Saturday, September 28, 2002

Group fears fate of the scary ride

Volunteers work to bring traditional amusement attractions back to life

By Laura Johnston
The Associated Press

        GENEVA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ohio - Rick Davis fiddles with wires connected to a fluorescent-painted mad scientist, trying to get the figure to rock back and forth with a neon orange brain in its hand.

        The scientist is just one of the scary characters in The Fright Zone ride in Erieview Park.

[photo] Keith Schwarz, a member of Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts, works on the Graveyard display of The Fright Zone at Erieview Park.
(Associated Press photo)
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        For Mr. Davis and other members of the Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts, the real horror is that traditional scary rides are disappearing from amusement parks.

        “We'd like to preserve something for future generations,” he said. “Darkrides are something different. They're the last thing in a park you can still see some artwork in.”

        Mr. Davis and friend Joel Styer formed DAFE (pronounced daffy) two years ago to document and rescue darkrides. Although many older rides are scary, the group defines the amusement attraction as an enclosed ride in which a vehicle carries passengers past scenery.

        Some companies also are restoring the old rides.

        However, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions is unaware of any other volunteer group dedicated to the effort, spokesman Jason Kemp said.

        DAFE, which works for free, says it has 200 members in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and India.

        In June, the group began working on The Fright Zone, which was built in 1963. Six members from northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania have cleaned, painted and patched up papier-mache mannequins and scenes.

        “They've really proved themselves hard workers,” said Erieview owner Don “Woody” Woodward, who bought the ride in 1978. The attraction has been operating, but most of its gags haven't been working.

        “Over the years, things had been broken and filthy,” said Mr. Davis, an electronics technician for the FAA who lives in Vienna, Ohio. “We're talking probably 30 years of dust, ever since it was put together.”

        The DAFE volunteers are working on the mechanics of the ride exhibits, many of which have not functioned in decades.

        Mr. Davis installed a garage door track on a table to make it - and a papier-mache female victim - slide toward a whirling saw.

        His wife, Sue Davis, gave the “Laughing Sal” mannequin a new hat and a fresh set of blond braids.

        “They're rare rides that aren't common anymore, that our parents and grandparents would have ridden,” member Sarah Windisch said as the volunteers worked on a recent Saturday at the park 45 miles east of Cleveland. “They're little pieces of the past sprinkled among parks.”

        Tunnel-of-love-type darkrides debuted in the early 1900s, and classic darkrides with scary scenes and sound effects had their heyday between the 1930s and '70s, Mr. Davis said.

        Only about 35 traditional darkrides remain in America. However, interactive darkrides are spreading in the amusement industry.

        “Darkrides are making a kind of comeback as a family ride, an inside ride,” said Eric Minton, a writer for Amusement Today magazine and editor of an online newsletter called “The Loop.”

        Sally Corp., based in Jacksonville, Fla., has been manufacturing interactive darkrides for 10 years, said Jan Sherman, assistant vice president and creative director.

        The company has built four Scooby Doo and four Ghost Blasters rides throughout the country, in which riders shoot at targets from their cars and accumulate points.

        “That makes it a game, and that's really why our rides have done so well,” Ms. Sherman said. “This is a whole new generation of darkrides.”

        Sally Corp. has also restored a traditional darkride in Rye, N.Y.

        “I don't think that roller coasters are going to go out of fashion, but we offer a product to parks that really meets their needs for a family ride,” she said.

        DAFE members say the key to the darkride is its simplicity: the darkness.

        “Sometimes it's not what you see; it's what you don't see,” Ms. Windisch said. “Your mind fills in the blanks.”

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