It’s a Western New York regret, up there with No Goal and Wide Right. No one who remembers Crystal Beach can ever get over the loss of the Comet.
The sprawling wooden coaster, built in 1949 and designed by Herbert Schmeck of the Philadelphia Toboggan Co., would lift you far over the beach – and then drop you in a fast free-fall that made you feel as if you were weightless.
When Crystal Beach closed in 1989, everyone wondered what would happen to the Comet. It was bought at auction by Charles Wood, the owner of Six Flags Great Escape, in Lake George. At the time, Wood also owned Fantasy Island, the amusement park on Grand Island. And so for a few years he stored the great coaster there, in pieces. Alas, he moved it to Lake George, where it reopened in 1994. And that was the end of Buffalo and the Comet.
Or was it?
What a lot of people do not know is that there is a Comet here. It is at Martin’s Fantasy Island. It is called the Silver Comet.
The sign looks like the one you remember, with “Comet” in vertical, colored letters. The station’s wooden floors and worn paint make you feel you’re back at Crystal Beach – more than you would probably feel at Lake George, where the sign and the station are completely different.
Martin DiPietro, the park’s owner, commissioned the Silver Comet not as a copy of, but a tribute to, the Crystal Beach Comet. He bought a vintage-style train from the Philadelphia Toboggan Co., now called Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters and manufacturing only trains, and had the coaster built by Ohio-based Custom Coasters International.
The Silver Comet, which opened in 1999, has a drop much like the old Comet’s and zooms you forward at the same speed – 55 mph. Both Comets are hybrid coasters, with a wooden track on a steel frame.
Coaster-net.com calls it “one of the best, if not the best wooden roller coaster in New York.” Coasterbuzz, another coaster site, considers the Silver Comet No. 82 in the top 100 coasters, both wooden and steel – beneath the old Crystal Beach Comet (No. 38), but above such cult destinations as the GhostRider at California’s Knott’s Berry Farm; the vintage Cyclone at Coney Island; and Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure, which has a 90-degree drop and speeds of 148 mph.
“It is a great ride and you will LOVE it to death,” ran one Coasterbuzz comment on the Silver Comet. “I can’t believe I waited three years to ride such a wonderful masterpiece.”
The massive new coaster with an old coaster feel isn’t anything anyone would have predicted. Only one thing is more preposterous than what DiPietro did, commissioning a new Comet.
That is the weird fact that many locals don’t seem to know it exists.
Post a picture of the Silver Comet on Facebook, and your friends will think you are at Lake George. The grief over the old Comet continues with no one mentioning the new one. I am a case in point. I loved the old Comet and, like everyone else, wept when it left. Recently, when I found myself at Fantasy Island for the first time in years, I looked up and –
“What’s that?” I said.
‘A well-kept secret’
Maybe it’s that people still think of Fantasy Island as a kiddie park. Perhaps people are so sad over Crystal Beach that they think they can’t care about any other coasters.
But there might be a simpler reason why the Silver Comet is a mystery to many. DiPietro, in his mid-50s, is undeniably publicity-shy.
“I am a true introvert,” he told The News years ago, and it seems he was honest. Unable for weeks to reach him, I went to the park and chased him down in person. It took some doing. When we finally sat down together in front of the quaint Sweet Shop, it was like meeting the Wizard of Oz.
On that warm afternoon, it felt as if Fantasy Island wanted to maintain its sleepy equilibrium. They have their original Model T cars, with their real gas pedals, and the 1962 trains, made by the Herschell Carrousel Co. On the fanciful Wild West Main Street, actors still put on a show every night. You can linger by a priceless huge fish, and hear an unhurried, probably long-dead actor telling you the story of Pinocchio.
DiPietro cited, with pride, the park’s rides for grown-ups.
“When we got the Mind Warp, it was the first in North America,” he said. “I still don’t think there’s another.”
But his heart is with the past. He went through a lot of trouble and expense to buy back the Blue Goose, another Herschell ride original to the park, after Wood, the Comet buyer, took it away. He had hoped that the Comet could stay at Fantasy Island, and hated when Wood took that away too.
About the Silver Comet, he conceded, “It’s a well-kept secret.”
He spent between $3 million and $4 million on the Silver Comet, designed by Custom Coasters International. The Ohio firm, which went bankrupt in 2002, had a brief but glorious run.
