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Vintage Playland rides face scary future

The Journal News /

Original Article »

July 28, 2007

Fans of vintage amusement park rides are hoping an online effort can save Playland's Zombie Castle and Flying Witch from being torn down later this year.

George LaCross, editor of the Web site, posted an editorial urging readers to rally behind the doomed rides, which he praised as "creepy classics."

"They're a part of history," LaCross, of Barrington, R.I., said during a telephone interview yesterday. "They play a role in amusement park history and they're an important part of our culture."

Both rides are scheduled for removal from the Westchester County-owned park in Rye as part of a plan to eliminate privately owned rides there after this season.

The change was recommended by a consultant last year, and the timetable was moved up after a 21-year-old ride worker died on the privately owned Mind Scrambler last month.

The Mind Scrambler was permanently closed after the June 29 death of Gabriela Garin of White Plains. Two other rides - the Power Surge and Bumper Fun - are also being eliminated.

County parks spokesman Peter Tartaglia said the rides would be replaced with newer, higher-tech models expected to attract more riders. Playland is expected to lose $3 million this year, he said.

"The amusement industry changes every year, and people expect change all the time," Tartaglia said. "Just because something has been there a long time doesn't mean we necessarily want to keep it."

The owners of the Zombie Castle and Flying Witch - MGE Inc. and Trahanas Amusements Inc., respectively - could not be reached for comment.

LaCross, a 52-year-old newspaper promotion specialist, said the Zombie Castle - originally called "Laff in the Dark" - had been at Playland since 1934. The Flying Witch, which was imported from Italy, opened in 1971.

They are the only remaining examples of each ride in the country, he said.

Both are known as "dark rides," because patrons travel in rail cars through dark tunnels featuring animated mannequins, lights and sounds intended to startle people.

"These are the types of rides that the 'imagineers' at Disney took to the next level," LaCross said. "If it weren't for these rides, those types of rides would never have existed."

LaCross' editorial includes links that allow people to e-mail state and county officials. Gary Kriss, chief adviser to Westchester legislature Chairman Bill Ryan, D-White Plains, said the Board of Legislators had received seven e-mails urging it to keep the rides.

Kriss said he had been unaware of LaCross' Web site, and staffers didn't understand why they were getting the e-mails.

The legislature has not yet taken a position on the administration's plan to replace the rides, Kriss said.

At least two other Web sites devoted to amusement parks have linked to LaCross' editorial.

Arthur Levine, a Beverly, Mass., writer who covers theme parks for the Web site, said he hoped LaCross' efforts would save the Zombie Castle and Flying Witch.

"I think they're an important part of Americana," he said in a telephone interview. "I see no reason why they should be going away."

Lance Hart of Stanley, N.C., owner and news editor of, wrote on his Web site that "something should be done to save these two rides for future generations to enjoy at Playland."

LaCross said by telephone that he was a longtime fan of dark rides, which he said were a preferable alternative to what he called the "spin-and-puke" rides at most amusement parks.

Westchester legislators and administration officials are pressing ahead with plans for separate safety studies at Playland, where three people have been killed on rides in the past four years.

The county Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation expects to hire a consulting company next month to review operations at the county-owned park in Rye, spokesman Peter Tartaglia said.

The review would include both an audit of all ride operation manuals and undercover "secret shopper" operations to assess worker compliance with safety rules, he said. The review would be repeated annually, he said.

Tartaglia said he anticipated a meeting with legislators to prevent overlap with plans for a study announced Thursday by Legislator Ken Jenkins, D-Yonkers, chairman of the parks committee.

But Gary Kriss, chief adviser to legislative Chairman Bill Ryan, D-White Plains, said legislators wanted their own review.

"If they want to do a study for their purposes, that's good, but ours would be oversight," Kriss said. "We need to have our own independent view of these things."

On June 29, a ride worker at the Mind Scrambler, Gabriela Garin, was killed when the ride operator started it even though he apparently knew she wasn't seated properly in one of its cars, according to a preliminary police report. Garin, 21, of White Plains, fell from the car and was struck by the spinning machinery.

The Mind Scrambler also killed 7-year-old Stephanie Dieudonne of New Rochelle after she wriggled out of her seat in 2004.

In 2005, 7-year-old Jon-Kely Cassara of Norwalk, Conn., was killed after he got out of a boat on the Ye Old Mill water ride and fell through a gap in its underwater conveyor belts.

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