A few months ago, The Los Angeles Times columnist dedicated to theme parks posted a Top 25 Best Dark rides in the world. Of course it wouldn’t be an online listing article if it didn’t include some divisive choices. And a lot of questions as well. Why it didn’t include hybrid dark rides like immersive water rides, free fall towers and rollercoasters? Why it didn’t feature the fantastic Spaceship Earth and Gringotts? And how is the half-baked Ratatouille ranked number 3, before Mystic Manor and best-attraction-in-the-world-Spider-Man?
Anyway, it gave me the idea of making my own, totally arbitrary ranking too. I had the chance to visit most major dark ride master theme parks except Tokyo Disney Resort. So I won’t include rides that surely should be included: Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sinbad, Monster’s Inc. Ride and Go Seek.
Ok, let’s the arguing begin! Here is my Top 20 Best Dark Rides in the World, including hybrids, then make sure to let me know what would be your own ranking in the comment section! (list updated on August 5th 2020)
20. Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin
This sleeper hit has unexpected qualities: you can make your vehicle spin like Alice’s tea cups (and add vomit in the scenery), it features a lot of jokes, genius tricks and special effects and the queue line is surprisingly elaborate for a mid-sized, classic style dark ride. Video ride through here.
19. Alice in Wonderland (Disneyland) / Peter Pan’s flight (Shanghai Disneyland)
It might sound totally weird to associate these attractions like they’re the same. They’re not. But the reason why they both made it to this list is because these two classic style dark-rides have recently received a bunch of contemporary effects mainly made of video mapping projection. The Alice ride from Disneyland has been upgraded while Shanghai’s Peter Pan got these effects from day one. The combination of old school animatronics, black light and cutting edge media is incredibly neat and seamless. This is really promising for the future of dark rides, old and new ones. Alice video ride through here.
18. Test Track 2
The new, modern iteration of Epcot’s automobile attraction looks neat, sharp and futuristic. It features a great use of black light, video mapping projection and a whole new take on interactivity (design your own virtual car in the queue line, and see how it would perform in real life on the attraction’s SimTrack). While I’m not exactly sure what the overall experience is supposed to be, it’s done really well and, I assume, provides a sleek preview of what Shanghai Disneyland’s Tron Lightcycle Power Run rollercoaster will look like. Video ride through here.
17. Ratatouille – L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy
Despite it sort of fails at immersing you into a blend of physical sets and 3D screens, Ratatouille has many qualities you won’t find anywhere else: a peaceful night-time Paris atmosphere in the queuing and loading area, massive 3D domed screens, super smooth trackless vehicles, giant reproductions of everyday objects that doesn’t look cheap and a romantic fantasy-Paris area. Read my full review and watch videos here.
Efteling’s “Palace of Fantasy” makes an clever use of trackless vehicles, has a bunch of unexpected surprises (the whale!!) and has a solid attention to detail thanks to a lot of antique props. While Mystic Manor seems to be a major inspiration for this beautiful dark-ride, Symbolica surpasses its inspiration in some specific aspects, like the fact that every single bit of space is themed, from floor to ceiling. You won’t see any intrusive technical elements anywhere you look. Symbolica is also the most immersive and elaborate non Disney-Universal attraction on this list – it’s worth mentioning because as a regional park, Efteling doesn’t play with the same budgets. Symbolica’s cost was €35 millions while Ratatouille was €150 millions. Food for thought, isn’t it? Watch a video tour here.
15. TRON Lightcycle Power Run
This might be the most eye-catching and thrilling indoor rollercoaster that I’ve ever been on. When you watch TRON Legacy, all you wish is to ride the iconic Lightcycles into the dark and glowing world of the Grid (aka an inside-of-a-computer fantasy) and it’s exactly what Disney delivers to lucky Shanghai Disneyland guests. The atmosphere looks neat and exactly like the movies, there is a jaw-dropping preshow, the tension heavy original soundtrack from Daft Punk and countless theming elements inside the show building including screen projections and a clever, uncommon use of mirrors and lights. TRON is basically a modern version of the usual Space Mountain. Despite my love for everything vintage, I prefer a truly contemporary looking ride like TRON than a ride system from the 60’s that’s been updated since then but looks like 80’s visions of space fantasy. More info in my Shanghai Disneyland review, video ride through here.
