You're standing in line on a hot summer evening. Suddenly, a refreshing breeze blows off Long Island Bay. Flashing lights, the smell of popcorn and doughboys, and screams stimulate your senses. You are at Playland Park in Rye NY, awaiting your first experience on the dark ride now known as Zombie Castle. Your palms are sweating heavily and your anticipation level is high. You have heard wonderful things about the ride from fellow dark ride enthusiasts, so you've traveled a long way to experience it yourself. The façade's medieval decor gives you goosebumps. Twin demons stand guard on either side. At first glance, it appears to be a small, short ride - its width no bigger than a single tractor trailer truck. But appearances are deceiving. Still, the castle motif beckons to you: "Take a ride, fool! Enter my twisted domain!" So you give your tickets to the ride operator and board your wooden cart. "Is it scary?" you ask timidly. He just smirks and pushes a button on the control panel. No turning back now - you are about to ride - the last Laff In the Dark . . .



     Welcome to an eclectic presentation of stunts ranging from a Giant Rat who threatens to "destroy you" to a Skeleton pulling a wheelie on a motorcycle. Welcome to the magnificent Zombie Castle. Hey, hope you didn't let the width of the facade fool you! This building goes deep into the bowels of the nearby Dragon Coaster. And, the first 30 seconds will turn your world upside down
 
as you travel through a dizzying sequence of single stunts coming at you like Bullets from a rapid-fire machine gun.
The first, rather gruesome castle resident you encounter is the Decaying Witch Corpse behind a glass window. She gives you the silent treatment, probably because her boyfriend around the corner, another decaying corpse wrapped in cobwebs, is complaining loudly:
 
"I'm boned". Stop laughing, please! Better to pacify these castle dwellers my friend, lest you find yourself a permanent guest! A quick lurch to the left whisks your cart to the Mad Tree Monster that lets out a large belch - probably indigestion from snacking on a previous rider. This stunt once resided in Clementon Lake, NJ's defunct Pretzel called Polarama. A quick turn to the right brings you to an in-house built "Strong Guy Zombie" wearing an orange muscle shirt. He's none too happy to see you and he flexes his deltoids to prove the point. A longer turn to the left brings you to a famous Bill Tracey and ADC Giant Rat stunt, who isn't afraid to express himself either. "I will destroy you!" he warns in a booming baritone voice. And, this Giant Rat takes prisoners - witness the long-bearded, wilted old soul as you round the corner. He seems to be begging for you to free him. Sorry, no-can-do! This Rat has finked to the other Castle inhabitants about your intrusion. From this point on, it's every man for himself!



     Stop screaming! You'll wake the dead! Not a good thing when you're near the Haunted Graveyard Scene, complete with a strobe light - another scary sight built in-house by Castle owner Nick Trahanas. Much more about Nick later. For now, check out the tombstones. Might one of them have your name listed? A turn to the right brings you to the back of the building and a "pop-up" stunt in the form of a "Dead Smiling Guy" that bears a striking resemblance to a former politician. Hmm, wonder if he knows something you don't? A long, straight run along the back takes us to yet another horrific scene, a Dead Man in a coffin! He's wearing an eye patch. But let's hope he's not keeping an eye out for us! Look closely and you'll see yet another giant rat in the background. Where's a good exterminator when you need one? A twist to the right and you're at the cell of the Shivering Skeleton a stunt built by Nick for the 2000 season. With a "clank, rattle, clank," this bag of bones tells us about his new diet! "Shiver me funny bone!" he says. Okay, wipe that smile off your face.
       Now comes the Castle's first full-scale diorama a classic Torture Room scene! Hear that poor victim scream! Why, he's simply going to pieces! Included in the room is a Tracey Day-Glow painted Skull, as well as an authentic-looking Torture Rack built in-house. Hey, how many torturers does it take to stretch a guy? The answer here is five and some of them came from Playland's defunct, Tracey-designed Pirates Cove walk-through. Guess the devil made them do it, as next you come face-to-face with the ride's oldest stunt, a papier mache Devil, complete with hell-raising laugh.Another sharp turn to the left brings us to two new Castle dwellers, a terribly deformed Coffin Lady who sits up and lets loose a blood-curdling scream.. Maybe she didn't like that painting mounted over her coffin.
Then there's another stunt built in-house, a Dead Guy that leaps at you from over a cement wall. Don't get too close. He's not all there! Wait, what's that sound? Why it's the rattling of chains as your car takes a sweeping right turn to a new, large diorama of Skeletons, from Doug Ferguson and Phantasmechanics. Watch them dance to a haunted beat! These are modified Flying Crank Ghost stunts, and there is also a rare Wolf Dog prop that springs forward at you, much like the old revered Al-E-Gator stunt from Pretzel rides. This Doggie from Hell is another former tenant of the defunct Clementon Lake dark ride. One of the skeletons is riding him. Who said he doesn't have guts?  



