When we arrived the park was quiet, which maybe sensibly would be ominous. But it was quiet because the park had just opened, and rides were coming into service as ride operators arrived and as patrons came in and as there was need for them to run. Conneaut Lake Park would never, never, be a packed and busy place bustling like Kennywood, but it would get a pleasant group attending, people who went in expecting to enjoy themselves --- I think the type case for this was a woman telling her grandkid that she used to go to this park when her grandkid's mother was a girl --- and this would be the impression we took from the place. It looks like an abandoned amusement park that someone has snuck into and turned on, but, it is a platform for those attending it. If you wish to have a good time, you will. This is how we did. This is what makes visiting Conneaut Lake Park not another exercise in disaster tourism.
Conneaut Lake Park had an antique carousel. It kind of still does. The park has been wracked for --- for ages now --- by shortages of money, and an antique carousel is a cash reserve. They've been selling off the animals, or so we hope as the idea they've been lost to vandalism is too heart-crushing to believe. Apparently there are only five of the original animals left, with the rest replaced by
fiberglass or modern replicas, ones familiar to use from Carousel Works rides. Some of them are out of service, including at least one horse turned around and with a purple plush rabbit draped across its seat so no one is tempted to ride it. We guessed about which ones were originals, and I believe guessed wrong.
The carousel had a brass ring dispenser. It wasn't running; it wasn't even extended. I couldn't say whether this is because the dispenser was broken, or because they didn't have staff to operate it --- they'd need someone else to push the ring out --- or whether they just don't have enough brass and steel rings to run it anymore. But in the northwest of Pennsylvania and this looking-glass Knoebels, there we might have grabbed at a brass ring again. It'd be selfish to ask for that; we had a wondrous enough time and couldn't demand more.
They had a band organ, too, a 1924 Artizan ``XA'' model called Artie, and which we'd learn was a rare --- almost unique --- example of its kind. (If I understand comments correctly, most of the survivors of this type were converted to Wurlitzer rolls; Conneaut Lake Park's, of course, has been preserved in its original configuration, possibly by there not being the money to improve it out of its historic identity.) It wasn't running, and we didn't much expect that it would because, after all, this is a park that can't replace its light bulbs. To fix a tetchy, near-unique band organ? Impossible!
And yet Conneaut Lake Park is an impossible land. As we rode the carousel our first time, an engineer (if they specialize) and the ride operator started to fiddle with the organ. They took it off and did something or other --- well, we were in the midst of the ride, how could we tell what they were doing? --- and as our carousel ride came to a stop, the ancient organ came to life and played a few untuned notes. We applauded. The band organ stayed working, the rest of the day that we were there.
This impossible, impoverished, postapocalyptic park in the midst of nowhere has people who care enough, who are determined enough, who find themselves able, to keep their band organ working, and to repair it when it fails. No amusement park in existence in the real world has any excuse to not have its band organ working. Cedar Fair? Six Flags? You are plutocrats, with more money and ability and resources falling through the holes in your pockets --- which you don't have --- than this park has ever had, and they have shown you up. In a few precious moments of tinkering we learned something of the incredible nature of Conneaut Lake Park, and we were made lovers of this poor little park. It is cushioned from the real world by people who will keep ``Artie'' working.
This is one of the secrets of the park, we would learn. They have put their resources, such as they are, into keeping working what they possibly can. The park may be shabby, but, good heavens, it works. The people caring for Conneaut Lake Park work magic, the kind you see in mawkish Christmas specials of mediocre sitcoms, where that gruff old chap down the street leaves a few hints that he might actually be Santa Claus, having once again given up his duties at the North Pole so he could putter around western Pennsylvania and show the cynical youth of today there are so enchanted places.
