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Hard Rock Park

Myrtle Beach, SC

By: Rick Davis

Behind the Scenes

Hard Rock Park
The story behind Nights in White Satin- the Trip really begins many years before the first Hard Rock Cafe existed. To see how the idea for a Hard Rock Park came to be, we need to learn a bit about the park's Chief Creative Officer, Jon Binkowski. While many people in the industry cite Walt Disney as their guiding light, Jon was influenced by George Millay, creator of SeaWorld and Wet 'n Wild.


Hard Rock ParkMost of Jon Binkowski's family had worked for SeaWorld in San Diego in the 60s and 70s so it's not surprising that Jon spent 15 years at the park, first as a "walrus", then as a "penguin", and finally retiring as the Corporate Head of Entertainment.
Jon then started Renaissance Entertainment, a company that produced shows, attractions, etc., for Disney, Universal, Six Flags and other big names in the industry, that is until the events of 9-11 shook the country. Most of the projects dried up and Jon found that his only asset was a little theater he owned in Myrtle Beach, SC. That little theater and the experience he had gained in rides, shows, operations, marketing and other aspects of parks from previous jobs eventually set him on the path to Hard Rock Park.
At the time, the developed property around Jon's theater was falling on hard times. Its main tenant (Waccamaw Factory Shops) filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Mr. Bishop, the driving force behind the development, had died, taking his vision for the Fantasy Harbor entertainment complex with him. Jon's Ice Castle was in trouble.
As the development's board of directors decided to sell the property to a "property player", Jon approached his fellow business neighbors with an idea to buy the property to develop it and increase their falling property values. That original $25 million idea soon expanded to a plan for a $400 million amusement park.
The bankers thought that the area was a great location and was in a great market, but that the park needed to be "branded" to be successful. The investors kicked around names like Paramount, Legoland, and MGM and in fact talked to "everyone" in the industry. They also realized that they were surrounded by "movie" parks and that they needed to find their own niche � That niche was music.
Since Hard Rock was already successful with its restaurants, hotels and casinos and Disney's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster was a hit, joining "Rock" and "amusement park" seemed a natural fit.
Hard Rock ParkThe investors' search for someone to lead the financing aspects for the park led them to Steven Goodwin. Goodwin worked for the Rank Group, Plc. which owned 50% of Universal, Florida. After working with Goodwin for about a year (the theme for the park still hadn't been decided at this point.) it came to the attention of Jon Binkowski that the Rank Group OWNED Hard Rock and Goodwin had been its head of development! The light went on over Jon's head. The conversation soon turned towards pursuing a licensing agreement with Hard Rock.
The next question was who would be the person to contact in the Hard Rock company. The answer Oliver Munday, Vice-President of Franchise Operations. Jon just about fell over, Munday was literally his next-door neighbor at his Florida home! With a bottle of wine and plans in hand, Jon knocked on his neighbor's door.
Since Steven Goodwin had ties to the Rank Group and knew its inner workings, a licensing agreement was completed in a very short two months, as opposed to the three YEARS required for an agreement with Led Zeppelin!

A Left-handed Park

Most amusement parks in the US are right-handed, that is most people tend to bear to the right as they enter the park and continue around the park in a counter-clockwise direction. Not so at Hard Rock Park, it was designed from the beginning to be left-handed.

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After entering the park and passing the requisite gift-shop and other shops, guests face the lagoon (a remnant of the former Fantasy Harbor) and are offered a choice of going to the right or to the left. Beckoning guests with its golden gates glowing in the sun, most people choose to go left entering the Rock & Roll Heaven themed section.

Rock & Roll Heaven

Hard Rock Park
This area begins with a memorial to more than 350 musicians no longer with us; their names are engraved on bricks and stones along with their date of birth and death and band they were associated with.
The signature ride for this area is Led Zeppelin- the Ride, the looping steel coaster which stands just 13 inches lower than the FAA's maximum height limit. (The park is on the approach to the airport.) A custom designed on-board 1,200 watt sound system cranks out Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love. Unlike most rides that use shortened versions of popular songs, Led Zeppelin refused to allow their song to be cut to 90 seconds for the ride. The song plays in its entirety beginning in the pre-show queue line.
Hard Rock Park
Guests are queued before 4 pre-show rooms, each of which shows a video with a short history of Led Zeppelin before segueing into Whole Lotta Love, at which point you realize you are now part of a Zeppelin concert. The previously dark walls now show fellow concert goers, "flash bulbs" popping in the background, and even someone holding up a lighter. The song continues seamlessly as you board the coaster and continues until you return to the station.


