|This year, the Western New York Coaster Club's annual
Coasterfest™ took place in our neck of the woods, at two of New
England's prettiest parks. The first day was one of our favorite
stops, Canobie Lake
Park in Salem, NH. Unfortunately, Karen had to play for a
wedding and couldn't go with me. So I made the two-and-a-half
hour drive alone. For a Memorial Day weekend, the traffic was
surprisingly light. The sky was bright and cloudless. And
the temperature hovered in the low 40s. I was glad I ventured out dressed for the weather, with a jacket.
I arrived at the park shortly after 9:00 a.m., the second car in the lot next to WYNCC members John and Lisa Maxwell. The only other cars there belonged to the employees and were arranged in the L-shaped lot that followed the path of the Yankee Cannonball coaster. The park evidently did some track work, since there was a lot of new wood showing. Within a few minutes, Geff Ford, the event coordinator, and others began arriving. Canobie had set up a small tent and table for registration. Yvonne and Bob Wheeler, the Membership Director and Webmaster arrived with a big canvas WNYCC sign which Bob attached to the tent. There was a really strong cold wind blowing in off the lake, and the sign acted as a sail and kept making the entire tent walk away. We had to relocate the sign to the nearby wood fence.
Twenty-two members eventually gathered, bundled up and huddled together. Chris Nicoli, the park's Marketing Manager, arrived with our packets. He commented how this was one of the rare groups where everyone showed up on time. Geff had name badges for everyone, which were mostly concealed underneath jackets. Our exclusive ride time on the park's four coasters was to start at 10:00, a half-hour before the public arrived. We were escorted into the park. Most of the members headed straight for Yankee Cannonball, the park's fun 1936 wood coaster. The ride has a very small station and old-style skid brakes, which doesn't allow for any-seat queuing(nor two-train operation). So it's rare to get the front seat on that ride; wherever you happen to end up in line determines which seat you get. As a consequence, Karen and I would ride it infrequently. But today there was plenty of room. I let the first train go so I could get the front seat on the next train. All the passengers came back to the station laughing and clapping. As Lisa commented, it's one of the few coasters that's easy for us older folks to ride over and over again. It's smooth and mild, but with lots airtime.
Lisa stayed in the front seat so I joined her, buckled up and lowered the lap bar. The ride operator sent us off with the park's slogan: "Have a great time at Canobie, where it's just for fun!" We headed off up the lift hill. I could feel the shifting and flexing of the wood train beneath me, somehow comforting in this age of all-steel inflexible trains. Once we rolled off the lift, the train plunged down the first drop and rose up into the first camelback hill as we floated out of our seats. The ride was a bit slower than usual, understandable since it was so cold and there was so much new track. Even so, every hill had us out of our seat, and the bunny hop run back to the station was a delight.
When we returned to the station, there were only a few people in line. I probably could have stayed on, but I knew where everyone else had gone; they headed to the north end of the midway to ride Untamed, the park's popular looping coaster. I had ridden it a few years before, and it was too extreme for me. So I spent my time there taking pictures of the photogenic ride. I'm still amazed (and delighted) that the park went through the trouble of painting the coaster's support structure to look like birch trees.
I walked back over to Yankee Cannonball. There were only four people on the ride, including John and Lisa (who once again were in the front). John graciously let me take a seat in front, giving me a rare treat of two front seat rides in a row on the Cannonball. That second trip was much faster, with the coaster flying over the hills. But that would be my last ride on it for the day; it was 10:30, and the park opened to the general public. The Cannonball's queue filled up quickly.
Nearby was the park's rare circular Tiki Maze, but it hadn't opened yet. So I walked past that. Across the midway from the maze was an empty area under construction that was formerly the home of the park's new Equinox flat ride. I didn't think that ride fit in with Canobie's family-oriented offerings. I guess the park agreed. I continued over to the vintage carousel. It's band organ had just been refurbished and sounded great. But like the Tiki Maze, it too wasn't yet operating. So I went to the nearby Canobie Express train station. It appeared that a new worker was being taught how to operate the steam locomotive, and so it needed to make one complete cycle before opening to the public.
I wasn't having much luck finding a ride that was open, so instead I just wandered about the midway. At the entrance to the old Boston section of the park, a bubble machine was entertaining some children. The old roller skating rink building which used to act as a simple storage area had been converted into a haunted house for the Halloween season. The park simply left the facade up to advertise the haunted house year-round. Next to the scary display was a kiddie ride area and a cage for the park's peacocks (which used to be free to wander about the midway).
I walked back to the train station. The park had added a digital timer to indicate when the train would return. Next to that was a flat-screen TV playing a video about steam railroads. Within a few minutes, the train slowly returned, making its loops around the grove next to the station. A few other people queued up with their children. I got to sit at the front of the train. The operator filled the locomotive's tank with water from a large flexible pipe off to the side. A few minutes later we eased out of the station, the smokestack belching blasts of steam. We rolled past the Canobie Corkscrew steel coaster and then curved around toward the lake shore behind Castaway Island, the waterpark that was open but empty on such a chilly day.
The train more than once slowed to a crawl during its circuit. I was watching a digital readout in the locomotive's cab that would occasionally rise up to about 40 when the engine picked up speed, and then fall back to single digits when it slowed. I assumed that was a pressure gauge. There was a strong cold wind coming off the lake, and I wished I was up in the cab where it had to be a little warmer. The engine chugged past the back of the roller rink and inched forward past the back of the theater. As it neared the back of Portofino's Restaurant, just yards from the north station, the train slowed to a halt and the gauge read zero. The operator fiddled with the knobs and valves, but the engine wouldn't move. Passengers began calling out that they were freezing, and indeed my hands were beginning to get numb. A second more experienced operator who was riding at the back of the train came running up, grabbed a plastic cup, filled it with water from the tank and poured it over the locomotive's pistons. "Now back up the engine," he called to the operator. They went through that process a few more times and the engine finally began lumbering forward, past the station, around the arcade at the north end of the park and then back to the station. Although I love train rides, that was one trip I wished had been a lot shorter.
