Bill Tracy, legendary dark ride designer and industry leader for his time, was a mysterious man with a passion for unique artistry. It’s not widely known that Tracy was a major contributor to Ocean City’s amusement businesses. Yet, he’s still having an impact in town.
Tracy built three classic dark ride attractions in Ocean City; Trimper’s Haunted House on the boardwalk in 1964, Ghost Ship at Ocean Playland Amusement Park in 1965, and Trimper’s Pirates Cove Funhouse in 1971.
Origins of the Ocean City Bat Boy
William Thomas Tracy, better known as Bill Tracy, was born on July 16, 1916 in Toledo, Ohio to Newton A. Tracy, a general practice lawyer, and Juanita L. Tracy (Hooper), who was a housewife. As a result of Newton’s professional success, the Tracy family lived comfortably in the Old West End of Toledo and as of 1930 had a German maid living with them to assist with general household operations. The Old West End of Toledo was primarily a Jewish community, but was also the home of many professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. The Tracy family was known to support the Republican political party. Newton’s father, Thomas H. Tracy, was a devout Methodist and an active member of St. Paul’s M.E. Church. As a result, Newton was raised as a Methodist and these religious beliefs were then instilled in Bill during his childhood.
Although Bill was brought up in a family of wealth and strong religious beliefs, his interests and hobbies would prove very different. On one occasion, Bill was able to talk his mother into taking him and his sister Laurabelle, who was one year older than him, to an insane asylum for a visit. On another occasion, Bill, who was a teenager at the time, went with his sister and some of their friends to a graveyard at midnight in an attempt to wake the dead. Not surprisingly, the only person they managed to awaken was the cemetery’s caretaker. Later in life, Laurabelle described the asylum visit as being one of the scariest activities that she had ever participated in.
Aside from Bill’s odd and somewhat macabre childhood recreational activities, he attended school through the twelfth grade and had a higher than average intelligence quotient. Bill attended Cranbrook School, a private college preparatory boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, from 1930 to 1932. Then, from 1932 through December of 1933, he attended Riverside Military Academy, an all-boys college preparatory school, in Gainesville, Georgia. From January until June of 1934, Bill attended Maumee High School, a public school located in Maumee, Ohio near Toledo. Next, he attended the prestigious Cascadilla Day Preparatory School in Ithaca, New York for one full year, from 1934 to 1935, including the summer session in 1935. Cascadilla School was founded as a preparatory school for Cornell University, a member of the Ivy League. Bill and his father generally expected him to attend Cornell University once he graduated from Cascadilla School in 1935. He even went as far as to pledge a fraternity at Cornell University while he was a student at Cascadilla School, which was an accepted practice in the 1930s.
Finally, Bill left Cascadilla School before graduating and transferred back to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio for his senior year. From 1935 to 1936, he attended Scott High School, a public school in Toledo. Transferring from school to school had taken its toll on Bill, and as a result, his school years were spent in isolation, especially during his time at Scott High School where he did not participate in any sports, clubs, activities, nor have his senior picture taken. He went through the motions his senior year doing just enough to graduate; however, he did take Aviation I & II, a specialized program at Scott High School that would benefit him while serving in the U.S. Army in the years ahead.
After graduating from Scott High School in 1936, Bill’s travels took him to the state of Florida where he eventually settled down in the town of Marianna. While living in Marianna, he taught navigation with the U.S. Army and later began sculpting with ceramics after relocating to Sarasota, Florida. Before long, Bill’s creativity flourished and he became nationally known for his ceramics after being featured in the November 11, 1940 issue of Life, where a photo of Bill Tracy’s ceramic creation, “Jonah in the Whale,” was published in an article covering the Syracuse Ceramic Show at The Museum of Fine Arts in Syracuse, New York, where his piece was on display. His unique sculpture featured a whale with a portion of its side removed to reveal a person trapped inside. Not long after his ceramic success, Bill met his wife, Irene, and married her during his time in Sarasota. In 1948, Bill and Irene gave birth to their only child, a daughter they named Willow.
