With detailed storytelling and immersive environments, dark rides put the theme in theme parks.
The indoor attractions typically feature a ride vehicle that follows a serpentine track through a series of narrated scenes populated by animatronic figures.
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Dark rides trace their history to tunnel of love water rides and scenic railway roller coasters from the late 19th century that added scenes in darkened portions of the attractions to enhance the experience.
A Trip to the Moon, based on a Jules Verne story, is generally credited as the world’s first electrically powered dark ride. The ride debuted in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition in upstate New York before relocating to Coney Island.
Today, the most technologically sophisticated dark rides include motion-based vehicles, elaborate special effects, laser gun gameplay and domed video screens.
Long the domain of Disney and Universal Studios, the rides can be found at theme parks big and small around the world.
For our purposes, we will be excluding water rides and themed or indoor coasters.
Let’s take a closer look at the 25 best dark rides at theme parks around the world:
1. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Using a unique robotic arm ride system, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey takes visitors on a tour of Hogwarts Castle and the surrounding grounds, where they encounter the Whomping Willow, Dementors and a Quidditch match.
Versions of the dark ride can be found at Universal parks in Florida and Japan and will debut in 2016 at Universal Studios Hollywood.
2. Indiana Jones Adventure
The Indiana Jones dark rides feature motion simulator-based ride platforms themed to look like military troop transport vehicles.
After passing through the Chamber of Destiny, riders encounter a lava pit, a rickety rope bridge, catacombs and, of course, snakes while traveling through a temple set in the Lost Delta of India in 1935.
Similar versions of the ride can be found at Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea.
3. Ratatouille: Remy’s Totally Zany Adventure
The $150 million Ratatouille attraction at the Disneyland Paris resort features trackless ride vehicles with 3-D projections and special effects.
Shrunk to the size of a rat, visitors navigate around giant food props and towering kitchen utensils as they explore Paris from the point of view of the 2007 film’s rodent protagonist. In a number of scenes, riders see 3-D imagery projected on giant domed screens.
4. Transformers: The Ride 3-D
The Transformers motion-simulator dark ride navigates past 14 movie screens separated by sets and props themed to the robots-in-disguise film franchise.
From a technological standpoint, the Transformers ride is a state-of-the-art marvel with ride vehicles that pitch and spin, elevator lifts that transport riders from one level of the attraction to another and towering curved movie screens that reach a height of 60 feet.
Versions of the ride can be found at Universal Studios theme parks in California, Florida and Singapore.
5. Pooh’s Hunny Hunt
Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland features trackless ride vehicles that seem to randomly roam from scene to scene.
Shaped like honey pots, the vehicles move in a synchronized choreography throughout the attraction at times “dancing” with other pots and even bouncing along with Tigger.
6. Mystic Manor
Mystic Manor serves as Hong Kong Disneyland’s ghost-less Haunted Mansion, with tributes to the classic Disney attractions Indiana Jones Adventure, Enchanted Tiki Room and Adventurer’s Club included throughout the ride.
Using a trackless ride system, the attraction takes riders through Lord Henry Mystic’s mansion, where enchanted objects throughout the house come to life.
7. Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man motion-simulator ride travels through 13 animated 3-D scenes, where the web-slinger encounters several supervillains.
A forebear of the today’s cutting-edge dark rides, the Spider-Man attractions at Universal parks in Florida and Japan underwent significant digital upgrades in recent years.
8. Haunted Mansion
The Haunted Mansion dark ride found at several Disney parks features stretching rooms, creaking crypt doors and quaking tombstones as well as 999 ghosts.
The famed Hatbox Ghost recently returned to the classic 1969 Disneyland dark ride after disappearing for more than four decades.
The Dreamflight dark ride at the Efteling theme park in the Netherlands takes visitors on a flight through the dream worlds of fairies, trolls and other mythical creatures.
Riders sitting in vehicles suspended from the ceiling pass through lavish scenes decorated with more than 2 million artificial flowers and plants.
10. Justice League: Battle For Metropolis
Themed to the crime-fighting team of DC Comics superheroes, the Justice League: Battle For Metropolis 3-D dark rides feature motion-platform vehicles, animatronic figures and laser-gun gameplay.
Designed by Florida-based Sally Corp. in collaboration with a number of partners, the Justice League rides can be found at multiple Six Flags parks with two more planned for 2016.
11. Atlantis Adventure
Atlantis Adventure is a waterless underwater journey through the mythical lost city of Atlantis at Germany’s Europa Park.
