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Islands of Adventure’s Defunct Jurassic Park Attraction: Triceratops Encounter

Jurassic Park Comes to Life

Combine Steven Spielberg’s mastery, a regal John Williams score, as well as the beauty and terror of bringing extinct creatures back to life—it’s no wonder why Jurassic Park became an instant classic once audiences saw it in 1993. Confident they had a definite blockbuster on their hands, Universal Studios designed and began constructing Jurassic Park: The Ride for its Hollywood park while the film was still in production. The attraction opened in 1996, about three years after the film came out. Jurassic Park: The Ride put guests in the middle of a placid dinosaur exhibit that, inevitably, goes wrong. The experience offered moments as intense and as impressive as the hit movie.

Interview: The Monster Mansion Soundtrack Composer, Dick Hamilton

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Learn the full history of Monster Mansion HERE

My Favorite New-to-Me Coasters of 2022

Ranking the Best Coasters

I’ve been lucky enough in 2022 to have traveled more than I ever have in my life. I was able to visit 10 new parks and return to some of my favorites. With 10 new parks came around 100 new-to-me coasters that have completely reshaped my enthusiasm as a theme park fan.

How Six Flags Over Georgia Got Its Legendary Dark Ride: Monster Mansion

This article is a continuation of the history of Tales of the Okefenokee. READ PART I

Reimagining the Swamp

Shortly after Six Flags Over Georgia closed for the 1980 season, work began on the new ride. Crews demolished many of the set pieces in the Tales of the Okefenokee show building. Essentially, all that remained after demolition were the building, the ride track itself, and very few props as well as murals. It has been rumored that the animatronics were destroyed during this process, but it’s currently believed some of the characters were saved by team members before demolition began.

Either way, Tales of the Okefenokee was officially gone, and Six Flags had intentions of creating a new fan-favorite ride that would be just as entertaining for adults as it would be for kids.

Dave Gengenbach during his time at Advanced Animations

Former Disney Imagineer Dave Gengenbach was serving as Six Flags’ production supervisor at the time. According to Gengenbach, he made a “nasty crack” once about some rides in the chain. So, with a replacement for Tales of the Okefenokee on the way, leadership challenged him to head the development efforts of the company’s upcoming attraction in Georgia. Gengenbach accepted, saying that he had “one last good show” in him.

The project at hand would be a challenge as the new ride would have to be retrofitted into the existing ride layout and show building. Nevertheless, Gengenbach was determined to make it special.

“I know a lot of people liked the Okefenokee, and if they liked the Okefenokee, we’re going to blow their socks off.”

Dave Gengenbach

The Disney Touch

Gengenbach, using his connections from Disney, recruited the most talented professionals in the industry for the project. The up-and-coming Gary Goddard Productions team was brought on to create the concept, story, characters, art direction, music production, and set design.

Illustrator Phil Mendez posing with some characters from the upcoming Monster Plantation

Gary Goddard’s team was experienced and innovative, including legends such as “Big Al” Bertino, of Country Bear Jamboree fame, and a phenomenal artist in Phil Mendez, among many others.

The team of creatives was in charge of coming up with the concept for the ride. They were looking to have a Southern theme to retain the local connection. An early idea wasn’t too far from the defunct Tales of the Okefenokee: a concept of hillbillies and singing rabbits.

While brainstorming, the team eventually landed on the idea of a sunken plantation, but that wasn’t enough.

Building on that idea, “Big Al” Bertino was inspired when playing with his granddaughter one day when she was pretending to be a monster. That moment sparked the concept for the upcoming ride.

Concept art by Collin Campbell & Ed Martinez

Monster Plantation is Born

Introducing Six Flags’ soon-to-come attraction: Monster Plantation, featuring friendly creatures as well as frightening beasts. As the ride’s backstory went, the plantation was built in 1852 by Col. Beauregard “Mad Dog” Powell. After his death, the property was willed to his wife’s second cousin, who was on the monster side of the family. She opened up the plantation’s doors to the monster community, and it’s been a beastly bash ever since.

Concept art of Monster Plantation

Years ago, the property was swamped in a great flash flood that has left the home submerged to this day. Fast-forward to 1981, a great-granddaughter, Mizzy Scarlett, now maintained the home and was a hospitable host for the countless humans visiting the former plantation where they were invited for a merry monster picnic.

With a $3 million price tag, the upcoming attraction was the most expensive in the park’s history up until that point. Given the scope of the work they were putting in, that high price point was clear in the results. They were making a quality attraction—a more-than-worthy replacement to such a beloved ride.

While Tales of the Okefenokee had a mostly playful tone, Monster Plantation would focus more on individual gags and over-the-top character design.

Monster Plantation would feature a massive cast of completely original characters. Illustrator Phil Mendez, who worked with Disney and Hanna-Barbera, made somewhere around 500 sketches of different monsters. About where he got the inspiration, Mendez said, “I created them based on people I know. Monsters are everywhere.”

A sketch of Marshall Billy Bob Fritter from Monster Plantation (Artist: Phil Mendez)

With hundreds of character designs, some of the concepts were based on not only people Mendez knew, but also local public figures.

For example, his very own kids made it in as four sharp-toothed monsters reaching for a bee hive. A hostess named Mizzy Scarlett was meant to resemble Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, a story that took place in and around Atlanta. A gargantuan monster in the marsh was called the Gengenbacher, named after the production supervisor, Dave Gengenbach. An easy-going monster named Buzby was created in honor of Georgia’s governor at the time, George Busbee. And, about the barbaric boat-eating monster aptly named the Boateater—well, Phil Mendez said, “That’s my mother-in-law.”

A Catchy Soundtrack
A sketch of the country band (Artist: Phil Mendez)

Much like the former Tales of the Okefenokee, Monster Plantation would have its own original soundtrack. Once the characters and storyboard were established, the team called composer Dick Hamilton to produce the ride’s music.

Hamilton wrote the lyrics as his daughters, son, niece, and wife sang them on the final track. Hamilton even added in some monster gibberish and other additional vocal parts. The infectious arrangement, featuring jazz instruments and synthesizer parts, laid down the foundation of the ride’s tone with its upbeat style.

The catchy melody and the music as a whole would play a major role throughout the attraction. The standout soundtrack changed styles as the ride progressed; it developed deeper into the ride to follow the story, characters, and setting.

“Once you get into the [marsh]…I was basically scoring a horror film. It’s real good to set up a contrast like that.”

Dick Hamilton, Nov. 22, 2022

Customized Animatronics

The music fit perfectly into the recipe the ride’s creators were cooking up. As the details were being finalized, Phil Mendez’s hundreds upon hundreds of character designs were eventually whittled down to about 130 outlandish characters that would take over the new attraction. That meant well over 100 monster animatronics had to be designed, developed, and programmed for the ride.

AVG working on custom animatronics for Monster Plantation (Image credit: National Geographic World)

Monster Plantation would be a massive technical upgrade over the simple animated figures in Tales of the Okefenokee. Actually, it was going to be the first audio-animatronic dark ride of its kind outside of a Disney park—especially a ride of this magnitude. It would require highly qualified specialists to take on the animatronic demands of the audacious attraction.

Headed by a former Disney engineer, Alvaro Villa, the innovative AVG Productions team was hired to sculpt, fabricate, and engineer the mechanical figures. The animatronics were individually programmed for completely customized results.

“Everything we do is custom-made. Anytime you see a joint moving, it was custom designed for that figure. We don’t have any standard hardware because all of the characters are different in size and movements. That was most difficult in that we were really working on more than 100 different projects at once.”