     Hold tight onto the ride car. You won't believe what comes next! Bump, bump, bump! Things that go "bump" in the middle of the night? No, its just rare Traver "Trick Track," a modest, but clever way of keeping us you at wits end as things are about to take a rather harsh turn for the worse! Dead ahead is another in-house scare maker, an Electrocution Chair! Hear those electrifying sound bites and notice the condemned bony face. Guess he was bad to the bone! Another turn to the left brings you to more Traver Trick Track, and an Animated Display Creators paper machie Giant stunt, complete with an old-time buzzer sound that startles you every time. A repeat turn to the left brings you to the front corner of the building, and yet another creepy built in-house scene and the largest of all: a Mad Scientist's Laboratory, created by the Castle's owner with a few parts thrown in from Polor-Rama such as the Egyptian King Tut Tomb. The skeleton here was also created in-house. "AH, HA, HA, HA, HA" says Doctor Doom , followed by a woman's scream. Guess she was reacting to the Doctor's bill!



On you go, into a barrel, complete with black lights. Someone, or something, is doing his best Lord of the Dance imitation at the other end, legs kicking and body swaying. With all that wheezing, he must not be in good shape. Oh no,
  looks like an earlier rider must have jumped out his car and received the maximum sentence: being hung from the gallows. But there's no time for you to hang around, as a tight turn to the left brings you to another Tombstone Scene, yet another quality piece created by Nick! A turn to the right brings you to the last of the 20 stunts : A Skeleton Riding a Motorcycle, a custom built scare. Say goodbye to this queasy rider.A turn to the left,
and a final turn to the right brings you back to safety of the midway. There, you have just experienced two minutes of pure dark ride terror! But hey, you look pale! And why are you shaking? You should be proud. You just rode a historic ride. Seriously, let me explain. Let's walk down the midway and talk about it over some hotdogs, fries and Cokes. My treat.



Before we travel back in time to trace the ride's origins, let's pause to salute Nick Trahanas, the current owner of Zombie Castle. He and his family have embraced the historical significance of their ride and have kept it operating in peak form. From all accounts, Ralph E. Chambers built this ride at Playland in the mid to late 1930's. The building, once home to another attraction, was extended to accommodate the Laff in the Dark track and stunts. While Chambers was the person responsible for the mechanical components, cars and controls for the Laff In The Dark series, the legendary Harry Traver marketed them as part of his ride offerings out of his Beaver Falls, PA. manufacturing facility. Of course, Traver is best known for his trio of fiendish roller coasters constructed of steel and wood that he launched in 1927. It was those and other coasters that bought him much fame and fortune. Like his Laff series, Traver installed his Trick Track in many of his coasters. However, by 1932, Traver was broke and his chief engineer Ralph Chambers purchased the Beaver Falls firm. While a few Laff In The Dark rides were in fact built, a potential lawsuit by the Pretzel Ride Company over copyright infringements possibly ended further production. The most famous of the revered named rides was one formerly located at Crystal Beach Amusement Park, just over the bridge in Canada and across the lake from Buffalo, NY.


Patent Drawings for Traver's Laff In The Dark, filed November 14, 1930.


Below: Riders in car engaging mechanical linkage to activate Traver's popular kicking-mule stunt.



Above: Car chassis showing motor, chain drive, dual-wheel track follower and bumpers.
Left: Illustration of track
and bump ramps.

Finding surviving Travers/Chambers Laffs isn't easy. Because Pretzel named a few of its own dark rides after the Traver/Chamber model, it's difficult to tell which Laffs were from which manufacturer. The only other Laff surviving into the 1980's was one located at William's Grove Amusement Park, near Harrisburg PA. This ride was renovated around 1985.

Fortunately a plaque inside Playland's Zombie Castle clearly states that it is in fact, Laff in the Dark Number 50, manufactured by R.E. Chambers. So there's no denying who made this Laff. Ironically, Traver ended his career working at Playland, so he might have cared for Laff in the Dark in his later years. He died in 1961 in New Rochelle, just south of Rye
.



     In 1934, Traver, with Chambers now heading up the PA company, advertised Laff at a cost of around $18,000.00 which included a building, 12 cars, stunts made of plywood, steel track, and a front and building that measured 93 feet wide, 40 feet high and 60 feet deep The earliest known façade at Playland's Laff in the Dark hosted animated elephant and alligator heads as well as a few plywood clowns. Inside the ride lurked the Traver/Chamber two-dimensional plywood stunts common in all the Laffs they created. The Trahanas family purchased the ride in 1963. Nick Trahanas's father was no stranger to the amusement park business, having operated a candy confection business in Asbury Park, NJ.


