Things don't just go bump in the night at Dark Castle, a dark ride at Nasu Highland Park in Nasu, Japan. They also snarl, grab, and lunge, ensuring a blood-curdling trip through terror for visitors foolhardy enough to pay admission. But while Japan has a taste for the macabre, the country does not have the technicians to add it to their amusement parks. Wanting to throw a few monsters into the mix of attractions at the Fantasy Pointe section of Nasu, park owner Towa Nasu Resort Co. Ltd. decided to go Hollywood, and picked Valencia, CA-based Technifex Inc. for the job.
"You would never see anything like Dark Castle at Disneyland or any of the mainstream theme parks," says Technifex principal Monty Lunde. "The owner kept wanting it to be scarier. There's certainly a higher level of gore in Dark Castle than at a similar US-based attraction."
The blood and beasts did not deter voters from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) from honoring Dark Castle, which opened July 1996, as one of the year's best attractions at its annual THEA Awards gala dinner this past September. The Burbank, CA-based TEA feted Dark Castle in the category of excellence on a limited budget. Lunde says Technifex brought it in for just over $2.5 million, excluding the $1 million ride system, provided separately by Dark Castle co-creator and co-producer Nasu Highland Resort.
Technifex's trademarked slogan is "Making Magic a Reality," and the black arts behind Dark Castle were firstconjured at the 1994 edition of the International Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) show. "Nasu had retained an architectural firm, ED2 International of San Francisco, to help it build a fantasy-themed extension to the park. They had a split-level arcade, about 20,000 sq. ft. total (1,800 sq. m), that they decided to rebuild as a scary dark ride. We were referred to them by [Los Angeles-based attractions producer] BRC Imagination Arts. We've come in and built special effects for a number of projects, but we'd never been the lead on a project like we were on this one."
Dark Castle is Nasu's first dark ride, and Technifex's second from the concept to the installation phases (its first, the Haunted Mine ride, was part of the ill-starred MGM Grand Adventures park in Las Vegas). After Nasu signed off on Technifex's concept in 1995, the fabrication and installation took 11 months. "We tried to give some thread of a storyline to the ride, which lasts approximately three and a half minutes and has kind of a Tim Burton feel to it," Lunde says. "The idea is that the queue space is actually catacombs and hallways within the castle. You walk through very tight corridors and at every turn some sort of effect happens; for example, the images within paintings transform before your eyes."
After this teaser, the ride proper through the castle environment begins. The grisly spectacle includes a fountain with water that cascades blood-red, a wrecked horse-drawn carriage with bodies strewn around it, and a fearsome monster that plays hide-and-seek with passengers through the duration of the ride. Sets and scenic elements, created by Sun Valley, CA-based Lexington Scenery & Props, include a dungeon decorated with skeletal remains, a sharp guillotine that lops off a poor unfortunate's head, flying bats and corpses flown from the ceiling, and a graveyard where the animatronic monster finally bursts forth from the shadows. Other effects packed into Dark Castle include pop-up gargoyles and skeletons, statuary with "beating" fiber-optic hearts, and "living" portraits that reach out and throttle you. Good clean family fun.
Lunde says Dark Castle mixes a number of effects, from CGI to surround-sound monster growls. Living up to its name, the scenic treatments are saturated in Wildfire blacklight paint, including the water in the fountain, which is pigmented and excited under blacklight. Specialty lighting was brought in for certain areas. "The scenes are so small that it was just very difficult to consider doing the ride under typical theatrical conditions. Blacklight gives it a sense of depth, and helped make everything seem kind of askew."
Though the lighting system was put in onsite by Technifex staffers including Todd Gallagher and John Schedl, the lighting design was drafted and specified by Gallegos Lighting Design of Northridge, CA. The two firms had collaborated several times previously, and are workign together again on the Lego-themed Legoland amusement park, due to open in Carlsbad, CA, in spring 1999. But on Dark Castle, due to financial restrictions, Gallegos could not implement its own design in the field.
"This sort of arrangement, where one company contributes the design and the other actually installs it, is more typical on overseas projects than on US ones," explains LD Karl Haas, who drew up a light plot based on Technifex reconnaissance and production meetings as company principal Pat Gallegos worked on Hirakata Park, another Japan-based themed project. "It depends on the client and the budget, and Nasu wanted to keep the onsite team as small as possible."
Lighting did not tax the bottom line unduly. Haas estimates that the fixtures for Dark Castle cost about $50,000 and the dimming between $10,000-$12,000. As park projects tend to be, "this one was on a very fast track," Haas recalls. "Technifex brought us in to do lighting consultation in December 1995, and by mid-March we had the lighting design and package shipped out to them." From there on in, Technifex and Gallegos communicated largely via fax and the occasional late-night phone call.
For the design, Haas relied on field reports and scenic mockups created at Lexington. "The Wildfire units that were purchased, the 250W and 400W UV Long Throw projectors, were taken into Lexington. There a substantial amount of construction and painting with the lighting in a mockup position was done before the various ride components were broken down, put into containers, and shipped to Japan. There wasn't much programming that needed to happen; there were only about 24 dimmers on the project, and the rest was all on relays. The blacklight gets turned on and there isn't much to do with that."