Alvaro Villa

Alvaro Villa on site of Monster Plantation working on one of the 100-plus animatronics (Image credit: National Geographic World)

AVG worked closely with Goddard’s creative team, and they were able to fabricate remarkable animatronics with radiating personalities. Many were impressive in scale too, with some reaching up to 11 feet high and others 15 feet wide. Illustrator Phil Mendez complimented the engineers’ work, humbly saying the animatronics looked better than his sketches.

About the ride’s frenzied and unhinged atmosphere, Mendez commented, “One day, I was sitting inside the ride just looking around, and I realized it’s full of all these things I’ve always seen…it’s like sitting inside my head.”

Synchronizing the Music to the Visuals

That suspension of disbelief was extended to the sound design as well and how it correlated to the visuals. The music for the animatronic bands was mixed specifically to give a directional effect where the individual sounds seemed like they came directly from each instrument riders would see. Also, the movements of the animatronic musicians were synchronized to accurately match the soundtrack’s rhythms. These visuals were fined-tuned by the composer himself, Dick Hamilton, using a process he developed. This was for the most authentic results that made it seem as if the monsters were actually the ones playing the music.

“We did a lot of stuff that was very collaborative because Alvaro [Villa] was that kind of guy. He would come up with ideas, and he surrounded himself with people who were geniuses at what they did.”

Dick Hamilton, Nov. 22, 2022

The Final Details

With the storyline and technical details in place, it was time to transform the old Okefenokee into the brand-new Monster Plantation.

A few animatronics ready to be installed inside ahead of Monster Mansion’s opening

Production professionals from G&K Design worked on the ride’s lighting and sound systems. Since the expansive sets were installed in such a small space, presentation was crucial as the lighting team took the approach that each scene was essentially its own theater stage. The ride was truly coming to life.

The facade was transformed into a Southern plantation as the interior was being prepared. Over 100 artists and technicians converted the ride in an unbelievably tight nine-month time frame, getting it ready just in time for the park’s opening day in March 1981.

A Monstrous Opening

Once Six Flags Over Georgia opened for the 1981 season, guests could visit the twee and terrifying tenants over at the newly opened Monster Plantation. The boat ride, which followed the same ride path as Tales of the Okefenokee, accommodated 1,600 riders per hour with its 27 new boats, which held six passengers each.

The facade of Monster Plantation upon its opening (Image credit: Larry Nikolai)

Riders would board in front of the grand plantation facade and into an opening to the left of its front door. Inside, the home’s elegant interior, complete with chandeliers and tasteful furniture, had seen better days as pictures hung crookedly and decorations were in disarray—not to mention the gushing river flowing through the house. But that wouldn’t matter to the enthusiastic Mizzy Scarlett, who warmly greeted each guest. The lively and neighborly environment set the tone while the upbeat theme played.

Marshall Billy Bob Fritter as seen in his first appearance on Monster Plantation (Image credit: Larry Nikolai)

From there, the boat approached a set of double doors that swung open to the grounds of the plantation. Music spilled out of the opening doors as the boat floated toward the first welcoming monsters outside: a jazz band known as the Lagoon Goons. They played the main theme in their peppy style while dream-like lighting coated the erratic scenery. Around the set, an overwhelming array of fuzzy monsters enjoyed their picnic and radiated their positive mood to the riders.

The ride was way too detailed to point out every character or quip, but here are some of the highlights. While the rhythmic melody played, riders floated toward one of the monsters who would make multiple appearances in the ride: Marshall Billy Bob Fritter. He welcomed the riders but sternly warned them very early on to stay out of the marsh.

An adorable airborne monster named Buzby (Image credit: Larry Nikolai)

Families of monsters enjoyed themselves along the banks of the floodwaters, with no two characters looking alike. Hijinks and smiles were had by monsters of all ages along the stream. Some were swinging and soaring while others played pranks on one another and others climbed atop each other to ruffle a beehive. A group of monstrous birds blurted off to the side as the boat neared the next room.

Around the corner was a tree-covered area filled with joyous monsters, once again, but now were enjoying a few carnival-like activities during the monster picnic. The riders saw a smooching monster in a kissing booth, but likely with failed luck as the price was reduced from “cheap” to “free.” The other monsters instead were busy playing horseshoes, bobbing for apples, sampling a chili cook-off, competing in a pie eating contest, or taking part in a number of carnival games.

A few monsters bobbing for apples in the carnival-like scene (Image credit: Larry Nikolai)

A country band strummed the droning melody as heard throughout the ride—this time, with a folksy twang. A group of cheerleaders celebrated on the side with two monsters showing off their motorcycle nearby. The scene ended with a clumsy tennis player eager to find someone to join and a long-haired monster showing off his “monster power” T-shirt.

From here, the tone shifted, just like how Tales of the Okefenokee took a dark turn. Up ahead, two tipsy monsters found themselves yapping in a dark graveyard—while they were carefree, riders had something to be concerned about. The way back to the plantation was up ahead, but the boat was turning too far to the left. In a panic, Marshall Billy Bob Fritter returned as he stood on top of his car. As the boat missed its turn, Billy Bob Fritter warned riders of the dangers up ahead in the dreaded marsh, where humans were forbidden.

With no turning back, the boat rumbled up a small lift hill, made its way under “keep out” signs, and plunged into the unknown darkness of the marsh. Sounds of bellowing beasts boomed from every which direction as the boat ventured deeper into the shadows. Giant spiderwebs glowed as a foreboding primer of the horrors ahead.

A marsh monster, nicknamed the Gengenbacher, threatens riders (Image credit: Larry Nikolai)

An ogre emerged from the blackness, shouting and pointing at the riders, “Humans!” Ghastly creatures guarded their hoard of treasure, staring sinisterly with glowing eyes. Monsters from all angles growled and made it known the humans weren’t allowed in the marsh. With sharp teeth, fierce eyes, pointed snouts, and vengeful spirits, the swarm of savages lurked all around the marsh, which was draped in piercing darkness that otherwise existed only in nightmares.

The marsh came to a bright opening where Marshall Billy Bob Fritter was waiting for the boat as he ushered riders back to the plantation. The Lagoon Goons were heard once again, playing their jazzy version of the theme song. Some monster friends were relaxing by the fishing pond with a warmhearted “g’bye” while the boat returned to the plantation.

A tunnel leading to the outside world gave riders one last scare, with the ambiance of a drippy cave that fed straight into a humongous boat-eating monstrous mouth. Passing under the knifelike teeth, the boat made it out safely to the exterior of the plantation, returning to the lyrical theme song that played on a loop. Guests exited their boat and stepped back onto dry land to check out the rest of Six Flags Over Georgia.

A New Fan Favorite

Monster Plantation quickly proved to be a great addition to the park. It was popular in obvious ways: being nicely air-conditioned on hot summer days and being a place where teenagers could get away for a few minutes.

The October 1981 edition of National Geographic World, featuring Monster Plantation

Monster Plantation spawned a mini monster mania with some postcards, coloring books, and even costumed walkaround characters. The monsters were instantly lovable and memorable.

The dedication and work behind creating this ride made it a success. The creative team’s achievements in such a short turnaround resulted in a fan-favorite attraction for many years to come. It was professionally executed, with every detail nicely presented—all the way down to the lighting and sound design.

The ride was set up in a similar way to Tales of the Okefenokee, with animatronics putting on a show among scenery and murals. Tales of the Okefenokee, however, tried to tell mini-stories within a rather small venue. The creators of Monster Plantation made use of wide-open sets and a massive lineup of characters whose one-off gags and energy collectively built an entire scene. These large areas were sectioned off to contain the shifting mood in the ride, but the symphony of jumbled pandemonium unified the essence of what made Monster Plantation a standout attraction.

