Episode 208 – John Wood talks about the evolution of dark rides, the best gags and surprises, creating memories and traditions

Business Strategy, Entrepreneurship, Podcast, Themed Design

John Wood is the CEO of Sally Dark Rides.  He started the company with two other Johns in 1977, when they showed off their animatronics to the themed entertainment world at the 1978 IAAPA Expo in Atlanta.  While they had struggled to convince retail stores and museums of the value of their animatronics, theme parks and other themed attractions understood their purpose immediately.

Sally Dark Rides has evolved significantly since its founding in 1977.  The company’s name, Sally, comes from the first animated character that one of the Johns created while in dental school.  Their major early successes were in musical animatronic shows, where robotic characters would sing and play instruments for guests.  One important aspect of Sally’s animatronics was that they were less expensive than those made by and for Disney and Universal.  This fact made them much more accessible for regional amusement parks.  John spent a lot of time talking to various theme park general managers, and onene manager at Kings Island told John that guests kept saying in surveys that they wanted a haunted house, although the park wasn’t sure how to make a reliable, affordable, exciting haunted house so they kept putting in new roller coasters instead.  However, John wanted to tackle this problem instead of shying away from it.  This led to the expansion of Sally into the exciting world of dark rides.

John discussed the creative process of designing a new dark ride for a park.  First, the park would convey the constraints of the project:  budget, location, capacity, and whether a particular intellectual property (IP) would be used.  The team at Sally will take all of this information and quickly return to the park to pitch 3 to 7 creative story briefs, some no more than a paragraph long.  Then the park will pick their favorite pitch or two to develop further.  This next step involves creating a script for the ride, a layout for the attraction, and a list of all the different elements and gags that will be incorporated into the ride.  Within about 3 months, the timing and budget for the project are honed, and then the ride is created over the next year.

One of John’s primary focuses with rides that Sally creates is to ensure that they have elements that encourage guests to ride again and again.  His main way for achieving this is incorporating interactivity, typically in the form of a shooting element.  By making the ride a competition which can have different outcomes each time, guests are encouraged to ride again to build their skills.  In addition, John likes to incorporate surprises and fun gags that catch riders off-guard, delighting them and making the experience exciting.  He also likes to incorporate a variety of different element types.  For example, John likes to mix physical animatronics with digitally-projected characters so that everything doesn’t look the same throughout the attraction.  John admitted that if he rides an attraction and something excites him, he tries to learn from it and incorporate something similar on the next ride he creates.

One way that dark rides are evolving is that they are becoming more technologically sophisticated.  Many of the latest attractions have been inspired by the video game industry, utilizing gaming engines like Unreal to incorporate real-time, interactive animations into the ride.  Media is being used more and more throughout parks and their rides.  Additionally, some rides are incorporating radio-frequency identification (RFID) to add an element of personalization for guests and allowing them to take their scores with them throughout the day.  That being said, John emphasized that you don’t always need to use the latest and greatest technology to create an effective, fun attraction.  One of the biggest inspirations for the Sally team when it comes to dark rides is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  It’s full of simple but effective imagery that takes guests on, well, a wild ride.  

John emphasized that no matter what the criteria for the ride was, it needed to be fun first.  One important element of that is the preshow.  Because the ride itself often isn’t long enough to go into details about the story, the preshow is used to set up the point of the ride and the guests’ role within it.  This helps ensure everyone will have a great time once the ride starts.  Another important part of a ride being fun is that it needs to work and be reliable.  Nothing takes you out of an attraction like a malfunctioning or broken element.  John talked about how reliability criteria is incorporated from the very first moments of designing a new attraction.  Sally rides and elements aim to have a lifespan of at least 10 years.  They achieve these results by utilizing industrial-rated valves and focusing on pneumatics, which are cheaper and easier to maintain than their alternatives.  Sally aims to make maintenance as easy and simple as possible for the parks they create rides for.  Many Sally rides are going strong after over 20 years of operation.

Lastly, John talked about why dark rides are so important for a park.  They act as an opportunity to offer a completely unique experience for a park.  That unique experience can be the backbone of family memories that will keep guests coming back again and again to see something they cannot see anywhere else.  John’s parting words were to encourage listeners to keep riding and loving dark rides.

You can connect with John on Facebook or on LinkedIn.  You can also learn more about Sally Dark Rides on their website.

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