Dark rides, also known as ghost trains, are those amusement parks rides where you’re carried through a building by a vehicle on a track. They include everything from Hersheypark’s Chocolate World to Disney’s It's a Small World, to many of the haunted houses I’ve loved since I was a kid—like the Haunted Mansions at Disney and Knoebels Amusement Resort, Trimper’s Haunted House on the Ocean City, Md. boardwalk and the Haunted Pretzel at Bushkill Park in Pennsylvania.
George LaCross and Bill Luca are big fans of these rides, and have been chronicling their history at Laff in the Dark for the last 15 years. In that time they’ve also made documentaries about Knoebels’ haunted house and the Whacky Shack and Pirate’s Cove rides at Waldameer Park in Erie, Penn. LaCross did a lengthy interview with Collectors Weekly in 2013 and shared a lot of the history he’s dug up. One thing he explains is how a scary ride ended up with a goofy name like the Haunted Pretzel.
When the creators of the first dark ride, Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer at Tumbling Dam Amusement Park in Bridgeton, N.J., opened up the attraction in 1928, they held a contest to name it. The winning entry, “Firefly,” was rejected because they thought it might imply the ride was a fire hazard (and many like it were, says LaCross, and ended up burning down because they didn’t have sprinkler systems). When one of the first riders came out, though, he said he felt “twisted around like a pretzel,” so the owners ran with that and called it “Pretzel.”
From there, the name sort of just spread, says LaCross:
“They had a great success with this ride. Owners of other, non-competing amusement parks in the New Jersey area would come down to see it and ask Cassidy and Rempfer, “Can you guys build one of these for us?” The pair ended up going into business making dark rides. Calling their company the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company, they built a factory not too far from Tumbling Dam. While Cassidy and Rempfer would patent certain things about their cars, their tracks, and some of their stunts, they couldn’t patent the dark ride itself. Other companies began to build dark rides, too, and they basically just called them Pretzel, because they didn’t know what else to call them. Park owners would put question marks on the doors, because what was behind them was supposed to be a mystery.”
Another cool thing I learned from LaCross and Luca’s website is that The Haunted House Dark Ride at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in Ocean City, N.J. isn’t as vintage as it seems. While the dayglo interiors and pop-up monster effects look like they’re from the 1960s-'70s heyday of dark rides, the ride is actually only a few years old. Mimicking the old school vibe was a decision made by Wayne Seddon, the director of creativity and design at Gillian’s, who started working with classic dark ride designer Bill Tracy’s company in the '70s.
“From the beginning the dark ride was done with the spirit of the old dark rides in mind...and as far as I was concerned, Tracy was in mind too,” Wayne told LaCross and Luca. “I even made a tombstone with Tracy's name on it with one of his old vultures on top. We didn't make it to be an in your face scare but more like a ride to entertain; a lot like an old Tracy ride but with a few unexpected scares."