“They made some great coasters,” said Wade Abbott, the state regional representative for American Coaster Enthusiasts.
One of the Silver Comet’s engineers, Larry Bill, teamed up with other engineers to found a new coaster company, the Gravity Group. It built the 6,422-foot Voyage, rated by some as the best wooden coaster in the country.
Korey Kiepert, an engineer at the Gravity Group, was familiar with the Silver Comet project. Although it’s audacious to try to re-create a historic coaster, it’s not unusual, Kiepert said. His firm was contracted, for instance, to re-create the Zippin Pippin, a Memphis coaster Elvis loved.
The Silver Comet, like the great coasters of the past, took intense work.
“It takes us the better part of nine months or longer to do the engineering for the rides,” said Kiepert, who treasures, in his office, a sheriff’s badge Fantasy Island gave him as a souvenir. “Every ride we work on becomes a big part of our life during that time.”
A galaxy of Comets
The Philadelphia Toboggan Co.’s Herbert Schmeck must have devoted a great part of his life to the Comet. Not just ours, either. He left a trail of them.
Our Comet, as old-timers will tell you, was remade from recycled remnants of the Cyclone, a vicious knot of crazy twists and turns that proved just too dangerous. The Crystal Beach Comet, with a height of 95 feet and a drop of 87 feet, is a sprawling, horizontal model known as “double out and back.” Schmeck designed it to hug the shore of Lake Erie.
Another Comet, still running in Hersheypark in Pennsylvania, is also a double out-and-back, with a height of 84 feet and a 78-foot drop, and crosses a river.
A third Schmeck Comet still operates in Waldameer, in Erie, Pa. Opened in 1951, it’s a junior ride, with a 35-foot drop. And Schmeck designed yet another Comet for Forest Park Highlands in St. Louis, Mo. Opened in 1941, it had a 500-foot tunnel. It was scrapped in 1966, after the park burned.
A Comet in Lincoln Park, Mass., a classic opened in 1946, was made by a different company. There is a galaxy of other smaller coasters, many still running, also called the Comet.
A tangled situation involves a Giant Coaster that Schmeck helped design, that opened in 1917 at Paragon Park in Hull, Mass. (Crystal Beach’s Giant Coaster, also called the Junior Coaster, dated from 1916. It was burned after the park closed.)
Paragon Park’s Giant Coaster was 98 feet tall and, when it opened, was the tallest coaster in the world. In 1968, it received replacement trains from the Comet being scrapped in Forest Park Highlands. The trains read “Comet.” Now this old survivor is restored and is a popular draw at Six Flags America in Maryland. It has been renamed the Wild One. But its longtime fans still recall it as the Comet.
Old coasters can be scary. A YouTube commenter writes of the Wild One: “Last time I was on that one it was really rough … looks like it’s about to fall apart also haha.”
Someone replies: “LOL did you read the description? This thing was made in 1917 LOL.”
New wooden coasters might lack that fragile feeling. But they have different charms.
DiPietro has noticed that his coaster feels faster than the old one.
“It doesn’t have that slow time,” he said. “It’s just a more constant ride. It’s a faster ride, all the way through.”
Kiepert said that’s because it’s newer. He also points out that the Silver Comet doubles back on itself, ratcheting the train through sections of track. What you see affects the speed you feel.
“Space Mountain only goes 30 mph, but because it’s in the dark and stars, it feels much faster,” he says. “I think that’s true of wooden roller coasters – as you go down the hill, if you go through structures, there are these elements coming toward you, and they feel they’re going to hit you.”
The Silver Comet, also an out-and-back, has 2,800 feet of track, while the Crystal Beach ride had 4,100 feet. The old Comet, Kiepert says, offered more time than the Silver Comet for riders to relax and enjoy the view. “It was a good ride, and sometimes you want to catch your breath and take a look at the park. Nowadays, we have high hills, maybe swoop through a curve – it’s a different philosophy from back in olden days.”
The buzz bar
Crystal Beach was one of a wave of amusement parks that closed in the late 1980s, victims of their era. The number of parks, the wide array of Comets, passionate and nostalgic riders, and parks’ carnival-barker claims add up on the Internet to a lot of misinformation.