Breaking into the business
Bill Tracy started his professional career in 1952 when he began to serve the outdoor amusement industry as designer and builder of amusement displays. While serving as Art Director for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Sarasota, Florida between 1952 and 1954, Bill created spectacular floats, props, and costumes and became nationally known for his creative efforts after once again being featured in the July 1952 issue of Display World magazine where he described how he used newly-discovered Celastic, a lightweight, unbreakable, weatherproof, and inexpensive colloid treated fabric, to build circus props. Bill was so successful and well known for his use of Celastic that Ben Walters, Inc., a national distributor of the product, used his name in its ads in an effort to gain credibility. Being that Bill Tracy was a successful and nationally known figure in the industry during this time, he attended many social events celebrating his and other’s work such as the Art Association Holiday Party in Sarasota in 1953.
While working for Ringling Bros. in 1953, Macy’s department stores contracted Bill Tracy to design and build window displays and floats for use in their famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. In 1955, Macy’s signed a unique five-year contract with Bill Tracy that would pay him $10,000 a year for his services and would allow him to contract work outside of what was required by Macy’s. The net profit from this outside work was split equally between Bill Tracy and Macy’s at the end of the year. Some of this outside work included building props for Holiday on Ice, a traveling ice capades type production. He also created a whale, castle, gingerbread house, and Noah’s Ark for the Playland children’s park, located in Rye, New York. Due to liability issues associated with Bill Tracy’s non-Macy’s related projects, his contract with Macy’s was rewritten so they would not be held liable for any issues associated with his outside projects. The revised contract paid Bill $7,500 a year for his services, which was limited to only the floats and displays he created for Macy’s.
Bill Tracy’s creative designs, along with the sculpting skills of Bob Noedel, produced some of the most brilliant parade floats the industry had ever seen. The floats were so impressive that Macy’s was often able to sell them for significant profits after they were used in their parade. In 1955, Bill created a very interesting parade set using ultraviolet projectors for Bamberger’s Thanksgiving Eve Parade. The city turned off street lights to create special effects associated with alternating incandescent and ultraviolet lights. The beginning of Bill Tracy’s dark ride business dates back to Bamberger’s Parade and the new contract with Macy’s. From this point forward, Bill was in business as Tracy Parade and Display Company.
During the winter of 1960, Bill completed a set of five parade floats for Mills Bros. Circus under the name Tracy Displays, Inc., which was located in Union, New Jersey. The vehicles that he built were similar to the 4 x 8 units that he produced the previous year for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. They were drawn by ponies, but were constructed without the motorized animation like the Beatty Circus floats. According to Bill Tracy, this approach made them more durable over the long run. Some of the designs depicted Hansel & Gretel, Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship, and Cinderella’s Carriage. Mills Bros. also ordered numerous clown props during this time.
Bill Tracy signed a large contract in the spring of 1960 as he was retained as the designer of a $1,000,000 theme park in the Catskill resort region. This multi-theme park, located in Liberty, New York, incorporated four separate themes. During the spring of 1960, Bill Tracy also completed many various projects such as a set of 20 ornate storybook units for Olympic Park in Rochester, New York, which were used for inside displays. Great Danbar Fair in Connecticut purchased a new unit for the main entrance, a large clown riding an animated bicycle that was finished in bright colors. Beatty Circus ordered an oriental-style float adding to their already impressive collection of Bill Tracy floats, as well as a plethora of clown costumes and gags. Ringling Bros. hired Bill Tracy to design an amusement area for their winter quarters in Venice, Florida and Santa’s Workshop, located in North Pole, New York, took delivery of 20 animated and beautifully-decorated Christmas story units to be displayed at the park entrance.
During the time that Bill was working for companies such as Macy’s and Ringling Bros., a transition took place that changed his focus and the amusement park industry forever. At some point along his professional journey, Bill Tracy’s inner “dark side” took over and he went from creating happy, appealing, conservative, and eye-catching window displays, parade floats, and circus props, to the most horrific, disturbing, provocative, and controversial dark ride displays the amusement park industry has ever seen.
