With apologies to Tom Wolfe, last Saturday I climbed aboard a vehicle full of merry pranksters to take a trip to a magical land of talking birds and terrifying elves, where skinless people sing and children shoot guns at Santa Claus. Believe it or not, this Wonka-esque wonderland requires no acid to experience, but exists inside an unassuming warehouse in the unlikeliest of cities: Jacksonville.
Robb Alvey, originally a Californian theme park employee and video-game producer, founded Theme Park Review in 1996 as a web forum for travel photos. Today, TPR is an Internet empire for irreverent amusement enthusiasts. Together with his wife Elissa, Alvey organizes outrageous expeditions to international attractions – not only famous ones like Tokyo Disneyland, but obscure (and sometimes terrifying) parks from Scandinavia to Abu Dhabi.
I’ve long observed the TPR gang’s exploits vicariously via their photoblogs packed with satirical captions and silly shots of suggestive statuary (you’d be shocked how many European family attractions feature boobs). But last weekend was my first official out-of-town trip with the TPR team; since the day’s proceeds were donated to Give Kids the World (and raised more than $2,500 for the charity), I couldn’t resist climbing aboard.
With TPR, getting there is half the fun, and our three-hour drive up I-95 was like an Oprah episode-meets-Reddit AMA; passengers were invited to “ask Robb anything” and received prizes – like the infamous TPR “Bag-O-Crap,” filled with foreign park brochures and other freebies – in return. We BSed about the scariest rides (a Chinese shuttle looper literally held together with duct tape), strangest attractions (a giant pregnant woman walk-through in Mexico) and most surreal sights (a full-grown tiger being transported around an Australian park in a golf cart) they had experienced around the world, and I got a Candy Land board game to take home.
The day’s itinerary included an informative visit to the factory of Bob’s Space Racers in Daytona, official manufacturers of Whac-A-Mole and nearly every other carnival midway game, and a detour to Jacksonville’s Adventure Landing entertainment center for a spin on their Wacky Worm kiddie coaster. But the headliner stop was the headquarters of Sally Corporation, the Great American Dark Ride Company.
Unless you are immersed in the attractions industry, the name might not ring a bell, but if you’ve experienced Universal’s E.T. Adventure, Legoland’s Lost Kingdom Adventure, Hersheypark’s Reese’s Xtreme Cup Challenge or practically any interactive shooting ride around the world, you’ve sampled Sally’s skills. Named after an early animatronic based on a girl one of the founders had a crush on, Sally has grown since 1977 from Chuck E. Cheese robot-band builders into one of the world’s premier independent attraction manufacturers.
We were greeted by the singing grizzly in the lobby and continued with a comprehensive look at Sally’s offices and manufacturing facilities. CEO and co-founder John Wood, assistant VP of creative services Jan Sherman and VP of design services Drew Hunter were just a few of the high-level employees who showed up on a Saturday to show off their work. Highlights of Sally’s “fun factory” included:
• Footage from Sally’s new Justice League 3-D ride in Australia, the first to feature New 52 superhero designs direct from DC comic artist Jim Lee.
• A skinless animatronic character being painstakingly programmed to lip-sync a pop song.
• The massive model from Sally’s first project proposal, a vehicular shooting gallery based on Filmation’s Ghostbusters cartoon that was “the best dark ride never built.”
• Rare photos of the short-lived Hard Rock Park’s Nights in White Satin: The Trip, the first (and only) family-friendly LSD simulator.
• A gallery of interactive guns, including “turkey callers” wielded in Holiday World’s Gobbler Getaway, and pistols used to capture Christmas presents in the North Pole Adventure, an oddity that is inexplicably popular at Happy Valley parks across China.
Near the end, after testing Sally’s new VIPER light guns, I wondered aloud when interactivity would evolve beyond shooting stuff. I was told they have experimented with Kinect-style controller-free gesture tracking, but that the hardware wasn’t yet advanced enough to handle hundreds of riders. When it is, I’m sure Sally will be there first.