Helen Fletcher looks at the advances in technology that are shaping the future of dark rides…

IT used to be enough for theme parks to provide visitors with dark rides that saw them simply travel around a track in a cart while they were told a story of some kind.

Those days are now long gone.

Advances in technology will always improve and expand the possibilities of attractions and this is no exception for dark rides. What was once quite a simple idea has evolved into something that offers visitors the chance to escape real life and become part of another world, through interaction with the sights and sounds thrust upon them during the ride.

Over the past few years new technologies have emerged. These include interactive laser shooting, rotating gondolas, digital scoring displays revealing the best scorers, high-end animatronics and even real actors to add attraction.

Fabbri Group in Italy is one company that develops such gondolas for dark rides. “We are living in a dynamic world where markets demand new products or improved attractions,” the company’s Edward Cromheecke told InterPark. “Our dark rides are available with more levels, meaning the speed of the gondolas differs along the track, increasing the emotion experienced by the passenger.”

Visitor interaction has mainly come about due to the advances in technology and it has been one of the main developments in dark rides. Many focus on visitors shooting at targets and incorporate 3D projection, special effects and theming into the rides to improve the overall experience, as well as keeping the ride fresh.

A good example of this is the Haunted House at UK park Alton Towers, which originally involved visitors walking around the grounds and through spooky corridors, ending with a ride around the house. In 2003 the ride was turned into Dual, keeping the majority of original features but adding special effects and an interactive shooting element to revitalise its appeal.

However, it is not just interactivity that has been incorporated into dark rides. Dutch coaster manufacturer Vekoma is one company that has been involved in building thrill rides that fit into the dark ride medium. The company’s Mad House system is used in many parks, including Drayton Manor and Alton Towers in the UK, numerous Six Flags parks in the US and the Warner Bros park in Madrid, Spain.

It is designed to disorientate guests by creating a sense of both weightlessness and of being spun upside down. The unit consists of several rows of seats attached to a swaying gondola within a rotating drum. Show features during the show or pre-show build up the suspense. The Mad House is suitable for all ages and tastes because of its strong impact and element of surprise, though no high speeds or G-forces are involved.

Another European company, 3DBA of Belgium, has been involved in the production of these attractions since 2003. With an initial goal of developing immersive and interactive dark rides, it now offers parks a total dark ride turnkey solution. It has since developed two different projects – the 4D dark ride and an interactive dark ride. The 4D ride uses 3D projection, special effects, theming and audio and offers a different kind of ride system that can rotate and has the option to be trackless or motion based. The company’s interactive dark ride includes a mixture of interactive scenes using special effects, theming and/or media based material.

“Dark rides are becoming more immersive by the use of media and interactive technologies, said 3DBA’s Roger Houben. “Most developed theme parks need to balance the ride mix by introducing more non-coaster type rides.

“The new age dark rides are now a solid alternative by their immersive/interactive character. At 3DBA we are able to offer high end intellectual properties such as film titles, to enable park operators to carry out effective marketing.”

EOS Rides in Italy also supplies parks with turnkey dark rides, providing anything from simple to sophisticated vehicles that can reach the speeds of a roller coaster with programmed rotating systems. For Frank Bogino, EOS’ sales manager, dark ride systems have become much more sophisticated over the past few years. He told InterPark: “We can now give a roller coaster sensation to dark rides and also adapt vibrations to the guests inside the cars to give an even bigger thrill for the surprising point of action as well as sound effects inside the cars.”

EOS supplies a large amount of transport systems for the Sally Corporation – the US-based, self proclaimed ‘dark ride specialist.’ Bogino believes there is evidence to suggest there is still a great amount of demand for dark rides worldwide.

He said: “As long as dark ride manufacturers come up with new ideas there will always be the demand for them, especially in parks. The dark ride can be a thrilling and fun ride for the whole family. Not everyone likes to get on a huge roller coaster.”

Are dark rides the new films?

As for the future of dark rides, Mark Golding of UK-based Space Leisure feels that the industry will see a move away from “highly expensive and high-maintenance animatronics, which will be replaced by other mechanisms and technologies such as film-based media.” Space Leisure has been involved in the design and manufacturing of dark rides all over the world since 1976 and it offers a turnkey package of all aspects.

Could a move away from animatronics really be the way forward for the sector.

The way Matthias Clostermann, from Clostermann Design of Germany, sees it: “The so-called interactive rides where children shoot things are the next technological change, but I hope we will be able to convince customers of more sophisticated ways of interacting someday and that manufacturers will start to rely more on artistic aspects such as story, strong visuals and a portion of art to make it a real experience.”

Clostermann Design has been designing animatronics and figures for dark rides for the past 10 years and in the past three years has grown to a turnkey theming and fit out company.

“A well designed and well crafted dark ride can be like a good film, telling a story and motivating emotions through strong visuals,” added Clostermann. “This quality tends to get lost during wild shooting orgies.”

The mission of a dark ride, it could be argued, is to transport emotion and manufacturers need to combine film director qualities with the technological know-how to get the best effects and end product.

“Latest and greatest technologies can only for a short time cover up for the lack of creativity the industry has displayed over the last few years,” Clostermann argues. “Again comparing dark rides to films, after the first wave of computer effects had washed over us, audiences grew sick of yet another morphing sequence, yet another ‘space look.’ A good story doesn’t go out of fashion.”

Because interactive rides have increasingly become the trend for dark rides in parks, Clostermann contests that some of them are being made with poor theming and no real story but with lots of targets.

“I wish parks would go back down a more artistic route instead of just running after trends and copying each other,” he said. “In the rare case they are well made, dark rides offer a much larger variety of emotions compared to thrill rides, for example. They can be whimsical, fantastic, scary, invigorating and cute.”

Fabbri’s Cromheecke takes up the point. “Scary dark rides have proven to be successful in the past but this doesn’t mean other themes can’t be successful as well. A dark ride should be projected with careful consideration for its target group and the environment the ride will be placed in. I believe the most successful rides are those that respond best to their target group. A dark ride should be placed in a park, which is along a similar theme.”

When it comes down to it, as with most things in the industry, it is the customer who will decide what is good, effective technology and what is not. However, one thing manufacturers and designers must always keep in mind is that as technology advances so will customer demands. All rides, whether dark, thrill or whatever, have to offer something different; they can have all the advanced technology available but if the story, setting, build-up and characters are not convincing, then the technology’s impact is potentially lessened.

Getting the balance right, at least for the modern dark ride, requires more than just a wild shot in the dark.