I think the smallest indivisible unit of a dark ride is the gag. The earliest dark rides were nothing but gags: simple, bright, loud, startling scenes, sometimes as simple as a strobe light on a rubber alligator, strung together with seemingly unpredictable amounts of darkness and silence in between. Zombie Castle at Playland in Rye, NY is one of the oldest classic dark rides still standing (it’s almost 100 years old), and there’s no story. It’s just…gags.
It took a while for anyone to try relating those gags to one another. Compare Zombie Castle to Snow White’s Scary Adventures, which premiered on opening day at Disneyland some 20 years later. The contrast between positive and negative space–gags and non-gags–is less sharp, but there’s still a difference. Listen for the sound cues and watch for the characters; pay attention to where the eye (and the camera) lingers. They tend to be evenly spaced, and there are about a dozen in the ride’s two-minute duration. These two attractions are formally almost identical.
An extremely different examples is Pirates of the Caribbean. This ride is much slower and much longer: about ten minutes in the Disneyland version. The gags are also much harder to place, because the contrast is smoothed out so dramatically that there’s hardly any “off” time. If anything is happening, something is happening everywhere, and it’s up to us to decide which piece of the environment deserves our attention. There’s still plenty of time where nothing in particular stands out, but those sequences are so calculated and elongated that they become something other than mere negative space.
All of the more classically-leaning Disney dark rides tend to rely on the audience’s knowledge of an existing story to make sense of the gags; would Snow White’s Scary Adventures make any sense to someone who has never seen Snow White? Pirates, though, famously does not tell a story, but rather ushers the audience into an experience–the idea of piracy. I think an important piece of this approach is the maximal gag composition.
Another slow, long dark ride with minimal contrast and maximal gags is “it’s a small world”. Both of these rides use boats with a much higher capacity (and much heavier weight) than their more traditional counterparts, which I think is important but not inherent to their alternate style. Compare Ye Old Mill back at Playland. This one is also pretty long, but the older gag structure is merely stretched out, and the effect is lost.
It should be noted that many decades on, Pirates of the Caribbean inspired its own movie (and it’s no surprise that the finest theme park attraction ever built was also the most successful at doing this sort of thing in reverse). Later still, the movie series inspired updates to the ride which, in a lot of ways, diminished the original artifact. It was suddenly clear that of all the ways an audience might perceive the ride, its creators considered one storyline to be the “correct” one, and we were back to spotting the gags amidst a lot of very complicated background scenery.
“it’s a small world” did something very similar by introducing classic Disney characters, as explained so neatly on Re-Imagineering:
The children of Small World were intentionally homogenous, but now some of them are a bit more “special” than others. In Imagineering’s effort to make every last attraction at the parks more relevant by adding Disney characters, Small World’s core message has been compromised.
Gags are important to dark rides as we know them, and a dark ride with no gags may cease to be a dark ride at all. But we must handle them carefully.