Jeepers Creepers! Why Dark Rides Scare the Pants Off Us

October 16th, 2013

Most roller coasters put their stomach-dropping slopes and brain-twisting loops front and center for all the world to see. But the amusement-park attractions known as “dark rides” keep their thrills hidden. As you’re standing in line for a tour of a haunted house full of ghosts and ghouls, a high-seas adventure with pirates, or a ride on the range with gun-slinging cowboys of the Wild West, all you can see are the riders in front of you, who get into little cars before disappearing through swinging doors into the dark. You hear the sounds of screams and shrieks coming from within. And then, an empty car arrives, stopping before you with a mechanical ka-thunk. You’re next.

“It’s like a train-of-thought type of nightmare where you see a clown, then a devil, then a witch. All of a sudden, an alligator pops out at you.”

Dark rides with names like Pretzel, Laff in the Dark, Whacky Shack, or Spook-A-Rama popped up everywhere in the mid 20th century. Growing up in East Providence, Rhode Island, in the ’60s, George LaCross was lucky enough to ride dozen of ’em. As an adult, LaCross realized his beloved attractions were starting to disappear. In 1999, he teamed up with Bill Luca on Laff in the Dark, the first website dedicated to dark rides and walk-through funhouses, and the pair began to thoroughly chronicle the history of these attractions around the United States, inside and out.

LaCross and Luca also produced two documentaries about operating 1970s-era Pennsylvania dark rides, “Behind the Scenes at Knoebels Haunted House” and “Behind the Scenes at Waldameer’s Whacky Shack & Pirate’s Cove,” both available on DVD. We talked to LaCross about where dark rides came from, why they’re so irresistible, and why so many have disappeared.

Collectors Weekly: How did dark rides get started?

Top: Spook-A-Rama in Coney Island, New York, still uses the Pretzel cars introduced in 1954. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com) Above: A vintage souvenir postcard advertises the Wonder Wheel and an "old mill" ride named Tunnels of Love in Coney Island, New York. (Via Ephemeral New York)

Top: Spook-A-Rama in Coney Island, New York, still uses the Pretzel cars introduced in 1954. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com) Above: A vintage souvenir postcard advertises the Wonder Wheel and an “old mill” ride named Tunnels of Love in Coney Island, New York. (Via Ephemeral New York)

George LaCross: The forerunner to a single-rail dark ride was an “old mill,” a boat ride that went through a tunnel. When the old mills started cropping up around 1900, they were the first type of ride where you’d sit in a vehicle—a boat passing along a narrow channel—and see scenes or figures, called “stunts” in the industry. Some parks wanted these rides to be scary; others wanted them to be a trip through history, or a cruise around the world, that type of thing. These used mannequins—I think they were made out of wax, actually—to show the signing of the Declaration of Independence or Columbus landing on American soil. Some had dark areas for smooching, which is which why they got the nickname, “Tunnels of Love.”

Old-mill rides were very expensive because you had to have a tunnel with some type of a canal system, and then a wooden water wheel continuously spinning to push the water through it. And they were difficult to maintain. You had to constantly look for leaks in the wooden canal and patch them up during the off-season. I can’t even imagine what a nightmare it must’ve been re-boarding that stuff. Now, the ones that are still around have been converted to concrete canals, which are treated with special chemicals so they don’t leak. Back in the day, only the parks that were doing really well could afford to have old mills.

This original 1954 Pretzel metal car with the logo on both sides is still operating in the Laffland ride at Sylvan Beach Amusement Park in upstate New York. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

This original 1954 Pretzel metal car with the logo on both sides is still operating in the Laffland ride at Sylvan Beach Amusement Park in upstate New York. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

In the late 1920s, Tumbling Dam Amusement Park in Bridgeton, New Jersey, was struggling. The two owners, Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer, desperately wanted to add some type of a dark attraction. And they were considering an old mill, but that was cost-prohibitive for them. Cassidy and Rempfer decided to build something on their own that wouldn’t involve the cost of putting in a wooden tunnel, something that used electricity.

“If you’re scared by something that’s not really that scary, it has more of an impact on you.”

