Conventional wisdom says you don’t pour new money into an old attraction. But when your old attraction is Monster Plantation, the beloved dark boat ride at Atlanta’s Six Flags Over Georgia, you think again…
Monster Plantation consistently ranked among the top attractions at the park year-in, year-out,” explains Melinda Ashcraft, park president. “The ride became a rite of passage for youth growing up in the area. Because it’s become so iconic, we really wanted to renovate and upgrade the existing ride, keeping the popular storyline intact. Now, individuals who experienced Monster Plantation as young children can ride Monster Mansion with their own kids.”
The new Monster Mansion is loaded with more 4D effects (12 in total) than any other ride in the world, but it also features real life exhibits – not simulations – to keep guests coming back again and again. The attraction boasts eight new animatronics, plus the original 97 monsters.
Housed inside a 25,246 square feet building, Monster Mansion and its six-passenger boats provide an hourly capacity of up to 1,400. The four-minute voyage covers 700ft of water channel, 613ft of which is in the dark. Riders float by nine unique scenes as they witness and, for the first time, take part in the Monsters’ family reunion picnic. Twelve interactive elements have been added to engage guests. And Papa Razzi, the ride’s resident Monster photographer and his faithful assistant Nestor are on hand to capture every moment.
The Goddard Touch
Responsible for the ride’s overhaul is noted design consultant Gary Goddard, now chairman of Gary Goddard Entertainment (GGE), who created the original Monster Plantation in 1981.
“Six Flags has a great relationship with GGE” acknowledges Ashcraft. “They have produced the Glow in the Park Parade at several Six Flags parks and are extremely creative people. As original designer, Gary Goddard himself knew Monster Plantation like no one else and we are very pleased with the outcome of Monster Mansion.”
“Six Flags wanted either to create a new ride, or to refurbish and enhance the existing Monster Plantation,” Goddard recalls. “We came down on the side – naturally – of updating. Fortunately, Six Flags came to same conclusion. Melinda was a 17-year-old park employee when we first opened the ride. I think a lot of the great support we received came from her love of the ride. She’s been with it from the beginning.”
“Those who remember Monster Plantation will love the refurbishment,” believes Ashcraft. “It’s a great makeover.”
When Goddard created the original in 1981, “We had only begun to push the technology envelope. The ride was quite innovative. A bunch of ex-Disney Imagineers managed to design and build a dark ride with 135 animatronic creatures and animated elements on stage. We wanted a new name for the new ride and we wanted to add a more immersive element, hence the addition of the so-called ‘4D’ effects. We gave the characters a new lease of life with new make up, fur and feathers. We also put in a new audio, lighting and show control system. But the most important addition from the guest standpoint are the new 4D sequences.”
The lighting for Monster Mansion was provided by Lightswitch, headed by lead designer Edward Marks. The local systems integrator was the Entertainment Design Group. Featured in the ride is equipment from ETC, Rosco, GAM, TMB and Color Kinetics.
“For the most part this new ride uses existing technologies although in some cases we bring them to bear in new ways,” details Goddard. “The best example is the photographer who takes your photo at the start of the ride, which is then displayed on a ‘family picture frame’ together with a few monsters that were in the area. We also use a mist projection system that the boat travels through as we head into the spooky marsh. More than 25 years later, we have so many more ‘toys’ at our disposal. The end result is an absolute delight!”
But will it be a marketing success? “This ride is another great family-friendly attraction for Six Flags Over Georgia,” contends Ashcraft. “With the new Monster Mansion, Thomas Town [added last season], Bugs Bunny World and numerous other rides, shows and character appearances, there is a tremendous amount available for families with younger children.”
“When we were looking for the ‘big idea’ on Monster Plantation,” Goddard remembers, “I was for trying to create something that has some bit of Southern feeling to it, to keep a local sense to the story. One day, Big Al (Al Bertino, (the original Imagineer who sparked the idea along with Phil Mendez and myself) came in and said, ‘How about monsters fellas?’ Phil and I looked at each other. Al said ‘Yeah, monsters…’ He went on to say that everyone likes monsters, even his four-year-old granddaugther. Whenever they would play, she would come into the room, hands raised high and say ‘Grandpa, I’m the big monster….’ When we heard that, we realised monsters could be fun for kids, not only scary. I think the designs Phil developed make the ride friendly, funny and lightly scary towards the end. And of course, that song that Dick Hamilton wrote helped to burn the theme into everyone’s DNA too.”