The Great Escape website brags that the Crystal Beach Comet “used to be the much-feared Cyclone.” It simply used the Cyclone’s steel.
An article on About.com states matter-of-factly that the Crystal Beach Comet was “bigger and wilder” than the Cyclone. It may have been bigger, but it was certainly not wilder. (You can ride the Cyclone virtually on YouTube, which should put to rest any doubts.)
A fan posting a video of the Lincoln Park Comet writes that it is that Comet that is now at Great Escape.
The rumors and conflicting claims speak of the glamour of the old wooden coasters.
People struggle to describe a wooden track’s elusive feel. DiPietro came up with “clickety-clack.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just a lot more fun.”
Wade Abbott, the coaster expert, understands.
“There’s complete sensory involvement,” he says. “There’s the visual angle, and the smell, the smell of the grease on the track going up the hill, the sound of the anti-rollback devices clicking up the lift hill, the trains running in the background, and, of course, the feel of the motion as you’re going down the hill racing through the course.”
Abbott has ridden 335 roller coasters. Among them is Kingda Ka, which he said is swift and fun, “a big kick in the pants.” He has ridden the old Comet, now that it is near his Albany home, and the Silver Comet. He likes both.
He admires the Silver Comet’s Philadelphia Toboggan Co. train. “They’re my favorite wooden coaster trains. I personally like the old design – the shape, the size, the sound of them.”
Abbott appreciates how riders of both Comets can feel free instead of being, in coaster lingo, “stapled in.” There are no shoulder harnesses. You buckle a seat belt, and wait for the staff to fasten a “buzz bar” (so called, Abbott said, because it buzzes as it goes up and down) over your lap.
Some riders grow impatient as the attendants move down the train, securing every passenger. One who does not is Michael Moran, a local coaster maven.
“What impressed me from the get-go was the ride operators’ dedication to safety,” Moran said. “It was nice to be told not to put the lap bars down, because the ride operator would do it for us. They also only allowed a queue of six or less for the coveted front and rear cars.”
It shows the Silver Comet’s low profile that Moran, though he lives and breathes roller coasters, rode the ride for the first time just a few weeks ago, as part of his fundraiser, “Roller Coaster Crawls to End Alzheimer’s.”
“I’m glad I did,” he said.
The mist from the falls
For anyone who remembers Crystal Beach, the Silver Comet can be sweetly disorienting.
The train rounds a curve and begins climbing, with that clickety-clack sound. At the top of the hill, of course there’s no Lake Erie. But Niagara Falls is within view. “You can see the mist,” DiPietro said.
From the top, looking down, the track seems terrifyingly concave. Then comes the fall.
You know how the Comet’s hill made your body lift off the seat? It is what coaster fans call “air time.” That is what you feel now. Down you go, with everyone screaming, and then up a sharp incline, and around. Plunging down hills, whipping around bends, the train seems to be picking up speed. Toward the end comes a vicious curve, flinging you against the side of the car.
Disembarking, ask yourself: Are you still bitter over the Crystal Beach Comet?
If the answer is no, enjoy your new happiness, and you might have time for a ride on the Crazy Mouse before it’s time for the Wild West shoot-out.
If the answer is yes, consider the case of the Lincoln Park Comet.
Lincoln Park, near Boston, closed in 1987. Its Comet was simply left to rot. The lift hill collapsed in 2005 during a snowstorm. The rest of this once-grand coaster was finally demolished in 2012 to make room for a housing project.
Now that’s tragedy.
Our old Comet, in contrast, is safe and sound, and not even far away. And we have another one, right here. You might like it better.
Michael Moran did. The coaster connoisseur gave the Crystal Beach Comet a B plus. The Silver Comet rated a prestigious A minus.
“What really surprised me was the immediate first drop of 82 feet after the ascent. No turn around, no pause, just up the hill and straight down!” he wrote in his notes. “The Silver Comet is a very fast coaster and its twists and turns are spine jarring, but not to the point of painful. The speed attained was stated to be 55 mph and it sure felt it around some of the turns.
“It boasts a similar number of drops that give the rider pockets of air time, but the twists and banked turns of the Silver Comet just make it seem faster and more intense.”
On his Facebook page, Moran simply told it like it was.
“Awesome ride!” he wrote.