Interview: Unraveling the Whacky Shack Mystery with Author David Gorman

Editor’s Note: Be sure to see Explore Resources at the end of the interview for videos and links.

David Gorman is the author of the Waldameer Mystery Files, a series of children’s mysteries that take place at Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania. The second book in the series, The Sneaky Sabotage, deals with a mystery that takes place on an original Bill Tracy dark ride, the Whacky Shack.

Gorman has in-depth knowledge of Waldameer Park as his family owns the park and he worked there from the age of 12 through college.

Theme Park Magazine (TPM) recently caught up with David to ask him about his book series, the history of Waldameer Park, and Bill Tracy dark rides.

TPM: David, thank you for taking the time to connect with our readers. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Waldameer?

Thanks for having me! Waldameer is one of the country’s oldest amusement parks. It was established in 1896 by the Erie Electric Motor Company in a popular picnic spot overlooking Lake Erie. The name Waldameer is German for “Woods by the Sea.” At that time, trolley parks, like Waldameer, were popping up all over the country as a way to encourage people to ride the trolley on weekends.

Now, 127 years in, Waldameer has over a hundred rides, water slides, and attractions. Our crown jewel is the Ravine Flyer II roller coaster, which goes over a four-lane road. It consistently ranks in the Top 10 Wooden Roller Coasters in the world.

TPM: The 1960’s and early 1970’s were big for the dark ride industry, mostly thanks to the influences and creations of Bill Tracy who put a strong focus on creativity and realism. He was a master of forced perspective and optical illusions. Out of the 54 dark ride attractions that Tracy was a major part of, only eight still exist. Two of those – the Whacky Shack and Pirate’s Cove – are at Waldameer Park. What influenced Waldameer Park to keep these old attractions and how much of the attractions can still be considered “original?”

David: I think it’s been an easy decision to keep them. The Whacky Shack and Pirate’s Cove are unique riding experiences, and they’ve stood the test of time. Guests still love them, and both remain popular. Waldameer has preserved them very well. Some minor things have been updated—a new paint job here or a new accent there—but the Whacky Shack and Pirate’s Cove are very close to their original forms. All the original tricks are there. One of my favorites is the giant rat!

TPM: For people that have never been on the ride, tell us more about the giant rat and why it’s one of your favorites.

David: You turn a corner, and suddenly a tall, human-sized rat emerges from the shadows and stares down at you. It’s a simple but effective animatronic that gives riders a fun surprise. I love its ridiculousness.

A scene from inside Bill Tracy's Whacky Shack dark ride at Waldameer Park.
A scene from inside Bill Tracy’s Whacky Shack dark ride at Waldameer Park.

TPM: Why do you think Bill Tracy dark rides were so popular and why do you think, half a century later, that several still exist?

David: That’s such a great question, but it’s tough to answer! While they were edgy and boundary-pushing in their day, Bill Tracy rides now feel like classics. They evoke nostalgia, but also have optical illusions, tricks, and gags that satisfy a modern ridership. Bill Tracy was very talented at creating iconic dark rides. His rides remind me of Alfred Hitchcock movies; they’re still incredible works of art to this day, all these decades later.

TPM: Your grandfather, Paul Nelson, owns Waldameer Park and you worked at the park from the age of 12 through college. As an inside source, what is something about Waldameer Park that most people don’t know and might be surprised to learn?

David: Being 127 years old, Waldameer has a rich history that many people don’t know about. Each of my books includes real Waldameer history, so I enjoyed learning more myself throughout my research. My favorite attraction that Waldameer used to have is Monkey Island. It was a small island surrounded by a moat that housed rhesus monkeys, and it existed from the 1930s-1950s. Monkeys would sometimes escape and cause mischief in the park. Apparently, NASA was buying up rhesus monkeys to use in the space program and it became difficult to repopulate Monkey Island, so it closed.

If you’d like to learn more about Waldameer history, a fantastic resource is Jim Futrell’s book, Waldameer Park (Images of America).

