John Wood is one of the driving forces of themed entertainment today.  Here’s our conversation with the President of “The Great American Dark Ride Company,” the Sally Corporation of Jacksonville, Florida.

We have constantly been creating characters, shows and rides to satisfy our need to succeed and our customers hunger for entertainment. A company like ours has to reinvent itself to some degree regularly.

— John Wood


Nate Naversen:  Hi John, thanks for agreeing to this interview.

John Wood.  Thanks Nate.  It was my pleasure!

NN: First off, how did you get your start in the amusement park industry?

JW: We actually founded the company in 1977 with the idea of creating reprogrammable moving and talking mannequins for a variety of purposes. Our first trade show exposure of these exciting new products was at the National Association of Display Industries in New York (NADI). This show includes Christmas Displays and Mall Displays. There was some genuine interest in our novel products, but it proved to be a difficult market for us to sell.

I first learned about the IAAPA Trade Show during a product demonstration at Kennedy Space Center and immediately signed up for the 1978 show in Atlanta. The market response was much better and we believed we had found a home! Interestingly enough however, we also discovered that other entrepreneurial companies were creating animatronic figures and were getting started at the same time. Animator Aaron Fector from Creative Engineering (Showbiz Pizza) joined the association the year prior, Advanced Animations also exhibited in Atlanta that first year under the name “Kimchuk” and Creative Presentations was on the scene demonstrating some of Kenny Acton’s animation. At that time, CPI was located in Chicago. CPI has since dissolved but many of the individuals important to its success are still in the industry.

The amusement park industry proved to be a good fit for Sally’s personality and the company evolved to meet the needs we found in this fun industry. By the way, the original three founders of Sally were all named John and I am the last of the three original roboteers still involved in the business.

NN: Roboteers. Is that a term that you three coined?

JW: Actually, I have used the term to help described what I do. It seems to be pretty effective and most people catch on.

NN: I heard a rumor the Sally Corporation is named after one of your first robots, Sally. Is this true?

JW: Yes. Sally was the name of the first animated character we produced. She was actually invented by John Rob Holland, a dentist and friend of mine while he was in dental school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It seemed to be a catchy name at the time.

NN: What are your favorite kinds of projects?

JW: In our business, the new custom attractions are always the ones that are the most exciting and enjoyable (providing they are successful). We really enjoy the design/build projects that have allowed us to create themed attractions and dark rides from top to bottom. Our company has evolved from being a manufacturer of lifelike animatronics into a company that combines the special skills of electronic technicians, mechanical fabricators, talented scenic artists, professional sculptors and molders and talented designers of special effects, animation and show elements – all under one roof. It creates great team work and a superb sense of satisfaction when the attractions open to the public. Each department is interdependent on the other to achieve the quality our customers and, incidentally, their customers expect.

In addition, we have truly enjoyed seeing the success of the interactive dark ride in the worldwide marketplace. In 1986, we presented the concept of a shooting game and a dark ride adventure combination in the form of Ghostbusters – The Dark Ride. We knew the combination was a winner but it was not until 1995 when we had an opportunity to finally build and install such an attraction – The Great Pistolero Roundup.

NN: A shooting ride: Do you believe this was this the first ride of its kind?

JW: No, I have heard there were other shooting dark rides in the past and actually rode on one in China in 1985. It was a simple ride featuring fiberglass animals in an outdoor setting. A jeep-like car had two gimble mounted rifles and a scoring console. Tom Wages (currently general manager at Lake Compounce and at the time, president of IAAPA) and I would compete to see who was the successful shooter at each targeted scene. It was a blast!

NN: Do you think that the success of the Great Pistolero Roundup helped spur the development of Men In Black (MIB) and the Buzz Lightyear rides at Universal and Disney?

JW: I am not sure but we would be happy to take part of the credit! We had a lot of the Disney folks ride our first exhibit of “The Great Pistolero Roundup” but I believe they were already thinking of the idea at the time. It gave us great pleasure to have a number of interactive rides installed before either one of these came out.

Since that time, we have opened seventeen interactive dark rides in six different countries and I believe there will be many more in the future.

NN: Wow, that’s quite impressive!