The murky waters and wacky monsters created a lovable experience that generations of Atlantans would connect with. Monster Plantation would be a staple in the park through the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and into the 2000s.

Bright Moments & Black Eyes

The entrance sign for Monster Plantation (Image credit: Larry Nikolai)

Unfortunately, though beloved, the ride still had its issues. For starters, Monster Plantation was located in the aforementioned Confederate section of the park. There were even references to the Confederate States of America located in the ride during its most heroic moment. It goes without saying that this topic was not worth celebrating, especially in a theme park where families of all backgrounds came to make memories.

And of course, the name of the ride itself was problematic: Monster Plantation. Sure, it was a different time when the ride was developed and built, but as decades passed, change eventually was needed.

Rumblings & Rumors

Inside Yosemite Sam’s Gold River Adventure (Image credit: Six Flags Over Texas)

The characters from Looney Tunes were at one point rumored to take over the building, similar to how Speelunker’s Cave in Texas became Yosemite Sam’s Gold River Adventure in the early ‘90s. Keep in mind, Speelunker’s Cave was a heavy influence for Six Flags Over Georgia to have an animatronic boat ride in the first place.

In the early 2000s, a similar boat ride at Six Flags St. Louis had been rethemed to a ride called Scooby-Doo! Ghostblasters: The Mystery of the Scary Swamp. It was realistic to believe the interactive boat ride could’ve made its way to Georgia as well, replacing Monster Plantation. It was rumored that the Mystery Gang was destined for Atlanta’s classic boat ride.

Six Flags had been evaluating Monster Plantation into the 2000s, more than 20 years after it debuted. The monsters had been ingrained in local culture, but the park and associated creative firms had discussed the possibility of bulldozing the attraction in favor of something new.

The Goliath hypercoaster at Six Flags Over Georgia (Image credit: Six Flags Over Georgia)

Six Flags Over Georgia had changed significantly since Monster Plantation’s opening. Intense coasters had been scattered around the park, and Six Flags as a whole seemed to be distancing itself from highly themed rides. Monster Plantation, with its cast of completely original characters, was not safe under the direction of Six Flags at the time given their alternatives with more recognizable properties like Looney Tunes or Scooby-Doo. Not to mention, Monster Plantation was a slow-moving ride—among hair-raising roller coasters themed to superheroes, the building’s location could have possibly been used for a more thrilling ride that better fit the overall temper of the park.

The Ride’s Waning Condition

Much like how Tales of the Okefenokee was in its final years, Monster Plantation into the new millennium was in need of a major refurbishment, at the very least. The overall condition of the animatronics and sets was embarrassing. A visible, thick layer of dust covered the entire attraction, and the animatronics were known for not operating properly—and in unsettling ways. Combining this with the ride’s unfortunate themes, Six Flags needed to make an action.

Mizzy Scarlett seen in poor condition later in the Monster Plantation era (Image credit: Theme Park University)

Six Flags recognized Monster Plantation’s glaring issues and took the opportunity not only to modernize the theme of the ride, but also completely renovate the longstanding attraction as a whole and make it more enjoyable for years to come. The update would retain the ride’s unique blend of gags and Southern charm while wisely removing ill-advised references.

The Future of the Plantation Mansion

It was official: Monster Plantation was set to close at the end of the park’s 2008 operating season. The attraction as it was known for 27 years would be retired. Monster Plantation lasted twice as long as its predecessor, Tales of the Okefenokee—so long that the monsters had become local icons. Six Flags knew what this ride meant to the park’s visitors, so they decided to remodel it.

“The ride became a rite of passage for youth growing up in the area. Because it’s become so iconic, we really wanted to renovate and upgrade the existing ride, keeping the popular storyline intact. Now, individuals who experienced Monster Plantation as young children can ride Monster Mansion with their own kids.”

Melinda Ashcraft, Former Six Flags Park President

Ashcraft was a young employee when the attraction originally opened in 1981, so her personal connection to the ride developed into a supportive approach to renovate, not replace.

Thus, Six Flags made the decision not only to revamp the historic attraction, but also bring back the creators who made Monster Plantation in the first place: Gary Goddard Entertainment.

Blue sky concept art for the upcoming Monster Mansion overhaul (Artist: Phil Mendez)

Some of the original team, like animator Phil Mendez, returned to overhaul Monster Plantation—not only freshening up the experience, but also reimagining the troubled concepts used in the original.

“This [ride] is part of Atlanta,” said Gary Goddard, commenting on what the attraction has meant to longtime Six Flags visitors. With the chance to creatively revisit this attraction, the Goddard Entertainment team assessed Monster Plantation as a whole, seeking opportunities to update the ride while maintaining its well-known charm.

New blue sky concepts that kept the monster theme were considered—like an open house or a family reunion. Ultimately, the monster picnic plot would return in an all-new way that felt familiar. The updated attraction would simply be named Monster Mansion.

With that, the plantation was ready to be transformed into a mansion.

More blue sky concept art for the Monster Mansion overhaul (Image credit: Legacy Entertainment)

The ride would once again use the existing ride system that had been reliably in operation since the ‘60s. Major improvements were made to the animatronics and the ride as a whole. Nearly 100 animatronics were completely refurbished down to their bones with upgraded fabrications and pristine coats of fuzzy fur. In fact, it took 250 yards of new fur to outfit the hordes of monsters. And, the mansion got even more crowded; eight new animatronics of new characters moved into the mansion as well, joining the familiar cast of offbeat creatures.

The interior of the ride during its conversion into Monster Mansion (Image credit: Theme Park University)

Inside the 25,000-square-foot building, the sets were stripped and completely renovated, from the murals to the colorful shores. To some extent, Monster Mansion was being treated like a completely new ride. The refurbishment was extensive—beyond updating a few problematic references.

The mansion was also being upgraded with new effects to bring the ride into the 21st century. This included lighting, water effects, and the sound system, just to mention a few.

Speaking of the audio, Dick Hamilton, the composer of the original soundtrack, provided a copy of the master audio tracks to give the updated attraction the same brand-new sheen it had nearly three decades prior.

The monsters prepare for the reopening of their mansion (Image credit: Legacy Entertainment)

Monster Mansion would soon have an opening-day polish as construction wrapped up. About 300 people worked on the ride over the park’s off-season to prep the mansion for its opening day.

A Grand Reopening

In May 2009, Monster Mansion made its debut as a choir of elementary school students with puppets sang the ride’s classic theme song. Guests were once again invited in—this time to a mansion.

The water once again flowed through the flooded grounds of the mansion, and the assemblage of animatronics, given new life, once again put smiles on guests’ faces. The mansion impressed, once again washed with color, drowned with music, and overflowed with delight.

Monster Mansion merch as sold in the park after reopening

Six Flags capitalized on the revitalization of the monsters, adding the MonStore retail shop with merchandise of the ride’s well-liked characters. The MonStore also had a small museum-like tribute that recognized the attraction’s history. Looking ahead, it was great to have a revived Monster Mansion in the park.

For the everyday theme park guest, Monster Mansion provided what the ride had been decades: a silly way to get out of the heat, get off your feet, and enjoy a five-minute-or-so serenade of nonsense. For the die-hard fans, it was the return of a classic with an impressive collection of animatronics and satisfying dark ride goodness that was worth riding over and over.