So they took a “dodgem” car, also known as a bumper car—probably right off of their fleet—and modified the bottom of it to fit on a single-rail track. Then they ran this track through an older building that wasn’t being used. After a little tweaking, they got the dodgem to go around curves and so forth. I’m not sure exactly what they put in there, whatever they could come up with at the time, but they ended up with the very first dark ride, which they opened in 1928.

They ran a contest to name it, and the little girl who won called it Firefly, but they decided that might imply a fire danger, because they had electricity running through a wooden building. One of the first patrons came out of the dark ride, which had a lot of curves in it, and said, “Wow, I felt like I was twisted around like a pretzel.” So they changed the name to Pretzel.

A Pretzel ride in 1930 at Joyland Park in Lexington, Kentucky, which closed down in 1964. (From the Lafayette Studios collection, courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections)

A Pretzel ride in 1930 at Joyland Park in Lexington, Kentucky, which closed down in 1964. (From the Lafayette Studios collection, courtesy of the University of Kentucky Special Collections)

They had a great success with this ride. Owners of other, non-competing amusement parks in the New Jersey area would come down to see it and ask Cassidy and Rempfer, “Can you guys build one of these for us?” The pair ended up going into business making dark rides. Calling their company the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company, they built a factory not too far from Tumbling Dam.

While Cassidy and Rempfer would patent certain things about their cars, their tracks, and some of their stunts, they couldn’t patent the dark ride itself. Other companies began to build dark rides, too, and they basically just called them Pretzel, because they didn’t know what else to call them. Park owners would put question marks on the doors, because what was behind them was supposed to be a mystery.

Collectors Weekly: So riding around in the dark gave young couples an opportunity to make out?

LaCross: I think that story is a little overrated. I don’t know that too many people made out with each other on any of these rides. It was the type of thing where you’d be waiting in line, you’d get on, and you’d really want to see what was going in there. You’d want to keep your guard up. In the rides that had history scenes, you’d want to study them. I rode a lot of Pretzel rides when I was younger, and I can tell you that they jostle you around so much that it’s not very conducive to making out. The Pretzel rides were good for a hug on a date. You’re with a girl, she gets startled, you comfort her, and that breaks the ice.

Collectors Weekly: And the earliest dark rides only had sound effects?

A plywood "Kicking Mule" stunt spooks little girls in Harry Traver's Laff in the Dark, which operated at Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, from 1931 to 1965. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

A plywood “Kicking Mule” stunt spooks little girls in Harry Traver’s Laff in the Dark, which operated at Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, from 1931 to 1965. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

LaCross: Yes. These rides were all in pitch darkness. Pretzel patented many of the first sound effects, which were actually floor devices. You’d go over a lever on the track, and it would strike a cymbal, creating a sound like glass breaking. When the car would run over another lever, a container holding a bunch of ball bearings would get tipped up, and it’d sound like trash barrels tipping over. They had a string of bells hooked up, and they would just make a big clang when you went over that lever, which sounded like you were derailing.

“The Pretzel rides were good for a hug on a date. You’re with a girl, she’d gets startled, you comfort her, and that breaks the ice.”

Some of the earliest visual stunts they had—and some of them are still in operation—were motorless effects, lifted by the weight of the car. The sound effects weren’t necessarily right near these figures; those were usually positioned in the dark so you couldn’t see them. You’d be riding along in the Pretzel car in the dark, you’d hit a relay switch for the light, and then a lever for the figure itself. A small incandescent spotlight just focused on that black box would light up, and the cable would lift, say, a skull out of the bottom of the box.

For example, in the stunt called the “Jersey Devil,” you see what appears to be an empty box, and then the weight of the car forces a papier-mâché demon head to pop up inside it. For “Al E. Gator,” a lever on the track would tip a papier-mâché alligator on roller skates, and he’d lunge out at the riders. Some early stunts had limited gear motors, animating a head or hands going from side to side. Those would just go on, move for a few seconds, and then go back off again.

Collectors Weekly: I read one of the earliest Pretzel stunts was just thread that hit your face.

