Riverboat Ride
Crescent Park, Riverside, RI

By John Malone

Riverboat Dark Ride

 

It seems that everyone I talk with about dark rides has at least one story about something wild that happened in the dark! Lots of us have been stuck in the dark, as the little electric car jumped the track and got stuck midway through the ride. Or, better yet, the ride operators left the lights on for all to see how the buzz saw really sliced that damsel in distress right up the middle! Since the dark ride is one of my favorite attractions at any amusement park, I have more than my share of unforgettable trips through the dark that I can recount years after these rides and their home parks have left the scene. But, I will never forget my first trip through one of my all time favorite dark rides, Riverboat ride at Crescent Park.

Located in Riverside, RI, Crescent Park was one of many seaside amusement parks in the Ocean State. Although somewhat smaller than its' major competition across Narragansett Bay, Rocky Point Park, little Crescent Park was close enough to Providence and southeastern Massachusetts to attract a loyal following throughout the greater part of this century. And Crescent Park certainly had a personality and allure that was all it’s own. The Charles Looff Carousel still operates on the site today, and is considered this woodcarver’s signature masterpiece. The park was also home to many unique and singular attractions. The standard issue Wild Mouse ride was themed to fit the seaside location, resulting in the "Flying Fish." Their steam gauge railroad train had elaborate scenes depicting the Indian Settlers who had inhabited the land long before I showed up with my fistful of tickets, and a great Wild West Hotel walk-thru complemented the Western theme of this section. But if you wanted to have some laughs in the dark, "The Riverboat" was a dark-ride connoisseurs’ dream inside and out.

The exterior architecture of the "Riverboat" resembled a New Orleans Paddlewheel Boat (although I doubt many Mississippi Riverboats had a Gypsy FortuneTeller, a Skeeball booth, and a Beer Garden where the paddle wheel should have been!) Complete with giant illuminated smokestacks reaching into the clouds, the exterior theme did not offer any suggestions as to what really went on inside this building! The front façade of this ride was covered with faux gingerbread architecture and plenty of clear incandescent bulbs, and the whole structure was painted a gaudy Sea Green and Bubblegum Pink, with white trim! (note: Although most dark ride structures of this period were simple wooden buildings, this dark ride has a more than humble beginning. You see, when Crescent Park dismantled their last wooden coaster1 in 1961, the lumber from this coaster was used to build the Riverboat that same year. I wonder if Crescent Park knew they were on the forefront of recycling!) The actual ride experience took place all on one level, but the second floor "promenade deck" on the ride’s front contained a scene for all the midway patrons to enjoy. Where most two story dark rides would have you pop out over the midway for a little 180 degree turn, this second story was merely a facade built up front, and only extended a short distance back into the structure. It consisted of the two obligatory swinging saloon doors on each end of the "boat" and, every so often a hapless maiden would pop out of the doors, followed closely by a crazed, drunken pirate chasing her along the balcony! These mannequins were fastened permanently to a small sled, with the same "hardware" mechanism as the dark ride cars that carried us through the ride itself! Impressive theming for its time in the mid-1960's, when everyone else was doing horror themes in fluorescent paint on their dioramas!

However, I must admit here and now that I had dismissed this ride for years, as it looked like a silly "scenic" type dark ride with all the saloon girls in the front windows, and paper mache' piano players banging away forever on the keyless old junk pianos. I had ridden those dark rides at Santa’s Village or other kiddie parks that contained childish storylines about far-off lands or storybook characters. What a waste of time! I was more inclined to the blood and guts, skull and crossbones type stuff of Monster Rides and Kooky Castles! Keep in mind, I was only about 7 or 8 years old, and I had my ride time at Crescent Park planned down to the minute with no room for kiddie rides or tame, silly funhouses with no thrills! Those gas-powered cars across the midway from "The Riverboat" commanded all my attention in those days, with repeat rides that probably added more pollution to the air over Providence than any five o' clock traffic jam ever could!