JW: In the year 2000, we had the opportunity to take this technology full circle and create a major attraction with 3D animatronics with a high capacity performance (similar to the original specifications of Ghostbusters). The Labyrinth of the Minotaur at the new park Terra Mitica in Benidorm, Spain has set a new standard in regional fun attractions and certainly holds a special place in our heart.

NN: That’s wonderful! Will you describe the ride for us? What’s it like?

JW: The “Labyrinth of the Minotaur” features over seventy fully animated figures including Hydras, Dragons, Spiders, Centaurs, Minotaurs and a variety of other equally exotic figures. Like the great Greek myth, riders go through a maze-like cave where they must pass by a gauntlet of creatures. Each automatic guided vehicle (a trackless smart dark ride system) carries six people with crossbow like laser guns. Their challenge is to extinguish all of the targets in each scene and continue on their quest to meet and defeat the Minotaur. At two points in the ride the scores are tabulated and the riders are allowed to continue only if they have received a sufficient score. It’s much like a video game and it is really a lot of fun! We are also pleased that it is the most popular ride in the new park!

NN: Your web site talks about your role as both company chairman and as a developer of brands. How much do you get involved in the design process?

JW: In a variety of ways. In fact, the design team may say I get involved too much! In reality, it is my job to interpret the client’s needs to the design process. In addition, I have had the opportunity to travel all over the world and see attractions that have worked and those that haven’t. Whenever possible, I try to utilize this successful elements that I have enjoyed and seen work for others.

NN. What do you see as the future of themed entertainment?

JW: Themed entertainment has enjoyed explosive growth since the early 1980’s. Its growth was fueled by the development of the Universal Studios projects and expansion of Disney’s parks. During the same time frame, Las Vegas and the Casino industry also saw the merits of immersive themed experiences and their relationship to customer satisfaction. To me, it has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that people enjoy the feeling of fantasy and escapism that one gets when they visit an exotically themed environment.

At this point in time, Orlando, Las Vegas and Los Angeles may be reaching maturity in their themed attraction growth (at minimum, the pace will be slower in the future). However, the rest of the world is still catching up. Most of the regional parks are beginning to see the value of themed attractions designed for the whole family and not just the teenage market. As a result, there are countless new opportunities in this broader market. If the providers of themed entertainment will adapt to the new marketplace, they will be able to enjoy its growth and success but, it takes a different mindset in order to survive and thrive.

Universal and Disney utilize a variety of special contractors in order to achieve the dreams of their talented designers. Most regional parks and attractions do not have a creative team or the patience to put together the small pieces to this grand puzzle. Simply put, they want a product they can buy. The individual suppliers need to develop consortiums or strategic partnerships around creative new concepts that can be successfully designed, executed and installed in a timely and cost-effective manner. I believe the parks are looking for bold new ideas and unfortunately, most of the suppliers are waiting for the ideas to come to them.

NN: I suppose that’s a great niche for a company like yours that truly provides turnkey darkrides to the theme parks of the world.

Okay, next question: there is an industry slump that seems to be going along with the weakening economy. Has it affected Sally Corporation?

JW: The “industries slump” is coming on the heels of massive Universal, Disney and Warner Bros. developments worldwide. In addition, the Asian market has slowed down drastically due to their economic collapse and the failure of some of the new projects that have been constructed there. New investors and entrepreneurs have realized the fun business is not always that much fun and, like any business, it takes skill, work and management of the details in order to be successful. Three and four years ago, we were most certainly affected by the slump in the Asian economy but, we are currently enjoying a steady stream of business and continued growth. I believe we are still market driven but our market is much broader than Universal and Disney parks. In an industry as small as the amusement parks and attraction industry, it is best to design products that will fit everyone in the industry and not just the top few.

NN: That’s good insight. What advice do you have for young people who are trying to get started in this industry?

JW: The first thing that young people need to realize is the fact that it is a business and not an extension to their summer recreation. With that being said however, the best training ground is probably in the park itself where you can get a feel for customer satisfaction, product reliability and the operational requirements for the working park.

NN: I know that from experience! It really does make a difference.

JW: While you are there, be sure to observe the little things that make people happy, the small components that make attractions special, the things that work and the things that didn’t quite work and then ask yourself why. Be mindful of the power of a positive attitude and the infectious nature of teamwork, trust and success. For my employees, it’s important for newcomers to have a sufficient skill level to carry their own weight. Most of the additional training comes on the job working on a product that has to be built to a certain quality standard and within a certain restricted time frame. Skill, attitude, desire and the ability to work within a team are all invaluable resources for a young person to have in this industry.

