How Sally Corp is Bringing Top End Dark Rides to Regional Parks – Interview with John Wood and Rich Hill
On July 12 (ie. tomorrow), Six Flags Magic Mountain is opening the latest of their “Justice League: Battle For Metropolis” 4-D interactive dark rides (EDIT: The ride is now open, tell us what you think!), the seventh in the park chain. The company behind these rides is Sally Corporation, an expert in animatronics and dark rides that is in its 40th year in business. Before Justice League, Sally was best known for their family friendly interactive rides (that are reminiscent of shooting galleries), like the “Boo Blasters” rides found at multiple Cedar Fair parks or “Lost Kingdom Adventure” at various Legolands. Justice League represents a new level for regional park dark rides, though. Combining advanced CGI effects with animatronics, practical effects, and motion vehicles, Sally is bringing regional park dark rides up to the standards set by the big budget, destination parks of the world, if not better.
I definitely believe that Justice League will hold it’s own against any attraction in the world.” – John Wood, Sally CEO
In 2015 Sally won the best new product award from the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions (IAAPA), as well as awards from various publications and websites, for the first Six Flags Justice League rides. In 2016 they pushed the rides further, making improvements to two new versions that opened across the chain in 2016, and two already open in 2017. Now they promise the version opening at Magic Mountain to be the best yet when it opens this week.
I was incredibly lucky to talk to both Sally Corp. CEO John Wood and their Creative Director, Rich Hill, about how Justice League came to be, making a ride that competes with the big budget parks, some of the advancements the Magic Mountain Justice League has compared to the other versions, what might lie ahead for Sally, and much more!
Coaster101 (C101): Sally has been in business for quite a long time now, could you tell me a little bit about how Justice League came about, and how you innovated for it?
John Wood, CEO of Sally (JW): Yeah, we’re in our 40th year now. Justice League gave us the opportunity to build a dream. We were finally able to convince a regional theme park of the value of a quality dark ride, one that could be measured against the best of the industry, and that we could do so at the price point that made sense for them. We always knew there was an opportunity there, but when we had a chance to do the Justice League Alien Invasion attraction at Warner Bros movie world in Australia (in 2011), it gave us the natural step to go and approach Six Flags with the idea of making a mega-attraction.
Rich Hill, Creative Director for Sally (RH): The success of (Justice League Alien Invasion) drew Six Flags to us to develop a dark ride for them using the DC Comics super heroes as a basis. However, they wanted something that was unique to their park and brand.
C101: Were there any specific innovations that really allowed you guys to make an attraction that could compete with the Disneys and Universals but at a price point for a regional park?
JW: Well, it’s really been something that we’ve been desiring to do for decades. It really just took awhile before the regional theme parks understood the value of the dark ride as an evergreen always popular attraction that is highly repeatable, and good for families to do together. We’ve had to chip away at that for years. We introduced our initial concept, which was interactive, high capacity, major attractions that we took to the marketplace with the intent to compete with roller coasters, but the market wasn’t quite ready. They were intrigued, they were excited, but they weren’t quite ready to make that kind of investment in a themed attraction. It took years, and dozens of dark rides, before we could prime the pump and obtain the opportunity based on our hard work and successes, to be able to do this last attraction. I think now we’ve certainly proven its value and its capabilities and its ability to compete in any marketplace.
RH: We are just good at designing and building dark rides. We have done so many of them (60+) that we understand the pitfalls and forks in the road that result in wasted time and increased cost. It sounds cliché, but we really do help our clients get the most bang for their buck. It’s just as simple as that! The technology and mediums change from year to year but a good team that understands how (and where) to spend a dollar are more valuable than any new flashy gimmick. I’ve only heard rumors about the cost of various attractions from other firms but honestly, if they are half of what is rumored, they could use Sally Corporation’s help. I honestly don’t know where that money goes!
JW: I definitely believe that Justice League will hold it’s own against any attraction in the world.
So when Six Flags said ‘OK, we’ve got a great opportunity here, if we loosen up the pocket book a little bit at Magic Mountain, what would you do?’ we examined a variety of new technical achievements, new processes.” – John Wood, Sally CEO
C101: Can you tell me a bit about what changes we’ll see on Magic Mountain’s Justice League compared to the earlier versions?
RH: This is really the biggest, baddest Justice League ride to date. We have amplified the (already) awesome gaming and special effects, while also adding some new tricks that should make guests super excited about riding this new iteration.
C101: What was the process for identifying what to add or improve? Were there certain things that you wanted to include in the earlier versions but couldn’t for whatever reason (time, budget, etc.), or were there things you learned from the experience of making and riding them that led to changes you wanted?