14. Pirates of the Caribbean (Disneyland)
Saying that I have a thing with water rides is a major understatement. I’m obsessed with it. Plus, the father of all pirates boat ride (rip offs) in the world has rich and detailed theming, hundreds of well maintained animatronics, a long ride time, surreal scenes thanks to fog effets between batteling pirate ships… That said, if the Paris version wasn’t constantly less good than it was on your previous ride because of DLP’s lack of upkeep, I’d choose Les Pirates des Caraïbes over the Disneyland version because it has a couple of more elaborate scenes. Video ride through here. Video ride through here.
13. Spaceship Earth
Epcot’s massive icon is also the host of the park’s flagship attraction. Yes, a full dark ride actually fits into that giant geosphere. That alone is mind-blowing but that’s not all. This old school educational omnimover ride takes you through various key moments in the history of mankind communication until a grand and miraculous climax at the top of the sphere, into space. The feeling it provides is truly inspirational and makes you believe in the possibility of a brighter future again. Not every Transformers ride can do that. Video ride through here.
12. Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway
It’s the first ride based on Mickey Mouse and oh boy, it was worth waiting 92 years. More specifically it’s based off the new hilarious, cute, criminally underrated Mickey Mouse shorts. This trackless train ride brings you through a ” Two and a half D ” cartoon world made of physical sets and screens. The lighting and media projection onto intricate sets and props must have been a nightmare to design, but it’s a delight to enjoy. MMRR also offers cute animatronics, a lovely soundtrack, a surprising pre-show and a few jaw-dropping moments. Translating 2D animation into a tangible experience, no 3D glass required, is no easy task and Runaway Railway is an absolute home run. Video ride through here and my full review here.
11. The Twilight Zone – Tower of Terror (Walt Disney World)
I prefer the Pueblo-Deco style of the Paris and Anaheim versions, but the one in Orlando has a different ride system that calls for more mystery. It also has an awesome random program for the way your elevator falls down so you never know what thrills to expect. Also, the whole storyline and abandoned hotel environment is fascinating. Video ride through here.
10. Phantom Manor / Haunted Mansion
All together, Disney’s classic haunted houses have so many qualities. Phantom Manor has a more mysterious, darker storyline and the most amazing soundtrack ever made for a theme park attraction. The original US versions are goofier and received amazing new effects and animatronics in recent years. It’s the quintessential haunted style dark ride, one of these initiatory rite attractions that daring children will remember forever. Phantom Manor video ride through here.
9. The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man
Universal’s marquee attraction from their second gate in Orlando set a new, important trend in the industry when it opened. For the first time a dark ride attraction used media projection as the main component, supported by practical sets that play a minor, yet crucial role: making hard for the riders to realize what’s surrounding them is real (physical sets) or virtual (3D media projection). Spider-Man is the first attraction to feature the amazing technology of “image perspective shift“, also called Squinching by Universal. Nearly two decades later, media based rides are the name of the game in the theme park industry and no attraction of the genre Spider-Man created exceeded it so far at delivering such a stunning, disorienting experience. Video ride through here.
8. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Stellar theming combined to a ride system so innovative that it set a new milestone for the whole industry. Universal’s guests sit on a four-seat bench that is attached on top of a multi-articulated arm, which is moving on a track. It allows never-experienced-before aerobatic movements like a true sensation of flying and 360° exploration, from traditional tangible sets and animatronics to domed projection screens. So thrilling that it has the unfortunate reputation of making a lot of riders feeling sick, which is the only reason it’s not ranked higher in my list. Oh and Forbidden Journey’s amazingly detailed queue line through Hogwarts castle is literally an attraction in itself. This little ride and its immersive Wizarding World land raised Universal’s bar and revenues so high that it changed the face of theme park design to what we know today as ‘Single-IP lands’. Video ride through here and my full review here.
7. Splash Mountain
First, it’s a water ride!! Besides this indisputable quality, Splash Mountain has so many differents settings, outdoor and indoor portions, a plethora of lovely animatronics, steep slides, a picture-perfect outdoor mountain theming, and Disney had the bright idea to remove all racist shit from the movie the ride is based off. Plus: Splash Mountain really gives you a run for you money: that ride is a gloriously long one! Video ride through here.
