LAFFING AT PONTCHARTRAIN BEACH
By Doug Ferguson
New Orleans, as anyone who has ever visited here will tell you, has a feeling and attitude like no other city, a leisurely pace and a love of parties and fun in general. It's the home of Mardi Gras, the biggest, longest running party on earth. The food is the best to be found anywhere in the country - especially the seafood - and many insist that it's the best in the world.
Up until 1983, it also had an equally marvelous traditional amusement park: Pontchartrain Beach. In the era of my childhood, fabulous 1950's modern decor adorned many of the rides.
|There were also a few remaining Art Deco facades from an earlier era,
particularly as seen in the streamlined locomotive-themed loading station for the Zephyr,, the famous out-and-back
roller coaster with N.A.D. Century Flyer deco trains.
One could also ride a Harry Traver Tumble Bug, an Aeroplane Swing, and other well known classic thrillers, including a Laff In The Dark, pictured on the postcard at right. (It should be noted that I had not seen the facade of this ride since my childhood, until Bret Malone sent me this image!)
I will never forget my first visit to the kiddieland section, which was inside the front gate, just to the right, and surrounded by a neat wooden picket fence. Miniature electric 'cars of the future,' complete with rocket fins and multi-colored cyclops headlights, negotiated a single rail electric track, dark ride car style. These were the Kiddie Cadillacs. Each car had dual steering wheels so that the pair of young riders would not fight over who was to 'drive.' There were other rides, of course - a circular boat ride with a lighthouse in the center, a junior whip ride, a circular ride with all manner of vehicles, and the Zephyr Junior coaster (which looked huge to a little kid!) The Cadillacs, though, were my favorite attraction, because I was a potential dark ride nut and didn't really know it.
During the daylight hours this little ride was nothing exciting, but after dark everything changed. The course through which the cars ran was landscaped with shrubs and trees, turning it into a hedge maze. At night, the entire scene was lit with ground-placed colored spotlights that did not diminish the shadows of night, but made them more dramatic. At the far end of the course there was a place where a 'near miss' collision situation would occur between two cars. This was intentional, and worked due to both the route design (using a curving concrete road) and the dispatch interval. This moment was a chill for me, because you couldn't see the other car until it was on you. This happened twice per ride, of course, and it delighted me - not much of a scare, but enough for me at the age of four! It taught me that just the right amount of anticipated shiver could be fun.
After riding all the kiddie rides, I would ask my parents to take me to see the 'big people rides' along the midway. On the north side was the white sand beach of the lake, with its nautically themed bandstand, from which popular music blared. It was a long walk - a long midway!
At the far western end of the strip there was a huge clown head attached to a Fun House building. I asked what was inside - was it dark? My father informed me that there were probably some lights, but that the attraction would probably scare me. That did it! I wanted no part of fright, and clowns scared me anyway. I was a cowardly kid, and the Kiddie Cadillac was enough of a thrill for me, thank you very much.
[Later in life, I found out that the clown head had originally been the entrance, that you had to slide down a slide inside his mouth. An account from an older friend - by no means a coward - told me that the monsters just got worse as you wandered farther in. I'd love to hear from anyone who remembers this house; I understand that someone was or is working on a book about this park, but I have been unable to find it.]
When I was about five, this fun house had changed. I was surprised to see that the clown had been transformed into a spaceman. I had come to love anything that had to do with rockets and science fiction, so it did not take a lot of coaxing from my father to get me to go through this Adventures in Space attraction with him.
It began with a mirror maze, then continued past a giant spider, which was in the process of landing on a planet (a pneumatic stunt.) Other tricks included a slanted room, a Magic Carpet conveyor belt, followed by a Blow-Hole Theater-style (a spawn of its distant ancestor at Steeplechase Park on Coney Island) walkway with a one-way glass wall, behind which those who had already 'paid their dues' could watch others squirm and guard their skirts. The observation area was also the queue for the 'compression chamber' - a pneumatic bouncing elevator trick, complete with multicolored lighting effects (50's futurist neon style) and sound effects, to which the air hiss contributed. It required an operator, and I still remember him talking reassuringly to me about what would happen next. My father thought it was all quite good fun, and we took the ride.
|I had been covering my ears on and off throughout the walk. Each
section of the attraction was given a preamble by a taped narrator, and this loud talk
somehow managed to scare me. The Compresion Chamber was no exception, but I'm glad I
didn't miss it!
The Chamber opened to a simulated aquarium, complete with shark. The attraction concluded with a walk around a world globe, and an outdoor slide to the ground. I actually had some fun in this house, and talked about it with my friends.* That attraction was just a teaser, however, for what was to come.