A man, possibly an amusement ride operator, approaches a stunt where a skeleton emerges from a coffin at Laff in the Dark at Playland Park in Rye, New York, circa 1934. (Courtesy of the Westchester County Archives)

A man, possibly an amusement ride operator, approaches a stunt where a skeleton emerges from a coffin at Laff in the Dark at Playland Park in Rye, New York, circa 1934. (Courtesy of the Westchester County Archives)

LaCross: That was really innovative. It seems so simple, but Bill Cassidy—the second owner of Pretzel, the son of Leon—told us before he passed away that that was one of the gimmicks that he was most proud of. It was just a spool of thread. It would hang from a rafter in the ceiling, and it would rub up against people’s faces and creep them out. It’s supposed to be cobwebs, I guess, but it wasn’t an actual web. It was just a string, but you couldn’t see it. You weren’t expecting it. That got a real rise out people back then. It seems to me that just about every dark ride I rode in the 1960s had that. If it didn’t come factory-installed, I’m sure the park owners themselves would tack it up.

Collectors Weekly: Who were Pretzel’s first real competitors?

LaCross: A couple of years after Pretzel rides were introduced, Harry Traver, who’s more famous for his roller coasters, came up with the idea to undercut Pretzel. He called his rides Laff in the Dark. Even though he patented a lot of stuff, he never patented that name. And Pretzel started naming their rides Laff in the Dark after a while. Traver came up with wood-frame cars with metal joints and a metal undercarriage, which were cheaper to make than the all-metal cars that Pretzel was using. Instead of having papier-mâché stunts, Traver and his crew made these one-dimensional plywood cutouts with a little motoring for various scenes such as cats fighting on a fence or a mule that would kick at you. These motors would just barely work, but they gave the figure a little animation. Some parks went for that.

As time went on, other companies started making figures for dark rides, funhouses, and old mills. If park owners brought a Pretzel or a Traver ride, they could enhance it with other more sophisticated animation that other companies were providing. Traver went out of business in 1932, and he sold his company to Ralph E. Chambers, who successfully marketed and sold Laff in the Dark rides. Because they were cheaper to purchase than a Pretzel, they were in quite a number of parks. But Pretzel rides, as best we know, were a heck of a lot more durable because many of them are still operating. Those metal cars have survived floods and fires.

Collectors Weekly: How did dark rides evolve over the years?

In 1934 photos of Laff in the Dark at Playland Park in Rye, New York, two women approach a cemetery scene where a skeleton pops up from behind a tombstone. (Courtesy of the Westchester County Archives)

In 1934 photos of Laff in the Dark at Playland Park in Rye, New York, two women approach a cemetery scene where a skeleton pops up from behind a tombstone. (Courtesy of the Westchester County Archives)

LaCross: First, they started making magnetic switches that they could put in the track to trigger stunts, and these were less likely to break than the mechanical levers. The most recent triggers used in dark rides are photo sensors called electric eyes. Some are set off by the motion of the car, but some are even more sophisticated, using light from reflectors on the car so the stunts are set off at the exact right time.

“One of the first patrons came out of the dark ride and said, ‘Wow, I felt like I was twisted around like a pretzel.’”

For sound effects, Pretzel had the noisemakers, but then some companies started producing 78-speed records that were just recordings of screams. You got a whole stack of them, and when one was done playing, the record player would drop down another one, so that you heard continuous screaming. When the eight-track came out, dark rides switched to one-track cassettes called “sound repeaters.” It would just be a small amount of tape that played the sound of a ghost or whatever that would coincide with the stunt itself and then stop at a particular point. And it would automatically be rewound for the next car that came by. The problem with those cassettes is that, again, if you’re continually playing a tape, stop-and-go, stop-and-go, it breaks. Plus, the atmospheric temperature had to be right. If it got too hot, the playback machinery would go crazy and start playing the sounds at high speed. Since then, those tapes have been replaced with digital cards.

Workers install The Spook dark ride at a park called Coney Island in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1960 for the 1961 season. (Via CincinnatiViews.net)

Workers install The Spook dark ride at a park called Coney Island in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1960 for the 1961 season. (Via CincinnatiViews.net)

I like the old-school stuff. I love the early papier-mâché figures, though I can see why the operators wouldn’t want to still have micro switches and sound repeaters. It just makes no sense. If you want a ride that runs efficiently, you want to have a technically advanced ride in terms of stunt-triggering and sound because otherwise it’s going to break down on you. Things aren’t going to light up and work, or you’re not going to hear any sound. I can see the maintenance nightmares the older technology used to present. But the Laffland ride at Sylvan Beach Amusement Park in upstate New York still has those floor noisemakers, and it’s really cool. That ride’s almost a working museum.