When it opened back in ’81, Monster Plantation’s lovable cast of characters soon became as iconic as the ride itself. Buzby, the kid monster who wears the propeller hat, is named after George Busbee, who served as governor of Georgia when the ride opened. Mizzy Scarlett is loosely named after Scarlett O’Hara and serves as the chair of the monsters’ welcoming committee. These popular characters and many more return with a makeover in the new Monster Mansion.
Goddard is more specific about what he favours in the ride. “On the ‘friendly monster’ side, I like our tribute to Big Al (Al Bertino, the original Imagineer who sparked the idea along with Phil Mendez and myself). He is our ‘gardener’ absent-mindedly watering the grass and who inadvertently gets the riders a little wet. I am sure wherever Al is now, he loves the fact that we have him lightly spraying the guests as they pass by. On the ‘scary monster’ side, I love the treasure scene with all the little monsters guarding their precious trove. The ‘humans in the marsh’ monster that follows is great, too.”
“It’s quite a feat that everything here ran for as long as it did, 28 years,” continues Goddard. “Our warranty back then was for one year! I think that Monster Mansion is to Atlanta what It’s a Small World is to Southern Californians. The ride may well be around long after Phil and I are gone. And that’s kind of cool.”
When it comes to dark rides, Goddard has a unique perspective. “We find that while you have to have a beginning, middle and end, the details of the storyline along the ride are less important. It’s more of a journey that takes place in a dream like state. Think about dreams – there’s no ‘plot’ to a dream – it’s a sequence of events that are sometimes wild, sometimes logical, sometimes not. But while there can be surprises – audience don’t like chaos – they don’t want to be confused. I learned that from John Hench at Imagineering. Clearing our rides and shows of elements that create confusion is important, so that the guest can enjoy the experience.”
“I think the Monster Mansion storyline does all the right things,” he continues. “It welcomes you in to the party, makes you part of the party, and then we get you off into ‘the bad places’ (where the monsters are), and then we bring you back to light and good times again, just before giving you a little surprise ending.”
Immersive Vs Interactive
Unlike many current dark rides, Monster Mansion is not interactive, but it is immersive. “There are times when interactive, as in a shooting ride, is very good and very effective,” admits Goddard. “For the most part, this works best when the ride is about that. In fact, the Toy Story Mania! shooting gallery ride is a great interactive experience, probably the best of its kind. The reason, I believe, is that it is what it is – it does not try to tell a story. It simply and elegantly takes you from arcade set-up to arcade set-up and there is no confusion.
For Monster Mansion, that would have been a very wrong element to add. It would fight the idea of the ‘gags’ we have set up, and it would cause confusion as guests would struggle with ‘do I enjoy the scene, or do I try and aim and hit those targets?’ So, for Monster Mansion interactivity would be the wrong approach. But the immersive additions were ideal.”
Although Goddard and Mendez worked with a new generation of designers, spearheaded by GGE lead designer Taylor Jeffs, they also enlisted the help of several ex-Imagineers to keep the spirit of the original ride intact.
“Robert Delapp, who started with my original company right out of high school with his first project being the original Monster Plantation, came back on board as part of the show design team,” Goddard reveals. “Bob Baranik, another more recent veteran of Disney Imagineering, came aboard to be our on site art director, and he did a Herculean task of getting things just right. The team included a host of other veterans including Barry Kemper, who oversaw everything related to budgets and schedules, as well as the refurbishing of the animatronics and effects.”
Another name that may be familiar to industry stalwarts is former IAAPA chair Spurgeon Richardson, of whom Goddard has fond recollections: “Spurge was the president of the park when the ride originally opened,” he remembers. “He and his team had doubts we would make it on time, and even if we finished it, would families really love it? Would the kids love it? So on opening day, the first boatload went out – and it was the family of one of the park’s operations supervisors. The kids got on board, but dad waited behind on the landing dock, along with Spurge, a host of other executives, and me. Spurge said ‘The moment of truth…’ And we waited for this initial boat to come out of the exit. We awaited the ‘moment of truth.’ Then out came the boat, the kids were screaming and shouting. As they got off the boat, one of the boys runs to his dad and shouts at the top of his lungs, ‘Can we ride it again, Daddy?’ I turned to Spurge and shouted ‘Can we ride it again, Daddy!’ That kid, whoever he was, made my day. The ride was an indisputable hit.”
In addition to the Monster Mansion upgrades, Six Flags Over Georgia has this season also unveiled a new retail shop and mini-museum adjacent to the ride, aptly named the MonStore. It shouild become a ‘Monster’ hit this summer.