Bill Tracy began his journey in the dark ride industry by being contracted as a freelance artist for already-established dark ride manufacturers, such as the famous Pretzel Amusement Ride Co. Early on, Bill developed the façade and some stunts for Pretzel-built rides, such as the Orient Express at Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, before deciding to venture out on his own. After contracting work with Pretzel and learning about the dark ride industry, Bill decided to take control of the “dark side” of the amusement park industry by starting his own company designing and building dark rides. Now that he was a direct competitor to Pretzel, the company that used to hire him, he knew that he had to offer something new and exciting that the industry had never seen before and push the creativity and realism of dark rides to a new level.
During his time working for Pretzel, he was also exposed to other freelance artists, such as Howard Hewlitt, and was immediately inspired. It is rumored that Howard Hewlitt is the artist who originally designed the Haunted House façade, which Bill often used and made famous. The Haunted House façade usually incorporated a roofline with multiple uneven peaks, crooked chimneys, uneven clapboard, crooked windows with shutters, and usually an enormous vampire bat. Whether or not Bill used Howard’s idea, or perfected it, is of no significance. Every artist is influenced in some way or another by other artists and they use each others ideas as foundations to build off of. Bill Tracy had found his niche and the final phase of his illustrious professional career was now underway.
Bill Tracy’s earliest known project was Jungleland at Hunt’s Pier in Wildwood, New Jersey. This jungle-themed water ride opened for the 1959 season and was a joint venture with Allen Hawes and Jamie Sanford. One of his next projects was the Golden Nugget Mine Ride, also at Hunt’s Pier in Wildwood, New Jersey. This rollercoaster-style dark ride opened for the 1960 season and was a joint venture with the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Bill’s first dark ride company, Outdoor Dimensional Display Co., Inc., was formed around this time and was an independent company that used the same techniques, fluorescent paint and ultraviolet lighting that he used for Bamberger’s Parade. In the April 11, 1960 issue of The Billboard, an ad for O.D.D. appeared for the first time which promoted circus-related outdoor displays, but also noted that they built custom rides and ride fronts for amusement parks. Needless to say, Bill Tracy did it all at this point. At Olympic Park, located in Irvington, New Jersey, he even created fish bodies for the old airplane swing, which was appropriately renamed “Flying Fish”.
O.D.D. was a new company and Bill Tracy needed all the help he could get in promoting and marketing the services that he provided. In 1960, Bill hired Richard D. McFadden, a manufacturer’s agent and park design consultant, to represent O.D.D. in an effort to generate more business. McFadden was previously associated with the Allan Herschell Company for a few years as a salesman. After his resignation from that company, he started his own business in the state of New York. In the April 11, 1960 issue of The Billboard, an ad for McFadden’s new business appeared listing O.D.D. as one of the manufacturers that he represented. In the early 1960s, Bill was doing all that he could to ensure that his business would be a successful one.
In 1961, Bill continued with advertising campaigns and went to NAAPPB (National Association of Amusement Parks, Pools, and Beaches) conventions trying to promote his new company. Smaller projects, such as Jack and the Bean Stalk within the Garden of Fables section at Fantasy Island in Grand Island, New York, as well as some of Bill’s most famous rides, such as Whacky Shack at Joyland Amusement Park in Wichita, Kansas and The Haunted House at Trimper’s Amusements in Ocean City, Maryland, were contracted after meetings that took place at these conventions between the park owner and Bill. The final contracts were often signed at Bill’s office. In the early 1960s Bill Tracy was being recognized as a significant contributor to the amusement park industry. Outdoor Dimensional Display Co., Inc. was honored with the Fred W. Pearce Sweepstakes Trophy at the NAAPPB convention in 1961 and 1962. The NAAPPB is known today as the IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions).