JW: After the first two we had a big round-table with all the key Six Flags people involved where we discussed ways that we could make it better without destroying the bank or increasing the budget drastically. Things like adjustments to the CGI, we used photo capture animations so the movements were more realistic. We had the chance to go back in and dial up the rendering quality, and improve areas of gamesmanship, where we thought we needed more targets or more action.
So when Six Flags said “OK, we’ve got a great opportunity here, if we loosen up the pocket book a little bit at Magic Mountain, what would you do?” we examined a variety of new technical achievements, new processes.
RH: There are a few things we wanted to have happen in “Justice League 1.0” that just weren’t feasible due to technology and budget. Now that we have advanced our systems and had a little more money to play with, we were able to incorporate those items into “Justice League 6.0” (you know, because it’s SIX Flags…lol).
JW: We’ve enhanced the key ingredients of a great dark ride. A great setup, a good story, an excellent pace, and of course the highest level of fun and repeatability that you strive for with any attraction. Those are items that are pretty easy to enhance as you go through. We were extremely pleased with our first edition but we made it better, and we’ve been able to continue to improve. I think you’re going to be blown away when you get a chance to ride it at Magic Mountain.
C101: What’s the process like for coming up with a ride like this? How much of the plot/design did Six Flags have to start with, and how much was it developed by you guys (or collaboratively with Six Flags/WB/DC/etc.)?
RH: I developed the storyline using a few Six Flags designated parameters (guests must ‘feel’ like a superhero, the ride must be as thrilling as a rollercoaster, we must use villains that are instantly identifiable to guests) as a guide. The concept was developed in-house at Sally and pitched to Six Flags/WB/DC before they signed on officially. After the contracts were finalized, I wrote the script, designed the vehicles and blasters, game design, etc. We also enlisted the help of our friends at Wyatt Design Group to develop the scenic production designs (with me providing creative direction to their team). Sally really stuck their neck out to make this project happen and so far the results have been just…well, SUPER!
JW: It was definitely a collaborative effort. We worked very closely with Les Hudson and Sam Rhodes at Six Flags corporate. They had been living with the Justice League property for years. They knew they wanted a better villain, for instance, than Starro the Conqueror that we used in Australia. That was driven greatly by Warner Bros and DC’s desire, in this case, to use the most famous villains in the world. Let’s use the Joker and Lex Luthor.
C101: Were you a fan of DC comics before getting to work on this project? Were there any characters that you wish you could have included but couldn’t?
RH: I am a total geek, so of course I’ve always been a comics fan, specifically DC. Whenever I get a new project, I always throw myself into it completely and this was an easy theme because I was already somewhat educated. The DC characters are so iconic and loved that it was a challenge to determine which ones to include in the ride. There are 7 members of the Justice League in our iteration and they all have to have screen time (in 4 minutes!), so it is tough to keep them all front and center. Choices are made and sometimes fans are upset but in the end, we serve the brand well and tell a story about teamwork and sacrifice. People sometimes ask me why I didn’t put Aquaman on the team and honestly, that was driven by practical considerations. Water is very expensive and difficult to maintain…and of course we would have to include a huge water effect if he was in the attraction. Therefore, Supergirl was added to the team and Aquaman was cut…sorry AquaFans!
JW: For the job at Magic Mountain we made an appeal. We felt like we had a super hero deficit (on the animatronics), we said “that’s our specialty, let us do some more.” We had probably more than we needed in Australia, and I think Six Flags reacted to that, said “we don’t want as many animatronics” and held us back on being able to do what we do best. We were finally able to get them to let us add Harley Quinn to Magic Mountain.
Oceaneering has come to be a valuable part of our dark ride super hero team! Their capabilities are astounding. They can move guests in ways that I’ve only dreamed of.” – Rich Hill, Sally Creative Director
C101: Let’s talk about the technical side of the ride a bit. To me, one of the parts of the ride that really seems to make it feel like it’s at the same level as the rides at Disney or Universal is the motion based vehicle. Can you tell me about working with Oceaneering and their vehicles, and what that has allowed you guys to do?
JW: I believe the key element in the attraction difference between Australia and America was the use of Oceaneerings ride vehicle, which gave us that motion base to really make it a dynamic attraction.
RH: Oceaneering has come to be a valuable part of our dark ride super hero team! Their capabilities are astounding. They can move guests in ways that I’ve only dreamed of. By Sally Corp. helping them develop the EVO6 vehicle for this attraction, I feel like they have a better understanding of the needs of the regional park market and they’ve helped us take our product to the next level. They seem to really enjoy working with our team and we love working with them, too. Smart group over there at Oceaneering, for sure.
