The Dark Ride Project: The End Of The Story

The ride was not a failure, thought it opened over two weeks too late - after the main attraction had opened for the season the first week in October 2002. The scenic elements were compromised, and not nearly as finished as I would have wished them to be. Realize that we had a staff of 5-6 people (nearly all volunteers, including my engineer and myself) trying to finish a ride that would normally require dozens of laborers to complete in such a time frame (11 months). By the time the management finally realized what the ride was really all about - which happened less than a week from our opening date - it was too late to make adequate reparations.

It did manage to carry about 7500 passengers, and most had a positive experience and came out smiling. One delighted and energetic patron even cuffed me at the operator's position, and told me that it reminded her of the Laff In The Dark ride at Pontchartrain Beach amusement park here in New Orleans - the very same ride that frightened (and inspired) me at age 5 into being a haunted imagineer. This one fond remembrance almost made all the worry and work worthwhile! (I was working despite having the flu at the time, probably caught due to last-minute stress.)

So, what happened to keep things from being optimal? I made several errors in judgment, which I shall list here:

A number of issues should have warned me that I was in trouble. I found myself up against some opposition from a small faction within the organization - something that had happened to me previously in my career as a haunter - and I realized that I was neither entirely trusted nor supported, for whatever motive(s). I kept hearing negative things third-hand, which should have told me that communication was a problem, and I did not properly address this, making it my mistake.

One piece of evidence in support of this conflict was that my volunteer upholsterer had been lambasted, without any prior (and proper) warning to me, about the quality of his work - and promptly quit his job. It took me two weeks to talk him down and get him back in the saddle - a very costly thing in a time-on-target operation. (As it turned out, my hapless volunteer finally delivered some of the most comfortable seats ever stuffed for a dark ride car, and I have repeatedly offered him kudos for this.) I can only say, as regards this episode, 'shame on me.'

Another 'shame on me': I had done my homework on power supply issues. Jules Catarzi (for more info, read the weblog [or 'blog'] of the ride article) had warned me that I needed at least a 12KVA power transformer for each zone of the ride. I let an electrician talk me out of it, and into using a much less robust transformer system - which, of course, couldn't handle the load. This resulted in motors overheating and shutting down with their built-in thermal protection. My ride staffers and I ended up having to push stalled cars of passengers through the ride manually after having ruined the drama of the presentation, due to shutdowns and blackouts. By the time my other staff electrician spent many hours correcting the problem, much rider capacity - and respect - had been lost. More the fool me, alas. (What hadn't the original electrician realized? That a steel buss bar - the small rail that delivered power to our cars - has lots of internal electrical resistance, and much extra current must be available to make up for it.) The lesson? If you know what you need, insist on it, and remain totally in charge of your project!

And, unfortunately, there's yet another 'shame on me': the organization expected the ride to amortize itself in one season. I should have raised the red flag immediately on this, but I was too much of a cock-eyed optimist. No amusement ride of this size has ever made back its cost in the first year. But I did not object, though I certainly should have made this clear up front. Why didn't I? I was too caught up in my desire to make a 35-year-old dream a reality. Don't ever let something like this happen to you! (Again, this was a communication issue.)

That pretty much sums up the shortcomings of the project, and why I am now an independent imagineer again - by choice. If you intend to do something on this scale as a volunteer, take this warning to heart: if everyone isn't for you, then at least someone will be against you.

-Doug 'no more the fool' Ferguson

Here's an epilog - a magazine article I wrote for the haunt trade:


By Doug Ferguson, project director and designer

[Note: This article was published in HauntWorld Magazine over a year after the ride was built.]


It seems fitting that House of Shock be home to the first permanent dark ride at an October haunted attraction. One of the original inspirations for House of Shock was the Haunted House ride through attraction at the vanished Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park here in New Orleans - and in fact, one of the interior set pieces of the walk-through is a replica of the fa┴ade of this old ride. Further, in a1999 interview, Phil Anselmo - one of the original founders - mentioned that his desire was to have a ride as part of the show.

I attempted to sell the founders on the idea of actually fulfilling this dream, finally succeeding in 2001. We discussed purchasing a portable ride, but these are typically short and unspectacular. Another idea mentioned was making an outdoor-indoor hybrid using golf carts as the vehicles, but this approach posed numerous problems - it would require drivers for the cars and some method of finding the route in pitch darkness. At last I got the green light on a traditional track-based ride, and began searching for cars.

