Types of Theme Park Attractions

What Are Dark Rides, Flat Rides, VR Rides, 4D Rides, and Other Park Rides?

Scene in Disney's Pirates of the Carribean ride at Magic Kingdom.

The Walt Disney Company

You know what roller coasters, carousels, and Ferris wheels are. But have you ever heard the term, “dark ride,” and wondered what it meant? How about “flat ride?”

As with the folks that work in any field, those employed in the amusement industry, either designing attractions for theme parks and amusement parks or working at the parks themselves, have their own specialized lingo and jargon. Let’s explore some of the more common types of rides and break down the terms. You’ll be speaking like an industry insider in no time.

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What Is a Dark Ride?

Haunted Mansion exterior at Disneyland.


A dark ride is an industry term for any amusement park or theme park ride that uses vehicles to send passengers into an indoor environment and through a series of scenes or tableaus. Ride vehicles take many forms including cars on a track, trackless vehicles, and boats that float in channels of water.

In the early days of amusement parks, classic dark rides such as Coney Island’s Spook-A-Rama (which is still spooking guests) were almost always designed to scare passengers with stunts such as light-up skeletons. Today, attractions such as the bright, cheerful “it's a small world” [sic] aren't necessarily spooky—or even dark—but are still considered “dark” rides. Some dark rides attempt to tell a story, while others are just a collection of random scenes. Many dark rides, such as the Buzz Lightyear attractions at the Disney parks, now include interactive features like onboard guns to score points and compete against other passengers.​

Dark rides are also known as haunted rides, spook houses, tunnels of love, and Pretzel rides (named after a ride manufacturer, not the snack food).

Additional examples of dark rides include:

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What Is a Flat Ride?

Dumbo ride at Disney World

Arthur Levine

A “flat ride” refers to attractions at amusement parks, carnivals, fairs, and theme parks that typically spin around and usually include a circular platform.

The term is used to generically refer to a broad variety of rides. Depending on their speed and other factors, they may or may not be considered thrill rides. Slow-moving, low-profile, and low-impact attractions are typically grouped into the sub-category, “kiddie rides,” and are intended for young riders. More thrilling flat rides that include high speeds and other disorienting features are affectionately known in the amusement industry as ”spin-and-spew,” “spin-and-puke” or “whirl-and hurl” rides. Lovely imagery, eh? Flat rides are sometimes referred to generically as “flats.”

Examples of flat rides include:

  • Tilt-A-Whirl
  • Scrambler
  • Spinning teacups
  • Dumbo the Flying Elephant-style rides
  • Wave swinger/Yo-Yo/Swing ride
  • Round Up
  • Flying Bobs
  • Gravitron
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03 of 06

What Are VR Rides?

The Great Lego Race coaster
Merlin Entertainments Group

Rides that incorporate virtual reality, or VR, are a more recent industry innovation. Initially, most VR rides were existing roller coasters that designers outfitted with VR goggles for passengers to wear. They designed a simulated, visual environment and synced the action that riders would see with the movements they would experience while aboard the coaster. The Six Flags parks were among the first to introduce VR coasters. The coasters got mixed reviews, partly for the considerable extra time it took to load and unload passengers. Many parks have since removed the VR overlays from the coasters, although some remain.

Designers have added VR to to other existing rides, including drop tower rides, spinning flat rides, and motion simulator rides. It’s likely that the concept will improve when rides are designed from the outset with VR in mind. They should also improve as advancements are made in VR technology, including image resolution and hardware miniaturization. Augmented reality, or AR, which superimposes virtual content onto the real world, holds promise as a tool for ride designers.

While they are not rides, walk-through attractions such as The Void at Disneyland and Disney World, make far better use of VR. These “location-based VR experiences” immerse guests in interactive adventures, often with compelling stories and elements.

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What Is a 4D Ride?

Toy Story Mania ride at Walt Disney World.


A 4D (or 4-D) attraction incorporates 3D content (which require 3D glasses) along with other sensory enhancements such as theatrical fog, water misters, and seat pokers to more fully immerse guests in the experience. Sometimes, a 4D “ride” is really more a theater-based attraction such as Shrek 4-D at Universal Studios Florida. (Discover more about 4D movies.) Some theater-based attractions such as Shrek have seats that move slightly, so the distinction can get blurry.

Other times, park guests experience 4D rides in vehicles, such as Disney’s Toy Story Mania. In those cases, the attractions are hybrids of dark rides and 4D rides. Some parks refer to their attractions as being “5D,” “6D,” or a higher factor of “D.” They consider each of the senses that they target with effects, such as smell and touch, as an additional “D” (or dimension) to the 3D, or three-dimensional visual content.

Additional examples of 4D attractions include:

  • Muppet Vision 4-D
  • Terminator 2: 3D​
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05 of 06

What Is a Motion Simulator Ride?

Star Tours Disney ride

A motion simulator ride uses seats that move in sync with point-of-view media projected onto a screen to provide viewers with the illusion that they are moving and physically participating in the action. Most motion simulator rides are presented in theaters of various sizes. Although viewers never move more than a few inches in any direction, they can feel as if they are accelerating wildly, speeding, free falling, and other sensations.

One of the earliest motion simulator rides is Star Tours at the Disney parks. It uses 40-passenger cabins that are mounted on motion bases. Other rides use different motion base configurations. Individual seats might have their own motion controls; sometimes, rows or sections of seats move together. In Despicable Me Minion Mayhem at the Universal Parks, for example, the theater is divided into sections of seats, with each section having its own motion base. Most motion simulator rides are also 4D rides.

A sub-genre of the concept is the roving motion base simulator ride. Using a vehicle that is mounted on a motion base, it combines a dark ride with a motion simulator ride. As in a dark ride, the vehicles move through a series of scenes that include actual, practical set pieces. But the sets also include screens onto which action is projected, and with which the vehicles move in tandem. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure is an example of a dark ride with a roving motion base vehicle.

Motion simulator rides are also known as ride films, ridefilms, and motion theaters. You can read about the history of the attraction and the pioneer who developed the concept of the motion simulator ride, Douglas Trumbull.

Additional examples of motion simulator attractions include:

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Other Types of Theme Park Rides

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios


There are a number of other ride categories at theme parks and amusement parks. Among them are:

  • Drop tower rides, such as Disney’s The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Six Flags’ Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom, which either slowly send passengers high into the air and then have them freefall down, propel them from the ground at high speed up a tower and then have them freefall down, or some combination of the two.
  • Water rides, including log flume rides and river rapids rides, which use water-based vehicles to deliver thrills.
  • Flying theater rides such as Soarin’, which use domed screens and rows of seats that rise into the air to simulate the sensation of flying.
  • Pendulum rides swing passengers back and forth aboard platforms mounted on the ends of arms. An extreme example of a pendulum ride is Harley Quinn Spinsanity at Six Flags America in Maryland. Scheduled to open in 2021, it will reach a top speed of 70 miles per hour and swing as high as 150 feet at a 120-degree angle.