A feature about the Haunted House Dark Ride would not be complete without acknowledging Gillian's Wonderland Pier's first dark ride, the Bill Tracy-designed Ghost Creek Caverns. While it's not known when Ghost Creek originally debuted, we do know that it was resurrected for the 1982 season with the help of Ocean City's own Eric Princz when he was 15-years-old.

Eric is currently the owner of Creative Design & Engineering, an animatronics company that has designed and created dark rides, mini golf courses and animated displays throughout the county. Walk down Ocean City's boardwalk and you'll see a menagerie of Eric's animated figures. The two gorillas that crashed their helicopter over the three-course Congo Falls Adventure Golf? That's Eric's work. And you just have to see what he created for the inside of the attraction's Lost City course.

But back to the horror at hand, Ghost Creek Caverns circa 1982. Already active in mechanical animation, Eric was given his first crack at the production of a dark ride. While he doesn't recall riding it before it went into storage, he does recall seeing skeletons and other props stored in the gated areas of Gillian's, wondering where they came from. His questions were answered in winter 1982, when Roy Gillian approached him on incorporating a defunct shooting gallery from Wildwood into a dark ride.

“There were a few locations where Roy was thinking about installing the shooting gallery, but one day he asked me to look at the dark ride he was putting back up,” recalls Eric. “He told me the ride had been in storage and asked if I could incorporate the shooting gallery into it. Originally, I was going to re-theme the gallery as alien/outer space, but since the ride was a western theme and so was the gallery, it made sense to keep it as such now that it was going to be part of the ride.”

The ride system had been purchased back when the attraction debuted from the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company of Bridgeton, NJ. The ride cars were the last models furnished by Pretzel; the same type that operates today in Knoebels Amusement Resort's Haunted House. While the Gillian's park staff re-installed the Pretzel track and most of Tracy's stunts, Eric and a friend were tasked with repairing and embellishing the interior as well as installing the shooting gallery.

But as exciting as the project was to the young Eric, there were immediate challenges.“It was a very cold winter, especially working by the ocean,” recalls Eric. “And we had to contend with the Blue Laws which meant we had to stay out of sight when working on Sundays.”

The park staff rebuilt the original loading area inside the pavilion to the far right, facing the kiddie rides. The facade props included a giant skull wearing a cowboy hat, a painted basketball used for an eyeball, Eric recalls. Plus, former Tracy employee Tom Thaler painted a bizarre mural that had no relevance to the ride.

“Tom illustrated a nightmarish pirate ship at night, with supernatural creatures,” recalls Eric. “It had nothing to do with the western theme, but I'm sure it gave riders something to think about.” On the inside, Eric created the ride's very first scene by re-purposing some of the former shooting gallery from Wildwood.

“It was a bartender popping up from behind the bar,” recalls Eric. “Originally, the bartender was geared to duck behind the bar but I reworked it. I named the bar the Red Garter Saloon as that was the name of the Wildwood shooting gallery.”

Eric recalls the track as being serpentine, taking full advantage of the available space inside the cinder block building. The Tracy stunts, he says, were housed in open, vertical boxes. Stunts included Tracy's Shiverin' Indian (a seated, grimacing Native American taking a shower in his Teepee), Buzzards, Blasting Skeleton (skeleton miner detonating a mine shaft) and Singing Skulls.

The park staff recycled what was left of Tracy's collapsing mine shaft, reinforcing it with new lumber before Eric repainted it. Strangely, the dark ride had no sound effects but Eric was allowed to bring sound to the shooting gallery via an eight-track player. Eric added bats and wolves, and created the ride's final scene: a skeleton in an outhouse.

“I did that on my own,” Eric recalls. “I didn't know that Tracy had created a similar stunt and that it was still in storage at the park. With my stunt, riders could look through the outhouse window and see a seated skeleton reading ‘Playghoul' magazine. Roy (Gillian) took one look at it and told me he didn't like the (Tracy) outhouse scene when the ride ran before. I had no idea!" But Eric's outhouse scene was retained and it preceded the ride's finale: flashing strobe lights.

The stunts were all triggered by metal plates when they were run over by the cars' rear wheels. All were animated by compressed air, the lines ran under the boardwalk to a compressor near the park office.

Having multiple Tracy buzzards, some from the original ride and some from the Wildwood shooting gallery, Eric took one home and successfully retooled its beak to talk with the intention of having it function as a barker.

“I had it at home ‘singing' a Fleetwood Mac album,” recalls Eric. “I mounted it over the shooting gallery so it faced the boardwalk. I don't know if the park ever recorded a spiel for it to say.”

The second rendition of Ghost Creek Caverns had the distinction of being the only known dark ride to run through a shooting gallery.

“The car would come out of the darkness, and the riders were 10-feet away from real people shooting rifles at them,” recalls Eric. “Of course, they weren't shooting bullets, but it was quite the sight and it was a very popular scene for people to take photos of.”

Wayne Seddon enhanced the ride over the four years it operated, adding illustrations and new stunts.

Gillain's removed Ghost Creek Caverns for the second and final time in 1986, but the shooting gallery remained at least until 2004. The space that occupied that dark ride has been used for many attractions over the years, most recently a mini-golf.

Three of Ghost Creek's stunts keep the Tracy legacy alive in the Haunted House Dark ride: the two buzzards in the graveyard scene and the flamboyant skeleton in the façade window. (Disclaimer: he was a bare bones skeleton in Ghost Creek). Also, the Tracy Gang's western decor near the former Ghost Creek boarding area is still displayed.

“It was a very popular ride,” reflects Eric on Ghost Creek Caverns. “I was very young and immature at the time, but I did learn a lot from the experience.”

 


Above: Section of Ghost
Creek Cavern facade under reconstruction.


Below: Red Garter Saloon scene in Ghost Creek Cavern.
Would it really be a
New Jersey Tracy ride
without a bar scene?
Below: Until 2004 the buzzard sat atop the ledge beside the Tracy giant skull waterfall in
Gillian's shooting gallery.

Above: The buzzard was given the ability to speak by Eric Princz.



Right: The Blasting Skeleton miner detonating dynamite sticks.

A new version of the Tracy outhouse stunt was created by Eric Princz for the reassembled Ghost Creek Caverns ride.
Above: An exhausted skeleton hoists
himself up after a hard day's work
in the Ghost Creek mineshaft.
Above: Mini-golf course occupies the site of the former Ghost Creek Caverns. Many character obstacles were created by Wayne Seddon.

Below: George LaCross, Eric Princz, Bill Luca at Creative Design & Engineering studio with the original Tracy giant skull mold.


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