Dark ride efficiency & optimisation

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In an article which looks at the design and creation of a ride, Alterface’s Etienne Sainton discusses optimising the efficiency of such attractions, in particular looking at areas such as the queue line, space, throughput, repeatability, durability and more.

From March/April issue of InterPark Magazine.

When considering the design of a new ride, be it a dark ride or any other type of ride, there are obviously many factors to take into account, all of which will impact on the overall popularity and success of an attraction. Alterface’s product manager Etienne Sainton outlines a number of areas that should be considered throughout this process.

“Efficiency and throughput are important elements which are defined by the customer at the briefing phase. Another important requirement to consider is that the attraction needs to accommodate increasing visitor numbers for the coming years. Most of the time we get requests for dark rides in existing buildings. The first step is to assess technical and infrastructural issues which have an impact on ride dynamic and duration, but also on the choice of vehicle.

Basilisk dark ride

“For Basyliszek at Legendia, Poland, the building was constructed for the ride so there were less constraints, unless budgetary. And for Popcorn Revenge at Walibi Belgium a building was refurbished, so we had to adjust the ride to the infrastructure. This represented an excellent opportunity to install the non-linear Erratic Ride, which perfectly fits a space with pillars, dead ends and other limitations. Both rides have been awarded with a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement with limited budget, proving that budget or space should not be a constraint to creativity and building an excellent ride.

Specifically on the space in which a ride might be installed, including the queue line and pre-show areas, Alterface show producer Benjamin Walravens notes that requirements can differ depending on the local and park culture.

“The pre-show can help to set the mood and explain the story and concept of the attraction, define what to do and how to engage in the game,” he notes. “This can be done in different ways. Popcorn Revenge features a pre-show with video and posters in the queue area, a gallery with pictures and scoring line-up and a merchandising shop upon exiting – all taking ample space but worth the investment as visitors leave with a good feeling and positive impression.

Jardin Acclimatation

“In Kinétorium at Jardin d’Acclamatation in Paris visitors enter a dedicated room with a pre-show explaining the story and preparing them for the game. This is all very efficient as it focuses the attention of visitors and makes the waiting more pleasant by building up excitement. A pre-show helps to streamline the boarding, as visitors are aligned towards vehicle capacity. The last thing we want is empty vehicles or overcrowding at embarking.”

Dark rides are, of course, more often than not aimed at the family market, which covers a wide age range. So how do ride designers ensure everyone is catered for in such attractions?

Maus au chocolat

Walravens: “The interactivity should be understandable for everyone. It starts with the design of the targets, which should immediately appeal to the audience, fitting local culture and taste. We work with different levels, cartoons for the children and gags for adults. Maus au Chocolat at Phantasialand, Germany, is a perfect example of a family ride with dynamic vehicles but accessible media, an easy theme with competitive gameplay for everyone due to its intensity and simplicity. Dark rides like Justice League, where Alterface installed interactivity for Sally, include more motion-based dynamics and FX features like flames, an adult media style and spectacular shooting. These are in parks with attractions more geared towards an adult audience.”

Throughput in any ride is always another vital aspect of the design process and not surprisingly Sainton points to the capacity of the ride vehicles as having a major impact on this element. 

“Beyond vehicle choice and duration of scenes, we do have some techniques to overcome design constraints and still obtain a sufficient throughput,” he says. “For Bazyliszek at Legendia we used a station with two independent platforms, saving time at boarding and upon leaving the vehicle. Another option is to dispatch the first vehicle when ready to reduce pressure on visitors, while maintaining the flow.

Popcorn Revenge Erratic Dark ride

“For Popcorn Revenge we introduced a major innovation with the Erratic layout, whereby a loaded vehicle is sent to a waiting position until the first scene starts. This way we create a ‘loading window’ which allows an alternating duration of each scene throughout the entire dark ride. Vehicles can then wait a few seconds longer and avoid losing an entire cycle. It allowed Walibi to achieve an optimum throughput from the first day of operation.”

When it comes to repeatability, again this is an area ride designers naturally work hard to maximise, be it on a dark ride or another ride attraction, and naturally interactivity plays a key part in this. “Interactivity is the key aspect when it comes to repeatability,” Walravens confirms. “At Walibi Belgium many visitors will take the Popcorn Revenge ride again at least once and very often even more, depending on wait times. There is so much to see and experience on the screens that you just cannot capture it all in one ride. The story is built in a multi-dimensional manner with different layers, allowing a certain evolution. Competitive players can be challenged to improve their score and make progress. To this end, Alterface always includes a hall of fame at the end of each game, with individual and highest scores.”

Durability and longevity are obviously other important factors for operators and Sainton explains the considerations required in this area from both a designer’s and operator’s point of view.

“Alterface dark rides are very sustainable. Maus au Chocolat is 10 years in operation and still one of the top attractions in Phantasialand, continuing to receive yearly awards from park fans,” he states. “Using advanced technology and a future proof story is important when designing and setting up the attraction. In theory it is also possible to change or upgrade the media content, as long as it fits the overall dark ride theming. We rely heavily on information technology and have a dedicated department for hardware and software management. Our team needs to identify and replace, or even produce, essential parts quickly as we have maintenance contracts which often span several decades.”

Popcorn Revenge Erratic Dark ride

As we know, intellectual properties (IPs) are used throughout the industry today more than ever before and have played a big part in Alterface’s activities of late. The company’s own Popcorn Revenge IP, which it created in-house, is being widely promoted and has proved a popular option for Walibi Belgium in its themed Popcorn Revenge dark ride. But is it always necessary to incorporate an IP into a dark ride or can simpler theming be just as effective in drawing the crowds?

Walravens explains: “An IP can provide an emotional connection with people and create engagement,” he says. “Disney and Universal are strong in IPs and characters that are popular from movies, reinforcing this in the theme parks and attracting the fan community. A popular IP will not only be very expensive but has a lot  of restrictions and limitations as the IP owner carefully watches over the nature of the characters, their actions and even facial expressions. Especially regional parks therefore often create a proprietary IP, like we did with Popcorn Revenge for Walibi Belgium. It opens more opportunities for merchandising and visualisation across the park, but it also takes more effort to get visitors acquainted with it and create a dynamic to bring it alive. It’s most important to look at what appeals to the visitors and fit the IP into the overall park theming to reach a good balance.”

About the authors

Benjamin Walravens is an attraction designer and show producer in the theme park industry. From a 3D animator position at Alterface for pre-rendered and real-time content, he moved to designing interactive attractions, hereby merging storytelling and gameplay into a coherent and immersive experience. Walravens also supervises the outsourced media and theming production of turnkey attractions, co-ordinating show control, lighting and media integration with all involved parties.

Etienne Sainton has been passionate about storytelling and the theming industry from his childhood. He studied software engineering in France and then moved to Belgium to work for Alterface. His first years in the company have been dedicated to dark ride production and management. As product manager he now defines and positions the solutions which Alterface delivers to the entertainment industry.