In 1962 O.D.D. released its first official catalog. This sixteen page catalog entitled We Work in the Dark included many stunts with descriptions and several completed projects showcasing the façades. Manfred Bass, one of the first sculptors that Bill hired, recalled that the title of this catalog was a reference to the motto of his fluorescent workshop. The Tracy gang actually did “work in the dark” when painting stunts and props so that the final product was seen in the proper environment, under ultraviolet lights. This catalog also included a full price list. In 1962 an average stunt cost $1,500 and a complete two-story package dark ride cost approximately $40,000 in addition to the cost of the building structure itself. On average, a dark attraction took only a few months to build.
During this time, Bill’s new company was taking off and signed project proposals started piling up on his desk from parks all up and down the East Coast. His company and workshop were based in North Bergen, New Jersey, which is directly across the river from New York City. Bill ran the business, worked in the shop, and spent a lot of time at the various amusement parks supervising and participating in the installations, along with developing strong business relationships with the park owners. Sometimes he would be on-site for a week or two at one park and then travel to another installation. Bill’s company not only designed new dark rides, walk-thru funhouses, and kiddie dark rides, but also made famous the practice of re-theming already existing dark rides. For example, he would take an old Pretzel-built ride, like Devil’s Cave at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and re-theme it into Pirates Cove. Or he would convert an old mill chute ride, like the Mill Chute at Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio, and re-theme it into Lost River. Re-theming was popular because it maximized the profit potential of a new ride. Even though it was considered a new ride, the infrastructure of the previous ride was retained, therefore, minimizing the overall investment. Bill would also re-theme his own rides from time to time and was very efficient and creative at converting non-profitable spaces such as ballrooms, skating rinks, and basement storage facilities into profitable attractions. In essence, he could turn something into nothing and as a result gained the reputation as “The Wizard of Worst Case Scenarios”. When he designed a new dark ride, it would consist of an elaborate façade, interior stunts and props, and a ride system to carry riders through the alternate world that he created.
Inside the rides
Bill believed that the façade of a dark ride was equally as important as what was inside it. The façade was the marketing and advertisement for the ride and hopefully lured a person to use some of their precious ride tickets on that particular attraction. This design strategy was definitely apparent as no other dark ride designer of the era developed such decorative and complex façades as Bill. The interior stunts of this era, the early to middle 1960s, were more complex mechanically than in later years. During this time, most of the stunts were triggered “events”, such as a female victim being cut in half by a large circular saw. These stunts had complex mechanical systems to achieve the animation, Amuse-pak sound cartridge repeaters to create the sounds, and timed lighting to bring the stunts out from the darkness.
All of these mechanical systems had to be custom fabricated for each stunt and also had to be discreet as to not take away from the ingenious artistry of the stunt itself. Bill was often criticized for being a substandard engineer, but in reality, the engineering of his stunts was quite good. The stunts worked well, just not as long as park owners would have hoped. Most of his stunts lasted only a few months and then had to be rebuilt. The flaw was not necessarily in the mechanics of making the motion needed to bring the stunt to life, but in the durability of the materials, pumps, and motors used. These stunts were also put through very rigorous use as they had to operate hundreds, if not thousands, of times per day. Maintenance was often not kept up properly by park workers and vandals were constantly damaging stunts that inevitably affected the way they would operate.
The stunts Bill Tracy created in his early years were often very brutal and sexual in nature. He pushed the limits of what would be acceptable at a family-oriented amusement park. Bill often portrayed women in compromising situations and became known for including every detail of the woman’s body in his designs. He would often animate a woman’s chest to show that she was breathing heavily because of the terrifying situation she was in. He also never held back with representations of gore and worked with the philosophy that the only way to truly convey the emotions of his characters was to exaggerate the facial expressions. Nothing could be subtle as the rider may only have a few seconds to view a stunt before the lights would go off and they would be taken off to the next stunt.
For the ride system Bill would either use his own ride system or partner with a manufacturer such as the Allan Herschell Company. The Allan Herschell Company provided the ride system for The Haunted House at West View Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Regardless of what ride system was used, “bang doors” were always an essential part of Bill’s dark rides. The car banging through the double doors made a loud sound that startled the rider and added to the overall sound effects of the ride.
