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Hal Rappaport

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The Legendary Castle Dracula
By Hal Rappaport   
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Last edited: Wednesday, January 05, 2011
Posted: Wednesday, January 05, 2011

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Walking along the Wildwood boardwalk on a balmy summer day, the anticipation of getting my "Haunted House fix" gripped me (This summer ritual that I had been observing since I was 14 years old still embraced me as an adult). As I approached Nickels Midway Pier, home of the last of New Jersey's legendary pier based haunts; my eyes would gaze upward along the stone outer walls of the huge gothic castle…Castle Dracula. The last of a dying breed of giant haunted masterpieces that once dotted the New Jersey coastline, this massive, actor based, summer seasonal Haunted Attraction was built before Haunting became locked to the Halloween season. Like its sister attractions, Brigantine Castle, Brigantine, NJ, and the Haunted Mansion, Long Branch, NJ, this Wildwood, NJ, landmark would also be consumed by an off season fire on January 16, 2002.

The Legendary Castle Dracula

Hal B. Rappaport

Walking along the Wildwood boardwalk on a balmy summer day, the anticipation of getting my "Haunted House fix" gripped me (This summer ritual that I had been observing since I was 14 years old still embraced me as an adult). As I approached Nickels Midway Pier, home of the last of New Jersey's legendary pier based haunts; my eyes would gaze upward along the stone outer walls of the huge gothic castle…Castle Dracula. The last of a dying breed of giant haunted masterpieces that once dotted the New Jersey coastline, this massive, actor based, summer seasonal Haunted Attraction was built before Haunting became locked to the Halloween season. Like its sister attractions, Brigantine Castle, Brigantine, NJ, and the Haunted Mansion, Long Branch, NJ, this Wildwood, NJ, landmark would also be consumed by an off season fire on January 16, 2002.

The impressive Castle exterior would have looked more at home in the Carpathian Mountains than nestled next to a water slide on a New Jersey boardwalk. The tall battlements and a rambling outer wall bore a gray stone motif, accented by a huge open-mouthed skull, which marked the entrance to a "second element" at the location, the Dungeon Boat Ride. The overall appearance was spooky and yet so "inviting." Flags flew from the tower battlements, and the front towers were complete with Knight in suites of armor, ever watchfully standing guard against the invading Turks. The facade of the attraction was reportedly modeled after Bran Castle, a fortress once used by Vlad Tepes, thought to be inspiration for the blood sucking Bram Stoker character, Dracula. A great deal of care and craftsmanship went into creating this striking facsimile of the ancient castle. A skeleton hanging from the gallows mounted in the outer castle battlements, and still wearing his boots, kept the air creepy but fun. The sight always brought a smile to my face.

Containing many one-of-a-kind props, Castle Dracula even had some props that were salvaged from Brigantine and Long Branch after their demise. The Nickels family, owners of the attraction since it was conceived, built most of the props themselves, with the aid (rumor has it) of consultants from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. The pride and love that the Nickels' had for the attraction was apparent in the hard work that went in to building and maintaining the attraction over its 25-year existence. The castle building was a full city block long on the Wildwood side of the boardwalk. Technically, the building was four stories tall, but the third floor was never finished and the upper levels were not open to the public. A balcony overlooking the front room was a favorite spot for management and off duty actors to watch the reactions of the patrons and spy on how the actors were doing.

Designed and built long before "off-the-shelf animatronics" were available, Dracula's Castle did not rely on pneumatic props to be truly frightening. While the castle did have its share of special effects and in later years even some animatronics, the heart of the castle's "fright factor" was in a group of talented, dedicated and truly scary actors that haunted the attraction over the years. These actors were at the heart of the castle's scariness, and provided a macabre atmosphere rather than the moving props and elaborate scenes seen in today's Haunted Houses. More than any animatronics can do, an experienced actor can "feel" the Castle audience and use their intuitiveness to do what would scare them best, creating a live, spontaneous feeling that the Castle was known for.

The different attractions had varying philosophies for "art of the scare." The actors at Brigantine and Long Branch followed rigid scripts and rarely deviated from them. In fact, Brigantine was known for hiring aspiring young stage actors to work the attraction. At Dracula's Castle, the actors were encouraged to improvise and "feel" their audience out. They were given a freer, more creative hand in how they scared the patrons. The Nickels family believed that this kept the attraction fresh and provided a show that repeat audiences would find different and unexpected.

Visitors to Castle Dracula bought their tickets from the ticket booth on the boardwalk. Admission to the Castle was $4.50; to the Dungeon, $4.50, and a combo ticket for the truly brave was available for $8.00.

