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A look back at a couple of the first interactive rides – DePaoli on DeParks

by Jeff DePaoli

These days, most new rides coming to theme parks have some sort of interactive element to them. No longer are the days of watching the adventure unfold around us entertainment enough. Now, we must be part of the action and even make decisions affecting the outcome. Although this is now commonplace, it may not be as new as you think. I’d like to share with you a couple of the earliest examples I remember where the attraction passenger affected a portion of the ride.

pirates of the caribbean

When theme parks were first created, rides were typically a passive experience. The guest was an observer of everything going on around them. If you think of a classic attraction, like Pirates of the Caribbean, the guest doesn’t influence the experience at all. We simply watch the pirates wreak havoc and there’s nothing we can do to change or affect the story.

Disney Legend and Imagineer Tony Baxter has commented that he wanted the Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland to make the passenger part of the adventure and not simply an onlooker. This may have been a break from the norm at the time, but there are even some earlier examples where guests were not only part of the adventure, but also affected it.

first interactive rides

In 1990, E.T. Adventure opened with Universal Studios Florida and remains as the only opening-day ride still in the park today. On this ride, the passenger is tasked with the job of getting E.T. safely to his home planet. That is why we can see E.T. wrapped in a sheet in our bicycle crate at the beginning of the attraction. But “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” director, Steven Spielberg, wanted this attraction to be personal, like the movie.

In order to accomplish this, guests tell their names to a ride attendee who then gives them a pass with their names programmed on them. This feels like a bit of an archaic way to handle it these days, with all of the new tech available, but this was the early ‘90s. The names for these passes have changed a bit through the years as the pre-show story has changed. When the ride initially opened, these passes were supposed to give us access to the “set,” since we were cast as extras. Today, they’re called “interplanetary passports,” as the backstory of being on a set is no longer part of the attraction.

At the finale of the ride, we find E.T. no longer in our bicycle crate but, instead, happy and healthy on the Green Planet with his friends. Before we leave E.T.’s home planet, E.T. says “goodbye” to each of us by name. This may seem like a small and low-tech way of affecting a portion of a ride by today’s standards, but it made a lasting impression on me as a kid. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still enjoy this feature today.

first interactive rides

An even earlier attraction where the guest could affect how the ride ended is the long-lost Horizons at Epcot. Horizons was a dark ride showcasing visions of the future. The popular ride opened in 1983 and closed permanently in 1995. Though for much of the ride passengers are simply onlookers; toward the end, the rider is asked how they would like their journey to end. Our narrator asked…

“Attention Horizons passengers. You are invited to choose your own flight path back to The Future Port. Please look down at the lighted panels in front of you. Press one of the three ride choices: space, desert or undersea.”

Back in 1983, this felt revolutionary. Depending on the majority choice guests on your ride vehicle picked, one of three films would begin, depicting one of the various options.

These examples may seem like no big deal in comparison to today’s ultra-interactive rides and attractions, but they were unique at the time of their creation. Do you have any favorite examples of interactive attractions where the rider affects some portion of the ride? Do you remember any that came out before 1983? Leave a comment and let me know.

If you have any theme park topics you would like to hear my opinion on, let me know in the comments. You might just see it pop up in a future DePaoli on DeParks.


Jeff DePaoli is a producer and voiceover artist living in Los Angeles. He can be heard as the voice of Disney Trivia on Alexa as well as the host of “Dizney Coast to Coast,” the ultimate, unofficial Disney fan podcast. Get your FREE gifts of “America’s Hidden Mickeys,” “On the Rohde Again,” “Theme Park Comfort Kit” and more at DizneyCoastToCoast.com. DePaoli’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent Attractions Magazine.

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