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Things That Go Bump in the Dark

The dark ride has been a mainstay of amusement parks and travelling fairs for over 100 years. The history of ghost trains in the UK can be traced back to the travelling fairground shows of the 1800s. In the days before rides, travelling fairs were all about shows – freak shows, waxworks and theatrical booths – and the ghost train takes its roots from this tradition. By the mid-1800s, ghost shows (theatrical productions that incorporated illusions) were a major part of the travelling fairground scene.

Ghost trains are merely an extension of the fairground ghost show concept, with technology turning the show into a ride – or to be more accurate, into a ride that incorporates a show. In more recent years the ghost show has expanded to include themed fantasy rides and rides which take passengers on journeys around the globe.

Continuing a long tradition

The earliest dark rides were pioneered simultaneously in the UK and the US. The “tunnels of love’” or “river caves” were the earliest form of dark ride. Their slow-moving boats took riders on a romantic tour of far-flung places around the world.

In the UK, the modern amusement park dark ride can be traced back to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which itself had borrowed ideas from the huge exhibitions that were once held in the UK. The Pleasure Beach installed the River Caves in 1910 and this was a rebuild of the river caves ride that featured at the Earl’s Court Exhibition (London) of 1909. Even to this day, this ride impresses.

In the late 1920s, always looking to install the latest thrill from the USA, the Pleasure Beach decided to borrow one of the big hits from across the pond. During the early part of last century dark ride construction in the USA was booming, with the Pretzel Company leading the way. “Pretzel rides” as they were called were hugely popular and the Pleasure Beach decided to build one of their own. As the name Pretzel didn’t really mean much in the UK, and certainly gave no indication of what the ride was all about, the name “Ghost Train” emerged, which was itself taken from a popular stage show of the time.

The name stuck and has been adopted as the generic name for this type of dark ride in amusement parks and travelling UK fairs ever since.

The ghost train at Pleasure Beach was huge and after its opening in 1930 other amusement parks installed similar rides: Dreamland (Margate), Pleasure Beach (Great Yarmouth) and Pleasureland (Southport) all jumped on the Bandwagon. Even holiday camp king Billy Butlin installed ghost trains in each of his seaside amusement parks.

In 1936, Blackpool Pleasure Beach decided to install an even larger ghost train and commissioned architect Joseph Emberton (the man behind the Casino building, Grand National station and Fun House, amongst other iconic Pleasure Beach structures) to design it. It had a hugely impressive frontage, opening up into what could only be described as a giant stage set, complete with roller coaster-style drop in the centre. The main “stage” was flanked on either side by balconies, which served to add an extra moment of excitement for the riders and show park visitors that this ride was not only on one level, but two.

Ghost trains also became hugely popular in the travelling fairs in the 1940s and 1950s. These rides were basically buildings that were built up from scratch, and required a large team of people to construct them. Unfortunately this became a major drawback and by the 1960s showmen were looking for rides that could be built up more quickly and cheaply, thus marking the end of the great travelling ghost train.

In recent times, however, there has been a bit of a revival for the travelling ghost train. But the quest to make them easier to build up and pull down has meant that most are now lorry or trailer mounted (i.e. the entire ride sits in the “back of a lorry”), so their interiors are limited. The lack of space has been offset somewhat by the huge foldout flash sported by many rides, which are often on several levels.

Dark rides have continued to develop over the past few decades. The 1990s saw a mini-boom in water-based dark rides. This was started by Professor Burp’s Bubbleworks at Chessington World of Adventures, which has spawned many a copy. The turn of the Century saw the construction in the UK of what many consider to be the most spectacular dark ride of them all – Valhalla at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. This ride flips the idea of the river caves on its head. The boat is no longer merely a means of transportation – it is part of the thrill of the ride, with fast drops (one taken in reverse), and spectacular special effects, involving wind, fire, ice and lightening. The ride really does take the breath away.

But the new millennium has seen a worrying trend. The current fad for TV interior design and garden makeover shows has spilt over into the dark ride world and now we have – yes – dark ride makeovers. Perfectly good dark rides are being ripped apart, the trains equipped with ‘laser guns’ for interactive shoot-out rides.

It could be said that this concept really goes against the whole point of the dark ride. The dark ride should all about immersing yourself in another world; the car is in control – you are a helpless passenger. With shootouts, the rider is now in control, and the ghost train simply becomes a large arcade game. How can you be frightened of ghosts if you are armed with a gun?

Author: Nick Laister