The Dark Side of Lake George

By George LaCross

Tornado Facade

Editor's note: The Tornado closed in 2003, being replaced by the Canyon Blaster roller coaster.
In May 2003, The Great Escape's Jennifer Mace told laffinthedark.com, "Our Tornado ride is currently in storage at The Great Escape. No decision has been made concerning its future with the company. "
LITD will update this page when it learns of any new developments with the ride.

OK, so it's not as elaborate as the "Twister" attraction at Florida's Universal Studios.  And maybe it's lost some luster since it premiered in New York City almost 39 years ago.  But the Tornado, at the Great Escape Fun Park near Lake George, upstate New York, retains the nostalgic charm of the classic dark ride.  And later, if you're in the mood for the in-your-face walk-through house of horror experience, you'll find it at The House of Frankenstein, just a few miles north of The Great Escape on Route 9.


Tornado debuted in 1960 at New York's City's now defunct Freedom Land theme park, then spent a few years at Pittsburgh's Kennywood Park, before the ride was acquired in 1967 by The Great Escape.  In Tornado, you ride an antique car on a Pretzel-type track through early-century farmland being ravaged by a twister.  It's located in the park's Ghost Town area under the guise of the J.R. Sweeny insurance building. The antique cars, in pristine condition, seat four people. When my family and I arrived at The Great Escape one Sunday afternoon in early June, there were about 40 people in line.  Some of the New Yorkers I spoke to in line said they had ridden it at both Freedom Land and The Great Escape.  Others only remembered it at The Great Escape, but told me it is a local tradition to ride it every year. "I rode it the first year it was here and every year since," one woman told me. "I think it's great."


So did my four-year-old son -- he begged to ride again. So the next day we arrived when the park opened. We beat the crowd and rode four straight times. Later, I spoke to the middle-aged operator on duty, who said the park staff is well aware of the historical significance of Tornado and do their best to maintain it.


Tornado CarsLike the Earthquake ride, formerly at Freedom Land and Cedar Point Park, and the Wreck of the Hesperus, at the defunct Pleasure Island in Wakefield, Massachusetts, the Tornado tells a story.  Upon entering, you're in the tranquillity of farm country, then it gets darker and you hear the swirling winds of an approaching tornado.  To your left is a farm family nervously looking ahead to the menacing twister that's spinning in the foreground.  None of these sets are behind chicken wire and the car brings you close enough to study them in detail. Next, you're headed for the "eye" of the tornado - a rotating disk painted in day glow colors.  But before you drive into ground zero, your car weaves down a country road towards some angry-faced trees.  It's here that hidden fans provide the feel of strong winds and the sound effects are much louder. Next, you approach a stack of moonshine that looks like it's ready to collapse on you.  My guess is that it did at one time.  Then, you're driving towards a farmhouse where you see an elderly lady holding on for dear life to a fragment of her porch and a terrified husband and wife whose bedroom is being swept up by the tornado.  To your left is a twirling outhouse, and if you look closely, you'll see someone inside it.  Overhead is a still, life-sized cow and some chickens, all suspended by wires.  You then find yourself in a chicken coup, but the chickens are motionless.


Finally, you witness the aftermath of the storm: shattered debris along the roadside.  And just before you exit, there's a horse in a stable.  The horse's jaw has hinges, indicative that it used to speak - perhaps a conclusive statement.  But it's silent now, giving you a somewhat anti-climatic ride ending. (At the very end of Wreck of the Hesperus, King Neptune ordered you to leave his underwater "kingdom"). My synopsis of the Tornado: given its age, the fact that it's been moved twice, and the anti-dark ride attitude of many other parks; we should all be thankful it's still there.  Having walked through and inspected an aging dark ride years ago, I know how brittle these papier mache and foam stunts become, especially those constantly in motion.  So maybe the stack of moonshine was animated at one time as was the cow, the chickens, and the horse. The Great Escape could replace these with new stunts, but ask yourself this - would it lose its historical integrity in the process?


I recall a 1960s-circa Bill Tracey dark ride that was completely renovated in the mid-1980s.  All but one of Tracey's stunts were removed in favor of the shark from "Jaws" and an array of slasher film figures.  Trust me, it wasn't the same ride after that.  That park is now defunct. Perhaps The Great Escape could add some more sound effects to Tornado and make use of strobe lights to give its stagnant stunts the illusion of movement.  But other than that, I wouldn't criticize The Great Escape just because the Tornado doesn't deliver like it did during its Freedom Land years.  When you ride Tornado, praise the park staff for maintaining it and encourage them to keep it running like I did.  And just enjoy the ride. . . while it lasts.


House of Frankenstein Wax MuseumIf you're looking for the ultimate fun house experience, check out the House of Frankenstein, just north up the road from The Great Escape.  Located among gift shops and restaurants in the heart of Lake George,
the "House" is billed as a wax museum although it has all the elements of a classic walk-through -- sound effects, lighting: the whole nine yards.  It has more than 50 stunts, some of which are interactive.  Push a button and you'll see Frankenstein's monster rise from the table and Dracula transform into a bat.  The stunts, located behind Plexiglas, include all the Universal movie monsters, scenes of torture and execution, and a rambling Edgar Allan Poe.  My favorite stunt was entitled the "Perils of Infidelity." Press a button and you'll see a horrified man lift a plate cover on the dinner table to discover his wife's head as the main course, much to the delight of his smiling maid.  According to a panel at the stunt, the man is having an affair with his maid.


Toward the end of the walk-through, there's a stunt called "Tourist Trap" in which figures of tourist-types are snagged to the ceiling by half-sacks on chains. Then there's a very tricky mirror maze, "The Twilight Zone," and the "Black Hole" which makes alternative use of an old Barrel of Bun, similar to Kennywood Park's Noah's Ark. The House of Frankenstein is well worth its $5.00 adult admission, but I wouldn't recommend it for younger children.


Haunted CastleAnd there's one more walk-though on Route 9, the Haunted Castle, located next to a mini-golf course.  The clerk at my motel told me the Haunted Castle is shorter but scarier than the House of Frankenstein. It was closed on the Monday I discovered it; only open on spring weekends until school vacation.

t-20-4.jpg (20101 bytes)
This building now at the Great Escape was once the Mirror Maze at Freedomland!

Exclusive Feature

A Virtual Picture Tour of the Tornado from 1998

19 photographs of the ride in order from beginning to end.

(Note: these photos were taken before the ride had undergone a major refurbishment)


This article is 1999 by George LaCross and is used with permission. All photos on this page are copyright by George LaCross and Jed Blaugrund as noted. All photos in the virtual tour are copyright Jed Blaugrund. All are used with permission.
©1999 Laff In The Dark/www.laffinthedark.com

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This page was last updated Wednesday, September 15, 1999