About half of the stunts (also called "tricks" or "gimmicks") are original, according to Dennis Vourderis, co-owner of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park at Coney Island. "They require a lot of TLC, but it's important to us and to our guests that we keep them working." The stunts, which momentarily light up and spring to life as the ride's cars pass, include a zombie intruder, a piano-playing Phantom of the Opera-like character, and a not-quite-dead mummy. The track's disorienting layout and the stunts' use of lighting, loud noises, sudden movement, and wild images play into the element of surprise and elicit the startled shrieks that are dark rides' stock-in-trade.
The attraction's original owner, Freddie Garms, was already able to brag that his Wonder Wheel was the world's biggest when he commissioned leading dark ride manufacturer, the Pretzel Amusement Company, to build the world's longest spook ride. When it opened in 1955, the Spook's cars traveled a quarter-mile of track and shuttled the length of a city block outside between two stunt-filled buildings. In 1983, Vourderis' late father, Deno, purchased the wheel and the dark ride from Garms.
Soon after they took over the ride, the Vourderis family closed the smaller second building on the Bowery and removed the outdoor track. "People were bored and hot riding outside," Vourderis says. "They just wanted to be scared."
It's tough to scare BrooklynitesTo maximize the scare quotient, the park keeps adding and updating gimmicks. It's a bit disconcerting to hear Vourderis characterize the Spook as a ride for the entire family and then hear him describe one of the most recent stunts, the torturer. "It's a guy chained to a table, flopping about wildly as he gets electrocuted." Now that's family entertainment.
Which raises a question: are today's kids too jaded to appreciate the delicate art of a pneumatically driven stake that bursts through a figure's chest or a horned devil whose bloody blade appears poised to chop off their knees? No, claims Bret Malone, a founding member of the Dark Ride and Funhouse Historical Society and an editor of the organization's online dark ride shrine Laff in the Dark. "I've seen kids literally running for their lives after leaving a dark ride. But, ten minutes later, they're back in line."
Despite the graphic realism of today's slasher films, Malone says that dark rides still hold their own. Kids have no sense of the history or nostalgia attached to the traditional attractions. They just enjoy them as contemporary rides. "There's nothing like getting scared in the dark," Malone explains.
Vourderis concedes that some kids get off the Spook and say that they weren't scared. "I tell them, 'Hey, how can I possibly scare you Brooklyn guys?' "
The Spook-A-Rama, which the Laff in the Dark Web site calls "the Sistine Chapel of dark rides," is a slice of Americana. And it's obviously a labor of love for Vourderis. For his part, Vourderis says he is committed to the Spook. "The rich, historic flavor is what makes Coney Island unique."
And, apparently, it's good for business. A veritable Big Apple melting pot queues up for the Spook and Coney's other rides. After hanging tough through some lean years, Vourderis is encouraged by developments like the minor league baseball stadium for the Brooklyn Cyclones and the rehabbed parachute jump. "People are finally waking up and seeing that Coney Island is still here."
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