Hard Rock Park
As you walk past the Malibu Beach Party show on the way to the coaster, you of course hear a rock song playing. What you may not notice is that song changes without missing a beat to the same song with Reggae flair as you near Reggae River Falls. (Near the carousel the song morphs an appropriate version as well.) This park is filled with "discoveries", little details like this that are subtle yet really set it apart from other parks.


British Invasion

Hard Rock Park
Crossing a wooden bridge we come upon the British Invasion section. While Hard Rock Park considers itself to be a family park, adult humor abounds. Case in point is the name "Cod Piece Fish-n-Chips", the restaurant you see as you enter the area. (Check your dictionary if you don't know what a "codpiece" is.)
Of particular interest to enthusiasts is the unique Maximum RPM coaster with its Ferris wheel "lift hill." The four seat English sports car style ride cars actually enter a Ferris wheel-like device which rotates them up to the top of the ride.
The highlight of this area for darkride fans is of course the Moody Blues Nights in White Satin- the Trip which will be covered in detail later in this article.

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While many parks feature "bounce house" type attractions in which kids can cavort, Hard Rock Park's Punk Pit also has an ADULT side for its guests!

Lost in the '70s

Exiting through Nights in White Satin's gift shop brings us to the Lost in the '70s area. We immediately see a long graffiti-covered hallway, leading to Alice's Restaurant. No, it hasn't been vandalized; the park encourages creative writing on this particular wall. Yes, they expect to see a few "f-bombs" and plan to find ways of creatively altering "dirty words." You'll see the Pinball Wizard arcade in this building as well.

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Born in the USA

As you leave the British Invasion section, you will notice that the "road" on which you are walking has two curved lines with directional arrows that cross at the junction of that area and the next. This is another subtle detail signifying crossing into the US where we drive on the opposite side of the road from the Brits. Born in the USA contains the bulk of the usual and unusual games of skill including Whack-A-Boy-Band. It is also where you will find the "all ages" Shake Rattle n' Rollercoaster, the Slippery When Wet suspended coaster where you WILL get wet, and several kiddie rides and attractions.

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Sharp-eyed guests will notice a "problem" with the Great Meals Diner at night. It seems that occasionally, the Great Meals portion of the neon sign flickers and becomes "eat Me" another "discovery" to be found in the park.

Cool Country

The final area of the park combines Southern Rock and Country Music for a truly American music experience. The "don't miss" attraction in this area is the Eagles' Life in the Fast Lane coaster which of course has an onboard sound system. Nearby, guests will find a Harley motorcycle just waiting for them to climb aboard. Of course the natural reaction is to give the throttle a twist. Surprise! The Harley roars to life and reacts accordingly to the throttle.

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This area also contains the Ice House Theater featuring Country on the Rocks, a fast paced ice skating show set to your country music favorites. A little bit of trivia: this building was once a Fantasy Harbor attraction called Magic on Ice, then Snoopy's Magic on Ice, followed by The Savoy, a big-band music show, and was finally the Ice Castle under the ownership of Jon Binkowski in 1999.

Bohemian Rhapsody Lights up the Sky

Hard Rock Park
Every night at 9:00 as Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody echoes across the park, the night sky lights up with a brilliant low-level fireworks show. (They are on the approach to the airport, remember?) Pyrotechnics explode from all directions around the perimeter of the lagoon so the show is visible from all vantage points. VIP's have the added advantage of viewing the show from the deck of a private lounge above the Whammy Bar.
No trip to Hard Rock Park is complete without a visit to the HUGE gift shop on the way out. If you are a Hard Rock pin or shirt collector, bring your wallet and your credit cards with you, the selection of collectibles and gifts is awesome!
Before we leave, let's take a "trip" back to the darkride.