He continued advertising campaigns promoting his company, O.D.D., in publications such as Amusement Business through 1963. Some of his advertisements were very creative and included Bill dressed up in costume as a character in one of his own stunts. This gives some insight into the type of person that Bill was and shows that he probably had quite a sense of humor. Bill Tracy, by all accounts, had an outgoing and flamboyant personality.
By the end of 1963, Bill failed to keep up with taxes, which caused his business to unravel. At this time Bill was still under contract with Macy’s to build parade floats. One night, because of his unpaid taxes, the government took action and locked up his workshop in North Bergen. The next morning when his employees showed up for work they were not able to enter the workshop. Bill was instructed by Macy’s to remove everything from the workshop and Macy’s helped him find another warehouse to store their floats. This event signaled the end of Bill Tracy’s relationship with Macy’s.
With O.D.D. in financial trouble and without a place to operate his business, Bill Tracy had to find a way to continue his career in the dark ride industry. In 1964 Bill Tracy developed a business relationship with Universal Design Limited, a company based in Wildwood, New Jersey that was known for their monorails and sky towers. UDL saw a business opportunity with Bill so they created a Dark Ride & Display Division. Bill was the head of this division and was able to design and install dark rides under their name. He was able to use their resources and their facility, which was located at the County Airport in Wildwood.
Hour 13, a two-story dark ride that was once a star attraction at Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City, Florida, opened in late March of 1965 and was one of the dark rides that Bill Tracy built under UDL. The new concrete block building for Hour 13 was 60 feet by 100 feet in dimension and included 534 feet of track. Hour 13 featured an enormous winged dragon on the façade and an interior stunt entitled “Alone Again: Old Mother Hubbard.” This stunt featured a ghastly woman sitting at the dinner table while nodding her head at the remains of her devoured pet.
Ghost Ship, another two-story dark ride that Bill Tracy built under UDL, opened on June 18, 1965 and was one of the original attractions at Ocean Playland in Ocean City, Maryland. UDL also installed a hi-rider and monorail at Ocean Playland for the amusement park’s inaugural season. The façade of Ghost Ship featured a large spider octopus with a skull head in front of a doomed pirate ship, which the ride cars passed on the second level exterior balcony. The interior had a nautical theme and featured stunts such as Head Slinger and Sea Sick Pirate. Head Slinger depicted a disoriented man standing in a doorway at the top of some stairs and then, with a loud scream, his head would appear to detach and fly toward the rider. Sea Sick Pirate showed the backside of a nauseous pirate leaning over the railing of a slowly rocking ship. Ocean Playland, including Ghost Ship, unfortunately closed in 1981. After Ocean Playland closed in 1981 Granville Trimper bought the remnants of Ghost Ship to be used on his own property. Much of Ghost Ship, including parts of the façade, the ride system, and most importantly, Bill Tracy’s nautical stunts, were then used in 1988 when The Haunted House at Trimper’s Amusements, also in Ocean City, Maryland, was converted to a two-story dark ride. Bill continued to do business under UDL until 1967.
In 1966, while still working under UDL, Bill Tracy started a new company that he named Amusement Display Associates, Inc. This company was backed by the famous display company Messmore & Damon, designers and builders of full-sized mechanical animals, dinosaurs, and monsters. M&D originally created scale dioramas, department store displays, and effects for stage productions and motion pictures in the 1920s and 1930s. It was probably during window display installations when Bill Tracy and M&D initially developed their business relationship. Bill identified the need to partner with a larger company, which expanded his resources and helped finance his growing needs. Amusement Displays was a division of M&D, as stated on the cover of Bill’s 1967 catalog, commonly referred to as the “spiral catalog.” This eighteen page catalog included many stunts with descriptions, a few completed projects showing the façades, general information about his dark rides, detailed information on the “Hush-Puppy” dark ride system, and an amusement park client list from 1962-1967, but no price list.
