Updated April 8, 2015 with three new tropes)
Theme Parks have been at it for a long time now. Technically for about 60 years, but theme park-style experiences go back even further, to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and Coney Island, and on. There was even an early chain of amusement park attractions - Hale's Tours - that were pretty similar, in concept, to rides like Back to the Future and the Hogwarts Express. And, once you take into consideration the unique style that Universal Creative has cultivated since the 1980s, and the way the WED house style, and WDI house style, and the Universal house style have cross-pollinated and informed each other, there's a pretty rich history of traditions to draw on.
Or, to put it another way, there's a whole history of rhetorical devices, narrative conceits, motifs, and cliches that theme park attractions draw on to communicate with us strongly and basically visually. We can call these tropes. And no, I'm not going to pull a TV Tropes here and catalog every single device or theme that's been used in the history of human endeavor. I'm after most or all of the big ones, however. So no, you wont see "Exit Thru the Gift Shop" here because they're as much formal expectations at this point as they are narrative cliches, which to me would be like calling editing in films a "Trope". For this same reason you won't see things like a Themed Queue or Ride Vehicle. I want to dig into the deeper predictable patterns of the experience.
So myself and my friend Brandon (@DCAlover on Twitter) put our heads together and came up with a pretty extensive list of the various reasons and ways rides have been dropping us down waterfalls, spinning us in circles, and running us over with trains (or garbage trucks piloted by Stan Lee) for generations.
Invisibility Cloak On - A classic of WED design. In Pirates of the Caribbean, we're expected to be concerned about getting exploded or shot in the face, but the pirates don't seem to see us - are we really there or not? Often results in a weirdly voyeur-like experience.
Examples: Pirates of the Caribbean, Horizons, World of Motion, Primeval World, Swiss Family Treehouse
Namer: Matterhorn Bobsleds
Examples: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Revenge of the Mummy, The Haunted Mansion, Jaws, Indiana Jones Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
Captain Rex Day - Every day is Captain Rex Day, because every day is your guide's first day of doing something highly dangerous! You're nearly guaranteed to hear this if your theme park experience includes a live actor.
Namer: Star Tours
Examples: Jungle Cruise, Poseidon's Fury, Cranium Command
The Nickel Tour - Arguably the foundation conceit of most
theme park attractions, this trope claims that the attraction is
actually a tour of an imaginary, specific indoor facility or location.
It's the next logical evolution away from the "themed scenery" mode of
attractions like Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland or Jungle Cruise,
which often include multiple, abstract locations.
Examples: The Haunted Mansion, The Living Seas, Back to the Future, The Disney-MGM Backlot Studio Tour
a Tape - There's many reasons why that recorded narration you're
hearing isn't meant to be that recorded narration you're hearing. It
could be... spooky ghosts! Or the invisible crew of your tiny
submarine! Or the thoughts of Paul Frees suspended in inner space! How
about a radio transmission?? Please don't think about this too thoroughly.
Examples: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Indiana Jones Adventure, Adventure Thru Inner Space, Space Mountain
Examples: Disneyland Railroad, Jungle Cruise, Mike Fink Keelboats, Sailing Ship Columbia, Kilimanjaro Safaris
Easy On The Curves - Wouldn't you know it, it's the darn finicky cutting edge / patched together / shopworn technology going and breaking down and/or messing everything up! I never could have anticipated this happening in a theme park. Your Uncle who only buys products from The Vermont Country Store and writes with a typewriter was right all along.
Namer: Indiana Jones Adventure
Examples: Alien Encounter, Honey I Shrunk the Audience, Stitch's Great Escape, Dinosaur, Timekeeper, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem!
Eisner Institute - You know what's boring? Going somewhere and having something amazing and impossible happen. Wouldn't you much rather go to an institute or research center where there's drywall and doors with names on them and then have something whimsically unexpected go horribly wrong once you're there? Wouldn't that be so much better?
Namer: Michael Eisner, the patron saint of institutions
Examples: Test Track, Journey Into Your Imagination, Body Wars, Back to the Future, Mission: Space, Dinosaur, Alien Encounter, Honey I Shrunk the Audience...
Namer: The Funtastic World of Hannah-Barbera
Examples: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Transformers the Ride 4D, Ghostbusters Spooktacular, ET Adventure, Kilimanjaro Safaris
Little Red is OK - Corollary to We Have To Save Elroy, where of course "Elroy" is always OK at the end. Sometimes other trams/boats full of people will be shown to have perished, but the nearest any theme park ever got to actually doing off a supporting character was the unlucky submarine 13, crushed by a giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Namer: Kilimanjaro Safaris
Torturing the Recruits - At Imagineering in the 90s and early naughts, if you weren't going to an institute you were always some kind of recruit. You apparently got drafted by walking in the door. What could be more lighthearted??
Namer: Stitch's Great Escape
Examples: Alien Encounter, Men in Black: Alien Attack, Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, Mission: Space, Body Wars, Ghostbusters Spooktacular
Background Action - Mostly-Universal-Specific Corollary to Torturing the Recruits, where you're supposed to be playing extras in a film shoot of some sort. Unlike real movie extras, you don't get a free lunch out of it.
Examples: Earthquake: The Big One, Revenge of the Mummy, Backdraft, Disaster!, Twister: Ride It Out!, Catastrophe Canyon
Namer: Test Track
Examples: Snow White's Scary Adventures, Revenge of the Mummy, Alien Encounter, Tower of Terror (TDL), Indiana Jones Adventure
You Die At The End - Especially if you go to hell.