Nights in White Satin- The Trip

Breathe deep, the gathering gloom...

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Hard Rock Park
They say if you remember the 60s, you didn't live in the 60s. While that may or may not be true, Nights in White Satin is a time machine of sorts, taking you back to that era of hippies, flower children, and inner peace.
Mere words cannot describe this ride no, ride is the wrong word for it. This is a dark experience. Slide your Moody Blues album Hard Rock Parkinto the 8-track player and close your eyes. Let your mind take you back to the days of peace and free love: A time of black-light posters, "liquid light shows," and Op Art.
The Nights in White Satin experience begins in the queue line with a few examples of the psychedelic art of the era. After passing by a knight in armor lit with ever-changing lighting effects, we peer through a window into a small room and see a few Hard Rock Parkbooks about magic sitting on a table as miniscule girl dances around an "Aladdin's Lamp." (A nice Pepper's Ghost illusion.)
Our "trip" begins by donning ChromaDepth 3-D glasses as we enter through the glass-beaded curtain doorway. The "normal" world fades into a land of black-light and laser visual effects as we make our way past several knights. The hallways develop a mystical quality as the glasses create a distorted 3-D fantasy world. The intro to the song begins as we walk through a Vortex tunnel on our way to our ride vehicle...perhaps "dream machine" might be a better description.



Hard Rock Park
We first plunge into a pitch black world, but as the words "nights in white satin" gently caress our ears, the fantasy begins. The darkness fades into white satin drapes swaying gently above and on both sides as images of an old man, a child, a unicorn, and a knight are projected on the drapes.
Hard Rock Park
As the car slowly rotates left, we see a stark, drab, barren landscape with leafless trees. Suddenly the scene explodes into world of color as black-lights illuminate the room revealing a rainbow of hues as well as previously unseen skulls, skeletons and specters.


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As we rotate the other direction we pass by an array of fluorescent three-dimensional 60s style "Op Art" objects; some stationary, some spinning.
The cars rotate left to present us with a "liquid light show" and then to the right to view a large screen with psychedelic, stylized video of a girl dancing, morphing into swirls of color.

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Spinning left again, a giant smoke ring engulfs the car.
Hard Rock ParkDarkness again consumes us as lights streak overhead, fanning out to the end of the room. The smell of candle wax permeates the air as we slowly drift past rows of candles on both sides of the room.
As the music reaches a crescendo, a beam of green laser light fans out and paints us as we go by.
Meteors streak across a star field overhead as we make out a ghostly image which appears on a smoke curtain directly in front of us.
Hard Rock ParkAs the narrator utters "Breathe deep, the gathering gloom" we find ourselves traveling through a long dome shaped tunnel as moving images are projected all around us.
We enter another room and see the moon growing larger, to our left, as we hear "cold hearted orb that rules the night." The moon gives way to shapeless blobs which soon "explode" showering us with a gentle rain.
Mirror balls scatter light around us as our ride car begins to spin 360 degrees creating a dance of sorts with the ride car following closely behind us.
Our fantasy has almost ended as we reach the final room which dazzles us with various light effects and reveals a message just before we leave. "The Trip Continues."
Hard Rock ParkAs we exit our "dream machine" we still haven't reached the real world. 3-D effects continue on the floor and walls before our bubble bursts with a shot of reality- the gift shop.
This darkride really breaks the stereotype that many enthusiasts have of Sally Corp. No cute ghosts to shoot at, no detailed animatronic figures. This ride is unlike anything Sally Corp., or anyone for that matter, has ever done. For the story behind the ride, let's go straight to the sources John Wood, Chief Executive Officer of Sally Corp. and John Binkowski, Chief Creative Officer for Hard Rock Park.
John Wood- "We've always wanted to put a ride to music and Hard Rock Park gave us an opportunity to do so. I must admit however, it was not an easy task and we still feel there is some room for improvement."
"The project was long in the making. My first contact was in April 2003 at which time they weren't sure whether it was going to be Pink Floyd, The Beatles or The Moody Blues. In June 2003 the intellectual property was established as The Moody Blues song Nights in White Satin and we entered into a design proposal to develop the concept and floor plan for the ride. This proposal was submitted in July of the same year. The creative development was definitely a collaboration with Jon Binkowski . . . he had a vision of this thing from day one. Drew [Hunter] and our design team turned the vision into scenes, objects and effects on paper and the end results stayed pretty true to the original concept five years in the making."
"We had an opportunity to bounce the idea off of The Moody Blues band when they came in '03 for a concert in Jacksonville. It was great to get their input and to give them an idea of what we do and how we do it! (At the time I'm not too sure they knew what we were talking about, however)."
"In February 2006 we had a kick-off meeting and started the actual process of final pricing and project team development. This was an unusual dark ride for us ... no animatronics, no interactivity, very little scenery . . . it was key that we find a good sub-contractor to help us. At this time Frank Fruscello had taken over as our #2 designer (after Pete Carsillo went to Disney Imagineering) and he knew some people in Orlando that were good at special effects and projections. Kenneth Eff with Attraction Design Services was the primary sub and his primary sub was Backstage Technologies both from the Orlando area. Half way through the project Frank left Sally to become Ken's partner in ADS (which made for an interesting arrangement but we worked through it!). The other key subcontractor was ETF Netherlands. They had never created a six-passenger track system much less one that would dispatch in tandem without a physical link. The key contribution from our end was our design, project organization and management; the latter two were primarily supplied by Donna Gentry. In fact, Donna was definitely the glue that held this amoeba together! (With Ray Dominey handling the technical and ride element side of things).

