For as long as I can remember, dark rides at theme parks have been a crucial part of my childhood. I loved visiting Fantasyland at Walt Disney World, and seeing the stories come to life. In addition, I spent many years going to local fairs and smaller amusement parks in New Jersey, checking out “haunted castles” and more.
However, over time, these rides begin to break down, and eventually close due to lack of maintenance and upkeep. We begin to lose these treasures of fright, and it’s a real shame.
Joel Zika also loves dark rides. So much so that he has created The Dark Ride Project, a way to help preserve these rides, virtually, and allow others to ‘ride’ them, even if they are not able physically get to them.
Zika recently had a booth at ScareLA, where he showcased his work, and allowed folks to “ride” some rides with a virtual realty headset. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us, as well.
Joel Zika: The Dark Ride Project captures the last of America’s traditional ghost trains and haunted house rides using Virtual Reality. It is a way to archive the rides and create a fun way to experience them in the digital world.
HorrorBuzz.com: What made you want to take something like this on to begin with?
Joel Zika: Fifty years ago, there were independent amusement parks all across the country. Almost every city had a park, and every park had a dark ride. Nowadays, all but a few of those traditional parks remain. Whilst that is sad, we do have a lot of memories, photos, and film of the parks.What we don’t have is a record of the dark ride experience.
When I started to become more serious about studying Dark Rides, I made a list of the parks I wanted to see, but pretty soon rides started to drop off that list. Bushkill Park flooded, Miracle Strip got sold off for condos, and the Spook House got destroyed by a hurricane. In the 1930s, the Pretzel Ride company made over 1400 rides, but only 4 still exist. There are none in museums, despite the millions of people who rode on them, they’re nearly all gone! Even though there are new rides I think it’s important to be able to look back at the types of experiences our parents and grandparents had, because it has shaped our approach to film and culture. Every horror fan owes a debt to the independent ride makers of last century, because all of the spook tricks originate at the amusement park in one way or another.
HorrorBuzz.com: What do you hope to do with the footage?
Joel Zika: The footage goes hand in hand with the stories of the people behind the rides. We’ve captured some amazing interviews, but we want to do more, much more. Since starting our online campaign, we discovered even more links to the history of the parks, and the people who have ridden them since childhood. We have the makings of an amazing TV/Web series! Last week, a woman approached us who was proposed to on one of the rides we covered, She has a tattoo of the ride on her shoulder. There are also tales from across the country of people salvaging old rides and bringing them back to life. It is really heartwarming stuff, and we just want to get it out there.
Joel Zika: We tried a bunch of different techniques: 180-degree camera, steady cam, stop motion, lights on, and so on. With each technique, we just couldn’t quite capture the experience the way it was for the audience. With anything other than VR, we kept missing elements of the ride. Different things jump out at you, but often it happens from above or right out of view. We worked hard to find cameras that would capture in the low light, and then made sure we could see absolutely everything. It still isn’t like being in the ride, but our members can go through multiple times until they’ve seen everything
HorrorBuzz.com: What are some of your favorite dark rides you’ve recorded? What is on your wish list to do?
Joel Zika: It’s a cliché but they are all amazing! The interesting thing about the journey so far is that every ride has been ‘the last’ of its type. Funland in Delaware has the oldest suspended ride, Camden Park has the oldest gravity driven ride, and so on. The ride that is probably the most memorable is the Haunted House at Trimper’s Amusements. The Trimper family still run it, and the ride itself is run by a father/son team who are the third generation to work on it! There is a little park in upstate New York called Sylvan beach that I’m hoping to return to it after ten years if we get enough backers.
Having seen the work behind The Dark Ride Project, I am thoroughly impressed. Joel and his team are currently running an IndieGoGo campaign to help fund the project, and visit more parks to record these historical rides. You can contribute to them by visiting here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/dark-ride-project-historic-haunts-in-vr-horror#/
For more about the project overall, be sure to check out www.darkrideproject.com