Top 10 Best Special Effects On Rides

Following on from my last post all about rides that would be nothing without their theme, it got me thinking about just how powerful theming really is. There's only so much heavy-lifting the ride hardware can do before it must hand over to the theming experts to truly elevate it into the next level of immersion. And usually the creme de la creme of the best themed rides in the world is a jaw-dropping special effect that is so spellbinding it'll have you wondering if maybe magic is real after all, before reality sets in and you start to obsess over just how that effect was pulled off. 

And so to honour those effects today I'm going to be counting down ten of my all time favourite show-stoppers. And to caveat this, this list is going to be made up only of things I've actually ridden, so you'll find no Rise of the Resistance spoilers here! Also, usually for stuff like this I would do a separate Disney/Universal list vs. everyone else so that the list isn't completely dominated by those two theming juggernauts. This time however I've decided to mash it up, so the list is half Disney/Universal/half non-Disney/Universal. So no, this isn't a definitive 'Top 10 Best Special Effects In The World' or we wouldn't get a chance to talk about some of the lower-budgeted effects. You should view this instead, as my personal Top 10 list of attraction special effects I really enjoy and wanted to talk about. Let's get stuck in!


It's incredible to me that over twenty years later the effects on The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman hold up quite so well as they do. The sense of speed accompanied with the intense soundtrack, the way you feel the high stakes the minute we dispatch in the S.C.O.O.P. into the streets of New York, THAT finale where we tumble off the side of a skyscraper. It's an absolute work of art and still to this day one of my favourite attractions in the world.

One of the reasons I think this attraction is so great is the way it blends the screens seamlessly with real world sets to bring everything to life, and one effect stands out for me that ties the digital and physical world together in a jaw-dropping way that has me flinching every time, even though I know exactly when it's coming at this point. I speak of course of the Hobgoblin's flaming pumpkin bombs - one second they're being flung at us in digital 3D, the next we turn a corner and one bursts through the physical set causing a huge fireball with a heat so intense you'd swear your eyebrows were singed. Brilliant. 


Yes, I'm speaking about Vilegende Hollander again, but this time it's to praise it and focus on the bits that make it excellent. After embarking on our voyage into the murky crevices of the very clearly haunted dockyard, between two 'huge' ships in what is one of my favourite ever instances of physical theming and forced perspective, we suddenly find ourselves adrift, almost dreamlike, in a cloud of thick fog with only the lantern on the front of our boat to guide us through. It's near silent at this point and basically impossible to see. The tension is palpable. 

Then out of nowhere - a MASSIVE GHOST SHIP bursts from the depths! It's the perfect jump scare and could show some modern horror films a thing or two about build and release tension scares. It's so unexpected, especially as a first time rider, and to suddenly be faced with something so huge in what has previously felt like a very claustrophobic space is a brilliant shock to the senses, and as impressive as it is terrifying. We pause for a moment to bask in the awe before the terror takes over and we get the heck out of there. It's the catalyst that gets the action going for the rest of the ride and it's perfect every time. 


Ok, so Derren Brown's Ghost Train is an attraction that thrives on its special effects (SPOILERS AHEAD!) From the floating Victorian train carriage illusion before we board to the gift shop fake out complete with flooring that comes alive an a demonic surprise, it's quite hard for me to pick just one out of this game-changing attraction. But thinking about it, I do know the effect that had me scratching my head and wondering how the heck did they do that the most, and I'm sure it will come as a surprise to many. 

I speak of course of the Derren Pepper's Ghost in the pre-show. For an effect dating back to the 1860s, it's fascinating to me that we still make use of it in attractions to this day, and when done right it's still as mystifying over 150 years later. Watch the pre-show for the first time, I was impressed but having seen my fair share of these effects in attractions in my day it was nothing out of the ordinary for me. But the best part is when Derren picks the train up from the table - trains I'd been convinced were physically there as part of the set as I could see them before the Derren illusion appeared. It left a huge smile on my face as for someone who is pretty hard to surprise at this point, this little blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment really caught me off guard!


Mystic Manor is one of my favourite dark rides in the world. Adorable character design, excellent use of lasers and projection mapping, a Danny Elfman soundtrack and a twist on one of my favourite classic Disney rides, this attraction feels like it was designed for me personally. The whole thing feels like a showcase of gags and special effects - your classic carnival ghost train but with a Disney overlay to elevate it and tie it all together whilst still essentially being a bag of tricks designed to titillate and delight. There's so much here that I love - the ancient vases whose painted scenes come to life, artworks whose subject matter are suddenly in peril (in perfect timing with the music), amazing use of misdirection throughout, it's all just wonderfully mischievous. 

And the whole thing reaches crescendo in a final whirlwind as our trackless ride vehicles waltz around the room as we're caught up in the chaos. The screens on the walls adorned with the characters and artefacts we've met along the way as we reach the peak of our adventure - surely no more damage can be done? And then the walls themselves literally start peeling and crumbling away, the fourth wall broken to reveal the outside world. It's something that so rarely happens in dark rides, and even rarer still for it to be done so effectively. 


OK, this is cheating a little bit as I'd say this is slightly more of a 'stunt' than a special effect but basically I just wanted an excuse to talk about what is probably the most chaotic moment on any ride anywhere in the world. Never have I experienced an effect on a ride that draws such a reaction of panic from its riders, where everybody on-board the vehicle frantically exchanges alarmed glances of 'is this supposed to happen?!' before realising it's too late. 

