Fact or fiction? You decide...
Written and Designed by Brandon Seidl
Contemplated by You

In most dark rides across the country, particularly those located in amusement parks with deep pocketbooks, there is incredible effort put forth in making effects look not only frightening, but real. Modern-day companies like the The Scare Factory and Distortions Unlimited pride themselves on conceptualizing, designing, molding, and painting products to resemble reality, and it has certainly changed the dark ride industry in recent years as it offers patrons more realistic glimpses into their biggest nightmares. Any dark ride enthusiast can attest that every now and then they’ll come across a dark ride stunt that looks almost too real, but history will show that what might look a little too real may, in fact, be real.
Back in the mid-1960s when Disney’s Imagineers were designing and constructing Pirates of the Caribbean, a flagship themed dark ride attraction in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, they were attempting to replicate real skeletons using plastic and other artificial means. According to Jason Surrell’s 2006 book Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, after many attempts, they were unable to produce a synthetic skeleton to Walt Disney’s liking. Faced with mounting pressure and a fast-approaching deadline, it is rumored that the Imagineers purchased real skeletons from the UCLA Medical Center and used them in various displays in the ride for a brief time when it opened in 1967 before eventually being replaced with faux counterparts, at which time the real skeletons were returned to their home country for a proper burial. If the rumor is in fact true, it may shed some light onto some creative cost-cutting measures by amusement parks and dark ride designers, as well as savvy ways of making effects look true to real life. Documentation shows that years ago it was cheaper to purchase a real skeleton rather than recreating one by artificial means, particularly during the 1960s when technology and resources didn’t yet exist to manufacture precise replicas.
Above: Stunt at Pirates of the Caribbean at Walt Disney World. Source: Hyku's Flickr Photostream.
Bill Tracy, the legendary dark ride designer from the 1960s who designed and constructed Trimper’s Haunted House in Ocean City, MD, as well as nearly 80 other projects around the country, was a pioneer in the amusement industry and followed Walt Disney’s work very closely during the construction phase of the Magic Kingdom. In a recent interview with Manfred Bass, a sculptor and artist that worked for Bill Tracy back in the early 1960s, Bass stated that Tracy constantly paid attention to how Disney would design his rides and execute certain effects. In fact, one of Tracy’s first ride concepts of the early 1960s, Jungle Land, is said to have been inspired by Disney’s Jungle Cruise, which opened in Disneyland in 1955. Being that Tracy followed closely in Walt Disney’s footsteps, it is rumored that he possibly got wind of Disney’s use of real skeletons and used the same technique to save money in his own business during a time when shipping costs were eating the majority of Tracy’s profits, especially for the oversized dioramas he was building for such stunts as the Knit Wit, Wine Cellar, and Last Drop.
The Discovery

In the winter of 2011, several stunts from Bill Tracy’s defunct 1973 Phantasmagoria dark ride in Tulsa, OK, were put up for sale and were purchased by the Trimper family to be incorporated into their award-winning Haunted House on the boardwalk. The effects were shipped to Ocean City, MD and in February of 2012 I assisted with their installation in the ride over a long, cold weekend.
During the installation, a small bone that was part of Tracy’s Buzzard stunt from Phantasmagoria had been accidentally broken and revealed what appeared to be bone marrow inside. I examined the bone closer and all signs pointed to the bone being real, but due to a time crunch it was soon forgotten about and the project continued despite the macabre discovery.
Is the bone from the Buzzard real? It's hard to tell for sure. It was about 8 inches long, so rather small.
When the dust settled and spring came around, I closely examined several other stunts in Trimper’s Haunted House as my speculation grew that real bones were used elsewhere in the ride, particularly in the Birthday Party display and Swamp Ghost stunt hovering in the Graveyard. Although many observations were made and my curiosity ran wild, no solid evidence has ever been discovered proving that Tracy used real human bones in his stunts, but on the same note, no evidence has been discovered to the contrary. The skulls used in Trimper's Haunted House elsewhere are rather symmetrical and appear to be man-made and while any potential use of real bones is all speculation, it's still fascinating to think about.
Left: Tracy's Swamp Ghost in the Graveyard of Trimper's Haunted House. A very realistic skull was used in this stunt, but is it real?
Right: One of the pirate clown members of Bill Tracy's Birthday Party stunt grasps a skull in his left hand. Is it real?
There is a nine-year span between the opening of Trimper’s Haunted House in 1964 and the opening of Phantasmagoria in 1973, although both attractions feature stunts that potentially contain real human bones.

Tracy's Ghost Pilot stunt, located in Trimper's Pirates Cove (left) also includes a skull in one of the light fixtures. Did Tracy possibly have a habit of using real bones in his stunts during the entire span of his dark ride career, even after his peers in the industry had stopped?
Was the bone discovered in Tracy's Phantasmagoria stunt in fact human, from an animal, or simply altogether artificial? And, do other stunts in the attraction contain human bones? What about Tracy's other attractions around the country? It’s hard to tell for sure, but the next time you’re coffin carriage treks up a crooked corridor in Trimper’s Haunted House as the sounds of howling wind and falling barrels deafens you, you may want to take a second look at the skulls staring back at you in one of the nation's greatest dark ride masterpieces.

Special thanks to:
Jason R. for his insight and correspondence
Mike B. for his knowledge of Disney and use of the Pirates Cove photos

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