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 . . .
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:
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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,
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
Zombie Castle's early Laff In The Dark front in the mid
'70s. Below: As it appeared in the 80's.
family revamped the facade in the 1980’s to resemble an abandoned
haunted house with boarded-up windows, but retained the Laff name.
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.
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
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.
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
* 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
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.
of flooring and track layout and wooden bump ramps (center).
*Stunts are operated on custom built air-cylinder mechanics or gear
* 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.
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.
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
Photos: Bret Malone; Bill Luca; George LaCross