Watch It Made Blog

Posts for September 2008

If you visited a theme park this summer, you may very well have experienced an animatronic dark ride produced by the Sally Corporation of Jacksonville, Florida. Though the term may sound strange to you (as it did to us), the "dark ride" denotes a familiar concept that most of us have experienced but never put a name to: an enclosed attraction in which a vehicle conveys you through passages containing fantastic scenery, moving figures, and coordinated sounds. Sally, one of the major creators of dark rides, uses robotics and sculpture to make anything their clients imagine—dinosaurs in Jurassic landscapes, unquiet mummies in Egyptian tombs, or faithful renditions of classic cartoon characters. Impressively, the company has been doing this for 30 years, and its work can be seen at Six Flags, Universal Studios, and FAO Schwartz. We wrote about Sally's factory tour for the first time in the 4th edition of Watch It Made in the U.S.A.

Throughout the year, you can tour Sally’s factory at its headquarters in palm-lined downtown Jacksonville. Tours begin in a small theater, where a live presentation introduces the art of the dark ride. At the core of this craft is animatronics: the craft of building robots in accurate likenesses of humans and animals that are programmed to perform intricate lifelike movements, synchronized with a recorded soundtrack. A demonstration, including an interactive game for the audience, illustrates the complex technology that shapes these displays.

The heart of the tour is a detailed look at the areas where the creative staff build their dark rides. After ideas emerge from the design studio, they come to life in the various workspaces of the production floor. Populated with a weird and wonderful array of heads and creatures, the sculpting room is where the animatronic figures acquire their basic forms before the technicians integrate the robotics that make them move. The finish-art department gives them their personality: artists apply skin tone, hair, and the other attributes that endow their creations with vivid and sometimes startling realism. In the programming area, the movements and sounds of each figure are coordinated with lifelike precision. Meanwhile, the scenic-painting room is where artists color the outlandish dreamscapes of Sally productions.

However, the biggest wows occur in the main space of the production floor itself, where all the elements come together. Depending on where the production cycle is during your visit, you may see the spectacular culmination of the current big project or watch the industrious beginning of the next. Whatever the case, you will certainly see the huge resident Tyrannosaurus rex, rising with menace (and many teeth) from its metal enclosure. But this sample colossus is at only one end of the creative staff’s range. Nearby, a tropical display features exquisite tiny singing birds, a virtuoso achievement of animatronics on a small scale.

Heading to Florida for the winter season? Planning a warm vacation for the cold months? Look up more Floridian factory tours in the pages of Watch It Made.

Posted By Karen Axelrod Sep 15, 2008