Examples: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Snow White's Adventures, Fata Morgana (maybe), Men in Black: Alien Attack (maybe)
I Got Some In My Mouth - Nothing could possibly make any ride more cutting edge and intense than spritzing the audience with water, right? Nobody's ever done that before! Bonus points if the water is supposed to be dripping blood, as in Revenge of the Mummy (Hollywood).
Namer: Alien Encounter
Examples: Mickey's Philharmagic, Jurassic Park, Stitch's Great Escape, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Toy Story Midway Mania, Revenge of the Mummy, Muppet-Vision 3D, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Ellen's Energy Adventure, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Captain EO
Beware of Glass - Inexplicable Universal-only subset of I Got Some In My Mouth, where being spritzed with water can also represent glass shattering nearby.
Examples: Terminator 2 3D, Revenge of the Mummy, Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
Namer: Ellen's Energy Adventure
Examples: The Hall of Presidents, Superstar Limo
The Book Report Ride - An attraction which shows exactly the same events which occurred in the source film in the same order. You know these well.
Examples: Peter Pan's Flight, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, The Seas With Nemo and Friends
Ride the Movies - This is what happened after that movie you saw probably recently! Sometimes, the theme park attraction is the proper direct sequel to a film, but represents an alternate universe if the source movie got another sequel, as in the case of Terminator 2. Or, the story can be dropped into a specific point in a movie chronology rather than being set "after" the main events of the story.
Namer: Universal Studios Florida
Examples: Back to the Future, E.T. Adventure, Indiana Jones Adventure, Men in Black: Alien Attack, Star Tours, Jaws, Stitch's Great Escape, Revenge of the Mummy, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, Jurassic Park The Ride
It's Not About Finding Hot Tubs - Subset of Ride the Movies, and differentiated from the Book Report, where an attraction specifically tells you that the events depicted therein take place after the movie -- but everything that happens is just something that happened in the movie.
Namer: Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
Examples: Radiator Springs Racers, Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy
The Enchanted Tales Razor - The rule that states that no explanation is sometimes better. Named for Enchanted Tales with Belle, where a straightforward character meet and greet is burdened with an absurd time travel conceit which not only makes no sense, but conveniently vanishes after it's no longer needed.
Examples: Enchanted Tales with Belle, Mission: Space
Namer: Indiana Jones Adventure
Examples: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Star Tours, Transformers the Ride 4D, Dinosaur
Have You Been?! - A Harry Potter-specific subset of Why Did It Have to
be Tourists. Harry Potter is constantly saving your ass. There's no
moment when he isn't. Dementors? Voldemort? Whomping Willow? Harry
Potter saved your ass. Theme Park Harry Potter is more competent than
movie Harry Potter, book Harry Potter, and fanfic Harry Potter rolled
into one. That time you nearly fell trying to buy a carton of milk in
Target? He saved your ass that time too. Harry Potter is the hardest
working guy in theme parks. He hates you so much.
Namer: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Hogwarts Express, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Harry
Potter and You In Line For Butterbeer, Harry Potter and the........
I'm Bill Paxton - Most commonly used in Universal attractions where an actor appears on a screen to address you before the main experience; also snuck into Disney rides in the 90s.
Namer: Bill Paxton in Twister: Ride It Out!
Steven Spielberg in E.T. Adventure, Angela Lansbury in Murder: She
Wrote Mystery Production Theater, Ron Howard in Backdraft, John Michael
Higgins in Test Track, Wallace Langham in Countdown to Extinction /
Dinosaur, Gary Sinise in Mission: SPACE, Jeffrey Jones in Alien Encounter, Patrick Warburton in Soarin Over California
The Hunky Tuna Tostada - Corollary to I'm Bill Paxton. Any time a highly recognizable celebrity or entertainer pops up unexpectedly in the middle of an attraction experience for a cameo, it's always going to take the audience out of the experience, even if it's intended strictly as a joke.
Namer: Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management
Examples: The Timekeeper, Disaster, Ellen's Energy Adventure, Revenge of the Mummy, Superstar Limo
Mission: Tortilla - OK, listen, maybe you didn't
like all those institutes or research centers, but Eisner sure loves
industrial tours, because that's where people who actually have to work
for a living are! Fascinating! Bonus if you get a free food sample for
Name: Mission Tortilla Factory
Examples: Universal Studios Tram Tour, Boudin Bread Factory, Disney-MGM Studios Backlot Tour
Examples: America Sings, Innoventions, Wonders of Life, DisneyQuest, Food Rocks
(Suggested by 'Judah Ben-Hur')
After These Messages - is practically an extinct park trope, but it was once the norm. Enough sponsorship money being thrown around can result in, for a price, your very own ride-through corporate advertisement, complete with a catchy theme song. Probably the best example is the rotating furniture showroom known as the Carousel of Progress, but plenty of other attractions toed the corporate line, dispensing approved nuggets about microwaves, textiles, and agriculture. Interestingly, one of the last of these - Horizons - subverted the trope by being lavishly funded by General Electric but presenting no overt product placement.
Examples: Kaiser Hall of Aluminum Fame, Monsanto Home of Future Living, Adventures Thru Inner Space, Listen to the Land, Universe of Energy
Parkception - Universal has been up to a lot of this lately, but it's actually Disney that started the whole current boom. More than an attraction that's aware it's an attraction, it's a miniature amusement park, often depicted of being below theme park quality, inside a theme park. The first one, of course, was Jurassic Park, but it's Disney that set the template with their kitsch tributes Chester and Hester's Dino-rama and Paradise Pier. Lately, miniature amusement parks have sprung up around The Simpsons Ride and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem.
Examples: Dino-rama, Paradise Pier, Krustyland, Super Silly Fun Land
(Suggested by Hastin)
Feel free to propose any we may have missed in the comments! If I like one, I may add it to the article!