Those enthusiasts may have been the only ones to notice the changes in the attraction. While it got an overall refresh, the additions were mostly subtle as the ride maintained its legacy of being a one-of-a-kind experience. Among the more obvious changes included a new animatronic, appropriately named Papa Razzi, at the beginning of the ride to take riders’ pictures. Other noticeable additions included water-spouting frogs along the flood waters and a cluster of menacing eyes wickedly glaring at riders as they entered the forbidden marsh.

A portrait of characters from Tales of the Okefenokee as seen hanging on the wall in the first scene of Monster Mansion (Tip: Look to the right before you get to Mizzy Scarlett)

However, with a new era of monsters taking over the mansion, the past was not forgotten; a portrait of a few characters from Tales of the Okefenokee hangs on the wall inside the first scene in the mansion, and nods to former Six Flags leaders are etched into the tombstones in the graveyard by the marsh. One of the monsters was slightly remodeled to take after Big Al Bertino, clumsily spraying water from his gardening hose. These tributes serve as a reminder that an attraction like Monster Mansion can transcend generations, but it wouldn’t have been possible without a dedicated group of creatives.

The ride itself has evolved over the years, but it’s the same waterway where children half a century ago made memories. Tales of the Okefenokee, even though scarcely documented, is a well-remembered dark ride that fans young and old still love to think back on—fans have even recreated it online to blissfully get a hint of what being on the long-defunct ride would have been like. Not to mention, Disney’s notorious log flume, Splash Mountain, has obvious connections to the old Okefenokee ride, but that’s a story in and of itself.

Fan art of Monster Mansion (Artist: Reed Randolph)

As for Monster Mansion, the ride is alive and well for now. It’s among one of the longest operating rides at Six Flags Over Georgia as multiple generations have grown to love the monster picnic shenanigans and the nightmares found in the marsh. Its impact has inspired fan art and proves to be a favorite among Six Flags guests—an unrivaled dark ride locals can call their own. Monster Mansion hasn’t been cloned across the Six Flags chain; it’s the very definition of a one-of-a-kind ride that is perfectly wedged into the Thrill Capital of the South. Enjoying a ride on Monster Mansion during your visit to Six Flags Over Georgia is just as essential as your admission to the park itself.

There’s comfort in knowing this somewhat hidden gem has stood the test of time alongside Six Flags’ extreme roller coasters people come through the turnstiles for. Monster Mansion is here waiting for you. As always, you’re invited to a picnic. But for now—bye, y’all.

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The Old Dark Ride That Made Six Flags Over Georgia Special: Tales of the Okefenokee

Six Flags Gets Its First Dark Ride

The founder of Six Flags, Angus G. Wynne, was inspired to build a theme park of his own after a visit to the recently opened Disneyland. Shortly after in 1961, Wynne debuted his brand-new park, Six Flags Over Texas, impressing local guests with nice theming and a family-friendly atmosphere.

The flagship Six Flags park took a magical turn in 1964 with the addition of its latest attraction, Speelunker’s Cave. Guests immediately fell in love with the cute yet creepy boat ride that ventured through the underground caves of a big-eyed alien society.

Six Flags Goes East

Six Flags Over Texas, though still a young theme park, had been successful enough that Wynne settled on building a second Six Flags park—this time, on the East Coast. In 1965, Wynne purchased 3,000 acres of land on the outskirts of Atlanta for $5 million, dedicating nearly a tenth of the property for his next attraction. In a few years, the site in Austell, Georgia, would be the location of the Southeast’s newest theme park.

Six Flags Over Georgia under construction (Image: Bob Verlin)

Wynne had many plans for what would become Six Flags Over Georgia. The park’s identity would be very similar to that of Six Flags Over Texas, featuring comparable attractions such as a mine train coaster, a riverboat ride, a train ride, a log flume, and many other classic offerings.

A Creative Ride to Keep the New Park Afloat

Following the positive reception of Speelunker’s Cave at Six Flags Over Texas, Wynne wanted to bring a similar kid-friendly boat ride to his upcoming theme park, Six Flags Over Georgia.

The beloved Speelunker’s Cave set the framework for what was to come at the Georgia-based theme park. Speelunker’s Cave had a relatively local theme—considering that caves were being discovered around Texas at the time. The imminent boat ride at Six Flags Over Georgia too would have a somewhat locally inspired story to fit within the concept of Six Flags.

Just like the initial Texas park, Six Flags Over Georgia had six themed lands based on the six different flags that at some point in history have had control within the state. One of the themed lands, disappointingly set to the Confederate States of America, was the future site of Six Flags’ next legendary indoor boat ride, with a price tag of $360,000.

Six Flags founder Angus G. Wynne on the cover of Southern Living with the animatronics and set from the upcoming Tales of the Okefenokee Ride

The concept of the upcoming ride was centered around the Br’er Rabbit stories as published by Georgia-based author Joel Chandler Harris. Those connections plus its ties to Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp gave the ride its local-leaning focus that fit within the concept of Six Flags.

Six Flags once again partnered with the established Arrow Development to manufacture an indoor boat ride system. The creatives at Six Flags worked on the ride’s story and various scenes that brought the folklore to life.

Within two short years, Six Flags Over Georgia was developed, constructed, and ready for the public by the summer of 1967. Waiting in the middle of the hilly and tree-covered destination was the park’s only dark ride, and certainly its most distinctive: Tales of the Okefenokee.

The Original Tales of the Okefenokee

Tales of the Okefenokee has gained infamy among fans, but the earliest version of the ride has faltered into obscurity. The ride as it was in the park’s opening year has gone mostly undocumented. Not much is known about it aside from brief footage, rare promotional materials, and sparse descriptions.

The lattice-covered queue house of Tales of the Okefenokee, featuring characters from the ride

The attraction started with guests lining up in the lattice-covered queue with decorations of the ride’s characters on the outside facing the pathway. An upbeat song played on a loop overhead, sharing the storyline of the adventures that awaited inside.

The Disney-quality musical number was glorious, but its grandiose melody outclassed what guests could expect on the ride.

The Ride Experience in 1967

Tales of the Okefenokee, in a similar style to Speelunker’s Cave in Texas, followed a 700-foot trough. Riders boarded Native-American-style boats that floated through various scenes with animated characters—this time, following the stories of Br’er Rabbit, known as “Mr. Rabbit” in the ride.

One of the early scenes from the 1967 version of Tales of the Okefenokee (Image credit: Manuel Fernandez)

Once boarded, guests went on a journey through colorful backcountry sets past the ruins of an old plantation and musical woodland scenes. Endearing creatures—such as rabbits, frogs, and woodpeckers—were seen around the banks of the river as Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear chased Mr. Rabbit.

Their escapades lead the boats into a dark frightening storm, passing through the underground burrows of the rabbits, and ending in a bubbly finale of celebration.

Reception of the Original Version

Tales of the Okefenokee was designed and built with modesty, but its colorful and melodic environment made it a memorable attraction with an artistically outdoorsy style that blended into the wooded Six Flags park.

Unfortunately, Tales of the Okefenokee didn’t get the same praise Speelunker’s Cave out in Texas got, even though it was produced in-house by some of the same creatives who made The Cave. The low-budget Tales of the Okefenokee came across as more shabby than sensational.

The small, gregarious characters were lovable in Speelunker’s Cave with the miniature alien species running around the underground caves. However, in Tales of the Okefenokee, the same small type of animatronics—the largest of which were a mere 5 feet tall—were disenchanting in their vibrant surroundings.

The original ending scene from Tales of the Okefenokee

The ride had satisfying scenic design, but those expansive sets made the animated characters unimpressive by comparison. Despite being a ride unlike any other in the park, the simple yet somewhat outlandish boat ride was not up to the standards Six Flags founder Angus G. Wynne had set for the park.

