Have you ever thought one of Disney’s darkrides looked darker than normal? Maybe things were hard to see, or they didn’t glow the right way. I’ve heard this blamed on an old paint job or lights that need replacing. The blame always seems to go to the maintenance team. But normally, the too-dark-darkride has nothing to do with maintenance. It has a lot more to do with queue design and time of day.
Theme parks are not built for the slow days. The walk ways, ride capacities, queue sizes, restaurants and show offerings are designed around keeping crowds entertained and busy. So are the visuals in the rides. Imagineers expect that guests will be waiting in line for each ride. Particularly for dark rides, they build indoor queues. This keeps the crowd entertained while they wait, but it also give you a gradual transition while your eyes adjust to the lower level of light.
Take the Disneyland Haunted Mansion as an example. When the queue is full, you start off in the bright sun, and make your way to the shaded porch of the mansion. After a brief stop in the dimly lit entryway, you’re shepherded into a even darker stretching room. The stretching room turns out nearly all the lights for its finale. The portrait gallery is a dark walkway, as is the boarding platform. And before you see any of the actual show scenes of the ride, there are about 20 seconds where you have nothing to look at, except for the black Doom Buggy in front of you. With each new section, the lights get dimmer. And that allowed you to see the show while your eyes adjust to the dark. But when the queues are shorter, you spend less time in each of those areas, so your eyes can’t fully adjust. Particularly if you’re one of the “lucky” ones who gets to take the backstage stair case from the outdoor queue into the portrait gallery. The time your eyes have to adjust is cut by more than ten minutes. So the ride itself isn’t any darker, you just can’t see as well.
Fantasyland dark rides suffer from this problem more drastically because of their size. If you wait in the indoor queues, your eyes have a few minutes to adjust. So the rides were built with the expectation that you’d be indoors, ,giving your eyes would have about 10 minutes to get ready before the ride starts. But if you’re trying to ride on an afternoon with no queue, you’ll go directly from the bright sun into the dark ride. These rides don’t have the very dark queue prior to boarding, or the dark lift hill at the beginning of the ride. They go straight into show scenes. By the time your eyes are able to start adjusting, you may be through the ride already. Here are two images that show how different the ride can look with just a difference in your eyes.
So what about Radiator Springs Racers? The indoor portions of that ride don’t seem too dark. On this ride, Disney intentionally planned on taking you from outdoors to indoors very quickly. So the lights are bright enough that you can see with your eyes unadjusted. In fact, they rely on the fact that yours eyes aren’t prepared for some of the show scenes. It gives Imagineers more control over what you see in a fast paced environment.
So what can you do about it? Give your eyes time to adjust. If you’re heading for Peter Pan and the line is empty, take a few minutes to stand in the empty queue. It’ll make a difference in how well you can see the ride. Or wear sunglasses so your eyes are already used to dimmer light. (Just make sure you take them off when you’re on the ride!) This is one of the reasons I like to ride the Fantasyland dark rides at night. When it’s dark outside, your eyes don’t have to adjust at all, so you can see the whole ride clearly, even if there is no queue.