In the mid-1980's, I received a letter from a friend telling me about dark rides and such. You see, back then there was no internet, no e-mail, so information like this was welcomed news for me, a dark ride fan. This particular letter spoke of a fantastic dark ride called Laff-Land in a far off, little known park, Sylvan Beach Amusement Park, in upstate NY. "Never knew it existed" I thought as my friend's letter spoke of a classic Pretzel Dark Ride complete with a great facade with two grinning clowns atop of it. "I'll go sometime" I thought, but Sometime would not come anytime soon. The 1980's were brutal to many North Eastern dark rides as well as traditional amusement parks as a whole,

parks were closing left and right, being driven out of business by the big theme parks and changing public and society tastes, combined with urban decay. I was lucky, today I think, as I made it to a great many parks before they vanished, or were bulldozed into a void in history, but I never got to Sylvan Beach. No sir, "Sometime" was not in the cards for me as I proceeded to: get married, change careers, have a son, and move away from NY state, halfway to nowhere, about as far away from Laff Land as I could. "Sometime" would wait a long time, and I didn't think about the park or dark ride with the clowns on the facade again.

Twelve years later, my interest in Dark Rides had peaked yet again. Many are now gone, and there is little or no information about them. I begin to research the rides in general, then......... suddenly, it hit me , "The Clowns"!, I had totally forgotten about the Dark Ride with the Clowns!. I dropped my friend a letter to inquire about the ride in question, and sure enough, I got a reply stating that Laff Land still exists and Sylvan Beach park is doing well, having just recently added a steel Galaxy Roller Coaster, no small feat for a family owned park. As luck would have it, I would have an upcoming trip back home to NY to see family and friends with a whole day set aside to visit Sylvan Beach.

"I missed you last time, but not this time" I think to myself, and as my car hummed up the NY State Thruway (destination Sylvan) on that bright yet brisk September day, I knew that "Sometime" was finally here, for good or bad. "I'm going to see you Laff land, you and your clowns" I say out loud, as I take the exit off of the Thruway, the park about a mere 7 miles away. I approach the bridge into the town and lakefront area and from the top of it, I can see for the first time, a small yet well laid out lakefront park , stretching out to the left a few blocks, and, as I came down the bridge, I saw "Them", the Clowns and the hallowed facade of a Dark Ride I had waited more than 12 years to ride.

 

 

The amusement area dates well back into the 1880's, having been originally been down, closer to the lake in the past and, at one time featured a large wooden roller coaster, and a fun house, located near the present site of the park's Arcade building. The whole park sits on an area of lake that is really 80 square miles long, and was first found by Oliver Stevens in 1789, the first white settler, although Indian villages had existed prior to that. The Fun House though, is sadly gone, having burned down to the ground in a fire that the park is lucky didn't do more damage.There is so much to like in this Traditional park that it boggles the mind. The park still features a wooden carousel from the late 1890's, an arcade with a wooden floor,

 

complete with games of my youth, an old 2 story hotel is now the parks gift shop, a rare Crazy Daisy ride from the vanished Roseland park, formerly of NY- I can go on and on especially about the chrome and neon fronted building called Playland, used as the fascination game building, a Bubble Bounce (When was the last time you have seen one?) There is also a reputed "Ghost" that "Haunts" a park game building in the form of a former employee, although I myself didn't notice him . What a treasure I had found, and I had waited so long, but not too long as here it was in all its glory. I had walked almost to the end of the long and narrow midway, as the dark ride plays a fun game of "Peek-A-Boo" over the tops of the trees.

And that's the truth! I met up with park owner and president, Patrick Goodenow, as well as Manager Heidi, who both pleasantly welcomed me to the park and my quest, and began to fill me in on the history of Laff Land. Originally installed in 1954, Laff Land was a creation of the now defunct, yet sorely missed Pretzel Ride Company, of Bridgeton NJ. The building that it sits in was once an old narrow bath house that jutted out, into the lake for many years. The park then pulled the old bathhouse out of the lake, split it into two halves, and proceeded to pull it up the hill using logs as rollers, and parked both halves side by side, to be used as the new dark ride building.

The facade was built, with room between the letters on top to house both a Laffing Sal as well as a Laffing Clown, but the park ran out of funds and scrapped the idea, and they were never installed at all. The ride has six, older style Pretzel cars, complete with the heavy cast-iron Pretzel counterweight on each side, which at the time, were all painted in stock, factory supplied yellow color, while having plush, red upholstery. Mr. Cassidy had even installed a 5ft. to 6ft. speed hill and dip as an added feature, but it was removed after one year of service due to the cars getting stuck, and not being able to negotiate it very well. Another since removed ticket booth sat in the center of the loading area. Laff Land contains 20 stunts, several of the classic

Black Box style, and only two are not originally from this ride. The two are the Fake Car Stunt (Inspired by the stunt at Knobels "Haunted Mansion") and built by the park from the front end of a junkyard car, as well as a Devil , purchased and added to the ride from the defunct Mountain Amusement Park, Holyoke, Mass. The park also added Mountain's Kiddy Tumble Bug, as well as an ultra rare Pretzel-built kiddy ride called "Whirlo" (see photo above). Like I had said before, what the park lacks in size it makes up for in its charm/history and friendly park owner and staff. I would get to walk through Laff Land a bit later, but first, a ride though, to get my initial taste of what Mr. Cassidy had installed 45 long years ago.