Overall, he was not satisfied with how the ride turned out. Tales of the Okefenokee was one of several attractions Wynne planned to modify before the park’s second season.

Supposedly, as soon as Six Flags Over Georgia welcomed its first guests, park leadership already started planning a major upgrade for Tales of the Okefenokee. The ride in its original form lasted only through the inaugural 1967 season—having operated for less than a year—before undergoing significant updates.

A Complete Overhaul

An overhead view of the Krofft Puppet Theater at Six Flags Over Georgia (Image credit: Tim Campbell)

Six Flags in its early days partnered with rising puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft. The visionary duo, in addition to their popular work on TV, already had puppet theaters in both the Texas and Georgia Six Flags parks.

The two knew how to connect with kids, and Six Flags needed their help once again. The park reached out the Kroffts asking for their help with revamping the unsuccessful Tales of the Okefenokee ride. Sid and Marty Krofft put their whimsy to work and began to transform Six Flags Over Georgia’s lone dark ride into the version that would soon be remembered fondly by many parkgoers.

The Kroffs overhauled the ride by designing larger characters with friendly, exaggerated facial features that almost seemed like costumed characters. Their cartoony and adoring style took the place of the ride’s original slender and simple animatronics. The old characters were replaced with towering, smiling animals that made the entire ride larger than life.

As for the sound design, the Kroffts recorded new voiceover, sound effects, and musical numbers to give the ride a new heartbeat.

Bringing the Swamp to Life

Art Lozzi, who worked as a background artist on Hanna-Barbera productions, helped realize the redesign with illustrations of characters and scenes for the ride.

Storyboard art by Art Lozzi of the revised Tales of the Okefenokee (Tim Campbell collection)

Though the presentation of Tales of the Okefenokee was being rebuilt, the attraction’s show building, ride system, and track were left untouched. Much of the existing sets remained as new air-powered animatronics were installed. Even though some of the attraction’s features carried over to the new version, the large-scale changes noticeably elevated the overall experience.

This version of the ride has been documented in greater detail than the original thanks to the enthusiastic preservation efforts of pop culture historian Tim Hollis in addition to the media collections of a few others.

The Ride Experience Starting in 1968

The refurbished Tales of the Okefenokee reopened at the start of Six Flags Over Georgia’s second season in 1968.

The exterior sign for the new and improved Tales of the Okefenokee

The exterior of the ride remained mostly the same with new flat characters now in the landscaping just outside the ride. Guests waited in the same lattice-covered queue that played the same sensational song that was heard in the same area from the original version of the ride.

The tune’s lyrics were unchanged and still told the story of the original version of the ride, even though the narrative of the attraction itself had been modified. Regardless, the ride at its core had the same main characters and carried through a very similar cadence with Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear chasing after Mr. Rabbit. That said, the song was close enough narratively; more importantly, since Tales of the Okefenokee received major improvements, the ride now matched the quality of the existing bright and extravagant song.

After queuing, guests stepped onto a dual-sided load and unload platform as they boarded the old six-passenger Native American style boats and floated toward the show building. To kick off the ride, two flat rabbits around the entrance held up signs—one reading, “Please keep hands inside the boat,” and the other jestingly stating, “Do not feed the bunnies.”

The experience officially began inside, introducing riders to the hand-crafted countryside wilderness. A choir of crows on the left welcomed riders with a chorus:

The singing crow animatronics at the beginning of the ride (Image credit: Tim Hollis)

Welcome, neighbor, welcome
To the Okefenokee
Welcome, neighbor, welcome
You surely made our day…
Let’s get on our way”

Spanish moss hung from above as owls hooted at riders passing by. Around the bend, the boat approached an old plantation reclaimed by nature; creatures relaxing on the side had lines cast into the fishing hole. This peaceful scene was the first time riders met Mr. Rabbit as well as Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear. Everyone was getting along while a raccoon enjoyed a picnic basket, a lazy turtle unashamedly snored, and other critters enjoyed the restful moment.

A bunny band playing homemade instruments (Image credit: Tim Hollis)

The river made a turn, passed through a dark cave, and was met with calamity on the other side. A band of creatures stood in a line on the banks, playing makeshift instruments like washboards and jugs. One bunny found themselves in a jam and managed to use a toilet plunger as a trumpet.

The sounds of this backyard band were quickly drowned out by the frantic harmonies of a carrot choir. While wearing expressive makeup, the carrots and their simple mouth moments sang:

The choir of carrots singing directly across from the bunny band

Save the rabbit
Save the rabbit
Whatever you do
Or else he’s gonna end up
In a kettle of stew

All the characters on the ride up until this point were all smiling and getting along, but the forewarning from the carrots soon became clear.

Up ahead was the ride’s first conflict: The giggling, guileful Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear were kidnapping Mr. Rabbit, stuffing him into a sack. In the background amid commotion, a chicken cried and clucked from the window.

The devious duo would meet their comeuppance in the next scene as owls clinging to a bed sheet swirled over Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear like a ghost. After being courageous moments earlier, the two cowered in fear from the ghostly prank.

They were teased even more in the following scene as two nearby rabbits played with unflattering marionette puppets, making a mockery of Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear. Across the river, a family of carefree rabbits enjoyed themselves by casually lounging outside, as one of them milked a cow. They were acting as colorful and laid back as the ride had been up to this point, but that wouldn’t last.

Tales of the Okefenokee featured one of the grimmest mood shifts in any dark ride. The singing crows reappeared—this time, perched on a log—to warn riders of the dangers and mysteries up ahead.

The second sighting of the crow quartet from Tales of the Okefenokee

Before you go further
We just thought we’d warn ya
There’s a creatures up ahead now
Are liable to scorn ya…
Go back! Go back!
Turn around! Go back!”

From here, the river led into a dark cave that curved to the left. At the turn, Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear waited along the banks with an arsenal of explosives. It was open fire; sounds of blasts filled the cave while the creatures pointed their weapons directly at the boat.

Riders, for the first time in the attraction, were in immediate danger. Gone were the happy-go-lucky scenes and antics—the ride’s tone took a complete one-eighty as children aboard the boats covered their eyes.

The flowing water led to a small lift hill with Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear dangling from a fallen tree above the ride path. They swung their orange-glowing lanterns, cautioning riders of the most terrifying scenes ahead.

Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear atop the lift hill (Image credit: Tim Hollis)

“Beware, beware
Go back, go back”

The boats plunged into the darkest corner of the swamp, bobbing against the wave of a splash as a violent storm took over. Fans blew gusts of wind while creaking trees lunged forward, bats scurried above, alligators snapped their jaws, rattlesnakes intimidatingly shook their tails, owls hauntingly hooed, and lightning crashed to pierce the darkness.

The nightmarish scene ended by passing through a briar patch, which was believed to have actual briars.

The Rabbit family enjoying a holiday meal in their underground burrow

The river led to the safety of the rabbit family’s underground burrow with roots bursting through the dirt ceiling. It was a holiday celebration as rabbits gathered around the table, peacefully enjoying each other’s company in harmony. With the sound of sleigh bells, the kids sang a festive Okefenokee carol while feasting.

Just outside the underground cave, Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear weren’t as jolly as the rabbits. They were plopped in a frog pond and drenched in defeat while croaking amphibians hopped on the sulking scoundrels.

They were quickly disturbed in the next scene as Mr. Rabbit teased a beehive with a long stick, keeping a safe distance. Buzzing bees strung across the scene swarmed Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear as they comically scurried their feet in complete panic. This was the last riders would see of the foiled Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear—their faces animated in distress.