Exterior of Whacky Shack at Waldameer Park.
Exterior of Whacky Shack at Waldameer Park.

TPM: What have you learned from your grandfather that has influenced you the most?

David: I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my grandfather is his work ethic. When I was a kid, I remember some of my classmates had no idea what their parents did for work. I was the opposite! I was fortunate to witness, up close and personal, how hard my grandparents and parents worked. I saw their people skills, brain power, and dedication. In both my jobs, as a middle school counselor and author, I strive for excellence, and I credit my family for that work ethic.

TPM: What was your favorite “job” at Waldameer Park and what’s one unique experience you can share from your time there?

David: My favorite job was working in the office, where I answered phones and counted money. I worked with a team of young people my age, and we all got along so well. We worked hard, but it also felt like summer camp, where you make fast but lasting friendships.

A unique experience was starting work at twelve years old. My grandfather started working at Waldameer when he was eleven, so he has me beat by a year! Plus, his first job was cleaning bathrooms, so I lucked out. Mine was putting wristbands on guests. I wore a bright yellow polo shirt and said “Left hand please” about a thousand times per day. I still can’t see a yellow polo without thinking of being a bander!

TPM: What inspired you to write a series of mystery children’s books, Waldameer Mystery Files, set on the backdrop of Waldameer Park?

David: The old writing adage is “Write what you know,” and if I know anything, it’s my family’s amusement park! Having grown up at Waldameer (much like my main characters, Seth and Julia), it was only fitting that I use its colorful, rich setting for my novels. I thought that the mystery genre would allow the kid detectives to have exciting adventures at the park, and I could incorporate the rides into the plot.

I have to give my mom credit though; she was the one who suggested I write a children’s book about Waldameer. I was a year out of college, and she wanted me to put my Creative Writing degree to use. I wrote my first book, The Long-Lost Locket, and people enjoyed it, so I kept going.

The Sneaky Sabotage by David Gorman
The Sneaky Sabotage by David Gorman

TPM: Your second book, The Sneaky Sabotage, deals with someone creating havoc in a Bill Tracy dark ride: the Whacky Shack. In addition to following the mystery, readers learn more about the history of the Whacky Shack. What are some highlights you can tell us about the Whacky Shack and its history?

David: The Whacky Shack was one of Bill Tracy’s top-selling attractions. He built several of them, but Waldameer is home to the last remaining Whacky Shack in existence. While each Whacky Shack looked similar on the outside, the interior was completely unique and one-of-a-kind. Waldameer’s Whacky Shack made its debut in 1970 and has been thrilling guests ever since.

One of my favorite parts about the ride is the halfway point. On the second level, your car exits the haunted house, takes a brief dip, then thrusts you back into the darkness, where you descend further inside to the sound of a heart beating. The Whacky Shack is one of those rides that parents look forward to introducing their kids to, just like their parents did for them.

TPM: Your Waldameer Mystery Files books are aimed at readers aged 8-12. There are currently four books in the collection. How many do you plan on writing?

David: I’m very excited for my fifth book to come out in Spring 2023. It may be my favorite yet. I’m planning on writing a total of eight books before moving on to a new series. There are just so many stories I want to tell!

David Gorman poses with some avid readers at a book signing for the Waldameer Mystery Files collection.
David Gorman poses with some avid readers at a book signing for the Waldameer Mystery Files collection.

TPM: How much of your actual experiences at Waldameer influence things that happen in the book series? And can you give us an example from The Sneaky Sabotage?

David: The mysteries in my books are fictional, so the plot is not from actual experience. However, I do draw on my childhood at Waldameer and try to capture the summer nostalgia of spending all day at a classic amusement park, riding all the rides, playing arcade games, and eating cotton candy and funnel cakes.

