and the 1978 Blazing Fury at Tennessee’s Dollywood - both feature powered trains on coaster tracks that pass animated scenes and navigate a series of dips and drops.
In recent years, Disneyland Paris (Crush’s Coaster) and the various Legoland parks (Dragon coaster) have paired dark ride pre-shows with basic off-the-shelf coasters. In 2011, Black Diamond at Pennsylvania’s Knoebels and Van Helsing’s Factory at Movie Park Germany debuted with brief scenes interspersed throughout the rides.
The newest generation of combo rides employ coaster tracks with multiple lift hills, mid-course brake runs and magnetically powered launch zones, which allow ride manufacturers to control speed without sacrificing thrills or storytelling.
This year has already seen the debut of four new coaster-dark ride combos with more inventive mash-ups in the pipeline.
Themed to an animated movie trilogy, the new “Arthur and the Invisibles” hybrid dark ride-roller coaster at Germany’s Europa-Park takes visitors through a microscopic universe populated by ants seemingly the size of elephants, bumble bees as big as fighter jets and blades of grass taller than skyscrapers.
Combining a suspended roller-coaster with four-person rotating cars and an immersive dark ride environment, the unique attraction travels through a secretive underground world populated by a tiny race of creatures who live in peaceful harmony with nature.
A $10-million first-of-its-kind attraction at Canada’s Wonderland combines a 4-D interactive dark ride with a roller-coaster track inside the Toronto-area amusement park’s decades-old Wonder Mountain centerpiece.
Wonder Mountain’s Guardian carries riders up a 60-foot-tall coaster lift hill on the exterior of the man-made mountain before dipping inside a cavern and slowing down for a dark ride experience complete with wind, motion and other special effects.
Inside the mountain, riders wearing 3-D glasses battle mythical creatures with laser guns in scenes played out on large curved screens, including the longest interactive screen ever built for a ride.
The new Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts attraction at Universal Orlando combines roller coaster elements with a 3D dark ride experience.
Riders board a 24-seat vehicle featuring a motion-based platform on top of a roller coaster track for a dark ride through the cavernous vaults of Gringotts Bank with high-definition animation and special effects.
The Seven Dwarfs mine train at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom takes riders through the story of “Snow White” on tilting ride vehicles that swing back and forth around hairpin turns.
Several show elements from the Florida theme park’s former Snow White’s Scary Adventures dark ride have been incorporated into indoor scenes on the new Vekoma family coaster, including audio-animatronic figures of Grumpy, Doc, Sleepy, Bashful and Happy.
In 2015, a German theme park will introduce a first-of-a-kind attraction featuring a 200-foot-tall high-speed hypercoaster sandwiched between a pair of Medieval-themed dark ride experiences.
Karnan’s Oath: Beware of Its Spell joins two other dark ride-coaster combos built by Gerstlauer at Hansa Park: The Curse of Novgorod and The Snake from Midgard.
Looking ahead, German-based coaster manufacturer Maurer Sohne has teamed up with New York-based design firm Raven Sun Creative to create a spinning coaster-dark ride combo the partnered companies have been pitching to regional amusement parks.
The deep space-themed Saturn V coaster would weave among planets, asteroids and comets amid special effects, video projections and physical dark ride sets.
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