As the park was a short drive from the shopping centers and local restaurants, I was able to squeeze in a few rides practically once a week at Crescent Park! Well, one uneventful summer afternoon found me in the park with only my mother and father. No little friends to play Dodge ‘Em with, no one to whirl ‘til you hurl on the brand new Tilt-A-Whirl. My father was trying to win that carton of Lucky Strikes, and my mother was trying to help me unload my ride tickets so we could go home. As we wandered by the Westward Ho! (No, it was not a Cowboy Bordello – just your classic gas-powered turnpike cars), the Riverboat loomed ahead and something caught my eye. As we strolled to take a closer look at this big ol’ barge, I spotted a creepy, moss covered sign over the entry doors stating "The Swamp." Well now, that sounded interesting! This might be worth one spin - just in case I was missing something. My mom opted to go for this ride, and we climbed into that little ornate little electric car to begin our journey. Looking back, I wonder how I could’ve walked by this one so many times without jumping in!

As it turned out, the Riverboat was a first-class, true-to-form, no-holds-barred, riotous Laugh-In-The-Dark! Every single trick was working, all the black lights and beady red skeleton eyes were flashing in the rotted skulls! The abandoned mine blew up on cue, toppling boxes of dynamite on my mother and I amidst all the flashing red spotlights and strobes! The skeletal sea captains were still steering the lost ships, and those industrial fans blowing the rags over their bones almost knocked my hat off as well. There were forgotten prisoners, rotting away in the dusty brigs of sunken pirate ships, with all the loot and treasure lying at their bony feet! Plenty of loud noises, horns, sirens, and no rubber bumpers on those black matte plywood doors to muffle the crash of our little vehicle twisting and turning through a seemingly endless maelstrom! Once inside that giant crazy Riverboat, every turn had a new scene, each nightmare caged up in chicken-wire better than the last! As I recall, most of the scenes centered on dead pirates and the skeletal remains of their lost ships, and like all good dark rides, it was sensory overload all the way!

The best was saved for last, naturally, as you came around a corner and found yourself in the middle of a 360-degree scene from the deepest darkest jungles of Africa. Wildly painted fluorescent leaves of green and yellow filled the room, glowing eerily in that blacklight. As your eyes took in the whole scene, the pygmies would appear from behind the vegetation, spears in hand ready to harpoon anyone foolish enough to leave the security of that little car! As you rounded the corner and your eyes found center stage, it seems the cannibals had captured the poor Dr. Livingston and thrown him into the boiling cauldron. From behind this nightmare, you only saw the rather large, obviously female native stirring the pot with a giant bone, and the good doctor's head bobbing up and down in the soup! However, once you came around the front, it seemed that her tribal outfit did not cover everything up, and the maintenance crew had used orange Day-Glo paint to accent her attributes! (Think of two bright orange highbeams staring you in the face.) This may have been funny any other time with any other 8 year old riding with me, but that was my mother seated next to me! Well, I had never seen anything like that in any haunted house, and at this point was afraid to look at my mother’s face. Oh, I could hear it now, my mother telling my father "Bill, do you know what is in there? Never again!! We are never taking him back to that horrible place, that dirty, nasty park!" As I said farewell to Crescent Park in my head, the car crawled down the last pitch-black corridor, and we were not able to hear each other even if I wanted to say anything, with all the jungle noises blaring down at us through the speakers! Once we plowed through the doors into the sunlight, I was ready to head to the car and kiss Crescent Park goodbye...until I looked over at my co-passenger to the left. Could it be...was she really...laughing? With her hands covering her face, I didn't know whether she was laughing or hiding! But, as we tried to get out of that little electric car, I could see that she was cracking up to no end! What was this - my mother actually got the joke and thought it was funny? Unbelievable! We laughed all the way to the parking lot, and all the way home! A truly "enlightening" experience on all "fronts!" And, of course, I couldn't wait to get back to Crescent Park with my friends and ride that "Riverboat" again and again.

 

Authors note about the Indian Village Train Ride:

The scenes along the Train Ride were quite elaborate for outdoors dioramas. I recall a man-made waterfall located at the far turnaround, where a huge animated dragon would poke through the falls, ready to grab some victims! The plaster rock formation that formed the falls and housed that menacing creature are still there, crumbling and faded in the trash-filled concrete basin that held the water for this attraction. The train rails themselves are long gone, and Mother Nature has reclaimed most of the remaining railroad ties and track beds. But, here and there, empty floodlight sockets dot the weeded landscape, lonely markers along the route of what was once an exciting train ride through the Wild West!

Editors note: The Riverboat Dark Ride was another Amusement Display's creation from Bill Tracey and associates, located in Cape May NJ

1The Roller Coaster ran from 1939 until 1961

Photos are from the John Malone collection.
This article is © 1999 by John Malone All used with permission

 

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