NN: In a topsy turvy industry Sally Corporation has been around since 1977. To what do you attribute the stability and longevity of your company?

JW: Along the way luck has played a major role in our longevity. There have been a number of times when we had our backs up against the wall when we landed that new project, got that new idea or found someone who believed in us enough to invest in us.

Secondly, we are driven to succeed. In other words, we are driven to keep our employees employed and happy and keep the momentum for our company and our products building. Because of the fact we were not in LA or Orlando and could not rely on a steady trickle of business from the big boys, our business plan was structured differently. It was important for us to sell to retail establishments, museums and private businesses. In addition, we analyzed the pitfalls of our business and have done everything possible to avoid them (after we fell into them at least once!). Every company needs to analyze what makes them successful and aides them in obtaining their goals. They also need to try to forecast the potential dangers along the path and pick the direction that has the greatest chance for success. Most importantly, however, is the fact that when you are in the robot business, you have to make your own future. There is not a book you can read that will tell you what you can or cannot do. You have to analyze it for yourself.

NN: Maybe you’ll be the man to write that book! Please continue:

JW: We have constantly been creating characters, shows and rides to satisfy our need to succeed and our customers hunger for entertainment. A company like ours has to reinvent itself to some degree regularly.

NN: Especially in the last few years, there’s been a big move toward storytelling in the themed entertainment industry, led most notably by people like Bob Rogers and Jack Rouse. How much does “story” play a part in the rides, attractions and exhibits you create?

JW: The story always plays a key role. A dark ride is usually an abbreviated part of a bigger story. Often, it is the queue line and preshow that allows you to tell more of the story than the actual experience itself. Bob and Jack have been involved in many theatrical presentations where the audience is sitting for 10 – 20 minutes and a story can be told from beginning to end. A dark ride usually lasts 3 – 6 minutes and often becomes a condensed version of a broader story. Nevertheless, the theming needs to be consistent, the storyline inclusive of a beginning, middle and end and the method of communication both entertaining and believable.

NN: Do you have any advice for the readers?

JW: Communicate clearly, completely and honestly with your suppliers, your employees and most importantly, with your customer. Make every effort to provide the best customer interface possible. Secondly, get involved. 30% of our business comes from referrals and a number of those started with casual or deliberate discussions we had with designers and operators. Thirdly, make your own breaks don’t wait for someone else to make them for you. Finally, never stop thinking about your business – plan for the future and stick to the plan.

NN: Do you have a favorite theme park?

JW: Disneyland is still my favorite park although I’ve had the good fortune to serve on the Applause Award Committee for the past fifteen or more years and have visited some of the finest parks in the world.

NN: The Applause Award committee is through IAAPA?

JW: The Applause Award was actually created by Liseberg Amusement Park and was initially presented by their management team to individual parks like Disneyland. In order to obtain greater publicity for the award, they partnered with Amusement Business and developed a “Board of Governors” of individuals within the industry. The Board is responsible for visiting the various nominated parks and voting on a biannual recipient of the award. John Graff, CEO of IAAPA is a nonvoting member of the Board and the award is given at the annual meeting but is not an IAAPA award.

This year’s recipient Hersheypark, is one of my favorites as is the mega ride park Cedar Point, the beautifully themed De Efteling in the Netherlands, Liseberg in Sweden and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.

NN: What’s your favorite dark ride?

JW: My favorite dark ride is the Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Although I admit for years, it was Pirates of the Carribean (today however, it has lost all its appeal to me). Years ago I really got a thrill out of the Eastern Airlines “If Man Had Wings” and I still love Space Mountain every time I get on it! My favorite small dark ride will always be Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – it is pure fun. I am also partial to our most recent award winning ride – Scooby-Doo’s Haunted Mansion. It was great fun collaborating with the Paramount Parks Design and Entertainment team and the final product is something to experience!

NN: Which of the Paramount park(s) are home to the Scooby Doo’s Haunted Mansion??

JW: Paramount’s Canada’s Wonderland and Paramount’s Carowinds

NN: Thank you very much John. This was a very informative and fun interview!

JW:  You’re welcome Nate!

Dark ride inventor John Wood

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