You've probably taken a spooky trip in total darkness through an amusement park ride known in the business as a "dark ride."
George LaCross of Barrington has taken hundreds and hundreds of those rides. He credits the launch of his career as a writer to a dark ride -- the Laff in the Dark at the former Crescent Park Amusement Park in Riverside.
LaCross, an amusement park aficionado, is one of the world’s authorities on dark rides – sometimes referred to as tunnels of love. He and his business partner, Bill Luca of Salem, Mass., have even titled their website Laff in the Dark. It is billed as the leading source of information on dark rides and funhouses.
The Barrington man grew up a couple of miles away from Crescent Park in the Kent Heights area of East Providence. The first time his grandparents took him to the former amusement park he was transfixed by the Laff in the Dark ride.
“There were trophy animal heads laughing and clowns painted on the side of the ride,” LaCross said. “My grandparents called the boat ride a tunnel of live.”
It was far from designed to be a romantic interlude, however. Papier-mache and wooden figures, all designed to startle riders drifting through the building on small carts, appeared in a shot of light. You could only hear the sound of the carts and cables pulling up the figures.
“You were surrounded by darkness,” he said. “There were no sound effects then.”
LaCross said he wasn’t scared, but he was startled. He said he was more “intrigued by the creativity put into the ride. It stimulated my quest for knowledge about them.”
LaCross said his grandfather paid for 10 consecutive rides after that first one so that he could learn as much as possible about the mechanical sequences, the lighting, and the twists and turns.
“In a family of six, we didn’t go on many vacations,” he said. “That trip to the park was my vacation. So, I wrote about it when the teacher, at the start of the year, asked us to write about our summer vacation.”
“I tried to explain vividly what I saw,” LaCross said. “My teacher thought it was so good that I had the potential to be a writer.”
LaCross earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island about 15 years later. He has been working as a writer and copywriter ever since. He also has been learning as much as possible about amusement rides – especially “dark rides.”
“Most park owners didn’t want to be bothered,” he said. “So, for many years, it was a struggle to get information.”
He persevered, though, and after the Internet was born, he soon began doing research with a keyboard and search engine. Much easier. He also joined the National Amusement Park Historical Association in 1997. Two years later, he attended an amusement park convention and met Luca.
“We loved dark rides,” he said. “Both of us. We decided to launch a website together. I still do most of the writing; he’s the graphic designer and technology pro.”
Stories and pictures of dark rides soon began to flow into them. LaCross did the editing and rewriting. The partners also began traveling to amusement parks all across the East Coast, which “is a hot bed for dark rides,” he said.
About six years ago, LaCross and Luca decided to create DVDs to document some of their favorite dark rides. To date, they have created DVDs on Waldemeer’s and Knoebel’s Grove amusement parks in Pennsylvania.
“We both have full-time jobs,” he said. “So we do much of our work on weekends or on vacations.”
Their hobby has turned into a part-time job. They ship DVDs around the world to other amusement park aficionados or “people who just live near the parks,” LaCross said.
“I feel like I am giving back to something that set me on a career path,” he said. “It started me off as a writer. I also pride myself on thinking out of the box a lot. I admire the thinking out of the box that goes into these dark rides.”