Collectors Weekly: How did they use wind for effects?

LaCross: Wind and air have been used to good effect over the years. A 1960s tornado-themed ride in the Bronx’s Freedomland U.S.A. did quite a bit using big, industrial-strength fans. The final scene of the Riverboat dark ride at the park I grew up near—Crescent Park in Riverside, Rhode Island—was a hurricane simulation featuring a suspended A-frame house that you rolled underneath. That stunt had industrial-strength fans blowing in your face from all different directions. The house had pots and pans tacked up to its walls on fishing line, which would bang up against the oscillating A-frame. Now, some of the newer figures shoot compressed air out of their mouths to scare you. The newer figures from the modern stunt company Scare Factory often have that. A figure rises up out of a coffin, and it blows people’s hats right off their heads.

Collectors Weekly: How have the figures changed?

A ghoul that pops up inside a boarded door is one of the new Scare Factory stunts installed after 2012's Superstorm Sandy hit Spook-A-Rama at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park in Coney Island, New York. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

A ghoul that pops up inside a boarded door is one of the new Scare Factory stunts installed after 2012′s Superstorm Sandy hit Spook-A-Rama at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park in Coney Island, New York. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

LaCross: The new figures are no longer made out of papier-mâché. They have metal frames with latex, and they’re not computerized. Disneyland and Disney World have the computerized animatronic figures, but most dark-ride stunts move through pneumatics. The figures contain air cylinders, and they have trunk lines going through them that connect to the ride’s one air compressor. These air cylinders just basically draw in a specific amount of air to animate them. It’s amazing what they can do with that. Some of them look quite real. You think they were computerized figures, but they’re not. They’re nowhere near as complicated as the computer-controlled Disney stuff.

Some dark rides still have their original papier-mâché stunts or the fiberglass stunts from after World War II. The original stunts in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park’s Spook-A-Rama in Coney Island, New York, got soaked with 6 feet of water by Superstorm Sandy last October. The park owners have been trying to restore those pieces, and they put some of those stunts back into the ride, because people like to see the old classics.

Collectors Weekly: When did the dark rides start to get specific themes?

A vintage photo of a Laff in the Dark ride at the Pike boardwalk in Long Beach, California. (Via Long Beach Heritage Museum)

A vintage photo of a Laff in the Dark ride at the Pike boardwalk in Long Beach, California. (Via Long Beach Heritage Museum)

LaCross: Sometime in the early ’60s. The most popular early themes that we’ve found through our research were jungles and pirates. A company called Marco Engineering did a themed ride after the poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” at Pleasure Island, a park in Wakefield, Massachusetts, from 1959 through 1969, and I rode that. You went in on a boat on wheels and journeyed into the oceans deep. You encountered nautical creatures as sharks circled overhead and met up with King Neptune in the end.

The Western theme was also popular at the time. You’d ride between a gunfight, come face to face with a locomotive, and see a bull charging at you, things of that nature. Pleasure Island had one of those called the Old Chisholm Trail. Freedomland U.S.A., which was an American-history-themed park that ran from 1960 to 1964, even had a ride by Marco Engineering based on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, more and more of the dark rides started getting themed. But the best ones, in my opinion, are those that don’t have a theme because you don’t know what’s going to pop up next. Whereas, say, if you’re in a Western ride, you know you’re going see a gunfight and you’re going to see a bull. Yeah, it will impress you, but you’re already in a pre-established comfort zone. A dark ride with no connection between the various stunts is more like a nightmare to me—a train-of-thought type of nightmare where, say, you see a laughing clown, then a devil, and then a witch. All of a sudden, an alligator pops out at you. To me, that puts you more on edge.

Collectors Weekly: How did Bill Tracy contribute to dark rides in the 1960s?