The “Hush-Puppy” car had a fiberglass body, tubular steel chassis, versatile wheel assembly, and operated on a 24V iron track that was transformed within the car to 110V. The “Hush-Puppy” was distributed and installed exclusively through Amusement Displays. However, Amusement Displays did not actually manufacture the “Hush-Puppy.” Amusement Displays sub-contracted this work to KD Enterprises, located in Sunnyvale, California and owned by Kenneth G. Boyle. In the “spiral catalog” Bill actually scratched out the real manufacturer’s name on the “Hush-Puppy” photo. This could have been done for various reasons, which will probably never be known. It is assumed that the term “Hush-Puppy” referred to the quiet operation of this ride system. The “Hush-Puppy” was the most versatile dark ride system to date and was able to negotiate tight turns, rollercoaster-like dips, wave rooms, tilted rooms, and steep grades through one of Bill Tracy’s mine shafts containing a breaking beam stunt.
Amusement Displays was based in Cape May Court House, New Jersey and is where Bill operated the company with his workshop and warehouse. Amusement Displays also had another address in Wildwood, New Jersey. The exact number of employees working at Amusement Displays is unknown, but with the number of projects being worked on simultaneously at amusement parks all over the country, it was obviously a much larger production than just Bill and a few helpers. The coordination and logistics of contracting work locally was difficult enough, let alone when there were multiple projects being coordinated in various states all across the USA, Canada, and Mexico at the same time.
Bill Tracy’s company contained an office staff, stunt and prop fabricators, set artists, carpenters, mechanics, electricians, installers, laborers, and truck drivers. Bill himself spent much of his time traveling and many of his employees rarely interacted with the master himself. The props and figures used in the stunts were either made from molds or from scratch. Some of the materials used to produce the props and figures were Celastic, fiberglass, and washable marine plastic, all of which were moisture retardant and flame resistant. The inner skeleton of the figures consisted of wood, metal, and chicken wire. Some of the props and stunts were mass-produced and others were custom built for a particular ride and never recreated. These props and stunts were usually fabricated at the workshop and shipped to the project site, but sometimes items were fabricated on-site as needed. Bill definitely had his own personal list of favorite props and figures that he liked to use regularly. Some of his favorites included bats, buzzards, rats, spiders, drunken skeleton pirates, and provocatively dressed women. Bill was also creative in using existing materials from the local area to add to the realism of a scene. For instance, he has been known to use old wood from an abandoned building for a project, instead of trying to weather a new piece to make it look old.
Unknown to many, Bill Tracy may have been inspired by major motion pictures of the era when designing concepts for his stunts. Bill Tracy’s Knit Wit, for example, bares an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, which premiered in 1960. The Knit Wit is a little old lady knitting quietly, only to swing around holding a large spider in its web when triggered. The concept of the Knit Wit and its physical appearance is nearly identical, but it is unknown whether this was coincidence or on purpose.
Bill Tracy, while working as Amusement Displays, completed one of his most famous dark rides, Ghost Ship at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1967. Ghost Ship featured a large spider crab with a skull head that rocked back and forth in front of a wrecked pirate ship. The old Traver Engineering Co. ride cars from Kennywood’s defunct Laff in the Dark carried riders through a nautical themed world of skeletons and pirates. The concept for this façade was the same as the one used two years earlier in 1965 on Ghost Ship at Ocean Playland in Ocean City, Maryland. This is an example of how Bill used one of his standard facades and applied his concept to two entirely different scenarios. Ocean Playland’s Ghost Ship was built in a new structure at a new park and was a two-story dark ride, while Kennywood’s Ghost Ship was installed in an existing building at a well established park and was a one-story dark ride. The only thing in common with these two attractions was the name, even the stunts were different. Kennywood’s Ghost Ship was unfortunately lost to fire in 1975. Many of Bill Tracy’s attractions suffered this fate, as many were installed in old wooden buildings without modern day sprinkler systems. The combination of dry wood, grease, electricity and lack of fire suppression was a recipe for disaster.