The laughing sun that was positioned right above the final scene of the ride

With Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear scared off, the smiling rabbits and creatures reunited for one final hurrah in a chaotic yet celebratory fashion. In jubilee, the lush woods nearly transformed into a carnival as a rabbit juggled, a raccoon swayed with bunnies on their shoulders, a rabbit and a turtle bounced on a seesaw, a bunny swung from a playground without worry, a rabbit hula-hooped, a cottontail performed magic tricks, and another floated off with their hand full of balloons.

In the same way the ride started, the anthemic crows sang goodbye to the riders. Across the way, four singing watermelons joined in on the bright celebration. Finally, a raging sun above belted out jovial laughs, and Ms. Rabbit sent riders off with a warm invite:

Bye now. Y’all hurry back, ya hear?”

The boats entered a cave lined with a kaleidoscope of multi-colored diamonds before being blasted with sunlight and returning to the real world.

Reception of the 1968 Version

Crowds of guests line up on the loading platform of Tales of the Okefenokee

The new version of the ride was overly detailed and extravagant, like entering the pages of a storybook. The words of Ms. Rabbit to “hurry back” were exactly what guests did for years and years to come.

Tales of the Okefenokee was appreciated for more than its peaceful air conditioning and being a dim, secluded place for young couples to get some privacy—it was a nice diversion in the park that children and families fell in love with.

What made it so special was that it was a ride unlike any other in the park and was essentially unmatched in its time. Disneyland was thousands of miles away, and Walt Disney World was years away from opening. Yet, Tales of the Okefenokee managed to leave an impact on many guests of all ages.

The exterior of Tales of the Okefenokee after its 1968 overhaul

Still, Tales of the Okefenokee was somewhat of a hidden gem lost in the thick of The South. It wasn’t necessarily Six Flags’ headlining attraction—it was almost downplayed among the park’s lineup. However, its overemphasized style and whimsy made it a beloved ride within the park.

It was a part of Six Flags Over Georgia’s personality as the ride also had walkaround characters. The ride was even popular enough to have its fair share of sponsorships too.

Beyond being a one-of-a-kind attraction, Tales of the Okefenokee stood out because of its presentation. It was created by a group of puppeteers who knew how to visually tell a story and how to make a positive impression on kids. The colorful sets made a splash, the specially written music was nearly movie quality, and the characters brought a smile to kids’ faces.

The employees who worked at this attraction loved doing so. It was among the more fun venues in the park to work at, and they may have been known for taking a dip in the water after hours to make the most of their time there.

Tales of the Okefenokee was imaginative, creative, and almost unexpected to an extent in a beautifully done way—but that’s not to say the ride was perfect.

Swampy Imperfections

Though it was rich with details to appreciate, it was a pretty simple ride. The animatronics had very basic movements if any at all. But, they were nice animatronics for the time, especially in a regional park. While yes, the ride had an unreal dreaminess to it, it was calamitous in a way that made it feel somewhat homemade.

The ghost scene where Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear are frightened by owls flying a bedsheet overhead to seem like a ghost (Image credit: Tim Hollis)

Tales of the Okefenokee, to its credit, had several elaborate scenes. The ride may seem vast when hearing about all the details nowadays, but the reality was that the scenes were crammed into a relatively small space. With very few barriers between the numerous sets, the whole ride more or less blended together in a confusing way. This caused the sound effects and music to overlap through multiple scenes, causing a dissonant effect and a generally messy mix of noises.

And on top of that, the sound design was inconsistent. Allegedly, the underground rabbit scene on occasion didn’t have any music because the back-of-house employees would shut it off since it could be heard through the walls. They didn’t want to hear sleigh bells throughout their shift, but it took away from the experience for guests.

But most disappointingly, the ride did not hold up well with each passing season. For example, the damp building was not kind to the fur on the animatronics.

An owl animatronic wearing a hat as seen in 1980

To the park’s credit, this was eventually addressed as the animated characters were given new fur and outfits in the mid-‘70s to keep the ride fresh. Be that as it may, their design choices were questionable as the characters then had brightly colored fur and out-of-place costumes. The new look changed the feel of the overall experience, making it a bit tackier than when it first opened.

Tales of the Okefenokee operated for several years with this erratic style. For many riders, this is the condition they saw the ride in—not the wistful look of yesteryear. This may lead some to believe the ride was in complete disrepair toward the end of its lifespan. While the late Tales of the Okefenokee may have been shabby, especially compared to its early years, it was still a popular attraction that was decently maintained.

Some employees sitting in the Tales of the Okefenokee boats as seen in the 1979 Six Flags Over Georgia yearbook

Actually, the foreman on duty was tasked with riding the attraction once per hour to ensure all the elements were in good working condition. Another employee was stationed near the lift to monitor how well the ride was running at any given time. All this is to say, the ride was being looked after.

Disappointingly, Tales of the Okefenokee was subject to some vandalism. This was a result of the boats not having a restrictive restraint system, so riders could easily hop out of their seats and walk on the sets, even stealing props in some cases. The trough was allegedly widened in some areas to minimize this issue. Employees also were usually quick to notice any wanders and dealt with them before anything happened in most cases. Still, the ride was wearing down to some capacity as the scenes themselves never received any major refurbishments.

Firery Malfunctions

The mechanics of the animatronics were not in the best condition later on, especially as the ‘80s approached. The attraction has even been called a “nightmare” by maintenance crews as the antiquated animatronics started wearing out. As an example, the singing carrots were breaking down one by one. Once a carrot was out of service, it was removed and replaced with shrubbery. This was happening so often that the choir quickly became quite sparse. There also may have been instances of animatronics emitting exhaust, to an extent.

Over time, as more and more details started waning, Tales of the Okefenokee wasn’t being held to a high standard anymore. It wasn’t practical for the park to fix every little issue the ride had; those issues were increasing in number each season. Tales of the Okefenokee was on borrowed time.

The singing watermelons relocated to the former spot of the singing carrots

By 1980, over a decade after the ride opened, one of the singing carrots badly malfunctioned and caused a fire. Six Flags addressed the affected areas by removing some theming and updating a backdrop—most notably, they removed the singing carrots entirely. The singing watermelons from the end of the ride were relocated to the carrots’ spot at the beginning. The watermelons looked out of place, but that was more or less the condition the entire ride was in at the time. Six Flags made due.

The status of the ride in these later years was a culmination of many issues adding up.

Six Flags Made Improvements

Six Flags Over Georgia, now more than a decade into operation, had made major additions around the park. As the company’s executive vice president, Errol McKoy, put it, “We have to keep changing the face of this park every single year. Six Flags Over Georgia will never be finished.”

Six Flags had to stay to that promise if they wanted to keep up with the competition. In 1971, Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida—only a day’s drive away from most of the Southeast. Before then, the only way to experience a Disney park was to visit Anaheim, California, which was more than 2,000 miles away from Atlanta. The next best thing local to the South was Six Flags. That was no longer the case. The new Disney resort was attracting tourists from the Southeast region, so Six Flags had added pressure to provide new offerings.

A newspaper clipping from The Columbus Ledger Sun advertising the new Jolly Rodger’s Island at Six Flags Over Georgia

In the coming decade, Six Flags Over Georgia added new thrills that blended with the values of family entertainment the park was founded on. Major additions through the 1970s included the world’s tallest coaster at the time as well as a $2.5-million steel coaster that was touted as the first triple-looping coaster—although that record was a stretch.