 
Shortly after the elder Mr. Trahanas purchased Rye's Laff in the Dark, the stunt sequence was as follows:
An original plywood Popeye, then the Man in a Coffin. Where the Monster Tree now stands was a classic Spider and Web. Towards the back wall was a stunt that is remembered fondly by enthusiasts, the Running Rats Along a Beam stunt! The ride had a now removed turn inward that led to an old African Native Man with Spear scene. Next up, was yet another fondly remembered prop, the ClassicTraver/Chambers Fighting Cats. The Devil, still present in the current day rendition, was next, followed by a Coffin That Rocked Open. A Man in Jail scene followed, and then came an old Dragon's Head. Towards the front right-hand turn, now the home of the current Mad Scientist Laboratory was a Skeleton that flew out at you. Next were a Gorilla and then a Witch, with outstretched hands. Onward you would go through the Spinning Barrel.
Above: Zombie Castle's early Laff In The Dark front in the mid '70s. Below: As it appeared in the 80's.
     Frankenstein, a figure built by Mr. Trahanas's father, was at the end of the barrel - the spot currently occupied by the Hanging Man. Around the turn inward was yet another sadly-missed Traver/Chambers classic: The Kicking Mule stunt, constructed of sheet metal and wood. All the old stunts were enhanced with the sounds of classic sirens, buzzers and bells. The ride cars were originally single- seaters, but were later converted by the Trahanas family to two-seaters.  
The family revamped the facade in the 1980's to resemble an abandoned haunted house with boarded-up windows, but retained the Laff name.



The Trahanas family maintained Laff in the Dark into the 1990s, a time when classic dark rides were vanishing at many nearby parks. They knew the public would be demanding more given the increasing technological advances in attractions, especially in theme parks. They wanted their ride to stay competitive but they didn't want to compromise on tradition.
  So they refused to sell out to audio animatronics or filmed effects found in many attractions of the 1990s. Instead they rounded up stunts from defunct classic dark rides like the popular Polarama (in photo at left), and created some stunts and scenes of their own. The ride became their home away from home.
      They supported the new stunts with state-of-the art sound and animated them with custom-made air cylinders and other devices, thus taking the classic dark ride experience to the next level.
Outside, the Trahanas family designed a new façade with materials provided by Wisdom. (So successful was this fiberglass front that Wisdom would go on to incorporate it into all their kiddy portable roller coasters.) They named their new creation Zombie Castle. The rest is history - still in the making.



* Zombie Castle operates with a fleet of five to six cars, with a spare used for parts.

* Like all dark rides of its era, Zombie has no "car tracking" system in place, but many safeguards have been installed to compensate for that.

* While cars have been modified from two to four seaters with parts of the body changed, they are original Travers/Chamber's rolling stock: the last existing set.

*There is a hidden workshop centered within the ride that serves both as a design and repair area for the ride

 
    Cars lined up outside Zombie Castle           Workshop and air compressor.Ca
             Bottom of Traver car during         Dual trackwheels and newly
             post-season maintenance.          cast bronze contactor brushes.
   
        Views of flooring and track layout and wooden bump ramps (center).
 
       Digital sound generator

      Rear mechanical drives for
      monster tree stunt.

m

     Motor crank mechanism for
     electric chair stunt.

*Stunts are operated on custom built air-cylinder mechanics or gear driven motors.

* Stunts and scenes are activated by optical devices, similar to "electric eyes" in supermarkets.

*The sound system is a custom made with digitally-recorded effects piped through electric guitar amplifiers.

*The Trahanas family produced many of the sound effects.

*The track retains its original configuration, with the exception of two sections that were altered to make room for larger scenes.

*The track is still a steel top, wood base operation, with the wood being made of weathered oak from the area, and the steel bent to fit the ride's contours.




The Trahanas family also operates and owns another darkride enthusiasts' favorite, the Flying Witch that was bought from Europe and installed on the site of the park's former funhouse in 1971. The Witch, as it's called by locals, is a portable, three-story ride imported from the Pinfari company, and may be the last one to operate in North America. A similar model was operated at the now defunct Rocky Point Park, Rhode Island from 1970 to 1972. A sister ride was spotted in Canada as well. Like Zombie, this ride's props were also refurbished in-house, and the family has added new stunts and produced new sounds over the years. The facade features a classic Witch riding her broomstick on the facade, while Four Demons take a ride on the windmill. There is also a detailed Dragon and a Devil Face that also graced a Coney Island Rotor ride named Hell Hole.




In 1984, Playland Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The park maintains several rides dating back to 1928 including the Whip, Derby Racer and Carousel. It also has the historic Dragon Coaster and the Old Mill, built by renowned designer Fred Church in 1929. While the park has received historic ranking, one of its rare rides hasn't. That is until now! We at The Dark Ride and Fun House Historical Society award Zombie Castle as well as the whole Trahanas family, our highest award: Classic Dark Ride Status for keeping the last Traver/Chambers Laugh In The Dark ride operating, and for adding new scenes and stunts, while retaining the traditional charm and flair of so many rides sadly gone forever. Zombie Castle is only the second ride to receive such status from our association. Congratulations to the Trahanas family and their Zombie Castle - our nation's last 'Laff'. It's a monument to their perseverance and vision; to their belief that all good things DON'T have to come to an end. While many other classic dark rides have been converted to pizza stands, arcades and gift shops, Laff/Zombie Castle bucks this all-too-familiar trend. May it continue to thrill and amaze its patrons for another 60 years! And while the Kicking Mule has gone out to pasture, and the Fighting Cats have used up the last of their nine lives, we can't help feel that both Ralph Chambers and Harry Traver are smiling down from the heavens on Zombie Castle.


Article and photos ©2001 The Dark Ride And Funhouse Historical Society
Photos: Bret Malone; Bill Luca; George LaCross
Zombie Castle Ride Tour