One of the nicest rides with the most “Flash” to grace the Palace was the “Orient Express” Dark Ride -- built and installed in 1960. This Asian-themed beauty was a popular favorite and was in many ways a hold-over from when the naive western world held great fascination for the mysteries of the Orient. This Pretzel designed Dark Ride was located in the newer section of the palace, and replaced an earlier Caterpillar type of ride.
When researching this particular Dark Ride, I had a silent question – was this ride inspired by the legendary pretzel of the same name that once graced the Pier in Atlantic City. However, upon further review, we soon learned that the Lange family had very possibly, seen the ride of the same name (Orient Express) that Pretzel had built in Atlantic City, with its wonderful facade design and artwork by the late, great Bill Tracey. This version’s façade featured a huge Fire Breathing Dragon that billowed real smoke ! Pretzel haded furnish six cars as well as the track and ride operation’s system, while the Palace would do both the artwork and installation themselves.
The very well known Pretzel Company truck would make yet another delivery of some 1200 rides that they sold over the years. This type of Pretzel ride was very new, having been first designed and marketed in the late 1950’s, with a slew of park models being sold to many New Jersey pier-based parks. Some of the more common names for Pretzel to use were: “The Monster” as well as “The Lost Mine”. The Palace got this new sure-fire Thriller, and while a similar classic Pretzel rolled out of Bridgeton New Jersey bound for the Jersey shore. The Lopez Family would do the artwork as well as stunts, with Ralph Jr. returning from the war just in time to help his father create this wonderful ride. At the request of the Lange’s, a woodworker was enlisted to do all the custom wood work and fencing that graced this ride. Each piece being carefully crafted individually. While the ride copied the theme of the sister ride located in Atlantic City, it greatly surpassed the other in terms of overall style and attention to detail.
Let’s take a ride… From the loading station, the car would turn left and enter through a set of doors to a room that had flames painted on the walls, and was made to look like an inferno was happening! This was a great trick that the Lopez Team used that was copied by many a great Dark Ride artists well after the Lopez first used this great “gag”. Ralph explained that they used a “UV, Alcohol Based paint” made in Phil. PA by a company called “Strobe Light”. They used a “Radio-Red” paint with a very basic Black color paint, and stripped the walls with it. They would use a Black Light, in conjunction with a strobe light, then would very quickly turn the Black Light off, and use then a red colored light along with the strobe. Everything would then light up very differently, and...... to the naked eye, it would create a very real “pulsating wall” effect that was vastly used by other Great Dark Ride designers such as Bill Tracey and Jim Melonic. Simple, yet very effective!
Next, the car traveled around the corner of the balcony and went back inside of the ride, facing the “Electric Gallery”, to the “Hunter Shooting a Tiger”, a masterful stunt created by Lopez Sr. The car then went on a downhill left hill. At the bottom, the car then proceeded through a set of doors to “Giant Head” with glowing eyes (This prop used to be with the Tiger, then spun off on its own once the Hunter was added!). Cars then turned left to “Executioner chopping off a person’s head” stunt, something that was again done by Lopez Sr., (and strangely enough, one of the few props that is lost to history as to where it ended up) Car then turned right to “Skull with Flashing Eyes” (again, a popular stunt that was used by both Bill Tracey as well as Jim Melonic) as another alarm bell sounded. Cars then turned left to a black-lit “Monster Face” painted with Day-Glow paint on the back of the first set of exit doors. This would light up just as the cars were about to go through the doors. The cars would go through this, and another second set of doors a popular feature among Pretzels, using 2 sets of doors to make the rides very dark inside, Vr.s one by other manufactures) to the end. Ride time was about 1 min. and 50 seconds, with a team of 6 Pretzel Cars running.
A very real puzzle has developed though in trying to remember the “Orient Express”. While I remember the ride as being very good, I have also noticed that I was never excited by this ride as much as I was by both of the other two dark rides that were in Asbury (Haunted Castle and Mad-O-Rama). Strangely enough, when doing research for this article, almost everyone else I talked to also felt that they didn’t relay care for this ride that much either. That made zero sense, as, at least on paper, the ride looked very good, and had a nice presentation. But being so close to the Wonderful haunted Castle, which. I and many others consider one of the Greatest Dark Rides of all time, the Express would pale. I think one thing that I later learned though about this ride was that, while, again, it looked way cool, the park underestimated the huge size of the ride, installing it themselves, and, henceforth was the problem: There was simply no interior room to add too many stunts, and while the dip on the speed hill was great for one or two rides, it became boring after a few more, and this ride lacked the space to have a good deal of stunts operating, due to the space restainghts. But, no matter what other Dark Ride that may have replaced the express, anything would have paled in comparison to the Haunted Castle. A few fun facts about this ride: There were 2 “Buda Heads” that sat inside this ride, one that was huge and graced the center of the Speed-Dip, and another smaller one that sat, somewhere inside the ride. Besides the Orient Express, the palace also bought a Pretzel “Whirlo” kiddy ride that was also located in this part of the building, but sold it after a few short seasons as they thought that the ride was “boring”.
This kiddy ride from Pretzel, never less, was the inspiration for a whole slew of new kiddy rides to grace a great many companies in the years to come. Besides the “Whirlo” ride, this section also had a wonderful “Bubble Bounce” ride for a few years as well. A shop area was hidden besides the express. While Lopez Senior did the props in this ride, Ralph Jr. helped as well, with the Buda Heads coming from a theatrical company located in New York City. A little known fact was that these two props had German “Swastika’s” painted on them, of course, not a fun fact, and of course, painted over by the park. The Orient was sold in it's entirty to one collector -- except for a few ride props, and is still in New Jersey, in a storage trailer, awaiting a new home. The two Bud heads are also in Jersey, as ell as the Snakes. I wish to thank Brian Maher for his help and insight on the Orient Express layout.