As an official “Aunt,” I’ve noticed a few things about kids:
Yes, they love the fast and furious, but they also love the cheesy and silly, too (even if they won’t admit it). Which brings us to the fantastic world of quirky, historic amusement parks.
Many started during the 19th century as “trolley parks” – usually picnic or recreational areas located at the end of a streetcar line. Trolley companies built them as a way to boost use on weekends. Often these parks added dance halls, swimming pools and extravagant hotels, too. Coney Island started as a trolley park.
While these parks have been around longer than most of us, they have survived because of tireless volunteers and dedicated visitors whose fond childhood memories fuel their enthusiasm.
The pace may be slower and they may not be as flashy (Warning: may cause eye rolls with older kids), but isn’t that part of the charm? We bet most kids will remember these experiences long after the iPod burns out.
So take a Grand Tour this summer. Create what my sister tells her own darlings is, “a family opportunity.”
You don’t have to travel far to do it. One state over is a great place to start.
Waldameer Park/Water World, Erie, Pa.
Originally Hoffman’s Grove, Waldameer (German for “woods by the sea”) was so named in 1896 when it was purchased by Erie Electric Motor Co.
Waldameer is now privately owned. Three generations still work at the park, including Brian Gorman, vice president of operations. It’s the eighth oldest continually operated amusement park in the United States.
We loved Waldameer for many reasons, especially the free parking and free admission. There are also picnic areas with grills, so you can bring in your own food.
“Waldameer has always focused on fun for the whole family. Free admission and parking allows families to spend time together even if everyone isn’t riding,” said Gorman.
The practice has been to add attractions that fit within the current park, while keeping the rides people remember.
“Many of our attractions are over 25 years old. Parents can ride some of the same rides with their own kids,” said Gorman.
“The oldest ride is the Pony Carts, installed before 1949,” he said, noting the Whacky Shack dates to 1970 and the Pirate’s Cove to 1972. The Comet (1951) is one of 15 ACE Coaster Classics left in the world.
The rides are located within easy walking distances. On our visit, kids of all ages were happily doing their thing. Plenty of shady trees and benches keep older visitors comfortable while the youngsters rip around.
The gigantic Ravine Flyer II wooden coaster is a gem. Our fearless riders reported it was a smooth ride with a spectacular view of Lake Erie before a death-defying drop that takes riders through a dark tunnel and over a road.
For us less adventurous folks, the Wacky Shack’s hilarious experience combined crazy glow effects with horror elements.
“Parks with a rich past are historical gems, a time when life was simple and carefree. While technology is fun, everyone needs to unplug. We offer attractions that keep the attention of any child, whether young or young at heart,” said Gorman.
Open: Now through Labor Day, noon to 10 p.m. daily; Water World 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Mondays, except Labor Day. Free parking, admission and shows. One day combo pass for amusements/Water World is $28.50 for over 48”/$20 for under 48”. Individual amusement and Water World passes available. Senior specials and partial day admission discounts (after 5 p.m.). Open picnic groves on a first come first serve basis. Waldameer is “cashless.” Wally Cards can be purchased using cash, credit or debit and reloaded at kiosks around the park. The card never expires and there are bonus points for every $25 you spend.
Drive: About 2 hours from Buffalo. Ages: All ages, kiddie to teen and beyond.
Conneaut Lake Park & Hotel Conneaut, Conneaut Lake, Pa.
Conneaut Lake Park (originally Exposition Park) opened in 1892.
The park is now owned by trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, with an all-volunteer board. The rides, concessions and games are leased by Adams Amusements.
“Conneaut is a living museum,” said board member Lisa Rawson. “Small parks have suffered and closed, but the nostalgia and stories carry on here.”
The park is slowly recovering from neglect, arson and a few years of being closed, but the spirit still lives on. It’s certainly a work in progress, but for amusement park enthusiasts, it’s an interesting place to visit.
Despite its worn appearance, we noted kids were still happy doing their thing. (We even took a pony ride on the historic pony track.)
“Most rides have been at our park for the long term,” she said. “The Tumble Bug is one of only two remaining. It’s not operating, but we’re working on it.”
The Blue Streak celebrates its 75th anniversary. Rawson said it has undergone restoration, and is one of only two remaining Ed Vettel coasters left.
The miniature train dates to 1968, as does the Devil’s Den, one of only two left.
We checked it out, just to see its famous “Gum Wall” where patrons have stuck their gum over the years. (It’s still there, in case you were wondering.)
And the bumper cars are just how we like them – sparky.
Kiddieland has one of the largest collections of Allan Herschell rides in operation today.
“Our 1950 Little Dipper roller coaster is the oldest operating in the U.S., and we have the original cars,” said Rawson.
Rides from defunct parks have found a home at Conneaut, too.
“We have one from Idora Park in Youngstown, two from Pittsburgh’s West View Park and one from Harvey Lake’s Hanson Park,” said Rawson.
The park’s 1910 carousel has a restored Artizan Band Organ.
“Everyone’s visited an amusement park growing up. Chances are it’s now gone,” said Rawson. “Our park defied many odds. In 2012 we went on the National Register of Historic Places. When you’ve got 121 years of stories, people recognize us for what we are, a national treasure.”
Open: 1-9 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; 1-9 p.m. Mondays after July 4, through the end of August. Free admission. Rides are $1 ticket (Blue Streak is 3 tickets). Day pass is $15 (excludes Blue Streak; upgrade for $20 to include). Pony rides are $5 for one, $8 for two. There’s a small beach for swimming nearby.
Drive: About 2 hours from Buffalo. Ages: Kiddie to tween.
Next week: Part 2 – Closer to home.