Laughter in the Dark: A History of Dark Rides

Posted by Staff on Monday, July 18th, 2011

It's a Small World, Disneyland

The dark ride is one of the pillars of amusement park and theme park history. While many of the rides featured in amusement parks rely solely on intense physical sensation, dark rides appeal primarily to the imagination. Always running through an enclosed space, dark rides employ a variety of lighting, sound, scenery, animation, and animatronics to create a range of adventures and situations: sometimes they appeal the whimsical side of the imagination and quite often they engage the darker recesses of the psyche. On the one hand, you have a ride like Disneyland’s brightly lit and cheerful It’s A Small World (pictured above)and on the other there a number of rides that aim to scare and shock riders, such as the famous Spook-A-Rama on Coney Island. There is even a branch of interactive dark rides, called shooting dark rides, that allow riders to shoot at targets in the scenery with either hand-held or mounted light guns. Regardless of the ride’s theme and content, the rise of the dark ride can be clearly traced back to the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company.

Before Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer premiered the first dark ride at Tumbling Dam Amusement Park (now Sunset Lake) in Bridgeton, New Jersey, a similar type of ride, called an Old Mill ride, had gained popularity among amusement park goers in the early 20th century. An Old Mill ride is a boat ride through a dark tunnel depicting scenes ranging from the historical to the ghoulish. Due to the high cost of building an Old Mill ride, Cassidy and Rempfer set to work developing a more economical ride that still maintained the dark atmosphere. In 1928 they debuted the unnamed “dry” ride that featured cars following a single electric track through a darkened pavilion. After one rider described the path of the ride as a “pretzel,” Cassidy and Rempfer decided that would be the perfect name for the company.

Pretzel Dark Ride Advertisement

The Pretzel cars, originally designed to resemble Model A Fords, now incorporated a pretzel shape into the design: 40-pound cast iron pretzels on the nose of the car to help keep the front end on the track. Over the course of the following decade, Pretzel became one of the most popular rides at amusement parks throughout the country. Their reliable car and rail system provided a platform that amusement parks could customize into their own unique dark ride. Pretzel had also developed a simple, but effective system of stunts that were triggered by the wheels of the cars. As they rolled over a hinged bar system, this would send a surprise shooting up into view of the passengers; the two staple surprises were “Al. E Gator,” who popped up out of a barrel, and the “Jersey Devil.”

After a hiatus in production during WWII, Cassidy’s son William took over until he retired and sold the rights to build the rides in 1979. During the three decades that William led the company he branched out into other types of rides, but also updated the original dark ride with seats that swiveled independently of the chassis and a two-level ride that involved lifting the car up to a second level with a lift.

While Pretzel was the big name on the mechanical end of the dark ride industry, there were a few companies that dominated the visual elements. In the 1950s, Animated Display Creators (ADC) developed a line of stunts that could be added to the standard Pretzel dark ride. ADC offered their own ghosts, skeletons, spear-wielding savages, and other creepy entities that parks could use to create a customized dark ride.

BIlly Tracy with "Swamp Ghost"

Tracy with his creation “Swamp Ghost”

In the 60s and 70s, a display artist by the name of Bill Tracy took dark ride stunts to a new level of horror and shock. Gruesome displays such as women getting sawed in half, a man flushed down a toilet, and an evil Old Mother Hubbard dining on her pet were just a few of the stunts that made Tracy the go-to man for over-top spooks. The Old Mother Hubbard stunt was part of the Hour 13 ride at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City, Florida which traveled 543 feet of track compared to the original Pretzel rides of 350 feet.

Dark rides continue to thrill guests today, but with plenty of updated features. As mentioned before, there are shooting dark rides such as the Buzz Lightyear attractions at all of the Disney parks. One of the most recent and technologically advanced dark rides is another Toy Story themed ride called the Toy Story Midway Mania where riders wear 3D goggles as they participate in numerous classic carnival games, such as a baseball throw and pie toss. No matter what games and gimmicks are added, it is still the simple escapism of moving through a dark space that captures the imaginations of today’s riders.


Laff in the Dark

Ride Mad: Early Dark Ride History

The Bill Tracy Project

One response to “Laughter in the Dark: A History of Dark Rides”

  1. Brandon says:

    I really enjoyed reading your article and dark ride history summary. Nice job!
    Co-Founder, The Bill Tracy Project

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