The thing which brought us to the park was the Blue Streak, unrelated to Cedar Point's much younger park. This wooden roller coaster, 75 years old (officially, as of the week before), was an American Coaster Enthusiasts Landmark, of historic importance, one of the couple survivors of roller coaster designer Edward Vettel's work, with historic trains and operating in the traditional manner, without seatbelts or seat dividers, with a single-position lap bar. You can ride it and touch its construction in 1938. ACE helped restore the roller coaster, saving it from decrepitude in the late 90s, and did so again within the past decade. ACE may be something of a fanboy organization, with the social problems that implies in many of its members, but its dedication to the preservation and restoration of antiques earns it considerable good karma.
bunny_hugger is an ACE member, of course --- she was even showing that off to people in the traditional way, by wearing a coaster T-shirt, Casino Pier's ``Rebuilding Family Memories'' one celebrating that stricken pier's determination to recover from catastrophe --- and I might as well be. We also saw two more on the Blue Streak, in the back seat. They're obvious, in that they just look like they might be roller coaster fanboys. One was wearing an ACE t-shirt, which admittedly makes it easier. The other was wearing a shirt for Adams Entertainment, the company which runs the rides at Conneaut Lake Park.
The guy in the ACE t-shirt, we'd learn, was ``Backseat Bill'', a famous in-the-right-circles coaster enthusiast who, as the name suggests, insists on riding on the back seat of everything. The ride operator told us who he was; he was spending the day riding and re-riding and re-re-riding this classic coaster. (The week before, for its birthday, was a celebration with people having free ride time for hours on the thing.) bunny_hugger and I were tempted to talk to them --- after all, how often do you get to talk with a fellow enthusiast, especially over a hidden treasure like this? --- but we also worried, you know, fanboys can be dangerous to strike up conversations with, and fears of a conversation we'd spend hours trying to escape scared us away from talking further. Perhaps we missed an incredible conversation. It would've been lost in the wonder of the day anyway.
The station is hand-operated, with the big levers to brake and release trains as roller coasters had in the good old days before electronic controls. We were delighted watching the ride operator handle these levers, some of them far enough apart they were clearly meant to be run by two people at once. The operator handled that by stretching, hard, and pushing with his foot and his arms at separate levers. Isn't that wonderful? The station also has, at its exit --- where the ride starts, and the train passes into the initial tunnel that takes it to the lift hill --- a painting of the whole ride. We would learn that in days gone by the ride had lights which would show the position of the train as it went up and down, out and back. The lights, of course, don't function, but wow, what a great idea.
We got the front seat --- we actually asked if it was all right to wait for the front seat, as if the park were that rulebound, and the operator didn't actually laugh at us for our naïveté --- and ... well. The ride starts with a passage through a tunnel, meant to make the gap between the launch station and the lift hill more interesting than the simple S turn it actually is. An intact tunnel is an easy way to make a stretch like this a bit more interesting. This is not an intact tunnel.
The tunnel's just a wooden shed, and the park hasn't been able to maintain things that aren't strictly functional like sheds for ages. The boards look rotted, paint peeling --- or peeled --- with holes worn out or punched out, casting shafts of light that made the tunnel darker than true darkness would be. This pleasantly creepy effect is spoiled by the holes in the roof, patched over by garbage bags, some bulging from rainwater past. We would wonder what the Halloween haunted-house version of the ride would be, and whether it could be any different from this.
Roller coasters beside trees aren't new, not to us --- Idlewild has its Rollo Coaster built into the treescape, after all --- but here again, Conneaut Lake was exceptional. The trees had grown with only little tending and trimming away from the ride, with branches that reach so much closer to the track than we'd seen on any other ride. The ride operator teased folks going out that they weren't allowed to grab the tree branches, and sure, rationally, we weren't ever near enough to actually grab them. But it's a very close thing. The effect is like riding an abandoned roller coaster, half-reclaimed by the woods, but it keeps going.
The roller coaster doesn't feel decrepit, and actually it was surprisingly smooth. Later research would tell us that the Blue Streak is running smoother this year than it has in ages, the result of all these attempts by its lovers to heal it. Six Flags, which disgraced itself this season by tearing down the Rolling Thunder roller coaster --- not even 35 years old --- on the pretext that it was too old and rough to be maintainable or enjoyable, has further reason to be ashamed. The ride, again, may be shabby, but it is neat shabby.
