Fata Morgana – De Efteling (photo: Olivier Dost)

Stories and fairytales. They appear in various forms. We know them as books, theatre plays and films, each with their own style and experience. There is one form that keeps fascinating me as a visitor and designer. It’s the domain of true artists within the bigger theme parks and theming companies. For years it has been dominating the wish lists of romantics and thrill seekers. Jump in and let yourself be amazed by the ‘Dark Ride’.

This indoor attraction tells its story by letting visitors ride, float or fly by -and through- different scenes. In absolute darkness, the narrator/designer has an almost limitless freedom to let visitors immerse themselves in what they experience, with the help of light, sound, temperature, projection, animatronics and interaction. And judging by the attraction’s ongoing popularity, it’s been a great success for decades. We don’t mind queueing for it! A dark ride may be horribly expensive in development and maintenance, it is pre-eminently the possibility to give signature to a theme park and to develop valuable intellectual property (IP). What a dark ride has to do with fairytales? Everything and nothing, that’s what makes it so fascinating. Allow me to explain.

I’m taking you back to that magical moment in your youth, when you were being read to on the edge of your bed. Storytelling on the doorstep of the night. A little daydream before the arrival of mister Sandman. Safely and securely, you dwelled as a child at the hand of the storyteller to faraway places in long-ago times. The familiar voice of father, mother, grandad or grandma created a safe buffer between you and the sometimes dark and frightening events: ‘Once upon a time (distance), a long long time ago (more distance), in a far away land (and even more distance)…’ The fairytale unfolded in a safe area, so we confidently allowed her world in. Surely we had nothing to fear? Ok, keep this image in mind.

Back to the present. Get out of bed and hop in the dark ride. Everything will be different from now on! Forget the trusted storyteller. Contrary to the person on the edge of your bed, you don’t know this narrator at all and you don’t have a clue what he has in store for you. You want to trust him, but how can you when he just restrained you under a lap bar? Escape is impossible. Here, there is no ‘Once upon a time, a long long time ago, in a far away land’. There is only HERE and NOW. There is no distance, you’re right in the middle of it! You are one with the story, that crashes in through all your senses. So much for a little tale before sleep. The dark ride has its own laws to tell a story. ‘Once upon a time’ becomes ‘There is’. This is the ultimate storytelling, gruesome chills or limitless joy, the fairytale in 4D. Wow!

Around the world, tens of thousands of visitors marvel every day at the dark rides of Disney, Universal and theme parks like De Efteling in the Netherlands. The list is long and impressive: Disney opened her first Haunted Mansion as early as 1969, the third edition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will appear at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2016 and De Efteling announced ‘Symbolica’ which promises to be her new Magnum Opus. There is an endless array of stories to tell and, given the technical developments, infinitely more beautiful things to discover. So what are you waiting for? Enjoy the ride!