C101: Was this something you always wanted to add but needed to find the right vehicle?
JW: Yeah, and at the right price point. We’ve been very conscientious of developing a broad spectrum of products so that small parks could have a Sally product they could utilize and the bigger ones had something they could consider as well. We’ve always applied innovation to dark rides since day one. Our first design built 25 years ago used the first trackless ride system in a dark ride. That type of innovation is kind of in our blood. We really thought the Oceaneering EVO6 vehicle was gonna push us out of the budget envelope, but we were able to work closely with (them) to make it affordable. They’re a good company and they make a good product, and more importantly they stand behind the product that they sell. There were definitely some things that we had to work out after the first two that offseason, and the next two came in and we upgraded the first two with improvements so our downtime was reduced drastically and our uptime was enjoyed more.
C101: On the visual effects and CGI, who did you work with on that?
JW: We work with Pure Imagination in LA, they were the ones we first worked with on the project in Australia, and we’ve worked with all of the ones in North America. They’re a great company, (because) they’re not just a CGI company, they’re a CGI company who understands the theme park arena, and that it’s different from the movie or the short arena. They were very complementary to our approach towards the entertainment of a dark ride.
C101: Can you explain the process of working with them a bit?
RH: After writing the script, I usually provide rough animatics that give them direction on camera, sequence and action. Then, I work closely with them to review their progress as it develops. I love working with their team, they make my chicken scratch come to life!
C101: One of the things that really excites me about these rides is the blending of practical effects and CGI/visual effects. How do you guys go about trying to balance those elements, and deciding where to use which?
RH: It’s always a balancing act when determining what goes where in an attraction. We like to use the right tools to provide the proper effect. Whether that is a virtual or practical effect, we try to pick whatever elicits the best guest reaction. Sally has been creating incredible animatronics for decades, so that is always going to be a major part of our design language. Nothing beats a good animatronic in queue or out in the show, telling guests what their mission is and spurring them forward. I also believe mixing physical effects with digital ones is just more interesting. If guests get used to the way you are delivering a story to them, they get complacent and start looking for the cracks in the armor. If we can give riders a surprise around every corner, the results tend to be much more magical.
The Magic Mountain version, though…Magic is it’s own animal, and we like it that way.” – John Wood, Sally CEO
C101: Are there any plans to go back and retrofit any of the earlier versions of the ride? Is that feasible?
JW: It is feasible and we have been asked to look into upgrading the video quality with the changes we’ve made. It shouldn’t change drastically the targeting or some of the other things we have in there. So, when we find a winner and it’s successful and it’s not too expensive, we want to go back and improve the others. We want to see all of them be as good as they can be. We will not be converting the others into the Magic Mountain version, though. Magic is it’s own animal, and we like it that way.
C101: The maintenance budget for regional parks isn’t the same for somewhere like Disneyland, so how do you guys help ensure that the rides will be long lasting, and that parks will be able to keep the rides up?
JW: That’s a good question, and it’s constant concern on our part, but also with Six Flags. One thing I will say is that regional parks typically have outstanding maintenance teams. They have to keep old equipment in great shape, they redo roller coasters, they redo ride systems. Our system is just a different system, but they have very capable people there that we’ve been able to hand-off maintenance to.
Just the same, they may not love it the same way we love it. As a result, they may not think that that fog machine really has to get fixed yet, and yet we’re all after them. We get daily reports from operations on issues as they come up. We stay active in responding to those things before they ask, and we follow up on did they fix this yet, because we’re seeing it on the reports. And, it’s been a good process so far. We know that it could slip, so we’re staying on top of it.
We felt like it was a perfect combination of two classic attractions, a shooting gallery and a dark ride that would solve two of the major issues that were keeping dark rides behind. One was the repeatability factor, and two was the fact that dark rides had a reputation for being vandalized. Once you gave people something to do with their hands… our vandalism rate is non-existent, thankfully. – John Wood, Sally CEO
C101: I’m interested in learning more about the interactive side of things. Did you always know Justice League would be interactive, or did you consider making it more a traditional dark ride?
JW: Well, the shooting aspect is really important at a regional level, we believe. We love doing regular dark rides, Six Flags over Texas has a ride that’s been performing well for over 25 years, Yosemite Sam and the Gold River Adventure. It’s a standard ride, a good story telling ride, good feature of IP; however, the repeatability of providing the game in a ride solves a major issue when it comes to regional park ride selection. They’re not the same as a destination park that doesn’t expect people to come back over and over again. Six Flags expects people to come many times over the summer. They need an attraction that every time somebody gets on it they’re gonna come off with a smile. They need one that’s got staying power, long term investment return.
