Shedding light on history of Sally Dark Rides in Jacksonville

Company known for making animatronics worldwide shares why it’s rooted in the River City

Sally Dark Rides is a theme park maker many people in Jacksonville consider a hidden gem. Their creative team shared with us why being in the River City is so special.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If you’ve ever been to an amusement park like Six Flags or Kings Dominion, there’s a chance you’ve been on a ride made by Sally Dark Rides.

Many of the attractions they make are made right here in Jacksonville.

The company has a history in the River City.

What started in 1977 as a company that made mannequins in department stores and dentist offices quickly shifted to a theme park focus after the growing popularity of Chuck E Cheese in the 1980s.

CEO John Wood remembers that era well.

“We shifted our gears from being a manufacturing company into being an entertainment company. That has led us to a 45-year career in the theme park industry, building attractions around the world,” Wood said.

Named after a friend of one of the founders, Sally Dark Rides has more than 60 attractions in 23 countries.

So why Jacksonville? Wood said the answer is simple: this is home -- where he and the founders were born and raised.

“While there were opportunities and thought processes of, ‘Should we move to Orlando to be able to service the Disney and Universal group?’ The decision was no. We love Jacksonville and we love being a part of Jacksonville,” he said.

The people who work at the company said creative ideas are constantly brewing among staff.

“In the design department, we just really just get to ideate new rides, coming up with cool ideas for shows. Different illustrators, different artists here. We’re just big kids that will never grow up,” said creative director Rich Hill.

Lauren Weaver handles marketing at Sally Dark Rides. She said the timeline of making characters come to life depends on the project.

“From design to installation, a year, year and a half. Negotiations may be another few years prior to that. About a year to do these dark ride attractions,” Weaver said.

The company even makes interactive games to keep both parents and children engaged.

Wood said one of the keys to success is remaining anchored in the River City.

“Jacksonville has been more of a stable base. We’ve been able to rely on our banks, our institutions locally, and see the same people when we are at church or whenever you go out in public,” he said. “It’s our home. Why would we go anywhere else?”

Sally Dark Rides also has a few attractions that can be seen in Jacksonville.

They have a James Weldon Johnson exhibit at the Ritz museum and a sea mammal exhibit that’s been at MOSH for several years.

About the Author:

Amanda DeVoe joined the News4JAX team in March 2022 as a morning news and traffic anchor