Some of Dark Castle's dozen scenes are sprinkled with incandescent sources. That theme park perennial, the ETC Source Four, ellipsoidals and miniature PAR lamp accent lights from Altman and various architectural fixtures complement the blacklight. "Advocates say you can achieve all sorts of things with blacklight, but if add incandescent light selectively it doesn't look quite so cartoonish," Haas says. "In Dark Castle we used incandescent sources to make the blood and gore look more real; we have a monster ripping people's heads off, and we're going to gross you out!"
Other lighting effects contribute more subtly to the mood of the ride. "In the mockup stage we used the Wildfire 400 with a Great American Market Spin F/X disc in front of it," Haas says. "We projected it onto a painted mural with a UV-painted moon and clouds, and it made it look as if the clouds were in motion, passing in front of the moon. I'm assuming they got this to work properly in the field; I've never seen the attraction in action, but from what I understand, it's a very impressive ride." Gallegos Lighting Design did, however, get a model of the Dark Castle monster from Technifex, as did other members of the design team.
Lunde, who has ridden through Dark Castle several times, reports that audience reaction couldn't be better. "I've stood at the exit queue for quite some time watching people's reactions, and it does what it's supposed to do: It scares the hell out of them."
In the race to provide location-based entertainment for kids, Disney has taken a giant step forward with the first Club Disney, a prototype for a child-friendly play land. Located at the West Lake Promenade shopping mall in Thousand Oaks, CA (outside of Los Angeles), Club Disney is a collaborative effort by Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), Disney Regional Entertainment, and The Disney Stores. Its 24,500 sq. ft. (2,205 sq. m) of entertainment offer plenty of innovative fun for kids. The only catch is that children must be accompanied by an adult and vice versa as Club Disney encourages parent/child interaction in its interactive environment.
"It's an imagination-powered place," says Paula Dinkel, WDI's principal lighting designer for Club Disney. Her lighting highlights the bright color scheme used throughout, adding broad washes of color, shapes, and textures. The entrance, where guests both check in and check their shoes, evokes an enchanted forest with leaf gobos in Times Square Lighting MR-16 pattern projectors accenting murals with images from The Lion King, Bambi, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and large close-ups of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. "We wanted to bring the ceiling down and create a visual plane," says Dinkel, who used a low-voltage Tortran rail system that snakes like a ribbon below the ceiling. MR-16 fixtures with alternating blue and green lamps glow with pink and yellow along the sides. The ribbon pattern is echoed in the carpet, which features black mouse ears in its design.
The scenery, designed by the Imagineers, has an abstract style that can be redressed to carry out new Disney themes. "We used lots of saturated colors in the scenic elements, but not the typical primaries you'd expect to see in children's play spaces," Dinkel says. "We also tried to make each area look different from the others." In the Winnie the Pooh area, designed for kids from two to four years old, a green floor with a blue "stream" is dappled with sunlight from amber gel in 35W PAR-30s. Times Square 70W projectors throw leaf patterns on the walls with Philips MasterColor(TM) metal-halide lamps, selected for energy conservation and low maintenance.
In the Applaudeville Theatre, the lighting system is remote-controlled from backstage by Strand CD80 dimmers via a preset International Lighting Controls time clock. The room's system includes a Times Square track lighting system with incandescent lamps, a four-screen videowall, and a mirror ball the shape of Mickey's head. A similar Times Square track system is used in an arts and crafts room that also has a central fixture with T8 color-balanced fluorescents in a square. "These are flexible systems that allow for the redesign of the spaces," says Dinkel. "The rooms can be changed first, then we can just move and refocus the fixtures."
A circus area, intended for kids from four to six years old, has a mini-carousel accented with low-voltage rim lights. Strings of lightbulbs covered with Lumisphere plastic globes in pink, purple, yellow, and blue create the illusion of a bigtop. On an upper level is a low-ceiling area meant for kids to climb around, so for safety Dinkel built fiber-optic lighting from Fiberstars into the scenic elements. "This way no one can hit their head on the instruments, and there is nothing that can get too hot," she says.
Private birthday party rooms have dimmable lighting systems and occupancy sensors. Dinkel used incandescent fixtures with fresnel lenses for what she calls "a homey look," rather than institutional fluorescents. Each party room has its own color scheme with murals featuring Disney characters. Adults who need a time-out can retreat to the parent's room, or Chat Hat, which overlooks the play floor and is equipped with IBM Thinkpads featuring programs about children. Desk lamps provide low-level lighting in addition to the dimmable MR-16s on an overhead ribbon track.
In the cafe area, Mickey and Minnie images decorate the walls of a room with blond wood tables, chairs, and floors. Dinkel once again worked to avoid an institutional feel in the lighting by using ribbon tracks with 250W MR-16s for extra sparkle. "The room is kept to 35fc," she says, pointing out that some of the MR-16s are on flexible stems to aim at the murals. The MR-16 ribbon motif reappears in the gift shop, where large cut-outs of the sun, moon, and stars are arranged like constellations on the ceiling. Track lighting highlights the walls and window displays.
The lighting systems are computer-controlled to go on in the morning and switch to work lights at closing time. "You can override the computer in the manager's office and each zone has a keyed panel to change over to work lights," explains Dinkel. Clever touches like talking scenery in a "maddening maze," blacklight strobes, and a neon glow in a computer center called The Mouse Pad all help light the way for kids to play at Club Disney. "We will take what we learned here in the prototype and distill it for the next one," says Dinkel. "We want to get down to the essence and be as cost-effective as possible now that we have had a chance to decide on a design program and find out what works."