A warehouse full of superheroes, massive dinosaurs, elaborate sets and interactive games sits right here in our own backyard. But it’s likely you have never heard of Sally Corporation.
Sally Corp. is one of Jacksonville’s most fascinating companies. What makes this company so remarkable is its amazing products that can be found as far away as Malaysia.
A skilled team of designers, engineers, carpenters, programmers and sculptors form Sally Corp., which creates a diverse range of animatronics including realistic looking humans, dinosaurs, monsters and animals. In addition to animatronics, Sally Corp. is perhaps most well-known for its construction of dark rides, which can be found in over 13 countries around the world.
CEO John Wood, has been with the company since 1977, when he, John Fox and John Rob Holland formed Sally Corp. But the idea for Sally Corp. came about when Holland, a frustrated engineer following in his father’s footsteps to become a dentist, received a well-posed challenge from his college professor at the University of North Carolina’s dental school.
The challenge was to create a way to communicate effectively with an audience about certain dental topics, but without boring them to death with a slideshow.
“So, John Rob went and made a mold of a girl’s face and created this talking head that he attached to a stuffed body, with a tape recorder and a way for the mouth to move similarly to a sound,” said Wood. “It’s called a vox circuit and he attached this to a plastic head and continued to create a pre-scripted program that was hilarious.”
With the animatronic girl, aptly named “Sally” completed, Holland brought his creation to class for his presentation. He then asked Sally specific questions and she would use the programed answers to reply and communicate with the students.
Needless to say, Holland’s project blew the class away, but that was seemingly the end of Holland’s animatronics career. Sally was put into a box soon after and stowed on a shelf, forgotten in his garage.
It wasn’t until Fox and Holland were constructing a plane in his garage that Sally’s cardboard coffin was rediscovered.
“He (Fox) was watching him build his plane and he said, ‘Well what’s in the box?’ ‘That’s Sally.’ They took it out and started playing with it and put it out on Halloween and the entire neighborhood was talking about it,” explained Wood.
The buzz got Fox and Holland thinking that maybe Sally and other animatronics could be a profitable business venture. From there, the pair went around and began developing an approach to perfect their lifelike robots, and Sally Corp. was born.
Being young and ambitious, they took their new and improved robot to a “retail display” trade show in New York hoping they could sell their product. The two received a lot of interest, but soon realized they were trying to sell their invention in the wrong market.
After officially forming Sally Corp. in 1978, Wood joined the team and began attempting to sell their animatronics around the country.
“Later on that year, I sold one to Kennedy Space Center and they told me about IAAPA [International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions],” said Wood. “We were battling upstream with the retail market, but when we walked into IAAPA, we found a home. They knew what we were doing.”
Before Sally Corp., Disney had dominated the animatronics market for roughly 15 years. This gave Sally Corp. the chance to break into the market by offering a similar product at a fraction of the price, making animatronics possible for amusement parks whose budgets weren’t backed by industry giants like Disney.
What set the animatronics at Sally Corp. apart was the introduction of the dark ride, an indoor amusement ride that guides riders through elaborate scenes (think It’s a Small World), in the late 1980s.
“I decided to take on designing our first dark ride, but it was simply so I could sell the robots in it,” said Wood. “I didn’t realize that was the pattern that we were going to take on later.”
It was during this period that Sally Corp. shifted from being solely an animatronics company to being a dark ride company.
Since most of the dark rides at the time had been around for numerous years, and with Disney simply blowing everyone else out of the water in terms of fun and excellence, Wood said Sally Corp. found a niche building quality dark rides for those who didn’t have the extensive budgets of Disney.
In addition to using their animatronics, Sally Corp. introduced a way for dark rides to be interactive, an important element for amusement parks such as Six Flags, which relies on customers to return to their parks multiple times a year, unlike destination resorts such as Universal or Disney.
“Six Flags really depends on people coming multiple times each year. But a dark ride is kind of like a movie, once you’ve done it, you’ve done it,” said Wood. “If it’s something that you do three or four times in one summer, then it may not be as fun, unless you added some way to make it different every time.”
To combat this problem, Sally Corp. developed the technique of transforming dark rides into interactive games where the rider could use a tool to interact with the ride (think shooting gallery on rails). It was this innovative idea that pushed Sally Corp. into a league of its own.
The future for Sally Corp. is bright, as Wood and the company continue to push the boundaries of interactive dark rides by adding elements like secret targets, alternate endings and competitive play between riders.
Wood said the dark ride landscape is ever changing however, and the future will likely move toward the implementation of more “true video” into the rides, (think Spiderman 3-D) in which a simulator-based vehicle is placed on a track and then reacts to both the real world and virtual world.
Though Sally Corp. is still keeping much of its plans for ride ideas under wraps, the company has some pretty groundbreaking ideas in store for the upcoming years.
Sally Corp offers free tours of its fun-filled facility on Tuesdays and Thursdays hourly from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., and Wood encourages anyone interested in seeing what the company does to call and sign up.
More information on Sally Corp. can be found at www.sallycorp.com.