With new thrilling coasters and expansions, the park had evolved beyond its opening-day form. “We’re going to be doing things differently in the ‘80s,” said Surgeon Richardson, the park’s general manager at the time.

Leading into the 1980s, Six Flags opened a new expansion land called Jolly Roger’s Island. The 3-acre area cost the park $2.2 million and set the stage for the ambitious improvements that were still to come.

The Sun Set on the Okefenokee

The laughing sun once again—one of the final sights riders would see in the ride (Image credit: Tim Hollis)

Tales of the Okefenokee at this point—unfortunately—was past its prime, and the park was ready to move on. By the end of the 1980 season, Six Flags decided it was no longer worth investing in the aging attraction and that it was time for a new ride that would draw in monstrous crowds.

As the park shut its gates for the season, the laughing sun that once radiated over the Okefenokee set for the final time. The swamp went dark, becoming only a memory for parkgoers.


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Ranking the Haunted Houses at HHN 31

Another year of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort is coming to a close.

I was lucky enough to visit a few nights in September and October for this year’s event and am not ready for the Halloween season to be over. Well, this topic is straightforward enough—HHN 31 had 10 houses, and I wanted to talk about my favorites and what made them all so special.

About My Rankings

First off, please remember that these are my rankings based on my experiences and preferences. Your rankings will most likely be different than mine. That’s the fun part about theme parks—we all have different opinions.

Also, keep in mind that all the houses at this event were exceptional. Just because a house ranked dead last doesn’t mean it was a bad house or the team members working inside did a bad job. Actually, I had a tough time ranking these houses because they were all so close in my opinion. As a random example, the difference between my No. 8 house and my No. 3 house isn’t as big as you might think. So, all that said, it’s not that serious.

Ranking the houses is just for fun and is by no means a way to put down the work of anyone. I want to extend a major thank you to everyone who made this event possible. With that out of the way, let’s get started.

The 10 Houses Ranked

10. Spirits of the Coven

Spirits of the Coven logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Out of all the houses, this is the one I connected with the least. That doesn’t mean it was a bad house, but it just wasn’t for me.

In my opinion, Spirits of the Coven was lacking the tension you’d normally experience in an HHN house. The first half of the house had a jovial saloon-style piano song—albeit slightly detuned—playing throughout. The scares themselves were relatively tame; I rarely felt like I was in immediate danger. This house, for me, didn’t really do its job as a haunted attraction.

The sets, however, were absolutely beautiful in this house. The elaborate, old-timey speakeasy setting was outstanding, and the house’s dark twists and turns made this worth repeating. “You look ripe!” has been permanently stamped in my mind, so the house was definitely a memorable one—just not my favorite.

9. The Horrors of Blumhouse

The Horrors of Blumhouse logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Finally, a good Blumhouse maze at HHN. The Blumhouse mazes in years past were disappointing at best, but, having really enjoyed both movies that were featured in this house (Freaky and The Black Phone), I was looking forward to this one. Honestly, even though this is sitting in the No. 9 spot, I loved this house. It was basically two HHN houses in one, so what’s not to love?

The Freaky half of the house, while a blast, was missing the best thing about the movie: Vince Vaughn (sans mask) playing the role of a gawky teenage girl in a lumbering serial killer’s body. Of course, Vince Vaughn himself didn’t perform at HHN, but this section still felt enough like the movie. It was nicely done with great scares—including a brilliant mirror effect—and even managed a few laughs along the way.

The Horrors of Blumhouse was a satisfyingly long house, with The Black Phone section being seemingly longer than Freaky. The “missing child” posters that covered the walls as you walked in really set the unnerving mood for The Black Phone—especially in contrast to Freaky’s somewhat vibrant and upbeat set. With a dank basement setting and dark hallways, it was disorienting and uncomfortable to walk through in the best way possible.

8. Descendants of Destruction

Descendants of Destruction logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Since HHN as of late has featured a whopping 10 houses every year, some are bound to fly under the radar. For me, Descendants of Destruction was one of those houses that blended in. The post-apocalyptic setting wasn’t one that I was personally drawn to, but this house still had two moments that were wonderfully done in my opinion.

After entering the spectacular New York subway station facade, guests walked through a battle-worn set that has been slowly reclaimed by nature after a meteor struck Earth. Eventually, the station led guests through (what seemed like) a full-sized subway train. The entirety of this haunted house fit inside a tent, so it was astonishing to me how they managed to get such an impressively large set piece inside. Plus, there wasn’t just one—just around the corner, guests walked by the high-reaching aftermath of a destroyed subway train that crashed into the ground.

Toward the end of the house, underground mutants lit only by bioluminescent mushrooms came at you from every which direction. This was the moment that made me want to get right back in line and do it all over again. Wonderfully done.

7. Hellblock Horror

Hellblock Horror logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Here it is; you’ve found it: my unpopular opinion. Many fans are touting Hellblock Horror as the worst house for this year’s event and among the worst ever. That’s understandable because this house has been rumored to have been hastily created and installed out of necessity within weeks due to a last-minute change in the event. Even still, Hellblock Horror was a blast to walk through every time. I would have this higher on my list if the houses ahead of it weren’t so strong.

Hellblock Horror was a genuinely terrifying house because the scare-actors were absolutely relentless. I visited this house probably more than any other on this list, but I was surprised every time because the monsters almost made up their own rules. No corner was safe in here as scare-actors went all out to make the experience as jarring as possible.

Beyond the characters, the house as a whole put me on edge. With sirens, banging, and gunshots heard throughout, Hellblock Horror was borderline anxiety-inducing. Not to mention, the house was almost comedic if you had a sense of humor. Where else can you see Nosferatu, the Swamp Yeti, a tooth fairy, a martian, and so many more all locked up in the same prison? Amazing.

Hellblock Horror—as gruesome and goofy as it is—deserves a little more love.

6. The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare

The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Objectively, this house deserves to be higher on this list. In my opinion, it sits right in the middle. No, I don’t hate The Weeknd. Actually, I was actually ecstatic that a pop artist made it into the lineup after the rumored Billie Eilish house was scrapped. Anyway, The Weeknd being at No. 6 is just a testament to how great the other houses were.

This entire house was a party from start to finish with incredibly uneasy moments in between. It was a constant sequence of contrasting moments—going from shimmering sets to gory scenes around every turn. As the bass thumped and Abel’s glossy vocals filled each room, the hellish nightmares became even more twisted the deeper you got into the house.

I bobbed my head with a grin on my face one moment and winced in fear while letting out a scream the next. This house was a spectacle, simply put. And that wallpaper scare? Bravo. That caught me off guard more than once.

5. Bugs: Eaten Alive

Bugs: Eaten Alive logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Who out there doesn’t have some sort of fear of bugs? Everyone squirms at the idea of an insect invasion to some degree. This was an obvious idea for a house that was done perfectly in my opinion.

The vintage monster-movie-type theremin music playing outside lured guests into the mid-century home of the future facade. Admittedly, I sometimes struggle to grasp the plot of an original HHN house, but Bugs: Eaten Alive set up the premise wonderfully as a ridiculous 1950s bug extermination demonstration went wrong.

Tens of thousands of bugs escaped from their enclosures, vastly outnumbering guests and relentlessly burrowing into the skin of the cast. One actor was even brimming with spiders as their stomach was pulsing. “They’re hatching…inside of me,” they cried. Horrifying.

As much as I adored every moment of this house—especially the gargantuanly hilarious housefly and the brain-cell-less bouncing jumbo grub—I was unfortunately plagued by a few bad runs. I did this probably close to 10 times, and I’m not sure whether I ever saw a full cast in any of my experiences. I saw the fly only a couple of times, and the jumbo grub about half.

