ABOVE: The Basilisk dark ride at Legendia Park Photo courtesy of Alterface
It’s hard to imagine a theme park without roller coasters. And sometimes, I wish I were selling roller coasters instead of dark rides. A roller coaster is highly visible – a structural centerpiece or icon. You can’t miss it when you visit the park. The screams of the riders are promoting it. It’s more thrill-driven than story-driven, so while the engineering can be tricky, as a themed attraction it is a fairly simple, straightforward project.
The demographics of a coaster are limited, however. If your park is not primarily focused on teenagers you may have to cope with split families, moms and young kids on one side, dads and the grown-ups on the other side. (Of course, I am generalizing – there are people well out of their teens who revel in a good roller coaster thrill ride, and I am one of them.)
A park serving multi-generational audiences needs attractions that unite families. It needs dark rides. A dark ride is second to none in providing an immersive experience that is tailored to the park and can be enjoyed by all generations of a family.
For the record, I define “dark ride” as an immersive, themed storytelling experience with a vehicle traveling through a built and/or multimedia environment. A modern dark ride generally includes projection, theatrical lighting and audio, special effects, environmental effects, show control, physical props and some kind of interactivity or gamification. There is usually a pre-show, main-show, post-show structure. The story may unfold in linear or non-linear fashion; the latest trend is for non-linear formats that encourage repeat visits for a different experience each time. A dark ride gets its thrills from the quality of the storytelling experience and guest engagement – not from G-forces, so it’s open to a much wider demographic than a roller coaster. Multiple generations and age groups can ride and enjoy the experience together.
There are many successful examples in Asia, the Middle East and the US. Some visionary European operators have also recently added dark rides to their mix of attractions. I’m proud that Alterface serves international markets and that we have contributed to many of these rides.
However, in my opinion, Europe is for the most part lagging behind the others. I believe it is because compared to a roller coaster, creating a dark ride is a complex undertaking that naturally raises concerns in a market sector made up mostly of regional operators with limited budgets. However, the rewards outweigh the risks and the process itself has become much simpler than it was a few years ago.
To conceive and produce a compelling dark ride is a multidisciplinary endeavor. The ride system itself only accounts for a third of the effort – media, theming, light & sound, storytelling and show control are all critical elements of the mix.
Many of the breakthrough dark rides that helped revitalize the genre in recent years were created by gathering talents across different expert parties – a process that can achieve great results and deep customization, but which carries significant financial, creative and operational risks. Many operators – especially smaller, regional operators working within limited budgets and footprints – welcome something closer to “one-stop shopping.” Fortunately, today theming companies, master planners or technology producers have been expanding their reach to cover the entire spectrum of developing such a ride, with customizable packages. No need to shop around anymore, just pick a ride you think will fit your audience, ask the developer to tailor it for your needs – and enjoy the process. It is really that simple; if you aren’t sure where to start your search for the perfect dark ride partner, look into those rides that have earned industry awards.
The second area of concern is the perceived need for an IP (intellectual property) to drive an evergreen attraction. Traditionally, parks have been striving to couple their ride to a well-known and global brand. The IP owner has also identified this opportunity. Lately quite a few brands have actively begun marketing to the themed entertainment community to find more platforms for licensing. When considering a brand, look first at what the park wants to achieve and see if the leverage provided by the IP will be worth the investment.
In terms of building a guest following, a dark ride can be expected to have a slower trajectory than a roller coaster and word-of-mouth plays a big role in achieving success. But once it has found its following, a successful dark ride can enjoy a very long lifespan. Such a ride can take on a life and identity above and beyond the popularity of any IP on which it was initially based.
While IP can help popularize a ride, the converse is also true. The acknowledgment of the role of dark rides in the development of a strong IP can be found in the largest parks, with rides such as Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Alterface’s customizable dark ride platform, Popcorn Revenge, can be themed to a specific IP; the ride is designed to facilitate the rider making an emotional connection with the IP, contributing to build the brand further. This approach to ride development supports generations of ancillary income and merchandising opportunities.
Ultimately, while occasionally longing for the simplicity of roller coasters, I am more than content to be the purveyor of innovative dark rides, complex though they may be. We look with satisfaction at successful Alterface projects such as Maus au Chocolat – now in its eighth season at Phantasialand (Germany), recipient of a European Star Award in 2017 and still going strong – or the more than 25 “Kingdom Quest” rides featured in LEGO Discovery Centers around the world – just to name two examples out of a long list. A well-designed dark ride has nothing to envy in the screams of coaster riders.
We are confident that interest in dark rides will continue to increase on a global level, and that the European market in particular will accelerate its development in this direction. The benefits of dark rides are by now largely recognized as weatherproof, repeat attractions with high throughput, entertaining young, old and in-between.
In fact, I am pretty sure that the day is nearing where some people in the roller coaster business will wish they were selling dark rides. • • •
As Founder and CEO of Alterface, Benoit Cornet has been pioneering innovative concepts that have significantly impacted the themed entertainment industry. Since 1999, the company introduced the interactive theatre concept with Desperados, bolstered interactive dark rides with multiple Legoland Discovery Centres and Justice League attractions, and many more across the globe. The company constantly innovates in new technologies, with its latest non-linear Erratic Ride completely rewriting all the rules. The new proprietary Popcorn IP offers regional family parks a unique and fun IP in an affordable manner. The many positive reviews and industry awards received over the past years for its rides Basilisk in Poland, Popcorn Revenge in Belgium and Justice League in the US, acknowledge the company’s cutting-edge technology and creativity.
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