To warm up out of the wind, I headed over to the Bear Lodge next to Untamed. On the way, I passed by the vintage Caterpillar ride which still looked great and was still thrilling guests of all ages. The Lodge (basically an arcade and gift shop) offered a brief chance to thaw out. Some kids were there playing air hockey. The "casino" area hadn't opened. There was a lone pinball machine off to the side, the famous Hercules, the largest commercial machine ever built. But it wasn't operating.
I went back outside. The midway was gradually filling with more guests. At the Midway Stage, I stopped to watch a performance of Extreme Science. It was a good fit for the park, a combination of entertainment and learning. They had a small Van der Graaf generator on stage. The "scientist" and his assistant were doing the usual demonstration of static electricity using a kid from the audience. Then he brought out a large plastic barrel to demonstrate air pressure. It was high-energy and amusing. The audience seemed to like it. I stopped at the nearby lemonade stand which used to serve fresh-squeezed lemonade. Unfortunately, it had switched to processed drinks a few years ago. But at least now they put a real slice of lemon in the cup.
From there I headed to the nearby Palace Arcade where I spotted a wonderful sight -- Pinball Alley. It was a wall of pinball machines. So I exchanged a five dollar bill for quarters and began feeding them. First up was one of the greatest pinball games ever made, The Addams Family. I began playing and quickly discovered that one of the flippers was completely dead, which made the game impossible to play. After quickly losing that one, I moved over to another classic, Twilight Zone. On that one, the flippers were so weak that I could barely get the ball to move up the ramps. Monster Bash ate my quarters but wouldn't start. The attendant was able to get it going, and that machine worked okay (probably because no one had been able to play it up till then). I spotted another one of my favorites, High Speed. But that too had flippers with no power. It became apparent why so few arcades have pinball machines anymore; they're mechanical and need a lot of maintenance. While it was disappointing that there were so many duds along Pinball Alley, I was glad that Canobie offered such a large variety of them.
By then it was 1:00 and time for our buffet lunch. So I made my way back toward Untamed, where the group had gathered. Even though the sun was bright, the air was still cold. Within a few minutes, the gate to the Pavilion Catering area was opened and we walked around the back of the Bear Lodge and around beside Untamed. There were the usual hot dogs and hamburgs, plus vegetarian baked beans, green salad, potato salad and drinks. Everyone in the group was hungry by that time and eagerly dug into the food, which was tasty.
After the meal, Chris Nicoli arrived along with Justin Winward, the assistant manager for ride operations, to field any questions we had about the park. Questions ranged from coaster maintenance to future plans. Chris and Justin shared some interesting facts. For example, the dance hall was built in 1937 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the same company that built the Yankee Cannonball. He also mentioned that the park's iconic Flying Scooters (or in their case, Flying Roosters) ride was built from World War II bomber parts. He talked about how the park has fallen in love with foam sculpting, turning their concession buildings into fantastic creations that could have come straight out of Rollercoaster Tycoon. And he said they've been considering building another wood roller coaster; they just can't figure out where they'd put it. He had lined up gift bags along a picnic table, and we were invited to take one. The large bags held a Canobie lanyard and a sweatshirt with a hoodie, a thoughtful gift for a cold day.
Then Chris led us back behind the northeast end of the park and showed us the work being done to prepare for the annual Halloween event. The employees were growing a cornfield there, which would later be used to form a maze. They were also planting a vegetable garden. He guided us to the rarely-seen north side of the Cannonball's lift hill, where we were invited to take pictures (which I did). Then he took us back through the employee entrance area, where one of the buildings had an impressive two-story curved wall made of glass blocks. We then proceeded across the midway and to the former skating rink. He took us inside to show us the layout of the haunted house (which was going to be completely changed for the fall). I marvelled at the tall wood and steel trusses that held the high gracefully arched ceiling. And I was surprised that a large portion of the floor was concrete.
The next stop was going to be the dance hall. In retrospect, I wish I had gone with the group. Yvonne later told me it was fascinating. But instead I decided to take some more video of the park. I noticed my throat becoming raspy and painful, and I was dreading the possibility I was getting sick. Castaway Island had shut down for lack of guests. I was surprised that people were actually riding the Boston Tea Party, the park's drenching shoot-the-chutes. And even though it didn't make that much of a splash, I had no interest in riding the Policy Pond log flume. I would have gone on Mine of the Lost Souls, the park's terrific dark ride, but the line was really long for that.
By then it was approaching 4:00, so I decided to start the long trek back home and rest up for the next day of Coasterfest™. I bid farewell to the other WNYCC members. Ironically, the temperature by then had finally reached the 70s. But I was too worn out to stay.
As it turned out, I woke up the next morning with laryngitis and never made it to Lake Compounce, missing out on what would have been a perfect park day with temperatures in the 80s. Even so, weather notwithstanding, I had another good time at Canobie Lake. The park is aging gracefully, maintaining its great mix of rides and attractions and staying relevant while at the same time continuing to honor its past. Quaint (and still functional) nickelodeons still dot the midway, creating a feeling of a park frozen in a bygone era, while at the same time the giant colorful Xtreme Frisbee and Skater are a reminder that this is definitely a modern park keeping up with the times. It's a difficult balancing act, and Canobie has continued to do it well.
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