Ultimate Guide to The Eight Types of Disney Rides
When you visit a Disney theme park, you’re there for the rides. Sure, the character greetings are great, the food is delicious, and the shopping is addictive. But you care the most about the attractions, right? Have you ever thought about the various kinds of Disney rides at the parks, though? Here are the eight types of theme park attractions at Walt Disney World.
The Boat Ride
Let’s begin with the three kinds of theme park attractions that you know the best. On the opening day of Disneyland, two boat rides were in operation. Storybook Land Canal Boats is the less famous one, but it’s every bit as old as its more familiar sibling, Jungle Cruise.
Both attractions are guided boat tours, which Walt Disney loved for a pair of straightforward reasons. Boat rides can seat a lot of guests at once. Plus, they’re on guided tracks and thereby offer reliable throughput. Many beloved Disney attractions like It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Splash Mountain are boat rides.
Imagineers still embrace the concept, too. Recent attractions like Frozen Ever After and Na’Vi River Journey are modernized boat rides.
The Dark Ride
While a few people will disagree, Disney invented the dark ride. At a minimum, they popularized the concept. Starting with attractions like Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Mad Tea Party in 1955, Imagineers have told stories using this ride design.
A dark ride is an indoor attraction wherein the ride vehicle transports guests from scene to scene. While you’ll witness other theming between the major scenes, it’s these large sets where Disney relays most of the story. Ride designers light the scenes and build the ride tracks in a way that forces your line of sight toward the set.
For Walt Disney, the dark ride fit his sensibilities and experience in storytelling. Hollywood movies require sets as backdrops to establish the setting. Uncle Walt recognized that this concept translated to rides, and that explains why Haunted Mansion features iconic sequences like the attic and the ballroom dancing celebration.
Many of your favorite Disney attractions are dark rides. The list includes Indiana Jones Adventure, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Spaceship Earth. Notably, many boat rides are also dark rides. Two examples are Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain.
The Roller Coaster
Out of all Disney rides, the roller coaster is easiest to understand. Everyone knows one when they see one. Coasters employ elevated train tracks and the various laws of physics to propel guests through a series of twists and turns.
The most recognizable Disney roller coasters are Space Mountain, Expedition Everest, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. Imagineers love constructing fresh takes on the premise. Slinky Dog Dash and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind are both revolutionary in their coaster designs.
The 4D Ride
This ride design is a bit arcane. The 4D premise assumes the standard three dimensions plus a fourth one that’s up for debate. That extra dimension references a sensory experience such as scents or misting effects. The smells or physical presence of water adds an extra level of immersion to the proceedings. At least that’s true in theory.
Disney’s most popular 4D ride doesn’t really employ such tricks. Toy Story Mania! uses gamified elements to add that engrossing bit of immersion. It also requires goggles so that the rider can see the targets. None of this involves a theoretical fourth dimension in any legitimate sense. But the name stuck anyway.
Oddly, a couple of other Disney rides have claims to 4D. Avatar Flight of Passage is a 3D attraction that does employ those enhanced sensory elements. Some people argue that Soarin’ qualifies, too. I’m skeptical on this one since Soarin’ utilizes a giant IMAX screen, but it’s not 3D. Weirdly, Muppet*Vision 3D has a better claim due to its added smells and smoke, but it’s a movie, not a ride.
The Drop Tower Ride
Like the roller coaster, this ride premise is universally familiar to theme park visitors. The rider sits at the top of a tall structure. Then, a release system drops the guest into freefall, a heady if somewhat dizzying experience.
Most drop tower rides are extremely basic. However, the famous one at Walt Disney World hides its design brilliantly. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is a modified drop tower ride that actually accelerates the process for guests. Disney hired a prestigious elevator firm to remove the standard safety mechanisms in place on its elevators. By doing so, the drop tower is more exciting and less predictable.
Technically, Disney hosts a second drop tower attraction. Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! at Disney California Adventure was once Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. While Imagineers repurposed the structure, the original drop tower ride design remains in place.
The Flat Ride
This term sounds the most challenging, but you’ve known about flat rides since you were a child. Flat rides move passengers in place at a point parallel to the ground. That sounds techy, so let’s get more basic. A flat ride is a carousel or other kind of spinner attraction. Yes, we’re talking glorified carnival rides.
Due to the utility of flat rides, Disney hosts a bunch of them. The most obvious one is the Prince Charming Regal Carousel, but Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress is actually a flat ride, too. For that matter, the turntables that drive Journey into Imagination with Figment make it a flat ride, although it’s better described as a dark ride.
Other familiar examples of Disney flat rides are Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Magic Carpets of Aladdin, and Mad Tea Party. The most recent one is Alien Swirling Saucers, which actually uses several different spinners simultaneously. Despite the complexity of this ride, it employs the same rudimentary technology from the Graviton, Scrambler, and Tilt-A-Whirl rides that you loved when the carnival was in town.
The Motion Simulator Ride
Motion simulators are another genre that Imagineers invented. Back in the dark days of the mid-1980s, Disney’s ride creators came up with a brilliant idea for an attraction. They wanted to turn a small movie theater into a novel ride experience by shaking the chairs. Yes, in a motion simulator, the seat simulates the motion of the onscreen action, making the rider feel invested in the action.
the movie that Disney planned to employ as the theme, The Black Hole, wasn’t very popular. Then, fate interceded when George Lucas requested a Star Wars ride. After a quick modification of the premise, Star Tours was born. A couple of years later, a similar attraction called Body Wars appeared at Epcot, but it’s no longer in operation.
Currently, Disney runs two other motion simulator rides. Mission: SPACE is the most violent one, as it mimics the stressing physical demands of space travel. And the most original one is Soarin’ Around the World, which features an entire mechanical structure. This apparatus sweeps guests into the air to immerse them in a simulation of the sensation of flight.
I should add that the theme park company that uses motion simulation the most isn’t Disney. Universal Studios operates several of them like Transformers: The Ride 3D, The Simpsons Ride, and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem.
The Virtual Reality Ride
Imagineers will claim that Disney doesn’t build VR rides. Instead, they’ll argue that the company only creates augmented reality (AR) rides. It’s a technicality, though. Avatar Flight of Passage involves an entire imaginary realm, the world of Pandora, brought to life via VR.
The images that you’ll watch during the attraction are 100 percent manufactured, constructing an alien planet you can explore via banshee flight. Structurally, the ride experience is eerily similar to Soarin’, only that ride captured real places on Earth.
Disney can do more with Avatar Flight of Passage since it’s not constrained by, you know, reality. AR/VR rides are extraordinarily immersive and a crucial part of the future of theme park design. In fact, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run combines motion simulation with AR, making it a futuristic hybrid attraction.