Taking time off from riding roller coasters this summer until my ribs healed from a recent accident, my thoughts turned to my second favorite group of attractions, namely dark rides and dark walk-throughs. Not the modern, high-tech dark rides with moving images and interactive target shooting, but the old fashioned dark rides of my youth.
You may think that dark rides are second-class citizens, but you’re wrong. It’s not all rickety doors and ultraviolet paintings. With a little imagination it’s zombies dismembering blood-spurting victims and the real corpses of outlaws strung up and painted orange. These days even the most modern dark rides draw on a long tradition of cheap thrills.
You know the type, like Disney’s lovely Haunted Mansion run amuck. The 1940s and ‘50s were the heyday of dark rides, and the effects then were groundbreaking. There were taped sound effects of horns, screams, and sirens, motion-sensor-activated ghosts on springs, and fake cobwebs that dragged across riders’ faces. These plus animated figures all became classic features. Rides now had to compete with movies, so displays got gorier and more lurid. Zombies ripped models of women apart, torrents of blood splashed over the tracks, and real actors jumped into carriages. In the 1960s American designer Bill Tracy started making ghost trains, and rattled them on a step further. One of his displays was of a woman bound to a buzz saw table, sliding down to the blade, which sliced her in two. I’m ashamed I even mentioned that.
These are classic dark rides, and the region I believe has the densest population of these attractions is the East Coast of the America. Many dark attractions that once populated the region have been lost to fires, storms, or vandalism, but many remain to carry on the tradition. So I set off to re-visit them. My trip started in Ocean City, Maryland, where Trimper’s Rides has both the Haunted House dark ride and Pirates Cove walk through. Across the Boardwalk on Jolly Roger at the Pier is Morbid Manor, a dark ride. Funland in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, is home to Haunted Mansion, a beautifully conceived and maintained suspended dark ride. Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, New Jersey, hosts three dark attractions, the giant Ghost Ship walk-through, Pirates of the Wildwoods, a dark boat ride, and Dante’s Dungeon, a double-decker dark ride originally installed in 1981 as Dante’s Inferno, But when guests were asked if they preferred the ride or the book, they unanimously chose the ride (almost true), so in 2005 Dante’s Inferno was converted to Dante’s Dungeon, pictured here. Gillian’s Wonderland, Ocean City, New Jersey, offers their own Haunted House dark ride. Keansburg, New Jersey, is home to Hollowgraves Haunted Manor, a dark walk-through. The final stop was at Coney Island to ride the quirky Spook-A-Rama. The result of this journey is found on page 30.
Maybe it’s the thrill of being scared out of your mind that makes dark rides so exciting. But the final rush of coming out of those double doors, blinking in the sunlight, desperate to go again, guarantees generations of repeat riders.