The future is here and it is unrestricted. Since the dawn of the dark ride and amusement park history the thrill of a ride has always been restricted to a metal rail, the ageless relative of the railroad track, that has long served as the backbone of both the ancient and modern thrill ride. Those days may be over…and it may be the single best thing that has ever happened to the themed entertainment industry.
Recall for a moment your favorite theme park attraction, how it felt to experience it for the first time, the thrill, the uniqueness, the sheer excitement of turning that corner out of the load station for the first time…
Now, imagine that same experience without any restrictions, no guidance rail that spoils the direction you’re headed, nothing binding you to the center of a track enabling completely free movement through a space. Now that’s easily said, but take a moment and really think about what that means…the Haunted Mansion with wood floors, simulated staircases, actual hills you descend down in the graveyard, no glaringly obvious track, no fixed viewing points and the ability to visit completely different areas of the house than you did before. Now take this and multiply it by every dark ride you have experienced and you begin to see the scope of this advancement. Now obviously, this is just an example, but the possibilities are breathtaking. The technology improves every aspect of the experience from immersion to reliability now that there is no track to be bound to and by extension no wheels and train components to have to replace/repair. Reduced down time, exponentially more ride experience variations, interactivity between vehicles, scenes that use the floor as a thrill point/scene itself, we really are only seeing the birthing stage of the trackless ride system and while current examples still bear many of the design restrictions of a standard track system, you can indeed see that Imagineers and ride designers are starting to realize the possibilities.
Point-in-case, Hong Kong Disneyland’s brand new ride Mystic Manor, a trackless first for the Walt Disney Company that clearly is the best example of what this technology can do. No on-board attractions host is needed and the ride floats effortlessly around corners and through the doorways of Mystic Manor, following the misadventure of the mischievous monkey Albert as he opens an ancient music box that brings inanimate objects to life throughout the antiquity-filled mansion. This ride has two tracks and is a seamless 360 ride experience, meaning no blank walls, no restricted viewing, nothing to ruin the illusion. In fact, the ride path even crosses over itself in the whirlwind finale that has to be seen to be believed, something that never would have been possible with track systems. Don’t believe it? See it in action for yourself.
Sea World’s Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins is another excellent example of how the ride can work. Sea World took a better approach when thinking of the ride track and
really played with the mechanics of no longer have fixed cars, weaving the cars in and out of each other’s paths, facing other pods as they enter and exit spaces, using the exposure to the other riders as an enhancement rather than distraction, etc. Sea World’s ride itself may have a few issues with quality and general story, but the execution of technology is the true star in this attraction and it really seems Sea World wanted to show off the new system as the centerpiece of the entire experience and indeed, it is almost more entertaining to watch the other cars move and glide than it is to pay attention to the actual show (which is a huge problem in actuality, but hey, we’re having fun here.)
The story revolves around a penguin who you meet in the queue as an infant and follows his story as he learns about life for the penguins as well as his beautiful and dangerous home, Antarctica. Seals chase you under the sea, you emerge into luminescent caverns of glacial ice, sea water flows and falls around you as you glide through the caverns with your trusted friend on his journey, culminating in an unbelievable (to the point where it has already caused problems) finale where you are face to face with the penguins themselves, all while freezing at an authentic 0 to 1 degrees Celsius throughout the experience.
We are not there yet with this technology, we have only begun to tap the surface of trackless ride systems and the innovative possibilities they hold that are just waiting for the taking. It will take an entire paradigm shift, a completely new way of thinking and creating to use this technology to its fullest. The dark ride rule book is about to be rewritten and I will be on board for the ride, will you?