This typical Bill Tracy maiden-in-distress at the torture-chamber scene in the Haunted House ride at Ocean City, Maryland, contains air cylinders that give her a "heaving bosom." (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

This typical Bill Tracy maiden-in-distress at the torture-chamber scene in the Haunted House ride at Ocean City, Maryland, contains air cylinders that give her a “heaving bosom.” (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

LaCross: He brought artistry into the whole scenario. The best research we have says that he started out doing work for Barnum & Bailey’s and for Macy’s, doing window designs and making floats for the Thanksgiving Day parade. Then, he struck out on his own. The stuff that he did for dark rides was mind-blowing. He was all over the map: He made some lifelike figures, and he made some very distorted figures. From what we’ve been told by people that knew him, the psychedelic era influenced him, even though he was an older person at the time; he was in his mid-60s when he died in 1974. But his later installations like the Whacky Shack definitely have a psychedelic edge to them.

He did a wide spectrum of dark-ride stunts. There’s nothing violent about the Whacky Shack at all, totally nothing. Yet back in the ’60s, he did a lot of gory stuff, and some over-the-top politically incorrect stuff. He’d take liberty with women, featuring, say, a scantily clad woman shackled up to the wall in a torture chamber. Thanks to the air cylinders, her breasts would move in and out like she was breathing. He made a bunch of bar scenes with barmaids with those same heaving breasts, but they’re shown serving drinks, dressed like hookers from the frontier days.

Probably his most gory scene—which he debuted in 1963 right in a park in Rhode Island—was a woman in a teddy going through a sawmill, sliced right in half. For the life of me, I can’t remember one person ever complaining about that back then. When I look back on that, it’s amazing. I remember going through that, celebrating my 9th or 10th birthday. My mom was very strict, and she rode with me and my brother, but she didn’t say a thing about it.

Bill Tracy also had a “Stanley and Livingstone” stunt where Dr. Livingstone was being eaten up by an alligator, and Stanley was trying to pry him out of his mouth. And he got politically incorrect with his depiction of indigenous jungle warriors. He’d have the natives torturing people, barbing people’s heads and cooking them, like his scene of cannibals cooking a couple in his and her pots, with a husband in one pot and the wife in the other. Their heads worked in tandem, so when one popped up, the other dropped down in the pot.

As time went on, Tracy got more into doing illusions in the rides like fading corridors and spinning barrels where your car would go into a turning tunnel. The illustration on the tunnel’s interior would make you feel as if the car was rocking from side to side, but you’re not really doing that. So his style changed quite a bit. He was the first to utilize black light and Day-Glo paint. If you see these figures with the regular lights on, they were weird colors. But in the black light, they look more realistic—or surrealistic.

Collectors Weekly: How did the proliferation of television after World War II affect dark rides?

A "Stanley and Livingtone" stunt from a vintage Bill Tracy dark ride catalog. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

A “Stanley and Livingtone” stunt from a vintage Bill Tracy dark ride catalog. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

LaCross: I think TV enhanced the popularity of dark rides. The Spook-A-Rama operators in Coney Island, New York, did their own version of some of the old Universal monsters like Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and the Mummy, in addition to what was originally installed. That’s because in the late 1950s Universal gave TV stations permission to start showing some of their monster movies from the 1930s and ’40s. And Bill Tracy’s stuff was often inspired by old movies featuring villains and damsels in distress and the like.

Dark rides would keep up with the times. When the horror film called “The Tingler” came out in 1959, the Coney Island ride operators built a creature like that movie’s monster themselves and advertised it would be inside Spook-A-Rama. Around 1968, when Adam West used to play Batman in the campy TV series, the owner dressed up a male mannequin as Batman, and put him in the ride. Then he put a sign out that said, “See Batman!”

Collectors Weekly: Do you think the increasingly graphic violence in movies and television influenced these rides?

The "Crooked Chamber" in the Haunted House ride at Ocean City, Maryland, is one of Bill Tracy's psychedelic optical illusions. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

The “Crooked Chamber” in the Haunted House ride at Ocean City, Maryland, is one of Bill Tracy’s psychedelic optical illusions. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

LaCross: The boom to make these things really scary took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Maybe after the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, darks started pushing the envelope a little more. The rides that are loved the most are somewhat scary, but not totally terrifying. The 1970s Pennsylvania dark rides we did documentaries on—Whacky Shack at Waldameer Park in Erie and the Haunted House at Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg—give you a couple jokes, but there’s nothing horrific in them, nothing like scenes in “Saw,” no Jasons from “Friday the 13th,” or anything like that.