Ticket(s) in hand, Castle visitors would leave the bright glitz of the Boardwalk and step into another world. Walking past two large Griffins, across a drawbridge, through the stone gateway arch and iron castle gates, patrons approached the gothic 13-step "stone" stairway leading to the massive front doors of the castle. Your eyes cannot help but wander up at the massive castle itself, which was not as large as it looked. A creative use of forced perspective created an optical illusion giving the building a massive appearance. Instructed to stay to the right, you could only glimpse down into the moated courtyard below, but could hear the screams of the guests down in the boats beneath you. From behind the wood doors, the sounds of organ music (Toccata in Fugue by Bach) mingled with the screams of "victims" who have gone before. Here, patrons would nervously await entrance into the darkness beyond, with up to twenty other brave souls. Waiting in anticipation of what was to come, ghoulish figures in black robes and pale faces walked up and down the line up of visitors "inspecting your number." If you were lucky they would favor you with a growl. Eventually, a costumed character came out of the Castle doors to let the victims into the vast first chambers of the attraction.

A poll of actors and castle fans to find out their favorite space in the castle was almost unanimously "The opening great room!" With its high ceilings, gothic appointments, and Castle-like appearance, the space known to the actors as "the front room" set the mood of the show and offered the first fright of the experience. And what a fright it was! Jennifer Madden, a castle employee from 1995 to 1999 recalls the room having a "good, old fashioned creepy, eerie, Edgar Allan Poe-like quality. Like a good Vincent Price, Roger Corman flick," which she sees as essential for a good scare, a quality Jennifer feels is missing from many of today's Haunted Attractions. "When you walked in the front room of the place with the cathedral ceiling, huge fireplace, pictures, draperies, and knights of armor, you could be no where else but Castle Dracula."

Walk-Though Description
Once the group of 15 to 20 patrons was in the room and the door closed, they were guided forward toward the large fireplace at one end of the room and told to look into the fire for enlightenment. Above the massive fireplace mantle was a large painting of Dracula himself in an oval, ornate gold, frame. First time visitors would stare into this simulated collection of logs and flames, expecting to some effect from behind them. Suddenly a flash of light plunged the patrons into darkness, all except for the fire and from behind the painting above the fireplace, an actor crouched, waiting to spring out onto the mantel.

With a lightning crack the lights come back on and visitors would jump back as the Count (or Countess on some occasions), seemed to have simply appeared above on the mantle out of nowhere. Greeting the group, the Count or Countess paced along the enormous mantle and delivered a chilling speech about how you would never leave the Castle alive!

Front Room Intro Speech
(The butler enters), "Move quickly now, in and up to the edge of carpet. There, in front of the fireplace. Be sure to stay on the carpet or the trap door might get stuck…Now gaze into the fire. I'm sorry the master could not be with us...but he has been unavoidably detained. Let's see if we can call him to us! Repeat after me…DOMINUS…OMENIUS...DOMINUS…OMENIUS." (Blackout with thunder and lightning effect 3 times), (Yelling) "BEWARE THE RATS" (one more thunder clap and turn on the spot light for the mantle...and the Count appears.)

This front room effect may have been adapted from the entry room of Brigantine Castle, where instead of a painting, a live actor stood completely still in a gilded framed alcove. Although Brigantine's effect was impressive, many actors admitted to being coaxed into laughing before the big finish, thereby destroying the desired effect. Dracula's castle made this effect easier on the actors, reducing the risk of an actor coming out of character and still delivered a terrific scare.

At the climax of the greeting speech, a door behind the group opened and visitors proceeded into the cellblock. Here, animated prisoners moved in the cells and seated at the end of the chamber was Grandfather a rotting skeleton chained to the Castle Throne. Rattling his chains he would start to rise, pushing the visitors deeper into the labyrinth of gothic corridors. An occasional ghoul jumped out from niches in the hallway, heightening the uneasiness of the group. Animatronic creatures gestured and babbled as the Castle guests made their way to the next major scare. Much of the remainder of the 10-12 minute tour changed over the years, and depending on what period of Castle history was being experienced, could have included a "rope bridge of death," a rain room (complete with lightning strobes, thunder sounds, and sprinklers), a black mass room, or a dark maze.

One of the main scenes that never changed was the Laboratory. Visitors were brought into this chamber to be shown the mad scientist's latest atrocities…er…experiments. The ceiling of the space consisted of thin clear plastic tubes, 1/2 to 3/4 inches diameter, protruding 5 inches down into the space and evenly spaced about six inches apart throughout a large section of the ceiling. The tubes illuminated in several colors producing a "techno-creepy" effect.