When a park owner was in the market for a new dark attraction, Bill’s name would be the first on the list of potential contractors to build the new ride. This was a referral and repeat customer based business in Bill’s mind. He was the face of the company and knew he had to spend time at each park with the park’s owners to earn their loyalty and trust. On the financial side of things Bill knew how to protect himself to ensure he received payment. His contracts were sometimes written with a stipulation that he would get paid one half of the total contract before he would deliver the project to the park and then collect the other half upon completion or create a payment schedule. Many times Bill would collect the second half when he showed up at the park before he started the installation. He liked to show that he had control on some occasions. If the park owner didn’t pay up front when he arrived for the installation he would threaten to leave the jobsite until they did. Bill was also known to show park owners props from a similar ride for another park when they visited his workshop to check on the progress of their particular ride. If he was behind schedule on their project he would show them “false progress” to keep them at ease. Bill often completed projects behind schedule, but deep down, the park owners knew that he was worth the wait as his attractions always proved to be lucrative. Bill usually offered a service contract on his finished projects to promote future repeat business as well, which made up for his good work at a very low profit margin. By just getting the contract he set himself up for repeat business at that particular park. All of these business relationships he developed with park owners guaranteed him future income.
Bill’s only viable competitor at this time was Pretzel Amusement Ride Co., who he previously worked for. He would bid against them from time to time, most notably when Bill and Pretzel were bidding on the new ride at Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania. Bill won the contract and the ride became the Whacky Shack, which still stands today. Bill did a great job of building his ride façades to match his original concept drawings previously shown to the park owners before construction began. The park owners always received what they expected from the original concept drawing and there were rarely any disappointments.
In the late 1960s Bill Tracy’s attractions focused more on optical illusions, mechanically simpler stunts that required less maintenance, and psychedelic looking façades. Bill was very good at using forced perspective, a technique that uses optical illusion to make an object appear larger, smaller, closer, or farther than it is in reality. In his dark rides he used revolving barrels, diminishing squares, ultraviolet lights, strobe lights, and mirrors to create special effects that caused disorientation for the rider. Bill was known for putting stunts, props, and optical illusions in an illogical sequence that kept the rider confused adding to the overall experience for those who rode one of his dark rides. The mechanically complex stunts, such as Old Mill, Torture Chamber, and Head Slinger of the early to middle 1960s were no longer incorporated into his projects.
In the early 1970s, while even further simplifying his projects, Bill completed two of his most famous walk-thru attractions. Pirate’s Cove at Trimper’s Amusements in Ocean City, Maryland opened in 1971, and Pirate’s Cove at Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania opened a year later in 1972. Both of these walk-thru attractions are still in operation today and are Bill Tracy’s adaptation of the traditional funhouse. These two attractions are almost identical and require very little maintenance, as there is no ride system. The façade of both of these attractions portray Captain Hook holding a sword while guarding his precious treasure chest. Although Bill Tracy designed the Captain Hook figures, the fabrication of these enormous figures had to be sub-contracted, as they were well beyond what he could handle at his workshop. The interiors of these walk-thru attractions were very similar to that of his dark rides of the same era containing diminishing hallways, narrow irregular corridors, revolving mirror balls, and tilted rooms. The interiors also showcase classic Bill Tracy pirates, sharks, and skeletons, which can be viewed at length unlike his dark rides.
Bill Tracy’s imagination and creativity was second to none when it came to his ride fronts and they became very vibrant and reflective of the times. On his later Whacky Shack façades Bill used rotating eyes, flower illusions, and scrolling windows to add to the whimsical nature of the exterior. They had a Dr. Seuss meets Scooby-Doo look to them and they rarely made sense visually, although, somehow it all worked together. He also built a rollercoaster-like dip on the second floor balcony, which overlooked the loading area and was visible from the park’s midway.
On one of Bill Tracy’s most famous façades, Le Cachot at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he used his standard Kooky Castle façade featuring a medieval castle, but also incorporated skeletons wearing armor riding choppers complete with spinning psychedelic wheels. A skeleton playing a guitar and a vampiress also adorned the façade. Le Cachot opened in 1972 and is French for “The Dungeon”, which was probably a phrase that Bill learned while taking French his senior year at Scott High School. Common to the era, Bill was known to have been a drinker and a cigarette smoker which may have helped to stimulate his creative mind when developing and constructing his off-the-wall concepts.
