Almost from the moment it opened on Grand Island in 1961, Fantasy Island was this area’s “other” amusement park.
First it took a back seat to Crystal Beach, the hallowed north-of-the-border summer fun spot that delighted generations. And just as the sun was setting on the Comet, the Laff-in-the-Dark and Hall’s suckers in 1989, Darien Lake in Genesee County was taking its place as the destination of choice for thrill-seekers.
Fantasy Island’s history as the Avis of theme parks has been about as smooth as a ride on a wooden roller coaster, but by combining the old with the new, the kiddie rides with the stomach-turners and recognizing that it doesn’t have to be the biggest to be a success, it continues to deliver screams and smiles all summer long.
“It’s a different animal,” says Ray Wigle, a former ride operator who is now the park’s director of marketing and public relations. “Yes, we’re all in the same industry but, frankly, this is a different product. We’re not trying to be what they are, and they’re not trying to be what we are.”
Martin’s Fantasy Island – as it has been known since Martin DiPietro took it over in 1994 – sets itself apart in a number of ways. It is smaller, but for families with younger children, that is a selling point. It’s possible to get from one end of the park to the other without having to stop twice to ask for directions.
It is closer to home for its target audience, which is largely Erie and Niagara counties and Southern Ontario, so it is possible to plan to spend a full day at Fantasy Island and still get home at a reasonable hour.
And perhaps most notably, it is far less expensive. Everything from parking (free) to admission to the cost of food and drinks is dwarfed by what it costs to spend a day at a regional amusement park here or in Canada. (Hence, the current advertising line “Spend the day, not a fortune,” which might not be in the same league as the both annoying and memorable “Fun? Wow!” of a few decades ago, but it seems to do the trick at the turnstiles.)
Bree Wharam of Cheektowaga said she used to come to Fantasy Island when she was a little girl. As she sat in a shady spot with her own three children on a steamy Sunday afternoon, she said she appreciated the sense of nostalgia she felt watching them on the same rides she used to enjoy.
“It’s a slower-paced park. It’s not as busy, and for the price, you get a lot included,” she said.
One of the things that has never changed at Fantasy Island is its connection to another Western New York institution, the Herschell Carrousel Factory in North Tonawanda. The carousel in the park is believed to be the original that was here when the park opened. The Blue Goose, another ride manufactured at the factory in the 1930s, was restored and reopened last year.
Michelle and Nickolas Rose of the City of Tonawanda waved at their 2-year-old daughter, Miley, while she had the Blue Goose all to herself Sunday. They said they bring their children to the park a couple of times each year.
“It’s a good time for the kids. It’s not like Darien Lake, which is more adult-oriented,” Michelle Rose said. “This is more kid-oriented.”
That’s not to say that you won’t find older kids and adults on the other side of the park testing their mettle on the rides that are not for the faint of heart and stomach. In that category are such staples at the Mind Warp, Devil’s Hole and the Tilt A Whirl.
Waiting in line to give the Mind Warp a try were Jose Roman and Kayla Guzman, 16-year-old friends from Buffalo. The ride, which brings to mind a combination pendulum/Ferris wheel/merry-go-round, is high on the shriek meter. Jose’s sweaty, post-ride assessment: “Didn’t you hear me screaming? It made me cry like a little girl. It’s just fun.”
Jose and Kayla also said they were fond of the sugar waffles at the park. The fact that they could even say waffles after this ride just proves that some rides are only for the young.
The big ride attraction at Fantasy Island continues to be the Silver Comet, the wooden roller coaster that opened 10 years after its namesake at Crystal Beach closed. The Silver Comet is not so much a copy of its more famous ancestor, but an “homage” from DiPietro, Wigle said.
The Silver Comet opened for the 1999 season, five years after DiPietro purchased – a better word might be “rescued” – Fantasy Island. The park was in rough shape by then, battered by ownership changes, the economy and the competition. But DiPietro, a West Seneca native and the owner of the carnival company Martin’s Rides, saw enough to purchase the park and begin investing in its future.
His vision was to turn Fantasy Island into a family park, Wigle said. He has done that by appealing to young children with kiddie rides, older children with thrill rides and adults with nostalgia.
That explains the one thing that has always been synonymous with Fantasy Island: the Wild West Shootout. When the park opened in 1961, prime-time television was all about the Western, so a cowboy-themed attraction was a perfect fit. The pretend cowboys have been replaced by pretend reality on TV today, but the kids still line the street every day to watch the shootout, see the bad guy fall off the roof and then wait around afterward to become deputized.
“It’s a tradition,” Wigle said. “Every owner has made an attempt to keep it up.”
The faces change in front of the Golden Nugget Saloon, but the familiar story never really does. Things look bleak for the marshal. The bad guy has him on the ropes. He’s doomed for sure. But in the end, the marshal rises to the challenge and lives to see another day while the crowd cheers.
At Fantasy Island, it’s a familiar story indeed.