Ever wonder how dark rides, with all their dazzling effects and colorful characters, come to be? One company, based in Jacksonville, FL, has mastered the art of this immersive entertainment business: SALLY Corp.
SALLY Corp, creators of adventures like “Scooby Doo’s Haunted Mansion,” “5 Nights at Freddy’s,” and “Walking Dead: Battle for Survival.” From their start, crafting animatronics, to their high profile IP theme park power rides, the company has been plying their craft for just over 40 years.
An animated beginning
Early animatronics, like a representation of President LB Johnson (created for retailer Neiman Marcus), can be traced to the company’s roots. SALLY Corp first began production of their mechanical figures in 1977 in producing characters for dinner amusements like Chuck E Cheese. Today the company creates full ride experiences for theme parks across the globe.
One of the company’s early contributions to dark ride adventures is still in operation at Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood. Though heavily disguised, a figure of company founder, John Wood (his likeness was used for the animatronic’s head sculpt) remains part of the action in the E.T. attraction.
Dark ride delights
Working with theme park operators like Six Flags, Warner Brothers, Legoland, Ripley’s, and Hersheypark, SALLY Corp crafted scores of sensational experiences. Notable attractions like “Nights in White Satin: The Trip” (for Freestyle Music Park, formerly Hard Rock Park), Justice League: Battle for Metropolis (for several Six Flags theme parks), and Lost Kingdom Adventure (Legoland parks).
Many of their dark ride journeys include interactive elements. Adventures like Ghost Blasters, Challenge of Tutankhamen, and Justice League: Alien Invasion all include elements for riders to interact with the action around them. There’s even a turkey based romp called Gobbler Getaway (designed for Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana).
WATCH: Queue video crafted for Justice League: Alien Invasion (created for Warner Bros. Movie World in Australia). Fans familiar with downtown Orlando,may find a few familiar structures.
What goes into creating a dark ride?
Three major steps take place: concept/planning, fabrication, and construction. Once a concept and story is conceived and approved, ride details are rendered via computer; though this is not a graphic representation of the attraction, but rather schematics including layout of wiring, effects, screens, track and more. From fabricating new looks by sculpting molds to manufacturing ride elements and vehicles, the new attraction is assembled. Finally, all elements are delivered to the ride destination and assembled on site.
Sally Corp has featured original attractions spotlighting characters like King Tut, troublesome turkeys, and restless spirits. Other experiences include IP (intellectual property) famous faces like Scooby Doo, DC comics characters, and walkers from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
What’s new with Dark Rides?
Sally Corp Creative Director Rich Hill took a few minutes to chat with Inside the Magic about Sally Corp and dark rides.
When asked about the latest trend in dark ride entertainment, Rich reminded us that the latest fads are not always the best fit for dark rides which are expected to last more than a few years; good story telling takes priority. However, he acknowledges that augmented reality is on the horizon.
“AR is the push . . . ideal for adding a digital layer to existing attractions.” He also noted, however, that cost is a major barrier (i.e. the price of glasses: $1 for 3D vs $300 for AR).
Virtual Reality (VR), the immersive environment created by donning a headset, also has its drawbacks within the theme park realm. “Thing about a theme park is it’s so communal . . .want to be next to someone. Want to see them and experience it with them . . . with a headset, you don’t get that. You’re completely isolated in that world.”
Once AR tech becomes more economically feasible, it would not be hard to imagine existing attractions receiving new and interactive elements. This new digital push would most likely first show up in major theme parks and then find their way into regional attractions.
Digital projection, however, makes dark rides adventures even more realistic. The process allows ride manufacturers put a digital layer on the practical. “Because Sally Dark Rides is a complete world with practical/tangible and also have large video screens to extend the space,” advised Mr. Hill. As an example, he pointed out a moment in the Magic Mountain Justice League ride. Joker and his henchman come barreling out in a (practical element) life sized, STAR Labs Van. Pointing projection elements on front windshield (showing henchmen in action) and at the van’s headlights and grill (giving illusion of shot out headlights and steam escaping from the front grill).
However, the biggest element in demand at theme parks is interactive action (something Sally Corp conjured up long before Men in Black or Toy Story attractions hit the big theme parks). In keeping with the fun family escape goal of theme parks, Sally Corp prefers focusing on using interactive devices for gathering clues, interacting with ride elements and as exploration tools. Even when interactive devices are used as weapons, they instead take on stun functionality (vs lethal force). In some attractions, hands free gestures are used instead.
Rich Hill recommended a pair of attraction milestones when asked which might be the most photogenic. Challenge of Tutankhamon (especially the tomb) in Belgium and the company’s Justice League adventures (Australia’s version boasts giant sets complete with a large space ship which lands and crushes a full size car).
Tour the magic
Sally Corp’s headquarters in downtown Jacksonville, FL, offers guided tours of their dark ride factory. Mock ups of attractions, interactive elements along with props and animatronics are all part of the tour. Visitors might also witness new rides being constructed (including the sculpting and programming processes). Tours are given on Tuesday and Thursday of each week; sign up on their website.
Now that they’ve successfully seen Justice League land at several theme parks, Sally Corp, according to creative director Rich Hill, is about to embark on new adventures. Be sure to keep an eye on their website for new original and IP custom attractions (at least 4 are planned at this time).