Bay Beach
July 20, 2011

copyright Jay Ducharme 2011

Our first expedition on our Wisconsin trip was to Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay. The park made amusement industry news this year because it resurrected the defunct Zippin Pippin roller coaster from Libertyland in Memphis, Tennessee. The coaster was presumed lost forever after it was bulldozed in 2010. But Bay Beach secured the rights to it and contracted the great Canadian team of Martin & Vleminckx to rebuild it. The ride's claimed to fame, besides being one of the few remaining examples of John Miller's work, was that Elvis Presley said it was his favorite coaster.

We arrived at about 11:30 in the middle of a rare Wisconsin heat wave, with a heat index of 115 making the air feel like a blast furnace.  When we pulled up to the entrance, the first thing we noticed was the vintage flat ride there and the classic old pavilion. There were quite a few cars in the parking lot for such a brutally hot day. We walked into the pavilion with its vintage black and white tiled floor. The building was being used as both an arcade and cafeteria. We strolled back outside and headed for the ticket booth. The park didn't offer a pay-one-price wristband. We were stunned to find that the tickets cost just 25 cents a piece!  The Zippin Pippin required 4 tickets. That was just $1 to ride!  I bought 20 tickets.

The park was really spacious, with lots of open green areas along the bay. The midway itself was simple but clean, with fairly standard rides spaced apart on well-maintained pavement. All of them, from the kiddie rides to the bumper cars to the Tilt-A-Whirl to the Ferris wheel, were painted in bright primary colors. There was a long miniature train ride along the bay.  The locomotives were the classic GE models like the one I used to operate at Mountain Park. A bright red and yellow model was being serviced; a blue one was rolling around the circuit.

Karen and I decided to ride the Pippin first. Initially it was difficult to find, hidden by trees at the north end of the park. It reminded me of how the Great Escape Comet was hidden from view. Walking down the path, the thick jumble of new wood came into view. It was a really impressive sight. The coaster seemed huge in such a small park. There was still a lot of landscaping in progress around the ride's perimeter. The park was running two trains, even though most of the circuits had just a handful of people in each train. The ride entrance had a huge colorful sign.  Next to it was another sign that mentioned how the coaster was Elvis' favorite. Across from the entrance was one of the original coaster train cars from Libertyland on display as a photo spot. That was a really nice touch.

The ride structure was left unpainted.  John Miller's signature camelback hills seemed to be everywhere.  The queue line snaked through the structure. The ride had been bringing big crowds to the park, so the long queue was understandable.  The station was larger than I expected, a graceful white metal structure with an arched canvas roof. When we made it up to the platform, we were delighted to find that we could queue up for the front seat. We walked right through the gates and sat in the front with no competition. Other riders seemed to prefer the middle.  For some reason there was a row of orange traffic cones along the edge of the platform.  The trains appeared to be new PTCs, with seat dividers and individual ratcheting lap bars. It was a bit of a tight fit. I looked out at the tracks which were glistening with lubricant. That was a good sign. The friendly attendants checked the restraints. The chain started up and we rolled out of the station. We turned 180 degrees through the structure of the third hill and smoothly engaged the lift. We swiftly climbed to the top, turned 180 degrees to the right and then flew down the surprisingly steep first drop. We flew up the second hill and popped out of our seats. We sped around a sweeping turn, giving us a spectacular view of the bay.  Then we plunged down the second drop. We climbed into the third hill with another pop of air. That was just a taste of what was coming.

The third hill was another turn, placing us along the outside of the lift hill. That's where the camelbacks started -- one after another. There were four in a row, each one throwing us into our lap bars. A low turnaround sent us into bunny hops and a banked curve. The bunny hop after the curve threw us surprisingly hard into our lap bars. One more bunny hop followed, and then into the brakes.

Just as with Quassy (another small park) and its Wooden Warrior, Bay Beach got a terrific family wood coaster. It was exciting but not punishing.  In fact, Karen and I immediately headed down the exit ramp and then back up the entrance.  We got back into the same seat we had just left and took another fun spin on the ride.  Bay Beach has a good advertising hook with Zippin Pippin (the Elvis connection). But they also have a genuinely good coaster, a hybrid twister/out-and-back that has a lot of kick and a great view. Congratulations to Bay Beach on a bold act of roller coaster preservation.

Karen and I then walked along the bayside. The heat was creating a thick fog on the water. The train was heading back toward the station, so we headed there.  Along the way we passed a curious memorial, a large stone dedicated to "the glory of God" by the Navy Club.  We arrived at the Bay Beach Depot, a large pristine brick building. It looked just like a turn-of-the-century rail depot. Inside was a collection of large historical rail photos on the walls.  There was also a humorous "Rules of the Railroad" sign, based on actual rules from the early 1900s.  A long queue line was empty, but apparently the train attracted big crowds.  Even though we were the only guests in line, the conductor didn't make us wait. Right after we were seated, he blew the train's whistle and headed out of the station. The track curved to the right and brought us alongside the bay walk.  As soon as we got to that straightaway, the conductor opened up the throttle and we flew along the route with alarming speed. At the far south end of the park, the train slowed, made a 360-degree turn back to the straightaway and we were soon at top speed again.  We cruised back into the station. It was one of the most exhilarating miniature train rides I've experienced.