People have told me that if you’re scared by something that’s not that scary, it has more of an impact on you. You say, “Wow, I can’t believe that thing made me jump out of my seat.” Compared to what I’ve seen on TV, on video games, or at an IMAX theater, if this little thing makes me jump out of my seat, then I guess it’s pretty good. That’s what I’ve always admired about the older rides, that the creators really had to be thinking out of the box to come up with these elementary devices that get a rise out of people.

Operator Granville Trimper revamped his Ocean City, Maryland, Haunted House in 1988 by merging two 1960s Bill Tracy dark rides. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

Operator Granville Trimper revamped his Ocean City, Maryland, Haunted House in 1988 by merging two 1960s Bill Tracy dark rides. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

As a kid, one of the most frightening sounds I ever heard was in the Laff in the Dark Pretzel ride we had at Crescent Park. It had an actual car horn installed at the very end of the ride, just before you went out into daylight. You saw your last figure, and you were in darkness. You could see a little bit of a crack between the two doors. You’d think, “OK, we’re going out.” And all of a sudden, a Chrysler Imperial car horn went off. Instantly, you went back to that time you were trying to cross Pawtucket Avenue, and some car sped up and almost hit you. That would play to your emotions, a simple thing like that.

I have the utmost admiration for the haunt world, the actors that perform in the haunted houses at Halloween. But it’s pretty easy to startle someone when a guy comes running out of a dark corner. I’m not saying anybody can do that, but it’s a much more difficult execution for an inanimate object to actually scare you. All of the elements—the timing, the lighting, the sound, the motion, everything—has to be just right.

A skeleton mans a ship's wheel in the 1972 Bill Tracy walk-through attraction Pirate's Cove in Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

A skeleton mans a ship’s wheel in the 1972 Bill Tracy walk-through attraction Pirate’s Cove in Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

Collectors Weekly: How did the opening of Disneyland in 1955 affect dark rides?

LaCross: Three dark rides debuted at the opening of Disneyland—Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and Peter Pan’s Flight—all in Fantasyland. But the outdoor Jungle Cruise in Adventureland was probably the most influential on dark rides. Shortly after that, you started having various jungle land rides opening up, whether they were indoors or outdoors. The indoor jungle rides were pretty creepy because it’s so dark in them, you felt like you could’ve been going down the Congo River and you didn’t have any sense of being enclosed. Bill Tracy took advantage of that. His jungle dark ride was called Lost River, and old mills were sometimes converted into Lost Rivers. But they’re all gone now, for one reason or another.

The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean came later on. There are ongoing arguments around Pirates of the Caribbean, because there were several pirate single-rail dark rides that came before it opened in 1967, and it has many of the same type of scenes as the older rides. Disney’s defenders say, “Well, those designers must have gotten ahold of Walt’s sketches somehow because it was in the making for a long time.” There are always debates online about who stole whose ideas. But I’d say that after Pirates of the Caribbean debuted, a lot more pirate rides cropped up, and the best ones came out in the late 1960s.

Phantasmagoria, photographed in 1973 just after it was installed at Bell's Amusement Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a two-story Bill Tracy dark ride, done in his Whacky Shack style. The ride was demolished after Bell's closed in 2006. (Courtesy of Kyle J. Wood, via Kirk Demarais' I Rode Phantasmagoria site)

Phantasmagoria, photographed in 1973 just after it was installed at Bell’s Amusement Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a two-story Bill Tracy dark ride, done in his Whacky Shack style. The ride was demolished after Bell’s closed in 2006. (Courtesy of Kyle J. Wood, via Kirk Demarais’ I Rode Phantasmagoria site)

I can tell you that no one tries to copy the animatronics that Walt Disney does, or even the Pepper’s ghost illusion, the ghosts that you can see right through in the Haunted Mansion. Some people think they are holograms, but they’re not. They’re a complex Victorian-era visual trick using lights and mirrors, and not too many people try to do that. But the Haunted Mansion, which opened in 1971, does reference some of the older dark rides, with the ghosts that pop up from the behind the gravestones in the cemetery and the skeletons or corpses pushing their coffin lids up. I’m sure there’s been a mutual type of influence, going both ways.