The house also had a brilliant idea on paper that didn’t work too well in execution. In the middle of the house, guests walked through a long, pitch-black hallway with puffs of air and strings hung from the ceiling that brushed on you. The hallway, though it made me squirm, was so difficult to navigate that most guests essentially came to a stop, causing a traffic jam that made everyone rush through the second half of the house as a result. Everyone was playing catch-up after that hallway, and it was hard to appreciate the house when being asked to walk faster. No other house had this issue every time.

I wish this house were a bit more consistent, but I understand not every walkthrough will be perfect. This house, though, was close to it.

4. Universal Monsters: Legends Collide

Universal Monsters: Legends Collide logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Are you surprised to see this only at No. 4? So am I. The classic Universal Monsters are a staple this time of year, going together like peanut butter and jelly. I’ve loved the Monster houses in previous years, and I am a sucker for anything having to do with ancient Egypt—if you don’t believe me, you should see my Disney+ watch history with all the National Geographic specials. Anyway, Universal Monsters: Legends Collide had the perfect recipe to be an incredible house.

This house didn’t exceed my high expectations, but it also did not disappoint by any means. This was a tremendous journey through ancient ruins while The Mummy, Wolfman, and Dracula battled for The Amulet of Ra. Being in the middle of a battle and seeing the trio (mainly The Mummy—a win for me) scrap their way to victory was a definitive spooky season experience. Sadly, the reveal of the sole winner at the end was cramped and almost anti-climatic, especially when compared to 2021’s HHN Icons: Captured.

I can’t say enough good things about the set, the music, the lighting, and the house as a whole. It was grand, it was confining, it was glorious, and it was terrifying all at once. I’m already desperate for another ancient Egypt house at an HHN in the future, please.

3. Halloween

Halloween logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

My first run-through of Halloween was probably the best experience I’ve ever had in a haunted house. One towering Michael Myers after another came within what felt like millimeters of me, slashing oversized kitchen knives in all directions. It was tense, legitimately frightening, and…ah, let me start from the beginning.

This house was themed to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween. It took you through the movie’s major moments—starting from the iconic opening title sequence and through disturbing scene after disturbing scene. Being in a massive soundstage, the scale of this maze was grand, fitting a two-story facade of the legendary Myers home in one of the first few scenes. Seeing the set was surreal, and walking through it with live scare-actors was even more unbelievable.

The house was clever too, including a certain mirror trick that made it look like Michael Myers was racing toward you from ahead, but the jumpscare happens directly to your left to much surprise.

Beyond the incredible quality of this house, it was an entire vibe that was perfect for the spooky season.

Halloween’s legendary soundtrack?

The whooshing sound with each swipe of a knife?

Michael Myers’ heavy breathing behind his mask?

The house ended with several Michael Myers surrounding you—as the music played out one final time with fog swarming your feet and jack-o-lanterns hanging above. Halloween perfection.

As I mentioned, I had an incredible time in this house, but that was hit-and-miss, unfortunately. Had every run-through been like my first, this would be far and away my No. 1. However, a few decent but not great experiences, unfortunately, made this house slide in my rankings. Still, I’ll miss this one next year.

2. Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake

Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

This house gave me goosebumps—actual full-body goosebumps. Maybe the relentless air conditioning and snow-dusted sets contributed, but Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake was truly a chilling house. It was awesome in the most literal sense possible.

The house had a droning environment like no other as a somber violin resounded, lightning flashed no matter where you were, a swirling beacon from a lighthouse pierced the night sky, icy winds whistled, aged wood heavily creaked, and a misty rain sprayed over the frozen fishing village. Gloomy greens and blues soaked every corner, and I couldn’t help but absorb every mesmerizing detail.

As barnacles and seaweed reclaimed the town, the desolate pier was teeming with the wandering souls of craggy fishermen, deeply groaning at you through overly impressive yet bleak sets of docks, a boat house, a weathered ship, and so much more. No words could possibly recreate the feeling of wandering through this house.

Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake had probably the best reveal I’ve ever experienced in a haunted house. After seeing the glimpse of a ghoulish violinist above, guests turned a corner as canvas sheets flapped in the crisp, vacant wind, and the lighthouse shined through the fog. Passing through another turn, the house led to a massive opening with the supernatural violinist atop a massive ship. The whole atmosphere came together in this one jaw-dropping moment.

It feels wrong that the house will be dismantled after Halloween. It was such a work of art on many levels.

Why isn’t this my No. 1? Well, it wasn’t all that scary to me, but there was one more house that was.

1. Fiesta de Chupacabras

Fiesta de Chupacabras logo
(Image credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Many fans have Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake as their clear No. 1, but I personally enjoyed Fiesta de Chupacabras just a little bit more. This house had the scares that Dead Man’s Pier didn’t, plus a similar level of spectacular design.

Fiesta de Chupacabras took you through a small yet intricate village where tourists were sacrificed to El Chupacabra in a bloodbath tradition. The locals, disguised with colorful and ornate masks, showed no mercy as droves of bloodthirsty, vicious Chupacabras lunged out from the unexpected corners of the village. But, you won’t see the ravaging cryptid canine right at the beginning of the house. Brutal visuals, nearby shadows, and displaced growls build up anticipation for what you would soon be faced with. It all nearly made me regret walking any further, but it was that type of fear and impact that made this house so effective for me.

This house had everything, from a festive yet eerie percussive soundtrack to stunning sets that made you feel as if you were wandering into a lived-in town with no way out. The unpredictable qualities of this house made it among my favorites to repeat night after night. Nothing I write here will do this house justice; you just had to be there.

Well, what did you think of my list? Did you agree or disagree? Feel free to let me know on Twitter or Instagram! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind

Before starting the review, you should know that I’m by no means an authority on this topic. Why’s that? Well, I’m not necessarily a Marvel fan, and I’ve been to EPCOT only once in the past two decades. But hey, I really like roller coasters; that has to count for something, right?

The Odd History of Six Flags’ First Dark Ride: Speelunker’s Cave

The amusement industry forever changed when Disneyland welcomed its first guests in 1955.

Most amusement parks at the time had standard attractions lining the midway. They very much felt like you were at an amusement park. However, Disneyland was different because it transported guests to realistic lands of fantasy and lands far away. A park with that level of quality, storytelling, and theming was bound to inspire those who visited.

In Disneyland’s opening year, a Texas real estate developer, Angus G. Wynne, went to the newly opened Disney theme park and, with his ambitious mind, started thinking of ways he could bring this type of entertainment to his local area.

I Visited EPCOT for the First Time Since the Eisner Era


Theme parks are places where we can capture a childlike wonder. If we have nostalgic connections to a theme park, they are places where we can recapture our childhood memories. When we don’t have that deep connection, we can have a completely fresh perspective when visiting a theme park. That’s what happened to me recently.

As a theme park fan, I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t been to EPCOT in 20-something years—until recently. And what a rare opportunity it was.

The Story Behind Florida’s Screen-Used ‘Psycho’ Set at Universal Studios

This article was originally written in February 2021 and was updated in September 2022.

Universal Studios Florida: A place where guests could ride the movies and watch movie history take place, at least in the park’s infancy. Standing sets from movie and TV history were tucked away in Universal’s Hollywood East.

The most chilling and notorious set on property was the familiar yet foreboding house and motel that used to stand in Universal Studios Florida. Its chilling presence overlooked the theme park, and, with the help of the house’s residents, Norman Bates and Mother, also served as the perfect venue for short-lived haunt attractions.