Near the opposite end of the midway, next door to the Traver Tumble Bug, was the Laff In The Dark. On the porch, in the shade beneath the triangles and circles of the roof decor, was a laughing clown (similar to a Sal.) This shaking and bouncing animated figure caused me to back away when I saw it. I was terrified!
I repressed the scene after we left, and when next we made plans to return to the park, my mother and father suggested a trip through the Laff ride. I asked if there were lights inside, and was answered with an affirmative - which turned out to be true enough, as dark rides go. The name of the attraction should have given me a clue to the nature and contents of the building, but I wanted so badly to be thought of as a 'grown up' boy that I dismissed my doubts. So it was that I summoned just enough courage to make what became one of the most fateful decisions in my life.
The very first trick in the ride was a Dracula (or corpse?) who sat up in his coffin after opening the lid, with a hearty 'Ah-Haa!' Another stunt was a large cop who held out a sign and yelled 'Stop!' This was followed by a falling wall of barrels. I can't remember anything else, but I believe the last stunt may have been a skeleton-with-dynamite.
After this childhood experience, haunted amusement parks became a regular setting for my dreams, a pattern that continues to this day. I guess you could call it an obsession, but it has been an interesting one. (I had begun to feel I was in a tiny minority until I stumbled upon the Laff In The Dark web site.)
Kiddie Dark Rides at Pontchartrain Beach
In later years, there were two dark rides in the Kiddieland section, both occupying the same space in turn. The first was Smoky Mary, the name being a reference to an old steam-driven commuter train that once ran to the outlying areas of New Orleans. This ride was mostly outdoors, but included a two story barn, the top of which was a dark tunnel with a stunt similar to the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride train collision trick. This ride was replaced in the late 70's by the Jungle Jeeps, a ride through a simulated outdoor wildlife preserve, all on ground level, and a dark ride only at night.
Gone... But Not Entirely!
For several years, it was speculated that someone might re-open the park, but these hopes were dashed as the buildings were demolished one by one. Finally, the announcement came that there would be a new theme park, called Jazzland,to be built off of I-10 in New Orleans East. That park should be open by June of 2000, and will have a Pontchartrain Beach area in memory of the marvelous old lakeside park. (The new Mega Zeph CCI steel-support wooden-track coaster should thrill millions, but will not provide the shaky, classic ride experience of its famous predecessor.) In the Mardi Gras section, Sally Corporation has installed a new dark ride with the theme of a 'zombie Mardi Gras', and it will feature their shoot-to-score system. (I will certainly review this ride as soon as possible - I had hoped for a latter-day Laff In The Dark, but it is not to be.)
MUSINGS OF A NEW ORLEANS HAUNTER:
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE SUBJECT OF DARK RIDES IN GENERAL
For some of us, this type of ride was an acquired taste; for others, it was love at first horrific sight. In the case of your humble narrator, it was a bit of both. The fascination developed right away, but the hunger came later, after I had worked out the complexity of my obsession. Naturally, I am a lot harder to scare nowadays, as I have been designing, building and working in Halloween haunts for more than 30 years (and participating avidly in seasonal spooky revels before all that began.) Walk-throughs are no problem for me; but truth be told, when I approach a classic dark ride, it's nearly always with a companion.** It's not as much fun to Laff alone, at least for me! The following paragraphs reveal some of my thoughts on the dark ride, as developed through 40 years of fascination with the genre.
The most important aspect of the classic dark ride experience is the tremendous psychological power of total darkness, isolation, and disorientation. This is really what produces fear, moreso than the stunts, which merely provide the pay-off, the Laffs. Further, you are a captive of the ride car. You move where it takes you, and with rare exception, you are allowed but one partner. This is not the case with a walk-through attraction, which allows groups of people to benefit from mutual support. On the dark ride, all you can do to escape is close your eyes and hold your ears - or grab your partner!
That brings me to another fascinating discovery I have made over the years. I have interviewed a number of friends about their experiences with various dark rides, and it is remarkable how often they report forgetting a good deal of what it was they saw in the ride, particularly what they saw at the end of an intense one. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, I have christened this phenomenon Selective Dark Ride Blocking Syndrome, or SDRBS. There are two possible mechanisms for this: 1) selective forgetting, or repression, and 2) selective (that is, voluntary) blindness facilitated by hands, eyelids and/or neck rotation.
