In most uses, the term refers to ride-through attractions with scenes that use blacklights, whereby visible light is not introduced to the space, and only show elements that fluoresce under ultraviolet radiation are seen by the audience. The size of each room containing a scene or scenes is thus concealed, and the set designer is able to use forced perspective and other visual tricks to create the illusion of distance. Typically, these experiences also use a series of opaque doors between scenes to further control the views of the audience within a space-constrained building. Prominent examples of the technique include Disneyland's "Snow White's Scary Adventures", "Peter Pan's Flight", "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride", and "Alice in Wonderland", which all share the same show building, and which all rely on the use of blacklights in almost every scene.
The first dark rides appeared in the late 19th century and were called "scenic railways" and "pleasure railways". A popular type of dark ride, commonly referred to as an old mill or tunnel of love, used small boats to carry riders through water-filled canals. A Trip to the Moon began operation at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Leon Cassidy of the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company patented the first single-rail electric dark ride in 1928. Historically notable dark rides include Futurama at the 1939 New York World's Fair and Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.
Modern attractions in this genre vary widely in their use of technology. Smaller-scale rides often feature the same sorts of simple animation and sounds that have been used since the genre's early days, while more ambitious projects can feature complex animatronics, special effects, and ride vehicles.
To improve the effect and give a sense of journey, passages in dark rides frequently change direction. Sudden curves give a sense of surprise and allow new scenes to surprise the rider. The rides may also feature sudden ascents or descents to further the excitement.
Dark rides have a number of variations that are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
In the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, dark rides with a scary theme are called ghost trains. This name is usually reserved for travelling funfair-type dark rides.
The first ride to use the name "ghost train" was that of Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The ride was imported in 1930 and originally titled The Pretzel, but pretzels were uncommon in Britain and not a recognised object, it was soon renamed after The Ghost Train, a popular play of the time known for its special effects, a film adaptation of which was showing in 1931. It was rebuilt in 1936 and has remained unchanged since. Blackpool Pleasure Beach is also home to Valhalla, the world's largest indoor dark ride, known for its many complicated effects and being a water ride manufactured by Intamin.
Notable UK dark rides include: The 5th Dimension, Terror Tomb, and Professor Burp's Bubbleworks, at Chessington World of Adventures; Hex – The Legend of the Towers and The Haunted House at Alton Towers; and Valhalla at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Also, Derren Brown's Ghost Train at Thorpe Park, despite containing the phrase 'ghost train' in its name, is not actually a ghost train per se.
In Australia, a dark ride is named The Ghost Train at Luna Park, Melbourne, and a similarly named ride was destroyed by fire in 1979 at Luna Park Sydney.
As the name suggests, interactive dark rides feature a component that allows the riders to be involved directly in the story of the attraction. The vast majority of interactive dark rides are shooting dark rides, with a small number featuring different forms of interaction.
A shooting dark ride requires riders to aim and shoot at targets throughout the ride. Each vehicle is equipped with hand-held or vehicle-mounted light guns. Successfully "shooting" a target usually triggers special animation such as flashing lights or moving the target. The more targets riders hit, the higher their scores at the end of the ride. The use of the light guns varies between rides and ranges from killing aliens on Men in Black: Alien Attack at Universal Studios Florida to calling turkeys on Gobbler Getaway at Holiday World & Splashin' Safari. The ride systems used for conventional dark rides allow for the easy conversion into shooting dark rides. This conversion is evident in Duel: The Haunted House Strikes Back! at Alton Towers and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin at Disney's Magic Kingdom. The latter uses facilities that previously housed If You Had Wings, Delta Dreamflight, and Take Flight. A recent dark ride, Wonder Mountain's Guardian based at Canada's Wonderland, has the world's longest interactive screen, at over 500 ft. long.
Aside from shooting dark rides, other interactive dark rides do exist. Etnaland's award-winning Haunted School dark ride has been described by Park World magazine as "one of the most idiosyncratic dark rides". The ride is themed to a school exam, with riders individually answering multiple-choice questions throughout the ride. Riders are graded on their responses, with each receiving a school report at the end of the ride.
Trackless dark rides feature ride systems where automated guided vehicles are used instead of those that run on guide rails. These vehicles have the benefit of being able to cross over existing paths, reverse, and rotate on the spot. Some trackless dark rides, such as the Big Red Car Ride at Dreamworld, rely upon a buried wire for navigation. Others, such as Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland, or Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy at Disneyland Paris rely on Wi-Fi and RFID-based local positioning systems.
While some roller coasters may be indoors, simply enclosing a roller coaster does not make it a dark ride. Dark coasters are roller coasters that feature heavily themed layouts, special effects (such as animated characters, fire, smoke, and sound/lighting effects), and a dark ride portion that abruptly transitions into a roller coaster-style layout with heavily banked turns, sharp turns, steep drops, and helices. Some of these rides feature backwards motion, as well as forwards motion, and many of them have launches in place of lifts, because they are built inside structures designed specifically for the ride. A few of them feature inversions.
Some examples include: Blazing Fury at Dollywood; Revenge of the Mummy at many of the Universal Parks & Resorts (featuring a launch from the dark ride section into the coaster section); Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the Magic Kingdom (which features a ride though the Dwarfs' diamond mine on a tour of their mining operations); Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster at Warner Bros. Movie World (a wild mouse roller coaster featuring a ghost-train section, vertical lift and backwards drop); and Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (featuring an indoor "event building" themed to an escape from the haunted Bavarian Black Forest that includes a free-fall track section). Test Track at Epcot, Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea, and Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure each use a slot car track rather than that of a roller coaster, but they provide a similar pairing of dark ride scenes with a high-speed thrill ride.
Particularly in Disney-built or -influenced parks, a number of attractions use traditional dark-ride features, such as animatronics and lighting for dramatic effect, but are not "rides" in that patrons never get into any type of vehicle. Examples include the walk-through dioramas inside Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle or theater-based Disney attractions like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, The Hall of Presidents, The American Adventure (Epcot), and the Enchanted Tiki Room. Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress (and its now-closed Disneyland replacement America Sings) does not feature vehicles, but moves its audience using a rotating carousel-like theater.
The Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and the Disneyland Railroad both include brief dark-ride scenes, but for the most part transport guests outdoors. Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain at several Disney parks, and Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars at Hong Kong Disneyland likewise include some dark-ride elements, but function primarily as indoor/outdoor roller coasters.