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I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Mr. Howard Kelly, President of Sally Corporation, a worldwide leader in the entertainment and Dark Ride field. Here are some highlights of our conversation for those of you wanting to know more about the company’s past, present and future:


Laff: When did "Sally Corporation" begin and who founded the company?

Mr. Kelly: Rides began in 1977 as a hobby for a local Jacksonville FL dentist. His hobby soon developed into a small animatronic company that was attempting to seize the opportunity being created by the Disney Company and pizza restaurant craze of the time. Restaurants using animatronics moderated very quickly but the use of animatronics in theme park entertainment and museums began to grow rapidly. What started with animated animal bands graduated to sophisticated interactive dark rides. Today, more than half of our work are dark rides and more than half of our work is international.

Laff: What is your personal background in the amusement industry?

Mr. Kelly: I joined the company as President in 1985, after 21 years in the television industry. While general manager of a network affiliate station, I also served on the Board of Directors of Sally. Sally Corporation is owned by nearly 80 stockholders. My TV entertainment experience was a natural connection for Sally. Sally does not see itself in the animatronics business. We view ourselves as being in the entertainment business.

Laff: What was the company’s first ride refurbishment project and where was it located?

swamp creatureMr. Kelly: Our first refurbishment project of any size was the revamping of one of Europe’s finest children’s water rides at Alton Towers, England. "Around The World In 80 Days" was in many ways Europe’s response to Disney’s "Small, Small World".

Laff: Where was your first new dark ride installed?

Mr. Kelly: For more than 10 years we have been known for refurbishing existing rides around the world. But during this time we contributed animatronics and special effects to a variety of dark rides at MGM theme park in Las Vegas, Future World in Hangzhou China and a variety of water based dark rides in the States.

Laff: Interesting, are there any other, less noted installations not yet discovered by enthusiasts?minotaur

Mr. Kelly: Our dark rides are well known around the world. However, our newest creation will be a hallmark in the industry! We are currently developing the "Labyrinth of the Minotaur" for the new Terra Mitica theme park in Benidorm Spain. This will be Europe’s largest interactive ride featuring 76 animatronic figures out of Greek Mythology. The dark ride is designed as a true labyrinth. There are nearly 200 targets within the ride and as the six-passenger vehicles travel through the labyrinth, the combined score of all the riders will determine if the riders can go on to complete the ride or whether they will be forced out one of the exit tunnels.

Laff: Wow! That sounds really different! I’d like to try that one myself. Please tell us about your company’s animatronics division, who are some of the most noted designers and who is the main developer?

ghostblaster facadeMr. Kelly: The animatronics division has more than 60 artists, sculptors, mechanical and electronics technicians. The design team is lead by Vice President of Design Peter Dalsgaard. Peter heads a four person design staff, which includes Drew Hunter, our design director for Haunted Attractions.

Laff: Outstanding! I know Mr. Hunter was very proud of the ride that Sally did in Conn. At Lake Compounce, "Ghost Hunt", one of my favorites. In your opinion, why do you think dark rides are making a huge "comeback" in the 1990’s?ghostblaster organist

Mr. Kelly: There are a number of reasons not the least, of which are the audiences need for a "high tech feel" in a high tech world. I also believe that the older skewing demographics of our attractions, parks can physically deal with a dark ride easier than the thrill rides. Dark rides are also a sharing experience. Parents and grandparents can share the encounter with children. This is truer with the interactive ride.

Laff: Good point, but by the same token, besides a well known theme park haunted house fire, why the demise of the older "Traditional" dark rides and fun houses from the past?

Mr. Kelly: Realism is more important than in the past. The old haunted rides with their cut our ghosts and rattling chains are no measure for the three-dimensional look and feel that we produce.

north pole adventureLaff: Ok, but that being said then, is the "Laser Gun" and scoring challenge the savior of the dark ride into the next century?