Jon Binkowski related the following information during a recent interview with DAFE.

When asked "Why Nights in White Satin?", Jon started off by discussing the different forms of Rock and their energy levels. The rollercoaster represents high energy and a fast pace; a perfect match for a band like Led Zeppelin. On the other hand, the darkride is a mellower ride; one that Jon felt could recreate the psychedelic experience of a concert by Pink Floyd, the later Beatles, or the Moody Blues, perfect for the British Invasion area.
Why that particular song? Jon went on to discuss the memories of a 10 or 11 year-old boy visiting his brother's house at Mission Beach, San Diego, CA. While visions of black-light posters captured his imagination, the sounds of To Our Children's, Children's, Children caressed his ears the coolest thing he had ever heard. Memories of that Moody Blues album stayed with him, lurking in his memories, waiting to spring forth at the right moment.
When Hard Rock Park reached the planning stages, that memory came back as a thought that Nights in White Satin was the quintessential song, one that had public appeal and could lend itself to the experience he wanted to create in darkride.
Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon had been considered, but it was an album that would have had to have been chopped to bits. No, Nights in White Satin had it all; Rock and Roll, orchestration and interesting audio effects; all in a single song.
Jon Binkowski later met with John Wood and the Sally Corp. creative team to present his "vision." While he had some general ideas, he wanted Sally's creative team to have free reign in the creative process.
Jon's guidelines were pretty simple the ride would start after the song's flute bridge, beginning with flowing curtains, a smell of incense, and images fading in and out on the curtains. The next scene would be a barren landscape which transforms into a psychedelic scene and so on.
Some scenes would simulate the feeling of being in a concert of the era with visuals of oil and water projected light effects.
Some ideas came directly from Sally Corp., the endless candle room and the image projected on the smoke curtain, for example. Key Sally Corp. personnel attended a Moody Blues concert and went back stage to interview the band. What was the story behind the song? Was it "night" or "knight?" "A little of both, I suppose" was the answer. The band had no set idea about the vision of the song, so Sally Corp. was free to create something totally unique.
Jon Binkowski did have a few firm ideas about the ride; he wanted no "cut-outs" and no animation in the ride because he saw it as a ride dependant on visual effects.
There was an inside joke about the ride among the investors. After a tour of the "black box", someone commented that the ride was just "smoke and mirrors." Indeed, the ride uses a variety of smoke machines as well as mirrors to control projected images.
When asked if the smoke ring, blown at the riders, had any particular odor associated with it, Jon laughed and said "Only the natural scent of the oil used to create it. The smoke ring seems to bring back memories in some people as they relive those moments they can't remember." (Incense and candle wax are the only odors used in the ride.)

This article ©2007 Rick Davis
All photos ©copyright as noted, all used with permission.