"It (the Castle's mad scientist's lab) was the best spot for interaction with the customers. You could totally feed off their mood and their comments in Lab," explains Megahann Keustner, who claims she could make the visitors laugh and scream at the same time. "My favorite thing was when you played Lab like a game-show and told the person on the end (of the group near the emergency exit) that they had just won a prize and to check behind "door number one." When the group pushed open the exit door and looked out a psycho character with a chainsaw would chase the patrons back in and chaos would usually follow.

Once the scientist "dismissed" the group, they moved on to witness a live execution. Instead of an electric chair, the Castle sported a guillotine that was used to behead a poor individual. As the horrified crowd watched, the still live head falls into the bucket below, as (originally) a river of blood gushed down a metal trough. This realistic illusion provided one of the Castle's most memorable scares.

In the hopes of keeping their heads, patrons would rush out of this space and into a long narrow room without an exit door. A strobe light flashed on the wildly painted stone walls, which slowly closed in on the group. Just when you might think you were about to become a pancake, a hidden door at the opposite end opens and visitors would hurry down a flight of steps to the relative safety of the Wildwood boardwalk. Originally, the attraction exited into a dark Haunted Forest, outside the building, but this was removed over the years.

Dungeon Boat Ride
One thing that distinguished Castle Dracula from the other New Jersey pier Haunts was that this attraction was multi-element (perhaps the first ever). This castle had a moat, and in this moat was the Dungeon Boat Ride. This second attraction, located directly under the castle itself, predated the castle by a considerable number of years and had the notoriety of being the oldest ride on the Wildwood boardwalk. First built in 1912, the ride was themed as an old sawmill. Later, it became a tunnel of love (1930's); then, an Arabian Nights ride; and finally it was re-themed as the Castle's dungeon in 1976. The Dungeon Boat Ride opened up before the Castle, which finished construction in 1977, at a total estimated cost of 1 million dollars.

The Dungeon Boat Ride itself did not differ much from an old fashioned tunnel of love. It was filled with many models of gruesome characters and scary sites. Unlike the more familiar "Pretzel" type Dark Ride where patrons sit in cars driven by an electric track, the Dungeon victims sat in boats propelled by the current of water in a concrete trough. Built right onto the beach, the whole floor of the dungeon was sand. The water ride itself was open to the elements via the Castle courtyard, which caused some problems. "If you did a shift," confesses Ed Kennedy who started his long castle carrier as an actor in the Dungeon, "your ankles would be bitten by sand fleas." Because the boat ride was open to the outside, there were cats living within the sets; dragonflies would come in from the courtyard and fly around the Dungeon, and even live bats lived in the Dungeon rafters (not by choice)! "One time I counted 10 or 15 bats flapping around," recalls Ed, "and people always wondered where the wires were or how we controlled them!"

A testament to the age of the ride was the way it operated. A series of six pumps would circulate the water in the trough, pushing the free-floating boats along. "The boats floated along like a lazy river sort of thing," remembers Ed. "Each boat had wheels on their sides to keep them centered in the moat, but that was it." A wooden panel across bottom of the boat on the bow was designed to catch the current, and on the stern of the boat was a "C" shaped metal band that acted as a bumper. "If Dungeon employees didn't balance the boat," remembers Ed, "the boats would get stuck in the trough. Sometimes if I wasn't real busy and a group that was giving me a hard time got on the ride, I would deliberately load the boats so that they got stuck. Imagine being stuck in a dark scary place and the only ones to help you are the demons that you just got done calling names!" The downside of this revenge, of course, was that the only way to free up the boats was for an employee to get into the murky water and physically push the boats along!

Ride Description
After exiting the Castle, visitors brave enough to continue would return to the entrance of the attraction for the second half of the experience. This time, rather than crossing the drawbridge, they would descend down a curved ramp to the moat of the castle. Here patrons were assisted into their 4-passenger boats, which were decorated to look like Charon's boat moving along the river Styx. A full size representation of the reaper-like boatman stood on the back of each craft. At one time, the reapers eyes glowed red until the boats started to leak and guest started getting small electrical shocks. After loading onto the boat, the attendant would push the unsuspecting visitors off toward the mouth of a giant skull, the entrance to a cave that led into the main chamber. The walls of the cave were rough-hewn, carved and aged to look like ancient rock. The a long, curving tunnel led into pitch darkness and once in the tunnel, patrons felt as if they were suspended in a dark hole. Suddenly a disembodied head (a red light and rubber mask attached to a pole) swung into view, followed by a blood-curdling scream. Exiting the tunnel, the boat entered a huge open room, filled to the brim with sets and scenes of torture and terror. The dungeon included a lot of really good figures and some old time animations, many of which were irreplaceable antiques.

