Most roller coasters put their stomach-dropping slopes and brain-twisting loops front and center for all the world to see. But the amusement-park attractions known as “dark rides” keep their thrills hidden. As you’re standing in line for a tour of a haunted house full of ghosts and ghouls, a high-seas adventure with pirates, or a ride on the range with gun-slinging cowboys of the Wild West, all you can see are the riders in front of you, who get into little cars before disappearing through swinging doors into the dark. You hear the sounds of screams and shrieks coming from within. And then, an empty car arrives, stopping before you with a mechanical ka-thunk. You’re next.
Dark rides with names like Pretzel, Laff in the Dark, Whacky Shack, or Spook-A-Rama popped up everywhere in the mid 20th century. Growing up in East Providence, Rhode Island, in the ’60s, George LaCross was lucky enough to ride dozen of ’em. As an adult, LaCross realized his beloved attractions were starting to disappear. In 1999, he teamed up with Bill Luca on Laff in the Dark, the first website dedicated to dark rides and walk-through funhouses, and the pair began to thoroughly chronicle the history of these attractions around the United States, inside and out.
LaCross and Luca also produced two documentaries about operating 1970s-era Pennsylvania dark rides, “Behind the Scenes at Knoebels Haunted House” and “Behind the Scenes at Waldameer’s Whacky Shack & Pirate’s Cove,” both available on DVD. We talked to LaCross about where dark rides came from, why they’re so irresistible, and why so many have disappeared.
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