Part Five - April 4, 2002

Lizzy Runs In Circles On The World's Shortest Dark Ride Track

On Friday, March 23, I got my engineering department back from the frosty Canadian wastes. Byron - sufering from jetlag - met me at his regular friday haunt for a few beers, and a discussion of what needed to be done on the prototype car. By Saturday night, we were once again at work on the beast, with the help of Chris Carley, another seasoned welder (right) who helped put everything right on track (pun intended) and supplied me with a couple of valuable lessons in welding.

Chris - who became captain of the 'Front House' area of our walk-through attraction this past year, and did a wonderful job of rejuvinating it - willingly tossed his bandanna into our dark ride ring , and has committed his skills in the finishing of the lengthy track fabrication process. On Saturday, he welded numerous plasma-cut footers onto various track lengths which enabled us to finish the prototype test track today (Sunday, March 25.) Kudos, Chris!

The oxyacetyline torch you see being fired by Chris was used to bend track in situ as we bolted it down to the test track layout, which is intended to give us about a 30 second taste of the eventual ride. It may seem like a lot of work to bend track in this manner, and it is. Thus, we made the decision to purchase an hydraulic press to pre-bend sharp turn segments before we lay them.

Byron and I came to the conclusion that, given fabricated track sections sufficient to fit the entire ride, the entire tracking process could be completed with a crew of 3 to 4 workers in about a 12-hour work day. That in itself would be cause for celebration, but an even greater short term celebration occurred when we finished the test track tonight.

After a couple of false starts, which included further grinding of the clearances on the prototype's gusseted motor platform to allow for the uneven floor of the warehouse, we got our first successful ride after a 6 hour workday.

A note of caution - a major one, in fact - resulted from a sad accident which occurred on Thursday. Steve Joseph, our business manager, was helping us to assemble some palate racks when he fell five feet to his knees, doing significant damage to both of them, and losing valuable worktime as a stage manager for the group Nickleback. I rode behind the ambulance that bore him to the emergency room, and was very sad that this injury was incurred as an adjunct to the dark ride project. Nevertheless, he was present in his wheelchair tonight (March 25) to witness the success of the test of Lizzy on some of her first trips around the test track. As a result of the cautionary tale provided by his mishap, Byron and I both purchased kneepads which we will wear throughout the assembly project. It's an unfortunate thing that we must sometimes learn from the mishaps of our closest friends. Get well soon, Steve!

At right, you can see frames from an mpeg movie I took of Lizzie - being ridden by Byron and his friend Amy - circumnavigating the test track. The circuit is somewhere between 60 and 70 feet in length, and at Lizzy's 4.5 f.p.s. speed gives a ride of about 18 seconds - making it currently the world's shortest dark ride.

The narrow turn at the right rear exceeds the theoretical turn radius of 3 feet - it's about 2.5 feet - and Lizzie made us proud by snapping wildly around it. Byron informed me that this is the extreme limit. He watched the drive system's clearances closely as it turned the radical bend, and told me that this is as far as we can push the system. But at least we can do just that with our massive four-seater: negotiate a turn radius that few historic 2-seater dark ride cars could manage.

With our car travelling at 4.5 feet per second, the lateral forces were just enough to give a thrill. (As it turns out, we have adjusted the ratio of our chosen Cyclo-Drive for this speed, as it will give the low speed of our motor a little extra mechanical advantage.) The seats of the production cars will be padded, but the thrill-ride aspect will not be lessened thereby. Yes, I hooted and hollered as I rode my lifelong dream's first incarnation. It was indeed time for a toast - but all we had on hand was beer.

Without the hot rail track installed, we powered the car with a trailing extension cord secured to a mast, with an overhead source. If you were to ride the prototype through several circuits, you'd need to stop, unplug the extension, and remove the twists. That's exactly what we did. When your experiment is a success, such a miniscule extra labor becomes a positive pleasure. Naturally, we could not resist the temptation to turn out the lights and ride Lizzy in cold darkness. Was it fun? Go figure!