I have long thought it would be an interesting experiment to set up a dark ride with increasingly intense scares, starting off with mild ones. The iconography of the stunts would be large, clear, and easily remembered. The stunts would be few enough in number so that rider memory capacity would not be an issue. This scaled series of tricks would be rigged with low light cameras pointing toward the position of the riders' faces at the time of effect activation. The data would be collected at the exit, in the form of a series of digital photos and an interview. Those whose reports of stunts ended one or more before the final one can be assumed to have had an onset of SDRBS as the previous stunt hit or exceeded their Threshold of Fright Tolerance (TFT). The variety of mechanism (Type 1 or 2 from above) as well as the honesty of reporting would be determined by the camera images in comparison to the interview data.
I would expect the rarest result to be a wide eyed, attentive rider who represses randomly chosen stunts, or pure Type 1; and the most common to be a selective blinder, or pure Type 2. A significant reward should be given to any pure Type 2 subject brave enough to admit the true cause of information block was lack of bravery, and not lack of memory. This wouldn't be real science, but it would reveal a thing or two about human nature - and it would be fun for the 'researchers'.
As you might expect, I've given a lot of thought to different aspects of fright in the dark over the years, and the following is a short summary of some of the conclusions I've come to. I certainly am not pretending that there's anything profound in what I've discovered, but the phenomenon itself is important enough to warrant discussion.
In psychological terms, the use of fear for entertainment purposes might be examined under the concept of approach-avoidance. You're insatiably curious about what's hidden there in the dark, but also prickling with dread of the shocking discoveries to come. It can be compelling, irresistible - or madly frustrating if you walk away!
The classic dark ride is a personal test of bravery, and the results are known only to you - and perhaps your partner (unless some buffoon happens to be conducting exit interviews while looking at photos.) You can ride again as many times as you like, until you satisfy your own need for courage, learn to release the fear, and see the true humor of the situation. Perhaps we could call this learning to Laff at yourself?
The experience is a catharsis, a purgative. The stimuli in classic dark rides are strident, loud, and in-your-face. You will be hit with an adrenal rush when you aren't expecting it, because the designer has seen to it that you will be distracted. I believe that riders know this instinctively. That's the payoff, and the point: you scream, you Laff, you get it all out of your system. It's like having a fight with a punching bag, only in this case, the bag hits you.
The relief at the end, after having survived it all completely unharmed, is when the Laffs really come. You feel elated. There's a darker subtext, yes. You are laughing at death, flirting with disaster and then escaping by the skin of your teeth. Eventually you lose, but this time you win!
You also feel like you've been entertained, or should, if the designer has done his or her job properly. The contents of a typical dark ride offer a mixture of icons and experiences. There is sheer terror (dramatic tension, the struggle between life and death) and comic relief, punctuated by scenic pieces (possibly aesthetic experiences, if done well) and in some cases, a trip or two back into the 'real world' for a few moments (giving contrast, and decreasing the sensitivity of your night vision - a theatrical necessity in this venue.) These elements are intermixed in different quantities from ride to ride, but in the best rides they are all used and tied together to make sense. This is what provides the engaging aspect of a good dark ride; and it's this entertainment - an escape from the ordinary - that we seek.
*The attraction was still around into the 60's, and was finally gutted to make room for the 'Haunted House' two-story ride-through. This dark ride (I never rode it, alas) had a handsome facade, with humorous tombstones, glass windows lit from behind with painted-on cartoon horror faces. It was a typical weathered house, and used BL-style blacklight tubes (the kind without the deep blue filter glass) to illuminate the tombstones - a neat and spooky effect. On the roof was a cupola tower with a narrow prominade, around which a shrouded skeleton marched. The crest of the second story overhang had a huge skull which peered down toward the guests on the ground with glowing eyes, as its hands clawed the roof on eather side (animated to raise and lower.) The cars had tall backs that were more shrouded skeleton characters with lightbulb eyes, which went out as the cars entered the ride building. I can remember unusual siren-type noises (rising tones arranged in chords) just before cars exited the upper and lower doors, but I don't have a single friend who remembers the ride well enough to describe it. Save for one newspaper article that mentions a light transition scrim clock containing a scary figure, and an account of a spider that slid down a wire as the car climbed to the second floor (the correspondent mentions grabbing it and pushing it back up the wire,) that's all the inside info I can give. I'd love to know who built this gorgeous ride, though.
It deteriorated quite pittifully as the park neared its closing. The original outside lighting was neglected, and the siren-ish exit noisemakers fell silent. The oddest modification I have ever seen made to a dark ride ended this period of decrepitude: The ride cars got _trolley_ posts, bumper car style, and the hot side of the power supply came from a wire mounted on the ceiling above the track! (Yes, you read that right. I can't imagine why this was done.)
**Disney's fabulous, theatrical Haunted Mansion is a notable exception; as one of my friends puts it, 'I could live there.'
This Article ©2000 Doug Ferguson. Used with permission
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