The First Family of Dark Rides
As with many folks (including me) of a certain age in this wonderful industry, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was a seminal moment for John Wood.
“The Carousel of Progress blew me away,” says Wood, referring to his first encounter with animatronic characters at the age of 12. “I knew it was magic.” Little did he know that he would one day create robotic figures and conjure attractions magic himself as Sally Dark Rides’ chairman and CEO.
It was coincidence that led Wood to a friend of a friend, a dentist he describes as an “interesting, crazy guy,” who created a robot assistant that answered questions about dental health. “It really captivated everyone,” he says. Apparently, that included Wood.
At age 25, with a burning desire to be an entrepreneur and do something wholly unique, he and the dentist started Sally. Initially, the plan was to sell robotic mannequins to clothing stores. The name of the prototype character was “Sally,” which the partners thought would resonate with the retail and fashion industry. When that idea fizzled, Wood tossed Sally in the back seat of his car and started pitching attractions instead.
Soon after, he discovered IAAPA Expo. In 1978, Sally set up its first Expo booth and made a huge splash. That led to a menagerie of whimsical figures, including Mr. Beaks and the Tropical Tweeters, that were featured in animated musical shows for parks and restaurants. When changing tastes led to a decline in sales, Wood pivoted.
“The animatronics were only a piece of the puzzle,” he says, figuring it might make more sense to create turnkey end products. And then it hit him: “Combining a shooting gallery with a traditional dark ride was a eureka moment for me.”
The interactivity, Wood reasoned, would make attractions repeatable, a key attribute for parks. The gambit paid off. Starting in 1987, Sally began creating destination-quality dark rides, such as Challenge of Tutankhamon for Walibi Belgium and Volkanu at Lost Island, which won the 2022 IAAPA Brass Ring Award for best new product.
After four-plus decades, Wood was thinking about selling Sally as his exit plan, but his two children weren’t having any of it. A self-described dark ride nerd, daughter Lauren Wood Weaver remembers being the cool kid at school because her dad had a giant Tyrannosaurus rex at work.
“It’s what we loved as kids. Now we get to gift that to others,” she says about working alongside her father at Sally. “It’s the best job in the world.” Her brother agrees.
“The job is so exotic,” adds Hudson Wood, who more recently joined the company. “There is nothing quite like it. We’re going to keep it going.”
A lifelong park fanatic, Arthur Levine first started writing newspaper and magazine travel features about the industry he loves in 1992. He produces his own Substack newsletter, “Arthur’s About Theme Parks” at AboutThemeParks.fun.