Riders shoot laser guns at puffer fish, eels, lobsters, crabs and sharks swimming amid ancient ruins and sunken ships.
12. Labyrinth of Minotaur
The Labyrinth of Minotaur at Spain’s Terra Mitica theme park retells the ancient legend of Theseus, the mythical founder-hero of Athens, in which a half man-half bull Minotaur sacrifices Crete’s most beautiful maidens.
Traveling in chariots through a series of chambers, riders armed with crossbows encounter two-headed bandits, three-headed guard dogs, seven-headed hydras and a 40-foot-tall fire-breathing dragon.
13. Challenge of Tutankhamon
The Challenge of Tutankhamon at Walibi Belgium is far scarier and better themed than your typical interactive shoot-em-up dark ride from Florida-based Sally Corp.
Armed with ankh-shaped laser guns, riders shoot at animatronic monsters, mummies and grave looters as they travel through the ancient Egyptian tomb of King Tut.
14. Curse of Darkastle
The Curse of Darkastle at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia features a motion-simulator vehicle that travels through a haunted Gothic mansion. Show elements include 3-D video screens, practical sets and special effects like fog, wind, mist and lightning.
Comparable in quality and detail to Disney or Universal dark rides, Darkastle’s frightening original story includes appearances by a mad king, ghosts and werewolves.
15. Voyage to the Iron Reef
The one-of-a-kind Voyage to the Iron Reef interactive dark ride at Knott’s Berry Farm drops visitors into the middle of an underwater battle brimming with steampunk-inspired sea creatures determined to destroy the Buena Park theme park.
The new 3-D shoot-'em-up attraction took over a long-neglected location in the Boardwalk section of the park that was once home to two beloved dark rides: Knott’s Bear-y Tales and Kingdom of the Dinosaurs.
16. Fantasyland Five
Disneyland is the only Disney park in the world with a complete collection of the 1950s Fantasyland dark rides: Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Alice in Wonderland.
Together the five Fantasyland classics represent the finest collection of vintage dark rides in the theme park industry.
17. Carnival Festival
Carnival Festival at Efteling in the Netherlands is clearly influenced by Disney’s It’s a Small World, from the globe-trotting theme to the doll-like animatronics to the catchy music.
But the creative ride still has its own charms and unique qualities -- including two-seat ride vehicles rather than boats.
18. Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin
Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin at Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland combines a classic dark ride with a spinning tea cup ride to create a hybrid ride experience.
Riders can turn the steering wheel to make their Toontown taxi cab spin while careening through a gag warehouse based on scenes from the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” movie.
19. Toy Story Midway Mania
Toy Story Midway Mania combines a classic dark ride experience with the interactive elements of a modern video game.
Armed with a spring-action shooter, riders take aim at 3-D digital versions of classic carnival games hosted by the familiar “Toy Story” characters. Versions of the ride can be found at Disney parks in California, Florida and Japan.
20. Universe of Energy
With a name like Universe of Energy, you would expect the Europa Park dark ride to be similar to Ellen’s Energy Adventure at Epcot.
But while Universe of Energy has nothing to do with fossil fuel production, the slow-moving attraction at the German theme park does offer a detailed history of the dinosaur with plenty of stunning animatronic figures.
21. Flying Trunk
The Flying Trunk pays tribute to the works of Hans Christian Andersen at Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens theme park, which dates to 1843.
Riders sit in oversized trunks as they travel through 32 delightful animatronic scenes depicting the fairy tales of the prolific Danish author.
22. Great Movie Ride
The Great Movie Ride takes visitors aboard long, lumbering ride vehicles through memorable scenes from classic Hollywood movies with live actors playing some of the roles.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios recently updated the aging one-of-a-kind ride with new narration from Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne.
Dinosaur combines a thrill ride with dark ride in a somewhat repetitive tour of the Cretaceous period.
The Animal Kingdom attraction uses the same motion-simulator ride vehicle as the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea.
24. Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure
Without the bells and whistles of other contemporary attractions, Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure is more in the tradition of Disney’s classic dark rides.
Versions of the D-Ticket attraction that takes visitors “Under the Sea” can be found at Disney California Adventure and the Magic Kingdom.
25. Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters takes riders through the imaginary world of the “Toy Story” space ranger at Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.
With targets dispersed among audio-animatronic figures, the attractions are the theme park industry’s definitive shooter dark rides. It will be interesting to see if the Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue coming to Shanghai Disneyland will break from the mold.
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