Sally Factory: Seeing the Light at the Great American Dark Ride Company

“Draw, podner.”

“Give me a quarter and I’ll tell you your fortune.”

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to stop the Intergalactic Confederacy of Ducks. Line them up and take them down!”

Interactive arcade-type rides and exhibits are the hallmark of Sally: The Great American Dark Ride Company. Located in downtown Jacksonville, about 3-1/2 hours to the north east, Sally has factory tours every Tues and Thurs, from 9 am to 1 pm, September through June. These tours are complimentary, although reservations are required. ( This is not a closed, specially designed walk through where the highlight of the tour is a sticker and a candy bar at the end. This is an in-your-face, behind the scenes factory tour, where you can see abstracts, designs and working models of rides and arcade games, almost anything it is possible to conceive of, in all stages of development.

If you have ever been to a carnival, an amusement park or seen a parade, you’ve seen their work. Sally supplies rides and audio animatronics to almost all the major theme parks, movie studios, corporations and amusement parks. They built the sets for Disney on Ice: Aladdin and Disney on Ice: Hercules. Their clients include Universal Studios (the ET ride) Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, Ripley’s Believe it Or Not: USA, San Diego’s Legoland and Give Kids the World of Orlando, among others. Some of their more popular “shows” are the “Bubba Bear ‘s Badland Band” country-western bear band; “Magic Island’s” singing tropical birds; “Jungle Jamboree” a Broadway style musical with over twenty audio-animatronic animals. You may have seen these at the Florida State Fair in Tampa. They are also responsible for the terrifying Haunted House and the Great Pistelero Roundup at the Myrtle Beach, SC, the Olde Mill Ride at Rye Playland in New York. Jocco’s Mardi Gras Madness in Jazzland, NO, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina

Sally was founded 30 years ago by an undergrad student looking to pad a speech requirement for a final exam and avoid having to present and argue it in public. He designed a talking head which he named Sally to do this. That robot was the genesis of this company, which now has about forty employees and commands a factory of over 40,000 square feet.

The staff includes artists, programmers, costumers, construction crew, electricians, engineers, and hydraulics and pneumatics specialists, among others. The factory is divided into areas and the tour goes through each area except the administrative. This is a good thing because no one wants to watch bean counters at work, not even their fellow bean counters. They are a full-service entertainment provider, from initial design concept to maquette (detailed, scaled model of finished product) to software design to finished product, whether that product is an interactive dark ride or a single robot used to greet guests at a corporate meeting or convention center.

A dark ride is a fully enclosed ride where surprises wait around each bend. Every aspect of the environment is controlled to heighten the experience, light, sound, even scents and perfumes are included in the design to intensify the experience for the guest. An interactive dark ride is an enclosed ride where the guest does something to impact the ride, perhaps laser target shooting, choosing between paths or spinning to avoid falling debris.

Julie Cornell, our tour guide, greets each group at the back entrance to the facility. Behind a glass wall, crew members are putting the finishing touches on a life size robot, testing the movements and fine-tuning the hydraulics (air pressure powered joints which allow the robot to bend and flex its body parts). In the auditorium, Julie explains the history of the Sally Corporation, tells us that there will be multiple exit points to the tour if anyone feels it is too intense and promises us that every one will have a chance to test an interactive device. After this short orientation, safety goggles are distributed and the tour begins.

The first area is the sketch and design area. The walls are covered with sketches, paintings, posters and the tables littered with maquettes. Artists work on the look and flow of the ride here, whether the mummies will be 8 or 10 feet tall, how far apart, how sharp the turns are, if the spiders drop down from the ceiling at the entrance to an area or in the middle of the room

From here, we go to the modeling room. For the detailed body parts (head, hands, feet or other exposed areas) clay sculptures are made. A mold is made of the sculpture. A silicone and latex mixture is poured into the mold to form a quarter inch thick skin. This skin goes over the robotics and creates the lifelike look of the model. While separate wigs are used for scalp hair, facial hair, eyebrows and exposed torso hair are individually pulled through the skin. Gluing hair in place looks…glued. The hair has to look rooted to maintain the illusion of reality. A beard can take a more than a day to pull through the skin.

The largest area of the factory is the construction area, where backdrops, supports and actual ride components are built. In the center of the room is a large ‘slush’ area, containing props, cornices, drapes, figures in boxes, doorways and other ride components. The work areas in the perimeter include a woodworking department, another pneumatic and hydraulic testing area, and a prop construction area littered with PVC and board lengths. Prominent in the slush area is a dog headed Egyptian prince, a set of talking birds and a life size T-rex head. Julie turns on the birds, which dance and sing. She makes the T-rex come out of its box and roar. It turns, fixing its beady eye on one of the children in our group, snaps at her. She giggles, knowing it is make-believe and that she is perfectly safe, here and now in the well-lit factory. The T-rex is one of Sally’s most popular figures and has been reproduced over fifteen times. It could be lurking anywhere…

In the backdrop room, artists paint scenery and sets for the large interactives and the smaller games. Many of the paintings are double layered. You may see a bucolic country setting, soft clouds and gamboling lambs, visible in daylight or under normal light. But if you flick the black lights on, the lambs are replaced by skeletons, the clouds by ghosts and ghouls. Julie turned the lights on and off a few times, then had us take photos with our digital cameras. No matter what was before us, what ghouls and nightmares were in the painting, the flash of the digital made the scene revert to its ‘nice’ version. It is an amazing technique to see the two paintings right on top of each other.

The final stop on the tour is a laser target gallery. Wheels spin, ducks pop-up, figures spin and peek out from behind each other. And yes, every person on the tour had a chance to ‘drive the bad guys out of Dodge City.’

The only complaint was that the tour was over too soon and when could we come back and do it again? Julie laughed, “Every Tuesday and Thursday from 9 to 1, except for July and August. Just call or email me.”

The tour is recommended for ages five and up. A few of the younger children were disturbed by some of the ghost sculptures in the outer area, while others giggled at the most horrific monsters. At each stop, you can leave the tour and rejoin the group later or in the laser target room. The tour is conducted under natural lighting conditions to control the shock factor.

Sally Corporation is located at745 Forsyth St. in Jacksonville (904-355-7100) Their web address is Email for tour reservations. To get to Sally, take I4 East to I95 North. I95 North to Acosta Bridge/Riverside (Exit 350A). Take Broad St ramp from Acosta, go one block, turn left onto Jefferson St. Go two blocks. The Sally parking lot will be on your right, just before the intersection of Jefferson and Forsyth. Estimated travel time from New Tampa is 3-1/2 hours.

Alternate: I75 North to US27/FL 500 South. Merge onto I10 East. I10 to I95 North. I95 to Forsyth St, Exit 352B. Right on Forsyth, right into parking lot. Estimated travel time is 3 hours, 10 minutes.

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