6. Radiator Springs Racers
Can mediocre movies make outstanding attractions? If they’re done right, heck yeah! (Gentle) thrills, immersive and detailed sets, well balanced use of media, amazing animatronic moves, and massive outdoor environment quickly make you forget that you didn’t like the Cars movies. The queueline down the cliff truly makes you believe you’re somewhere else and the final side by side racing cars section is so much fun. Alternatively, you can just sit on a bench in Cars Land and watch RSR cars go by for the whole afternoon, and be even more stunned after dark, when the mountain range is lit. Brilliant. Video here and my full review here.
5. Mystic Manor
Hong Kong Disneyland’s vague cousin of the Haunted Mansion has everything you like: trackless vehicles, amazing architecture and theming, the cutest characters, jaw-dropping special effects, and a brilliant and seamless mix of physical sets and video-projection, despite it does not require 3D glasses. The ride’s climax on the two final scenes is so dramatic and intense that it gives you shivers. Mystic Manor is also one of the few recent rides of this scale that is not based on pre-existing movie content, which is refreshing these days. Video here and my full review here.
4. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Half a dark ride, half a rollercoaster, Gringotts seems to have a painful time getting some love from the theme park fandom. Too many screens for a dark ride, not enough trills for a rollercoaster they say. Maybe is it because people compare it to Forbidden Journey and its more innovative ride system? While this debate *seems* obvious, I’m not sure it’s that relevant though. I think Gringotts delivers intense drama and action, and 3D media projection is mastered like no other attraction. Despite they play a less important part, physical sets are incredibly immersive (that loading station! <3 ) Also, Gringotts greatly succeeds at creating a fun, exciting ambiance among the riders of the train. Video here and my full review here.
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure
Shanghai Disneyland’s headliner attraction is based off the Pirates movie franchise and greatly balances projection screen, physical theming, brilliant animatronics and mind blowing special effects. All scenes are larger than life no matter it’s just scenery or media. But the real secret weapon of POTC:BFTST is the unique ride system. Boats can spin, go faster or slower, go forward, backwards and even sideways like your boat is haunted. Also the powerful on-board audio and excellent sound design makes the whole experience feel like you’re into a movie instead of a typical boat ride where you’re more like a passive spectator. After the half baked Ratatouille, Battle for the Sunken Treasure is Disney’s first flawless attraction that heavily relies on large domed projection screens. It’s without a doubt Disney’s most ambitious and technically innovative attraction in years. Video and more details in my Shanghai Disneyland review.
2. Star Wars : Rise of the Resitance
Rise of the Resistance uses all the magic tricks available in the modern dark ride toolbox, from massive screens cleverly integrated in the scenery to dozens of special effects so small or so fast you
might will need multiple re-rides to catch them all. Just like Shanghai’s Pirates of the Caribbean, ROTR has a dramatic wow reveal in every scene, but the true innovation here isn’t even in the ride. It’s in the queue! Rise of the Resistance is an long, immersive experience that starts the moment you enter the queue with a succession of shows, ride systems and tension-heavy role play from cast members that redefines what a theme park attraction is and when does it start (answer : before you think it does!) Just like shanghai Disneyland, Rise of the Resistance is a brilliant showcase of WDI’s out-of-the-box thinking. Video ride through here.
1. Indiana Jones Adventure – Temple of the Forbidden Eye
Twenty years after it opened, it’s still the best combination of thrills and large scale, 360° immersive sets, even from the queue line. Disney’s breakthrough Enhanced Motion Vehicles (EMV) that act like a simulator on wheels plays a large role in this #1 position, but as we’ve seen on Dinosaur, an outstanding ride system is nothing without solid storytelling and serious attention to detail. With no 3D and no screen, Indiana Jones Adventure succeeds at delivering a stunning and epic experience that only screen-based rides can do these days. Not that screen-based rides are bad, but fully tangible sets make IJA more real and unique. Indy recently got some nice video projection effects though, which gives the ride a very welcome modern touch. Also noteworthy is this bumpy adventure does not compromise with comfort. Unlike Forbidden Journey, there is no risk of headache or motion sickness here. Indiana Jones Adventure is one heck of a ride that all European fans hope will ever come to Disneyland Paris, someday. Video ride through here and my full review here.
So there it is: my own Top 20 best dark rides in the world. I’m sure you must be upset by some choices, so let’s discuss! Whatever which parks you’ve visited or not, let me know what’s your own Top 5, 10, 20 in the comment section below!