I don’t think the opening of Disneyland hurt the local parks at all. At most of these amusement parks, you would get a good bang for your buck, so you’d be pretty happy. I know Disney World is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the world, but not everybody can afford to go there, at least not on a consistent basis.

Collectors Weekly: Why don’t we see as many of these old dark rides today?

LaCross: There was one pivotal moment in 1984, when a walk-through dark attraction called Haunted Castle caught fire at the Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, New Jersey, and eight teenagers, who were trapped inside, died. Most parks had perfectly safe funhouses, walk-through scary houses, and single-rail dark rides, but after this fire, park owners grew so afraid of something happening. All kinds of new restrictions were put on these things; from then on, they always had to have sprinkler systems, smoke alarms, and emergency exits.

In the past, many dark rides did end up burning down because they didn’t have sprinkler systems. For the most part, the fire started at another attraction and just happened to sweep into them. Some dark rides did catch fire themselves. There was one situation where one of the ride operators tried to circumvent the fuse by putting a penny into it, and that caused the fire in the control panel and set a big blaze off.

LaffintheDark.com editor George LaCross (left) and creative director Bill Luca (right) with operator Stacy Vourderis and a couple of Bill Tracy stunts. Coney Island's Spook-A-Rama used the Day-Glo figures, moved from New York's shuttered Rockaway Park in the ’80s, until Superstorm Sandy hit. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

LaffintheDark.com editor George LaCross (left) and creative director Bill Luca (right) with operator Stacy Vourderis and a couple of Bill Tracy stunts. Coney Island’s Spook-A-Rama used the Day-Glo figures, moved from New York’s shuttered Rockaway Park in the ’80s, until Superstorm Sandy hit. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

But I don’t think the tragedy was reflective of most operating dark rides and funhouses in the 1980s. Yet a lot of parks did purge their rides shortly after. At this point, that tragedy seems pretty much forgotten. All of the operating dark rides that I know of have sprinkler systems, partially because these rides are so valuable now and they’re such attention-grabbers. Not only do the park owners want to protect their patrons in case a fire breaks out when the ride is operating, but they want to make sure that it’s protected when it’s not in operation, because the vintage ones can’t be replaced.

The older devices have been retrofitted with new insulated wiring and motors, which are pretty much fireproof. That doesn’t take away from the age and charm of the stunt. It does put a little bit of a bogus slant on the ride when you see that emergency exit sign in the darkness. But they have to do it. You never can tell what might happen. If the rides didn’t have those, they wouldn’t be operating.

Collectors Weekly: Do people collect things from defunct dark rides?

This Cyclops head once graced the top of the façade of Spook-A-Rama. It's now showcased in the Coney Island History Project exhibit in New York. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

This Cyclops head once graced the top of the façade of Spook-A-Rama. It’s now showcased in the Coney Island History Project exhibit in New York. (Courtesy of LaffintheDark.com)

LaCross: Until the Internet became mainstream, no one did. When park or ride owners refurbished a ride or re-themed it or put new gimmicks into it, they’d throw out their old figures—just toss ’em right into a dumpster—stunts that go back to the 1950s and so forth. I’ve heard about owners taking Pretzel ride cars and pawning them off to some metal recycling plant.

“Some old-mill rides had dark areas for smooching, which is which why they got the nickname, ‘Tunnels of Love.’”

Bill Luca and I debuted our Laff in the Dark site in 1999, and after that, interest in dark rides started to take off. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely due to our site, but we helped raise consciousness, I’m sure, as did the Internet in general. Now, on a rare occasion, you see the Pretzel cars pop up on eBay, but not often, because there’s not a lot of them around. Somebody happened to buy something for a song, or maybe got something free, and now they ask us, “What’s the value?” Bill and I are asked to appraise things all the time. But it one of those things: One man’s treasure is another man’s junk.

