One of the earliest amusement park dark rides was a trip from Coney Island to the Moon and back.
The dark ride is a staple of amusement parks around the world: passengers climb into a vehicle, strap in, and are taken along a track into amazing or terrifying vistas. The “It’s a Small World” ride in Disneyland is a good example (brrr… terrifying).
One of the first dark rides, and certainly the first to use an all-electric track-based amusement ride, was A Trip to the Moon. Originally designed for the Buffalo-based Pan-American Exposition of 1901, it was inspired by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. It bore many similarities to the Méliès film A Trip to the Moon (discussed already in accidental 3D film and the second trip to the moon), but seeing as that film didn’t come out until a year later it’s possible that Méliès was inspired by this ride – or both cribbed from Verne.
It was an impressive trip for the 1901 audience. The passengers climbed into an enormous (fake) airship called the Luna and “took off” into the sky, borne aloft by enormous red wings. The passengers watched Buffalo and then New York State disappear beneath them as the wind whipped their hair; after crossing the inky void of space they landed on the moon. At this point passengers could disembark and interact with residents of the moon, see a dance performance, and apparently eat some moon cheese. At the end of the ride, they climbed down a rope ladder back to Earth.
How was all this achieved? The disappearing vistas below the airship were moving canvas pictures, hidden fans provided the wind, the lunar residents were costumed little people, and the moon was papier-mâché. The cheese and the rope ladder, by all reports, were real. The second link below contains lots of great pictures of the ride in action.
A Trip to the Moon was enormously popular, pulling in 400,000 people in Buffalo (including Thomas Edison and the US president) despite being the exposition’s most expensive attraction. After the exposition ended the ride moved to Coney Island, first to Steeplechase Park and then on to Luna Park – where it was the park’s namesake and star attraction for many years.
(To promote Luna Park, Topsy the elephant pulled the airship from Steeplechase to its new home at Luna Park; soon after, he was electrocuted on film. Still angry about that.)