The various scenes terrorizing visitors in the dank darkness of the Dungeon ride included: a graveyard; a butcher scene; 3 animated witches chanting lines from Macbeth; the Phantom of the Opera; an animated skeletal sailor steering a ghost ship into a storm, a torture chamber with an animated rack, a pirate scene with animated fighting pirate skeletons, and a display of skeleton knights on skeletal horses. As the boat wound slowly in and out of the sets, some scenes were viewed more than once from different sides. This curvy path gave the actor assigned to the ride the opportunity to scare the same group of visitors more than once. As patrons passed in view of a scare point for the second time, they could watch (and laugh at) another boat of patrons about to get scared...and then get scared themselves all over again. One of the last scares of the ride was a "hell" scene that featured the demon Shamron. Mighty and terrifying, this prop looked down over the Dungeon boats and chanted a curse on the visitors as thunder crashed, lightning struck, and blower-powered flames danced around his lair. (Miraculously, the Shamron prop survived the fire, only to have an air conditioning unit fall on it the following day.)

As the vessels exited the ride they would go back out into the castle courtyard and could be seen by people outside the attraction. The scariest part of the ride was a recent addition; as the boat exited the structure, and the patron's eyes were beginning to adjust to the daylight, a character hiding in the dark corner near the exit would pop out unexpectedly. It was a terrific scare and allowed the group of riders about to enter the attraction to hear the screams, heightening their state of apprehension for entering the ride.

Right after the fire, there were no plans to rebuild, but the overwhelming reaction to the loss of the attraction has persuaded the Nickel family to consider rebuilding Castle Dracula. Estimated reconstruction costs are over 10 million dollars, and plans will have to include making the attraction handicapped-accessible, which could be a problem, as only the Dungeon met these requirements previously. While the 90-year-old concrete trough of the Dungeon Boat Ride was undamaged in the fire, the large equipment that will be needed in the demolition of the burned-out structure will most likely destroy it.

According to B.J. Nickels, manager of Nickels Midway Pier, a new attraction will not be in place for the 2002 season. However, the Splash Zone water park adjacent to the Castle will be open this season. Past employee Eric Prinz has offered his talents and workshop to the Castle restoration efforts. "I've been working with the insurance company, and may be possibly working on the rebuilding [effort]," he says. Presently the plans are to reopen a scaled-back version of the attraction in 2003. Until then, the now headless body of the Dungeon demon, Shamron, is spending part of his afterlife with Eric, who will attempt to restore the creature to his former glory. In addition, Eric hopes to make molds of several surviving pieces that were unique to the Castle. The Nickels family has agreed to donate any relics from the Castle worth saving to the George F. Boyer Museum.

When we asked people what they wanted to see, if and when, the Castle was rebuilt, there were very few requests for serious animatronics or automation. While some did want to see the Dungeon Boat ride updated, since it still resembled its century old ancestor, most said they wanted it rebuilt exactly as it was. Some asked for it to be bigger, or perhaps utilizing a multiple floor layout. Some asked for it to be rebuilt in the image of Brigantine Castle, but I think it's clear that people wanted much of the original format to remain with people (actor) driven frights.

Walking up the boardwalk now seems somehow surreal. Even if they rebuild the Castle, we will notice the changes. Wildwood lost two historical landmarks at the same time. While I look forward to whatever the creative talents of the Nickels will produce, I cannot help but feel as if I have lost an old childhood friend.

Hal Rappaport is the owner of FrightScape, a Princeton, NJ, web site devoted to all things scary at He can be contacted via Email at

The Real Dracula
Vlad Draculea was the prince of Wallachia (1448,1456-1462,1476), son of Vlad Dracul (Dracul meaning devil), a Knight of the Order of the Dragon (1431) and Grandson of Mircea the Great, King of Wallachia. (1386-1418). Under his rule, this totalitarian leader ruled Wallachia with an iron fist, strengthened the army, and increased trade and commerce with the neighboring countries. A ferocious warrior, he was merciless towards those who would stand against him, be they noblemen or commoners. Draculea (which means son of the Devil), adopted the practice of impaling prisoners on sharpened spikes, leaving them to die and rot; a practice that after his death earned him the moniker Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler)

The Real Dracula's Castle Originally built as a fortress by the Knights of the Teutonic Order (1212), Bran Castle (Called Dietrichstein at the time) in the Carpathian Mountains was used for a short time by Vlad Tepes as headquarters for his incursions into Transylvania. Now in ruins, Poenari Castle in the Vallachia Region of Central Romania was Vlad's residence castle. This steep hillside fortress was rebuilt by the Impailer as his home in A.D. 1457.

Web Site: Haunted Attractions Magazine (reprinted by Dark in the Park)

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