Our a first dark ride we put to the market was interactive. We felt like it was a perfect combination of two classic attractions, a shooting gallery and a dark ride that would solve two of the major issues that were keeping dark rides behind. One was the repeatability factor, and two was the fact that dark rides had a reputation for being vandalized. Once you gave people something to do with their hands, our vandalism rate is non-existent, thankfully. Even ones that are slow moving through beautiful scenery, they’re busy playing the game. It’s been a real added benefit.
C101: I never would have thought of that, but it makes total sense!
JW: I’m a real believer that when you have things that are well maintained, like the Disney and Universal model, then you’re going to continue to have respect and enjoyment from your visitors, so that’s been a key point in our operational space.
C101: Is it easy for you guys to change the game elements of the attraction?
JW: It is easy, one of the things about the interactivity that we’ve put into Six Flags is that we’ve embedded an Unreal 4 game engine into the video. So we have a true video game that we’re playing. Characters re-render instead of just blow up or go away. [C101 side note, this is a great time to go check out our feature from a year ago about the blurring lines between theme parks and gaming]
C101: Are there members of your team with experience in the games industry?
RH: Sally developed the first interactive dark ride back in the early 80’s. As times have changed, we have had to strengthen our gaming chops and increase the complexity on that side of the rides. As a result, there are a number of people we’ve brought over from the game industry that are making the interactive side of the attractions deeper and more challenging from a gamers perspective. Recently, we brought on a new COO, David Bishop, who was an executive at NAMCO for 25 years. He has a deep knowledge of gaming and industry strategy so we think he is going to help us be a driving force in interactive dark rides for years to come. We have also been working with Alterface for a number of years now and have collaborated many times to develop new ways to interact with guests. The biggest challenge I have from a design perspective is making the game deep enough that repeat riders can unlock new puzzles but shallow enough that non-gamers can play it once in a limited amount of time (again, 4 minutes!) and still have a blast.
I think that Six Flags is going to pause. I’m hoping it’s just a pause, but after three good hard years of rolling these out I think they’re going to step back and see how the results are. But, we’re very hopeful that there’s more in the future.” – John Wood, Sally CEO
C101: Are you able to tell me if there are any more Justice League rides coming for Six Flags, or any other projects for Sally coming up?
JW: I think that Six Flags is going to pause. I’m hoping it’s just a pause, but after three good hard years of rolling these out I think they’re going to step back and see how the results are. But, we’re very hopeful that there’s more in the future.
We introduced a concept of a Walking Dead dark ride at last years IAAPA show, and it’s a ride that utilizes the technology and techniques that we perfected in Justice League, as does our new Volcanikus concept which is close to going to contract. We’re a big believer in this mixed media dark ride approach, so we intend to continue with a winner.
C101: Jumping back to Magic Mountain, any favorite scenes or Easter Eggs from the Magic Mountain version that we should definitely keep our eyes out for?
RH: Watch out for bonus targets, there is one worth 6,666 points! You will know you hit it when your score ends in a 6 (all other targets end in 0). We also have some hidden puzzles that when targets are hit in a sequence, unlock extra-super bonus targets. I can’t tell you where they are though…that’s part of the fun!
JW: Everything in the attraction is a target, some things have better point values, pretty obviously when you shoot a bazooka coming at you you’re going to get more points than if you shoot at a static window. There are a number of game elements that once you get better at the game and figure out you’re going to have a higher score. There are a few easter eggs that we can modify and change over time, some that are there permanently. But I’m not going to disclose those.
The game is not overwhelming, but it’s a real good game. The show is not overwhelming and the story, but it’s a good story that you get. The experience is in the space of the big boys, but it’s not the big boys. I think it’s a perfect combination that you guys are going to love.
C101: Thank you both so much for your time, I can’t wait to ride the latest version of Justice League!
JW: You’re very welcome!
RH: Can’t wait for you to ride!
Again I want to give a huge thank you to both John and Rich for sharing so much insight with us on Justice League, Sally Corp! The latest version of the ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain opens to the public on Wednesday July 12. You can check out our reviews of the versions at both Six Flags St. Louis and Six Flags Great America, as well our behind the scenes look at the one at Six Flags Over Georgia. You can also check out our very relevant feature on the blending of gaming and theme parks. Finally, Magic Mountain live-streamed the premier of Justice League, which included comments from John. You can watch it here. And if you get a chance to ride the biggest and best version of Sally Corp’s latest ride, let us know in comments, or hit us up on Facebook or Twitter! Thanks again to John and Rich, we can’t wait to ride!