The lady running Laff Land and selling tickets to other rides, sits to the left, in an old time type of ticket booth from the past, complete with steel bars on the window. Looks like something straight out of Grand Central Station, or something like that. A large smiling face on a sign, hangs above the lady, who only cracks a thin grin, as I proceed to take my place in the most comfortable car. "Oh Boy" think I, "This is either going to be real good, or real bad", I think by the look of the ride's operator. The Clowns seem to be happy and playful as ever, I note, after a fast look up.

A Devil taunts me on the left, while a skeleton scares me on the right as the car lurches forward, through a double set of black doors, used to keep out the day light, and I'm off speeding though the classic S-Turns, over and over again, past classic stunt after classic stunt. I pass the "Jersey Devil", the "Dancing Skeleton" and even the revered "Al-E-Gator" all completed with That Smell!, that Wonderful, Damp and Musty old Smell! (If I could bottle it and sell it, Id be a...poor man still, but nevertheless.) If you have experienced it, then you know what I'm speaking of.

Even old time sound effects were sounding off as I went along, the cowbell, siren, cymbals, breaking glass, buzzers, steel ball box, and more. Simple, yet effective noisemakers. On I went, screaming throughout the S-Turns, past paper mache heads, Black Boxed stunts, this ride was incredible! A long series of S-Turns on the left hand side led to a long straight section of track that runs along the back wall

of the building, leading the patrons and cars to the right hand side, and a run back toward the station though more S-Turns. I counted at least 20 different stunts, quite a lot for a ride from this era! Finally, my car came out, into the loading area after an approximate ride time of 2 minutes, through sheer joy, and I am "Laffing Myself Silly!", the lady running the ride now smiling big-time! Ha! I had done it! I had Gone Back In Time!

Mr. Goodenow (seen at right activating the old mechanical linkage for Jersey Devil stunt) had worked at the park as a young boy as a part time employee and had taken a personal interest in the Laff Land ride as he always had loved it. One day, the parks former owner, an older man who had taken a liking to Patrick like a son, told him very seriously that, in time, Patrick would go on to buy and own both Laff Land and the whole park, an idea that Patrick thought crazy at the time. Little did he know that it would indeed happen later on, and because of his past personal attachment to Laff land , it looks and runs much like it did, 45 years ago.

All stunts are completely refurbished every 2 or 3 years. The only thing not original on them is the clothing which had to be replaced, due to time, on some of the stunts like the Ghoul Lady. Cars are rotated into service, with 2 at a time getting reworked. The parks old maintenance man, a former machine shop wizard, even went as far as to make hard-to-get replacement parts for the cars, cast from man-made molds, not an easy task at all!

The cars are so comfortable that, if "Darkride marathoning" were a sport, this would be the ride to do it on! (Any takers out there?) The cars are now painted a nice black color, with the cast iron Pretzel counterweight sets each painted neon, pastel colors giving a nice look to each car. The Clowns have, over time, been replaced several times, and have had different parts replaced too, due to the fierce upstate NY winters and storms, but in doing so, they have made them look like new.

The front of the facade devil and head-popping skeleton as well as the entrance/exit doors faces were designed in-house by the park. I can lovingly say that both the entrance and pretty facade are like a time machine for me, and, at night, the ride takes on an even greater beauty, with big round and fat old time lights spanning the stretch of the ride, while, up above, the Clowns are bathed in pure white spotlights, casting eerie shadows upon the back section of the facade, while the sheer blackness of the nearby lake and

sky provide an empty void in which to feature the ride's lighting. The park as a whole is simply beautiful at night, so much that words cannot describe it, the Playland building, complete with its chrome and neon front, taking "Best of Show" next to the Dark Ride. This is a working museum of how Dark Rides once were, and while Laff Land doesn't try to shock you, it succeeds in making you smile, laugh, and have fun, as it should be. I award this Dark Ride: "Best Operating Traditional Dark Ride Status", my highest regards, because it is.

And I did! It was getting late, so I bid farewell to both Patrick and Heidi and thanked them for the hospitality and kindness, the scope of which you can only get mostly at the traditional and family owned parks today, and walked into the present, from the past. What a wonderful treasure I had found in the park and the dark ride! The little child in me had escaped the real , yet sad world and had risen once again to experience the incredibly simple, yet wonderful fun of yesteryear!”

A sudden sadness engulfed me as I pulled out of the parking area, and away from the park. It had been a great day in my life, but now it was about to end. But..... then.... I caught one last glimpse of the Clowns in my rear view mirror, which lingered for one brief second, they seemed to notice my exit also, but knew that I would be back, this time "Sometime", but this writer notes: "Sometime Soon!"

Footnotes: A. Mr. Cassidy and Pretzel would need another four years to perfect the speed hill and dip in his rides, an example would be the vanished Orient Express, of Asbury Park NJ fame. B. Cedar Point Ohio may also have had a Pretzel dark ride of the same name, now sadly gone, which also featured the revered stunt "Al-E-Gator" C. At the first rest stop on my way home, I would proceed to lock my keys into the car, yet again. Oh well-some habits never die! The writer Wishes To Thank: Patrick Goodenow and Heidi and all the fine folks at Sylvan Beach Amusement Park, Dan Wilke (Thanks for that letter my friend!) George La Cross, Bill Luca, Rick Davis, and finally, the passing motorist who helped me unlock my car and the Clowns!
This article 2000, Laff-In-The-Dark, and used with permission.
All photos 2000, Laff-In-The-Dark,
except where noted by Rick Davis and Dan Wilke
and used with permission.


Laff-In-The-Dark is not associated with the parks mentioned above in any way.
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