The traditional scary dark ride is a vanishing species, and most young people have never ridden one. Many give a puzzled look when the phrase 'dark ride' is uttered. The last few of these classic rides were built in the late 60's, and I was not surprised when I discovered that there is only one American firm that still builds cars: Catarzi Manufacturing in Florida, near Sarasota, which builds the vehicles only to order, and they are intended for portables rides. Such cars run about $8000 each and only seat two riders. This would have been a budget buster for us, and we began discussing building ride vehicles in-house - a scary prospect for a volunteer-staffed organization.

Fortunately, we possess a well-equipped machine shop and a talented staff engineer, Byron Falgout. One evening, while waiting for Byron to return from a business trip, I located a napkin and began to scribble out my idea for a type of dark ride vehicle that had never been tried. It would be capable of very tight turns and incapable of derailing. When Byron arrived, I sat down with him and discussed the sketch over a couple of beers. Yes, he agreed, it could be done. We then approached management and managed to sell the idea to our bosses, despite some reservations on their part. The car kept this essential configuration in its final form, save for a change in the drive configuration.

The challenges were many. We'd need to manufacture seven cars in an assembly line manner to make them perform identically. There would be power delivery problems to solve, traction and horsepower issues to address, and rider safety to consider. Further, all amusement rides must be inspected and passed before operating, both by NARSO - National Amusement Ride Safety Organization - and by the state inspector. One of the safety requirements is the use of a block control system to prevent vehicles from colliding. It shuts the ride down if two cars enter the same zone (our ride currently has four zones, allowing four cars in the ride at one time.) We would have to resolve all these issues, and find or manufacture all the mechanical and electronic components for ourselves. We began work on this daunting task in winter of 2001, and spent eleven months - and many gallons of blood, sweat, and beers - bringing it to life.


All such projects must begin with the construction of a prototype. We had to hand-build the parts and fabricate a test track on which to run it. In order to be able to construct the vehicle, we had to add a metal lathe and accompanying tools to our shop (a $7,000+ expense) along with numerous other special tools.

Our test car ended up being four feet wide and 5.5 feet long. As you can see from the accompanying photos, the test car is driven by a vertically placed motor and transmission which runs a pneumatic tire which is clamped against the drive rail (a 1/4" x 6" piece of flat steel.)

The car is on casters, because it is essentially a 'monorail with outriggers.' Steering is done by the motor assembly in tandem with a pair of rear steel rollers in the rear. In the final product, the distance between the motor and the rear guide truck is a mere two feet, allowing the car to turn in an amazingly small 1.5' radius. On such sharp meanders, it rotates rather than turns, making it the perfect vehicle for a dark ride, with its need for sudden presentations of scares. Add to this the provision for dual speed capabilities, and you can probably imagine the possibilities. The slower speed is 2.5 feet per second, and high speed is double that, allowing for quite a startling ride experience: the speed change happens quickly. Also, new riders have no clue that the cars are capable of this when they board. To our knowledge, this is the first classic dark ride system capable of multiple speeds on a flat surface.

Lizzy, our prototype car, had a longer spacing of guiding elements, and will not run on the final layout, but she performed perfectly on the kidney-shaped 70' circuit we built for her. Initially, she was powered by a dangling extension cord, which we had to disconnect and untwist after several circuits. After some experimentation, we added a power supply rail - a 2" tall, 1/8" thick steel piece - that mounted to the track supports with blocks of Acetile, a plastic related to Teflon, and which is a good insulator. A spring-loaded, slotted brass pickup rides on top of this smaller rail and delivers power to the motor. To our great satisfaction, this system worked the first time it was tested, and kept on working.

This first car quickly became everyone's favorite toy, and we had no problem finding riders to load test the system. At times, we had her loaded with 8 or more passengers, and as she ran only at high speed, she was a bit of a thrill ride. When we finally ran her in the dark, the experience was even more fun. We decided we were ready to go into the production phase, and made a few modifications to the plans based on our experiences with Lizzy.


Byron started by finalizing the part geometry into CAD-CAM files, allowing us to have the more complex pieces cut by laser or plasma torch systems. Printouts provided us with construction blueprints for the rest, as most of the parts were lathed and machined in the House of Shock shop.

We began searching for a motor capable of dual speed operation, and ended up with one originally designed for use in hot tubs. It delivers .2 horsepower at low speed, and 1.5 horsepower in high. We were concerned that the low power rating of the motor in low speed might be insufficient, but since our transmission system (a Cyclo-Drive, employing cams rather than gears) uses a high ratio, it wasn't the problem we anticipated.

We had considered making the bodies for the cars out of fiberglass, but time constraints limited us to wood. Enter staff carpenter Frank Starnes, who helped us design a very lightweight and sturdy superstructure, which was quick to assemble.