I consider the dark ride papier-mâché figures and fiberglass figures—and even some made out of Styrofoam—to be works of art. But a hand-carved wooden horse or animal from the old carousels probably has a little more of a collectible appeal to it. Some of these cars and figures are pretty beat up because they weren’t cared for over the years. Often, the dark-ride figures go through violent motions, thrashing about, and they’ve been in bad atmospheric conditions in the dark ride. They have to be restored. If you saw a Bill Tracy witch with one eye missing or only half of its hand, you probably wouldn’t be offering too much money for that even though it’s a Tracy figure. Only a niche audience knows what that’s all about. But if they’re nurtured, they can last for a long time.

Because these older rides have such an appeal, park owners are holding on to them with a death grip now. Having a Pretzel or having a Bill Tracy dark ride now, it’s almost like having a Dentzel or a Looff carousel. Obviously, they’re not as pretty, picturesque, or statuesque as those steeds; they’re maybe a little grimier or whatever. Bill Luca and I made a documentary about a Whacky Shack ride Tracy built in 1970 in Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, which has about 95 percent of its original stunts. We went up there when the park was closed and saw that the park operators had built this long rail for the line. I said, “What, this many people actually ride this?” They said, “Oh, yeah!”

Later, I talked to people when the park was open, and it was enlightening and uplifting to hear people in line talk about why they loved this ride so much. These parents that are in their, say, 30s or 40s, are taking kids through, and they remember seeing the same figures and the same stunts at their age. It’s like riding your favorite horses on the carousel. It has that same nostalgic appeal. The ride hasn’t gotten any scarier or anything. Certainly, there are scarier rides now. These people can go to Disney World and go through the Haunted Mansion and see things that are far superior technically than what’s in the Whacky Shack. But the fact that the same stuff is in there and maintained so well, that it still operates the same as it did back in the 1970s, is an incredible draw.

(Thanks to Laff in the Dark,  the Westchester County Archives, and the University of Kentucky Special Collections for photos. For dark ride and funhouse locations, as well as pictures, articles, newsletters, and DVDs about vintage dark rides, visit George LaCross and Bill Luca’s site, Laff in the Dark; in particular, great 1930s photos and stunt diagrams can be found on Luca’s “Playland After Dark” article. More information can be found at the Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts club site. Read more about the famous dark-ride pioneer at The Bill Tracy Project, and about Kyle J. Wood’s insider knowledge from working on Phantasmagoria at Kirk Demarais’ Secret Fun Spot. Also, check out this cool Pretzel car posted on Show & Tell.)

6 comments so far

  1. Heather C Says:

    I was always too scared to go into these rides as a kid, but this make me regret that. I did go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, which utterly terrified me. What a great story!

  2. Barbara Says:

    In Cincinnati Ohio a small amusement park named Fantasy Farm had a Pretzel ride. My oldest son was fascinated by it. I’m so glad to know the story behind it, thanks to this excellent article. I also remember the wonderful dark rides at Coney Island in Cincinnati, the Lost River particularly.

  3. benjamin thomas Says:

    what a great batch of memories you brought to me, thanks much!
    i remember as a kid going to iron mountain iron mine, in michigan, and they had a ride that started out as a ‘tour of the mine’, then quickly escalated into a roller coaster in the dark!
    dark, dank, dead miners reaching out in the darkness toward you, it scared me so bad, and i’m not proud, but i convinced my mom to ride it again with me. i’m not sure that she’s ever truly forgiven me!
    again, a great and wonderful flood of memories, triggered by you.
    and for that, i truly am grateful.
    benthomas

  4. Amy Enders Says:

    I grew up in Erie PA on the Whacky Shack. I take my kids there now when we’re in town. My 8 year old is terrified of it, and the walk-thru Pirate’s Cove. The Whacky Shack also has a distinctive smell, that if you could bottle it, would do very well!

  5. Andrew Says:

    Miss the dark ride at Great Escape Lake George. (Tornado?) Always my favorite. My childhood lined up perfectly with the years it existed there. But even today I’d rather take a nostalgia trip on that than any high tech WB/DC theme coaster.

  6. George Says:

    Yes Andrew, the Great Escape did have the Tornado dark ride from 1967 to 2003. I got to ride it at Great Escape and at its original location at Freedomland USA. Details here: http://www.laffinthedark.com/articles/tornado/tornado.htm


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.