It's also a great roller coaster, at least the front half, if you ride in the front seat. It feels ready to fly out of control, something that the poor condition of the tunnel and the scary looks of what's behind probably reinforce, at least on the way out; I have to admit the return leg, a couple of hills bouncing about, isn't very exciting, at least from the front seat. We wouldn't have it changed, though.
From the roller coaster you can get good views of the miniature golf course, and of the miniature railroad. That wasn't working the day we visited, and we'd learn that it's (again) an antique, and (again) one the park takes great pride in, and we're sorry to have missed it and can only dream of being able to visit again a day that it is running.
The most unexpected treasure in the park was the Tumble Bug, the sibling of Kennywood's Turtle ride. These were once, in the 1920s, fairly common rides, and we liked the one we rode at Kennywood. Conneaut Lake Park's is its much poorer relation. The cars don't have the turtle shells that decorate Kennywood's, and they also don't have the insect shells that were the other major decorative option. They don't have any shells, in fact, just the bare metal cups of the cars, sitting like ugly UFO's on the oscillating track.
The rearmost of the cars was roped off, and the ride attendant, looking a bit surly, or worn down at least, told us that it wasn't ``working''. The cars on a Tumble Bug are just cars in a train; the whole thing moves or it doesn't. How could one car in it not be working, when all it has to do is be carried along?
The surliness of the ride operator I believe to be part of an act, because he told the riders that ``the object of the game is to ride it with your hands up'', not grabbing the center wheel for stability. We hadn't heard this at Kennywood; there, they recommend holding on to the center wheel. We were game for this. Our ride operator was tricking us.
See, as the Tumble Bug tumbles, if you aren't holding on to the center, then, you'll slide, backward as the car goes up the hill and forward as it goes down, and it can get to going pretty darned quick. And the acceleration will be complicated, too, since (for example) once the majority of the train is over the hill, all the cars will start accelerating, even those in back. This is the sort of ``cracking the whip'' effect that makes the back seat in some roller coasters a better ride than the front seat is, and explains probably why the backmost car was closed off. It's probably too wild a ride, at the Tumble Bug's speed and rough tracking, even for people who'll go along with the puckish ride operator's suggestion and accept being tossed forward and back on the waves of the turtle ride.
And it was a fantastic ride, vastly more than we imagined, much more thrilling than that at Kennywood. Much more dangerous, at least in feeling. When have you ever heard a ride operator tell you to not hold the thing that keeps you from sliding out of control through your car?
Conneaut Lake Park's Tumble Bug and Kennywood's Turtle are the only surviving examples of the (adult) version of this ride known to still exist. bunny_hugger and I have ridden all the world's racing derbies; we've now also ridden all the surviving tumble bugs.
The dark ride that had caught our eye was ``The Devil's Den'', a wonderful old style sort of thing with the little cars that run into a building for various stunts and props, duck back outside for a steep dip --- and this still had it; many of this sort of ride have had the dip replaced with something not quite so steep and thus less prone to breaking down or whiplashing passengers --- and back inside for some more haunted-house mischief. It had a lovely facade, with paintings of bricks and witches in loopholes and flames behind the exterior dip, doors with eyes staring at people caught up in a boa constrictor's coils, that sort of thing. Beneath the sign with the ride's name is another wooden sign, dangling beneath, promising that this is a ride ``Featuring the Infamous GUM WALL!!''. Within the excessive space between `the' and `Infamous' was a ``Dr.'s'', painted over but not quite invisible. Yet.
bunny_hugger's research would find the ride was apparently installed about 1970, and the interior with fluorescent-painted animals and demons and such looks like it might be from about then. At least the style is strikingly late-60s kids fantasy in form. It might be original paint; it might be just faithful retouching of the original. Neither seems perfectly satisfactory an explanation, considering how worn the building is, how the letters in ``The Devil's Den'' were chipped and flaking off to show older layers of paint.