Fabricating and laying 450' of heavy dark ride track is a good bit of work. Our space is about 70' wide and over 100' deep, and we filled it as well as we could, despite support columns, storage racks and other features that had to share the space. The ride is about 3 minutes long, making it one of the longest traditional dark rides in operation anywhere. To help us with this daunting task, another of our staff fabricators, Chris Carley, jumped into the battle, lighting the warehouse nightly with welding rods. Without his help, the track would have not been in place in time for opening.

When the track circuit was completed, we ran tests similar to those we had run with Lizzy. Heavy weights or passengers occupied the first production car as it ran for many hours without stopping. A speed control was placed in the car so that passengers could freely engage the feature to stress the works at will. It passed this torture test with flying colors, and we knew we were on the right track (pun intended.)

Other volunteers came on board to help paint and finish the cars. Upholsterer Robbie designed custom seat cushions to make the cars very comfortable for riders. Byron added locking lap bars to meet safety requirements, and the cars were almost ready to go. The control of the dual speed motor had to be considered next.


Early on, we knew that our ride must be operated under computer control, both for reasons of complexity and safety. To provide this, we found a PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) that was perfectly suited to the purpose. The programming of this unit is accomplished on a PC, using a graphic interface that makes testing easy due to a simulation mode.

Versions of this device were used both as the master ride control system and as speed and safety system controllers in each of the cars. In the end, they proved ideal. For one thing, to update the programming, one need only attach an interface to each unit and issue a command. They also possess a display panel that aids in diagnostics, and can be paused and inspected with little trouble. With a simple switch interface, adapting them to our purposes was easy, and they are resistant to spurious signals.

In each car, a PLC can monitor the position of lap bars for faults, and receive the instruction to go into high speed for whatever duration deemed necessary - three seconds, in the case of our final configuration. High speed is triggered by flexible flaps mounted to the floor of the ride circuit that contact a switch on the car. These flaps can easily be moved where they are needed if the effect requires adjustment.

The ride circuit PLC watches each of the four zones, looking for a zone incursion. To do this, it counts each entrance of a car into a zone. When a car exits the zone, it does a subtraction - zero indicating an empty zone. If the counter advances to 2 for any zone, the ride shuts down automatically, and a red light illuminates on the console. The ride must then be remedied and reset - a procedure with which the operators must become intimately familiar.

Independent of the PLC controls, I designed a system using only relays and switches to comprise the AutoQueue - a mechanism that governs the parking and advancement of cars individually as they enter the parking or queue rail between the entrance and exit of the ride circuit. This relieves some of the task load on the ride circuit PLC, and makes the diagnosis of problems simple. AutoQueue consists of a series of sense switches that tell it whether a car is present in one of seven queue parking spots, and thus if it is safe to advance a car into the next spot ahead of it. It only activates if the ride operator presses a button. This achieves both safety and electrical benefits: only one car at a time starts up, saving us power overloads; and cars may only advance if it is safe to do so without causing a collision.

The Dark Ride has an unload station inside the ride, and in the dark - save for some walk safety lights. The unload operator must press a button to send the unloaded car into the queue. The AutoQueue knows about this, and will not allow a dispatch from unload unless it is safe. One positive benefit of this internal unload station is that waiting riders see empty cars exiting the ride; 'hey, what happened to the last passengers?' Actually, they exit via a door to the side of the ride.


For anyone interested in building and operating such a dark ride as ours, we can offer several pointers:

* Get to know your fire marshals - local and state - and appraise them of what you intend to build. This will let you know if you have any possibility of opening successfully. Do this before you begin to build! All states have different safety requirements, and they can be very tough to meet. Find out who your ride inspectors are, and get them involved. Our NARSO inspector was a dark ride fan, and he became an active participant in readying us for the final inspection. The same goes for your insurance provider!

* Make sure your team is committed to the project. Explain to them that the task will be labor intensive, and by nature, a 'time-on-target' operation. Set deadlines, and stick to them, come hell or high water. If a task is essential, by all means pay the person responsible for it, so that they will feel obliged to accomplish it on time.

* Remember that any new ride system is inherently unpredictable, especially when the public is admitted. Imagine your worst nightmare and plan to deal with it. Also, be sure you can stand to deal with any revenue losses that such shutdowns may cause. Any new ride will require a shakedown period - a few hours or a few days, or even a season. Due to a hurricane and other slight miscalculations, we had a delayed opening. It can happen to you!

* Be sure your operators are adequately trained to deal with any contingency - and I do mean any. Provide them with practice ride sessions, and require that they participate. Be sure that at least one of the engineers or designers is present during operation as a key resource.

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