No one has pulled any pranks in the Whacky Shack to my knowledge, but we have caught teens scaring guests in the Pirate’s Cove, which is a walkthrough ride. One of the most fun parts about The Sneaky Sabotage is that I describe the entire Whacky Shack ride from start to finish. Describing the tricks in each room—from the spinning tunnel to the bridge over shark-infested waters—was a lot of fun.

TPM: One unique aspect of your mystery novels is that they contain “Discussion Questions and Activities” at the end split up by chapters. What influenced you to add these and why do you think it’s important?

David: I wanted to encourage teachers to read my books in their classrooms. I’m an educator myself (middle school counselor), and I know how hard teachers work, so I wanted to make their lesson planning easier. Teachers can read a chapter with their class, then go to the back for questions that encourage good discussion about the topics raised in the book, like honesty and teamwork.

One of my favorite things about being an author is getting invited to speak at schools and inspire students to read, write, and dream big. Besides telling good stories, I want to teach kids about being good humans.

TPM: What is the best compliment you have received about your book series?

David: Having the support of my parents and grandparents will always be the most meaningful feedback I receive since I want to make them proud. Though I no longer work at Waldameer, my book series is a way for me to stay connected to my roots and support the family business.
In terms of compliments from readers, I’ll always remember a girl named Parinita and her review of The Long-Lost Locket. She said, “My favorite character is Anh because she’s from somewhere far away (Vietnam) and so am I (India).” Including characters of diverse races, ethnicities, and nationalities is important to me, and I was touched to hear how Parinita connected to my story.

Waldameer Park Map with Whacky Shack circled.
Waldameer Park Map with Whacky Shack circled.

TPM: There are very few family-owned theme parks and amusement parks left in the United States. Why do you think that is and why do you think Waldameer Park has survived and thrived as a family-owned park?

David: Running any seasonal park is inherently tough because you have a limited amount of time to solicit business. Things outside your control, like poor weather or perhaps a global pandemic, can wreck a season. Most of the amusement parks that started around the time Waldameer did in 1896 are long gone. It’s amazing to think of all the historic events Waldameer has been through (World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression come to mind).

I think Waldameer has thrived–especially in the thirty-one years I’ve been alive–because of my grandfather’s commitment to evolve and update the park. Almost every summer, a new ride, water slide, or attraction is premiered. My family works incredibly hard to keep guests coming back each season. Waldameer is a beloved community landmark in Erie, and I’m very proud of my family for that fact.

TPM: One final question, Outside of Waldameer, what is your favorite amusement or theme park and why?

David: I would have to say King’s Dominion since it’s my local park, seeing as I now live in Richmond, Virginia. I like their water park, Soak City. I feel like water slides and attractions are a bit different each time you ride them, so I find water parks especially fun to return to. Plus, you can’t beat cooling off in a water park on a hot summer day!

TPM: Thank you for taking the time to share your insight with our readers, David. It’s greatly appreciated.

David: You’re so welcome! It was my pleasure.

Explore More (Videos):

Take a ride on Whacky Shack, an original Bill Tracy dark ride.

The Carpetbagger gets a behind-the-scenes tour of Whacky Shack and Pirate’s Cove!

Note: Some links under Explore More (Resources) are affiliate links to Amazon which means when you click and buy we get a tiny portion of the purchase at no additional cost to you. It helps us continue to bring you ad-free articles.

Explore More (Resources):

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Scott Barton
Scott Barton
10 months ago

My first time at Waldameer was the year the Pirate’s Cove made its premier. My eyes settled on the Whacky Shack, as I used to frequent a ride with the same name at the now-vanished Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio. It’s impressive how well Waldameer has maintainted these two Bill Tracy gems; the only major change was making the outside dip at the Whacky Shack more shallow. One important bit of trivia; most of Tracy’s Whacky Shacks were dark rides, but the one at Idora, and one other I’ve seen mentioned online were both funhouses. Tracy had done several other attractions at Idora, two dark rides and a water-based ride. There is a good website devoted to him for anyone curious to know more about the man and his creations:

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