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This hotel’s resplendence haunts me
Maine’s Funtown USA debuts impressive dark ride
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4 (out of 5)
Nobody would mistake Funtown USA for Disneyland. The amusement park, located in southern Maine, is known for its 100-foot-tall woodie, Excalibur, and a modest collection of spinning rides and other mostly off-the-shelf attractions. The adjacent, separate-admission Splashtown has a nice assortment of water slides. But visitors who make their way to the park’s new Haunted Hotel would be excused if they zoned out and somehow felt transported to the happiest place on Earth. That’s because the dark ride has Mickey mojo.
Yup, it’s that good.
The exterior of the attraction, which previously housed an arcade, is fairly nondescript, although the gnarly, petrified tree sculpture and the witch’s abode in front of the show building are pretty nifty. Business picks up once guests enter the Whispering Pines Hotel and encounter its lobby. Instead of the dank, foreboding vibe featured in many haunted attractions, the brightly lit and tastefully decorated interior belies the spooky shenanigans that await. It also demonstrates the careful attention that Sally Dark Rides, the company that created Haunted Hotel, lavished on its set design.
If the carpeting looks vaguely familiar, that’s because it evokes the floors of the Overlook Hotel from the film adaptation of “The Shining,” which was penned by Maine’s resident horrormeister, Stephen King. Subconsciously, details like that register with guests and help set the tone.
Rounding the corner in the queue, folks encounter the first of nine animatronic figures in the attraction. Dr. Theodora Giddens, a “registered curse eradicist,” greets guests for the preshow and establishes the storyline. Apparently, a wicked witch has cursed the hotel and trapped the souls of three guests. It’s our job to dispel the spirits by using “curse eradicators” (otherwise known as blasting targets with shooters).
I was fairly flabbergasted by the scene. The animatronic figure is startlingly lifelike. It shows how robotics have evolved since the days of Walt Disney’s tiki birds. It also shows how Sally, which has been creating animatronics for over 45 years, has mastered the art form. But I was mostly blown away by discovering this level of themed storytelling at a small, regional park.
So let’s hear it for the Cormiers, the family that owns and operates Funtown and provided the foresight and capital to pull off the impressive project. (And for that matter, let’s hear it for all the fine folks in the industry that continue to run family-owned parks, which, unfortunately, are an endangered species.) Fun fact: The couple in the old-timey photograph hanging on the wall in the queue scene (see above) are Violet and the late Ken Cormier, Funtown’s founders.
“My grandmother, Violet, always wanted a dark ride,” says Cory Cormier, a third-generation member of the family, explaining the impetus for the attraction.
A dark ride, by the way, is any attraction with a ride vehicle that conveys passengers through a show building. They are not necessarily dark in tone or lighting. So, Disney’s bright and cheery “it’s a small world” is a dark ride.
“Years ago, we had an intense walk-through haunted house here that people really missed,” Cormier notes, providing more insight into the thought process that yielded the Haunted Hotel. “But we decided to make this spooky, not scary, so five-year-olds would enjoy it.”
Guests board four-passenger vehicles, which were created by Bertazzon, crash through doors to start the ride, and are implored by the hotel’s elderly proprietor–another amazing figure–to help reverse the curse. In total, there are 14 scenes, each one jammed with practical effects, such as the animatronic Lilith the Witch, as well as media, in the form of LED screens, digital projection mapping, and even a fog screen.
Yes, passengers are trying to rack up points and bragging rights by shooting at targets embedded throughout the ride. In some cases, hitting a target triggers or alters an effect.
“The real goal is to dispel elements and rid the hotel of the manifestations of the curse,” says Drew Hunter, who took the lead in designing the attraction for Sally. “But there are a variety of ways the targeting works. This makes the game aspect of the ride very interesting and very repeatable for guests.”
The interactive nature of the attraction does help make it re-rideable. But for those who would prefer to leave the shooter in its holster, Haunted Hotel holds up quite well as a more passive dark ride. The story is engaging, and the scenes are so richly crafted that guests who experience it more than once will likely be rewarded by catching plenty of things they missed.
And there are a ton of details to catch. Cormier says that many members of his large family helped contribute ideas during the development process. One of those was the creation of the witch’s familiars, a cute winged cat and frog. The Cormiers were able to weigh in because Sally custom made the attraction for Funtown. Nonetheless, the bespoke ride draws inspiration from some famous forebears. A hallway scene with hotel doors that mysteriously knock by themselves may call to mind a certain Haunted Mansion, for example. A captivating, star-filled scene references The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
“We love the idea of having these nods to other attractions,” says Cormier. He also appreciates all of the research that went into the project and all of the little touches that abound, such as a painting of Portland Head Light, one of Maine’s most famous lighthouses. “Sally is so great at what they do,” he adds.
Granted, there isn’t a heckuva lotta competition, but what Sally and Funtown have done is create New England’s best dark ride. Haunted Hotel’s powerful storytelling will send you on a journey to another dimension and, perhaps, to a magic kingdom on the other side of the country.
Are you familiar with Funtown USA? Does your home park have any Disney- or Universal-level attractions?