House of Arts

Sally Dark Rides is built and operated by art

One of Sally’s contributions to the children’s area of the Jacksonville Public Library’s Main Branch

An artist is defined by Merriam-Webster as “one who professes and practices an imaginative art.” YourDictionary adds that an artist produces a creative product. “There are few companies as art-driven as we are in Jacksonville,” says John Wood, founder and CEO of Sally Industries, now known as Sally Dark Rides. He backs this statement up by immediately listing all 40 employees’ artistic domains, working together like a symphony in their 40,000-square-foot downtown facility. Sally’s business is animatronics, or electronic puppets, but these rarely, if ever, look, move, and communicate as the robots they are. 

To be used in shows and indoor rides, animatronics must convincingly come to life as anything from animals to famous people to human-size toys. “We tell stories through 3-D experiences,” says Wood. In creating these kinetic stories, Sally’s LaVilla headquarters houses concept designers, sculpt and mold artists, scenic artists, and a finishing department that creates costumes, makeup, and hair, to “bring the robot into being,” as Wood puts it. They also employ programmers, electronic puppeteers, and mechanical engineers, who Wood classifies as artists as well, because “they are building a robot to move in a life-like manner, the results of which almost seem like magic.” 

Wood describes Sally’s animatronic arts as “an exotic business.” Today, Sally

Sally’s Atlantic Tails exhibit at MOSH

Dark Rides is an industry leader in refurbishing, designing, and building interactive animatronic rides for regional amusement parks and other similar locales worldwide. This is the company’s third life, however. Wood shares that when he and another Jacksonville native founded Sally in 1977, the focus was on individual robot characters, such as their first product — a talking tooth fairy sold to dental offices. They grew to creating animatronic shows for restaurants, libraries, and heritage centers, before adjusting yet again to a changing animatronic industry. This adaptability has kept Sally alive and thriving, and just so happens to be a universal trait of creative individuals [read: artists]. The focus has always been on entertainment value. Even in the dark rides, Wood’s perspective says it all: “It is a large show with a ride in the middle of it.” 

Wood points to three local projects that Sally is particularly proud of, and that

Sally’s Johnson Brothers production at the Ritz Theatre and Museum

illustrate their range as a business. Two of these projects were the first to be fabricated in their current location, which they moved into in the late 1990s. “The Atlantic Tails: Coastal Creatures of Northeast Florida” exhibit at the Museum of Science and History (MOSH) was their first large-scale production in the current building. Wood says the creation of the life-size right whale was a memorable undertaking — the whale had to be disassembled and then reassembled at the museum, a first for the company. Soon after, Sally created and orchestrated the Johnson brothers production at the Ritz Theatre and Museum. The City of Jacksonville provided funding for this, and it was then creative director Jan Sherman who conceptualized the narrative of these two historical figures, J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson, telling their stories of Jacksonville’s Black history, and the establishment of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Stanton School. The production involves a turntable and different scrims, or scenic foregrounds, with creative lighting that enhance the animatronic storytelling. 

When the Jacksonville Public Library was designing its new Main Library building, which opened in 2005, Sally was asked to create whimsical elements for the children’s area. They created an entryway that Wood describes as “like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” referring to the 1989 movie in which children are shrunk to the size of bugs. It is indeed an appropriate comparison, as the doorway to the children’s section is enveloped in oversize blades of grass with the sounds of outdoor life chirping and buzzing in the air. Sally also created custom furniture in the shape of animals that is seen throughout the area and a children’s show starring an animatronic owl that regularly delights visiting school groups. 

“We help artists survive,” Wood proudly says, and Sally has invited the public to tour their facility through the decades, an experience that Jacksonville locals and visitors alike have long described with childlike wonder. Due to COVID-19-related restrictions, the tours are suspended for the time being. But we can enjoy the colorful exterior, including the Art (Re)public mural by French graffiti artist Astro, a reflection of the commitment to the artistry housed inside. 

Sally Dark Rides, 745 West Forsyth St., 355-7100, sallydarkrides.com. 

Read MoreBy Meredith T. Matthews

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