Ah, but the Gum Wall. It was alluded to at the lone ticket booth, the one offering gumballs for its use. What it was, bunny_hugger expected would disgust me. It doesn't quite do that. Actually, I kind of admire it because I suspect it's a brilliant bit of social engineering. As the ride starts, the car goes past a wall that's quite easily in arm's reach on the left. The signs ask people to stick their gum on the wall. Many have, and the wall is littered with the dried remains of past chewing. Since the ride is in better shape than any sense suggests, perhaps this Gum Wall, encouraging people to ``vandalize'' the ride right away, diverts the impulse bored kids might have to damage the heart of the ride. If so, it's brilliant. It certainly suggests a ride that's more intimately bound to the community.
We didn't have explained what the Dr.'s might mean, or why it might be painted out. We would learn.
These were the different rides we went on, the things that we couldn't ride at least as well at other parks --- Tilt-a-Whirls are great, but how different could they be at another park? Well, in hindsight, perhaps very different; almost surely the Conneaut Lake Park version would be more wild, less constrained, closer to feeling out of control. We would get information that their bumper car ride --- down to seven functioning cars --- is an incredible power ride, with cars that really can smash one another. For any other park we would think this was just hyperbole. Here, perhaps it's literally so. But we couldn't spend all our time here.
But we did go for second rides on a few things, on the carousel --- with the music playing throughout, in the tinny, poorly tuned notes of ``Arty'', and wonderful so. It's not a fast carousel --- few are --- but it works, and it has the band organ to accompany it.
This brings to mind, though, that the Kiddieland carousel is a smaller affair, two little horses abreast, which nevertheless manages to be pretty decently decorated, with leaf-and-vine patterns and lights that, mostly, light. That one turns slowly, as the ride operator walks around the outside and pushes the Kiddieland carousel by one pole. We don't know whether this was a temporary expedient because the people who could fix the motors were fixing the band organs and other things, or whether that's just the normal state because kids small enough to fit these animals could be content with a carousel moving at walking speed.
And we returned to the Blue Streak for another ride. ``Backseat Bill'' was good enough to yield his seat so that we might try it from the back, a position the ride operator said was the best. (He took a more front-seat ride.) The operator told us --- and everyone --- that for the best ride we should try holding our hands up as long as possible. bunny_hugger and I aren't in the habit of riding with our arms up, but, we could give it a try. If we were wise, we'd remember the prank the Tumble Bug operator played.
Blue Streak, it turns out, is a backseat roller coaster, with the ride from the back much better than the front at giving the illusion of being out of control, especially on the return leg with its many little hops. Also, that first hill feels wildly out of control as the back seat of the train drops. Frighteningly so. Stunningly so. bunny_hugger's hands grabbed the lap bar partway through the first drop. I was more resolute, but still grabbed onto the bar just after the end of the drop, as the car started barrelling up again, and I clung to it as if I feared gravity was going to suddenly switch off on me.
We staggered off, hooting and giddy from just how much wonder there was in these rides.
As we exited the park --- we hated to go, but we did have to get to Waldameer; we had souvenirs, and the trip to the gift shop is its own entry no less wondrous as you might expect --- we passed something I thought a bit curious: a couple of television production-type people, women making notes on clipboards and scribbling on tablets, guys walking around in camera harnesses, bunches of people standing around test cycles of the Paratrooper ride, that sort of thing. I speculated that maybe they were putting together a commercial, and that maybe we'd be barely visible in the background. I now know the story is more complicated than that.
And, as we walked back to the car, we saw someone taking the letters off the sign out front, the one that read on one side the park's hours (it's closed Tuesdays, but during this summer was open the rest of the week, 1 to 9). As whoever it was made off with letters describing the wristband sales, I quipped that I hoped he worked for the park, and a bit of me wonders if we can be sure he did.
We were awestruck with all of this; we felt like we were swimming, after our few little hours there.
There is more. This park's story is not exhausted yet. Not nearly.
Trivia: The ``Witching Waves'' amusement ride, opened in Coney Island's Luna Park in 1908 --- a flexible metal floor with reciprocating levers making it wave, propelling a car --- was invented by Theophilus Van Kannel, who also invented the revolving door. Source: The Kid Of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements, Woody Register.
Currently Reading: The Visioneers: How A Group Of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnology, and a Limitless Future, W Patrick McCray.