Bill also seemed to have a rebellious side to his personality. He would often fabricate one of his props for a particular project to show an obscene hand gesture. The “fickle finger” was present in many of his attractions. Some parks caught on to this practice and warned Bill not to use this offensive gesture on their ride. Bill, however, usually found a way to work it in, even if it was subtle. A very well known display of the “fickle finger” was on Le Cachot. The façade, in addition to the skeletons riding choppers, contained a skeleton behind prison bars displaying a double “fickle finger”. Bill’s exact purpose for this and to who it was directed is unknown, but perhaps it was his way of getting the last word in an unpleasant dispute with the park owner, or it may have been just one of Bill’s practical jokes. No matter what the reason, his rebellious but humorous personality was evident.
Bill produced fewer rides in the early 1970s and had some financially disappointing years. His last known project was Whacky Shack at Joyland Amusement Park in Wichita, Kansas, which opened in 1974. Bill Tracy, also known as the “Chill Man” of America, died on August 22, 1974, at the age of 58. He last lived at 543-A Wilson Drive, located in Cape May, New Jersey and died in Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital, located in Cape May Court House, New Jersey. Bill died of complications associated with heart disease and funeral arrangements were made by the John C. Sudak Funeral Home of Cape May. No funeral service or viewing was held as Bill Tracy was cremated. His family requested that expressions of sympathy be donated to the Lower Township Rescue Squad in his memory. “W Tracy,” as he signed his name, had contracted his final dark attraction.
After Bill Tracy died, his company carried on as This Is, Inc. In their 1975 catalog, Bill Tracy is listed as the founding president, Jack Seddon the president, and Tom Thaler the vice president. Seddon and Thaler carried on Bill’s work by using a lot of the same molds, designs, and fabrication techniques that he originally used, and also offered themed golf courses. This Is, Inc. was still based in Cape May Court House, New Jersey, where Amusement Displays formerly operated. In 1976, an advertisement for This Is, Inc. also listed Doug Heun and Jim Tracey as part of the company and showed a picture of a newly-installed Whacky Shack at Pontchartrain Beach in New Orleans, Louisiana. This “new” Whacky Shack looked exactly like the attractions that Bill had built previously. In 1977, Jim Melonic took over Bill’s old company and renamed it Fantasies and Dreams. Jim Melonic is still running the company, J.M.M. Studios, today.
During his approximately fifteen years in the dark ride industry, Bill Tracy worked on approximately eighty known projects. He undoubtedly worked on many more that have been lost in time. Obviously, Bill did a tremendous amount of work along the East Coast around New Jersey, but it was at Dorney Park where he worked on the most projects. He even constructed their park entrance, the coaster clown Alfundo. There were, however, many parks that had a few of his attractions. These parks felt that one Bill Tracy-built attraction just wasn’t enough. Bill used the ride names Haunted House, Whacky Shack, and Jungleland more than any others. He built many Jungleland rides, which one can assume showed a probable interest in wildlife. His years working for various circus shows contributed to the tremendous amount of detail and realism that went into the accuracy of each animal. Through the years, most of his rides have been demolished for one reason or another. Many of the parks where he installed rides were closed down many years ago, as they were usually the smaller, family-operated parks. Some of the rides that have survived have been altered over the years for a variety of reasons and many of his stunts that were acceptable in the “free-spirited” 1960s and 1970s have been modified because they were considered politically incorrect or offensive by today’s standards. These controversial displays were created almost fifty years ago and changed the dark ride industry forever.
Bill was truly an eccentric, gifted artist and an innovator that was ahead of his time in an industry that needed revitalization. His ingenious artistry and brilliant designs will never be forgotten or created again, and hopefully, through the nine attractions that are still in operation, he will entertain amusement park patrons for years to come. Bill Tracy’s legacy, more than anything, should be that he brought happiness, excitement, fear, and horror to millions of people, and still is, more than 40 years after his death.
All content courtesy of billtracyproject.com. Copyright Brandon Seidl and Wayne Bahur.