Magma 2 is essentially a 'backlot tour' style attraction focussed on big budget special effects. We're talking fire explosions, water explosions, high speed chases, electrical malfunctions, gas explosions and yes...bridge collapses. And, as per any movie themed attraction worth its salt, we are the star of the show! Escaping a gas explosion, our vehicle makes it's way forward before it becomes clear that this bridge isn't finished and it seems there's no where left to turn. We feel the supports shaking underneath us as it struggles to hold our weight, before the whole thing literally collapses into the water with a huge splash. It's absolutely wild, has me screaming my head off every time and is an effect I love watching people enjoy for the first time over and over again. 


Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland has an arsenal of world-beating effects throughout, so it's quite the task to pick just one to focus on. Huge audio-animatronics, the way the vehicles move differently as we transfer from above to below the waves, the way everything is bathed in that wavy underwater light to truly convince us we're fathoms deep, the entire attraction really is perfection. But one effect does spring to mind as a stand out and I'm pretty sure Disney know it's incredible too as they appear to be rolling it out into other attractions too!

I speak of course of the Jack Sparrow audio-animatronic, who transforms before our very eyes from skeleton to human to highlight that the curse is very much still upon him. It is absolutely mind-blowing to see something like this happen in what appears to be in front of your face, with zero smoke and mirrors. Of course there ARE smoke and mirrors at play, but the fact that these are so convincingly hidden themselves just adds to the illusion. It's breathtaking. 


We know, we know, I am obsessed with this attraction and OK I'm cheating again because it's technically more of a walkthrough, not a ride but HEY it's my list and I'll do what I want! But yes, the magical Howl'O'Ween overlay of Hocus Pocus Hall at Chessington World of Adventures saw the whole pre-show room transformed into a Mystic Manor-esque adventurer's collection of artefacts. The room comes alive with glowing green light as magic appears to pour from every orifice of the room, magically animating a portrait that starts us on our adventure. 

I think this effect had such an impact on me as, as a regular visitor to Hocus Pocus Hall I was incredibly impressed with the extent of the overlay. The entire thing felt like a completely different attraction from start to finish, which is a really amazing feat for a seasonal change like this. Then the projection mappiing combined with the oh-so-wonderful IMAscore soundtrack was just a recipe for pure, undiluted magic. 


Another attraction dripping in incredible special effects from start to finish, the Indiana Jones Adventure feels every part like one of those Disney attractions that never got made that those YouTube channels talk about, except this one somehow fell through the cracks and actually got made. Some effects are no longer in operation (RIP ice dropping on riders to simulate crumbling ruins) and others are location specific (hello fabulous spooky smoke ring from the DisneySea version) but needless to say, much like The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, this is a dark rides whose special effects hold up decades later.

For me the stand out effect in this attraction is the boulder scene. The narrative calls for our vehicle to reverse, but of course being a multi-vehicle attraction we can't very well go backwards. So what do you do when you can't physically go backwards? Have the walls/set move around you instead of course!


Did you really think I could make it through this list without mentioning Symbolica? Another dark ride just oozing with magic from start to finish. I adore the pre-show where the staircase magically opens to reveal a secret passageway, the Droomvlucht-esque scene where butterflies descend before your eyes and the magical mirrored jewel chamber. It's all so charming and wonderful, as any self-respecting Efteling dark ride is of course!

But my favourite scene in the entire attraction and favourite special effect is the greenhouse. In this strange world of fantasy we realise that we're underwater when a whale gracefully appears in front of us, before the glass begins to 'crack' and water starts trickling through. There's something so simple yet effective to this combination that really works to trick the brain into believing the glass will shatter around us at any moment and we'll be washed away, whale and all. It's the scene that keeps me re-riding over and over again. 


Shamefully I visited Islands of Adventure for years between doing Poseidon's Fury. Again, technically not a ride as such and more of an immersive experience/special effects spectacular, I had very faint memories of riding this for the first time...maybe in the year 2000 but don't quote me on that. Anyway, when we visited in 2018 I made a point of experiencing this attraction once again, mostly because I wanted to see that incredible water-jet tunnel for myself as an adult to see if it was as cool as I remembered it being, but also because I couldn't really remember much else that happened. 

Yes, the whole thing is a little corny in terms of storyline and the visual effects at the end haven't held up quite as well as other attractions in the park, but nothing would prepare me for the 'WOW' moment of the final set piece reveal. It's a classic theatre/staging move - house lights go down, something changes, house lights go up and something is revealed as if by magic. Thing with this effect though is the sheer scale of it. We go from a small chamber room to a huge stage complete with giant set pieces and theming in what feels like the blink of an eye. We do not hear, nor see the walls previously surrounding us disappear nor reappear when the show is over. It is bewildering to me how this is achieved without so much as a 'whoosh' as the walls are hoisted upwards, and for me it's applause-worthy every time. 


I always think wow, if these are the special effects we already have on our attractions just imagine what the future will bring. I can't wait to ride Rise of the Resistance to see that magic for myself (NO SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS I SWEAR TO GOD!) and attractions into the future to see what else these incredible ride designers can muster up next.

So tell me, what are some of your favourite special effects in rides? What's an effect that had your jaw involuntarily dropping? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to have a chat!

Talk later xoxo,