We will use most of this test track as part of the actual ride, with minor modifications. The radical sharp left turn at the right rear will be a close encounter with a particularly stunning special effect - a major animatronic from Scare Factory.

The test track at ground zero: Happiness runs in a circular
motion - especially if it's your own dark ride vehicle.

The process of ride manufacturing is about to begin. With seven polished cars and 500-600' of track to buld - along with power supply, hot rail and control systems - we have our hands full. For this writer, there are very few things that would be this much fun to tackle, and I intend to keep reporting our progress until we open for business. To quote Victor Frankenstein, "It's Alive!"


In anticipation of the question, "What's it like to ride?" I'll go ahead and tell you. This is a thrill ride at high speed. A moderate-intensity whip ride might be the best description of it when steering through tight turns. Further, it accurately reflects the condition of the track that steers it. If the track is rough, it jolts rudely to the left and right, convincing riders that a derail is imminent. Nothing could be further from the truth with the captive rail, but it's exciting to ride if you don't know this - and even if you do.

As has ben mentioned from the start, this car design (the final version of which I have recently christened as the Charon System - after the Grim Ferryman) will be overbuilt in regard to bearings and supports, and able to take the punishment of radical track. It will require this to create the illusion of riding in a rickety car that is just about to go out of control - and actually does, for a moment or two.

The beefed up and shortened frame that will become the Charon Mark I is taking shape on paper. (I'll admit that, since we have done so many hundreds of hours of work on this car, we are reluctant to just give out free blueprints, so sorry. ;-) It's about 1.5' shorter than Lizzie, and will have a massive motor platform and guide roller mounts. It will be even more stable, and able to take massive abuse without failing. The tensioner for the drive wheel will be moved as shown to allow even more traction. The rear guiding truck will have three rollers and be capable of pivoting, to give more solid guidance - harkening back to my original drawings.

With more sturdy parts, the gusseting required on Lizzy's prototype drive will be unnecessary. The car will be able to clear uneven track (caused by our uneven floor) with no problems. It will also be centered on the drive and hot rail pair as it should be, allowing the same turning potential on both sides. The laser cutting of the new assemblies is now scheduled to be done within the month of April.

I must once again thank Byron, Frank, and Chris for much of the work it took to make this system happen.


What else at House of Shock goes around in counter-clockwise circles at night? The dirt track stock car we sponsor, shown at right, piloted by driver Joey Grego. It's already hot, but is constantly being tweaked to make it into the regular winner it is destined to be. We trust our haunted ride will be as exciting to experience as this car is to watch at the track. Best of luck, Joey!

This past week saw the completion of a lot of small subassemblies, such as the insulator blocks for the hot rails, and the spines and cams for our car and track switch assemblies. (Switches of the type we need are just too expensive to buy as off-the-shelf industrial parts, so I invented a much cheaper alternative that employs a $7 microswitch, and will be just as reliable.) The metal for the cars and track has been ordered and should arrive late next week. Byron will be gone for another two weeks starting Monday, but my work will continue, as a number of tasks have been mapped out. Chris will return and help to finish the track sections, which now come in 10' and 20' lengths, plus the radical 2.5' radius turn segments (which will require a 20-ton pressure hydraulic shop press to fabricate.)

Also, we have a completed safety bar installed on Lizzy, which works well, and is quite strong. It has two lockdown positions - one to accomodate small kids riding alone, and another to handle medium to large adults. Even the largest riders can now be safely restrained in the seats. The final bars will be of steel tubing, and covered with a padded surround. The latch system is simple and reliable, and allows the bar to be released from either side of the car in an emergency situation. Both sides of the bar have latches, mechanically linked by a strong crossbar. We spent about an hour and a half brainstorming the latch mechanism alone, considering various types of catches and cable releases, always looking for something even more simple to manufacture. The final version has but one moving part - the crossbar - and you can't do much better than that.

One final footnote - Steve is actually up and walking again after his accident. His left knee will eventually need surgery, but he will be able to resume work with Gem Effects, the pyrotechnic company by which he is employed. This is good news indeed!