Mr. Kelly: No, the laser gun is only the first and easiest step to introducing interactivity into the dark ride. The real challenge for dark ride designers is to find a way to increase and vary interactive components without taking the "easy way" out, i.e., reliance on "guns" as an interactive device. I believe the market will demand less-violent interactivity. Our industry must be smarter and wiser than the video game industry.levitating corpse

Laff: I agree. The video gaming industry seems to have its ups and downs all the time. Here is truly an enthusiast’s question: What kinds of voltage do your current cars run on and how do they relate to the high voltages that cars from the past ran?

Mr. Kelly: There is no set answer to this question. The theme park industry is international; therefore the voltages vary according to the country of installation. You can no longer think that the U.S. is the dark ride Mecca of the industry. It is just another country that represents the marketplace. In fact, some of the largest and most inventive rides are in Asia and Europe.

Laff: Interesting to say the least. Who manufactures the ride cars and are they of a fiberglass construction?

Mr. Kelly: Our small system ride cars are constructed by Barbisan of Italy. The ride system for the Labyrinth of the Minotaur in Spain is being developed by ETF of Holland. These six-passenger cars are totally battery operated and are trackless. The ride cars follow a thin wire buried in the floor of the ride. The batteries will power the ride car for about 14 hours without the need for recharging.

Laff: That is certainly new and different from past ride systems! From an initial response and inquiry for a new ride, what is the average time frame for completion on a ride?

greeterMr. Kelly: Our smaller interactive dark rides usually take about 5 months. Newer designs will take around 7 months. The large Labyrinth of the Minotaur will take about 14 months.

Laff: What exactly does the company supply when providing a new attraction?

Mr. Kelly: Our Company is capable for supplying a turnkey project. In other words, we offer to do everything except construct the building and its infrastructure. However, many clients prefer to deal directly with the ride system manufacturer leaving the animatronics, special effects and sets to us.

Laff: How do you personally feel about the "dynasty" so to speak of the dark rides that Pretzel built for so many years?

Mr. Kelly: Times are changing. There are few dynasties left in the world.

Laff: Are there any other former companies whose animatronics or dark ride work that you have respected, and what about the other current dark rides? Any that you find as nice work?

Mr. Kelly: Disney and Universal have set the modern day mark in many ways. Warner Bros./Six Flags have impressive rides also. In Europe, the classic dark rides can be found at De Eftling Park in Holland Parc Asterix in Paris.

den of lost thievesLaff: I personally love the new "Ghost Hunt" in Conn., with its blacklighting and "Horror-Theme". Are there any plans to do a "Horror" walk-thru if business warrants so?

Mr. Kelly: None at this time.

Laff: Did you feel confident that the now defunct Dinosaur Beach dark ride from Wildwood NJ was a good concept and do you think it would have had a better chance in a different park to work?

Mr. Kelly: Dinosaur Beach was a solid concept. We have seen that dinosaurs are enduring in more ways than one. Dinosaurs are perhaps the oldest living fad.

Laff: Where do you see dark rides and your own company 10 years from now?

Mr. Kelly: More dark rides, but not necessarily bigger ones. More interactivity but not necessarily relying on violence and guns. The dark rides resurgence is far from reaching its peak.

Laff: If in fact, we could go forward in time 10 years, will Sally Corporation have a dark ride legacy also?

Mr. Kelly: Yes, I think our "Pistolero" style interactivity mini-dark ride is going to be regarded as our legacy. We broke open many markets with this concept thus bringing highly entertaining and affordable dark rides to an element of the attractions industry that would not have been able to include this form of entertainment into their attractions mix.

Laff: Any final thoughts or words for all the dark ride fans out there?

Mr. Kelly: Ride and Enjoy!

Laff-In-The-Dark would like to thank Mr. Howard Kelly and all the fine folks at Sally Corporation for taking the time for this inside look at the worldwide leader in animatronics and dark rides and an insight into the current state of the dark ride in the amusement industry.

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Den of Lost Thieves


      Pistolero Ride Review                                Ghost Hunt Review


This article 1999 by Laff In The Dark. All rights reserved.
All Photos this page 1999 by Sally Corporation and used with permission.


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This page was last updated Thursday, December 02, 1999
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