Karen spotted a gift shop nearby, so we made our way there. The heat was withering and the shop had no air conditioning. There was a nice assortment of t-shirts, some of the train and some of the Zippin Pippin. Unfortunately they must have been selling well; the only sizes left were medium and 2x. And the Pippin shirts were long-sleeved. But we got some shirts, which at $12 were very reasonably priced. We also got a poster and some pins.  I was going to pay with plastic, but the clerk told me that the entire park was cash-only. Fortunately, we had enough "real" money on us.

Then we walked back over to the pavilion. It was about 1:30 and we were hungry. The cafeteria served pizza, so we asked for a slice of cheese. But we were told the only choices were pepperoni or sausage. With no vegetarian options, we called it a day. Bay Beach was a pleasant surprise, a charming and relaxing family park with a fun railroad and a terrific coaster.

We made a side trip to the National Railroad Museum, since it was just down the street from Bay Beach. We weren't sure what to expect. The museum wasn't hard to get to but it wasn't really obvious either. A fairly subdued sign greeted us, along with a large chain link fence. We had to look closely to figure out where the entrance was. But once we pulled in the driveway we knew we were in the right place. A scale model steam locomotive was in the center of a sort of rotary.  A full-size diesel locomotive with two passenger cars sat idle on a track in front of a small train station. A large 1-story brick building seemed to be the the main building. To the right were two large open metal buildings housing several huge locomotives. We walked into the thankfully air-conditioned brick building. Large model locomotives stood in glass cases.  A sign instructed us to pay at the gift shop, which was in front of us. We got our wristband and tickets for the train ride (which was leaving in 15 minutes).

The air conditioning felt great.  So we decided to stay indoors until the last possible minute. The complex was larger than it looked. There was a small theater that showed an historical film about railroads. A doorway led to a long hallway with historical photographs on one side. On the other side was a wall filled with colorful illuminated drumheads (round logos that used to be placed on the rear of passenger cars). Further down the hallway opened up into a massive room that held several different locomotives. By that point we decided to go back to catch our ride on the train.

We headed outside into the dense hot air. There were two passenger cars attached to the diesel locomotive. One was enclosed and the other was an open car. The guide was loading the open car. There was a handful of people aboard, mostly families with small children.  After the requisite "keep hands and arms inside the car" spiel, the engine smoothly started up and we slowly glided forward. Fortunately there was a roof over our heads and a nice breeze blowing, which helped to mitigate the heat. The guide pointed out the various engines they had on display as we passed them. We passed across a bridge over the Fox River and rode through a wooded area with rail cars scattered about. The engine came to a stop just before the road next to the museum. To our right was an old boxcar with what appeared to be graffiti on it. The guide explained the origin of hobos and what the graffiti meant. It was an interesting history lesson. The engine started rolling again.  We rode past the station and continued along for one more circuit.  It was a relaxing and enjoyable trip.

After disembarking, we walked over to the engines that were on display outside. Many of the train cars were open and lit, so that you could explore the interior. There was a wide variety, from experimental models to double-decker passenger cars to old steam locomotives. In fact, the oldest steam engine there dated from 1910. I had never before been so close to those engines. Their sheer size was impressive, massive black iron structures the size of a house with drive wheels nearly as tall as I was. Each engineer cab was a confusing spaghetti-like mass of iron pipes with dozens of valves attached. I couldn't fathom how anyone could remember what each valve controlled.

We then retreated to the coolness of the indoor displays. The Pullman car was impressive, with lushly appointed rooms and a wood-and-crystal bar. There was the Eisenhower, a huge art deco train used by that president. There was also Big Boy, one of the largest steam engines ever constructed. It held 37 tons of coal and used an auger to pulverize and feed coal to the boiler (instead of the old method of manually shoveling the coal). The giant room where all these engines were housed also was rented out for parties. The caboose at the back of the room was set up with birthday balloons and tablecloths. It made a perfect setting for a child's (or big kid's) party.

I bought a few souvenirs, and then Karen and I drove south to the little town of Two Rivers. Karen's sister had suggested stopping there. It had the distinction of being the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. We wound our way through the quaint town until we located the Washington House, a former hotel, bar and rooming house that now had an ice cream parlor and gift shop on the first floor. A tour bus with 50 people was just leaving.  We sat at the little round tables.  I had a very good caramel sundae and Karen had cookies-and-cream. The attendants there were all senior citizens and very friendly. They encouraged us to explore the upstairs rooms. There was a large ballroom with a gorgeous painted ceiling. There were also many other small rooms that were frozen in time with turn-of-the-century displays: a dentist office, doctor's office, boarding room, etc....  It was well done and interesting.  And with that, Karen and I headed back for Milwaukee. On the way, we paused at a rest area to watch the Lake Michigan waves roll up to the shore.

We had a great time in the Green Bay area. The Zippin Pippin was the obvious highlight, but the railroad museum was an unexpected treat as well. Wisconsin was a big state and we had only explored a small area, but it seemed to offer no end of interesting things to do. .

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