Canobie Lake Park
June 24, 2007

On a park-perfect sunny summer Sunday, Karen and I headed north for a return trip to one of our favorite places, Canobie Lake in Salem, New Hampshire. On the way, we stopped at a McDonald's to pick up a couple of discount coupons. (Apparently, none of the stores in Western Massachusetts carried them. Karen went to get some coupons at a local pharmacy and was told that they threw them all out; they'd never heard of the park.)

We arrived at about 11:00, and the parking lot (still free!) was nearly half-filled. Over to the right, a coaster train zipped through the Yankee Cannonball's turnaround. The signature pine tree in the middle of the turnaround was still standing proud. The handrails on the coaster had been painted a bright orange and helped accent the track's profile.

We parked next to the lift hill for the Policy Pond log flume, shaded by tall pines. We walked over to the brand new entrance, which proudly proclaimed the park's opening year: 1902. It was rustic and beautiful, a perfect fit for the park. The old entrance was quaint but didn't have much going for it: only a few ticket booths and no amenities. The vast new entrance area included a new gift shop, rest rooms, first aid, guest relations and much more efficient gating. Canobie didn't take shortcuts: the roof was topped with cedar shingles and copper flashing. The arched ceilings were all wood. There were even antique-looking lamps. The pavement was fake cobblestone and brick. It was really classy. The ticket windows all had green LED arrows or red Xs over them, so it was easy to see which window was open. I walked up and presented my two coupons from McDonald's. Immediately, the teller handed them back to me explaining, "Sorry, sir. These are only good Monday thru Friday." Sure enough, the coupons said that in fine print. Even so, at $28 a piece the admission wasn't that bad.

Karen paused for a photo with Dapper, the Canobie Lake mascot. In front of us was a terrific piece of ballyhoo: a popcorn stand shaped like a gigantic colorful box of popcorn, complete with foot-wide kernels. Just to the right of that was a new ride, a Huss Frisbee called Xtreme. It stuck out like a sore thumb. I'm not sure if it was still being installed. Surrounding it was what appeared to be scaffolding. Inexplicably, on one section of scaffolding was a large reproduction of the Mona Lisa. On posts surrounding the ride were mounted large sections of steel sonotube. The whole ride, although colorful, looked really industrial and clashed with the park's more bucolic entrance area. It might have been a better fit near the waterpark or in Canobie's "Tiki" beach-themed section. The backside of the ride was even worse, basically a gigantic metal wall with a few low colored panels.

To the right was a new waterfall and small pond. While standing next to it with Karen and looking back at new entrance area, it then dawned on me: the swimming pool was gone. Canobie had been one of the few parks left in the country with a free swimming pool on the midway. But it had become a casualty of the re-designed entrance. The pool had probably outlived its usefulness; with the waterpark expanding, the pool was redundant.

One thing that hadn't changed was the proliferation of authentic mutascopes scattered about the midway. For still just a nickel, guests could watch a short movie that flipped by on a series of large cards.

We headed north and spotted the Tiki Maze, one of the few mirror mazes operating at a fixed park. Although it no longer rotated, I guess it was still a pretty effective illusion. I ended up walking face-first into a pane of glass. (There was no damage either to me or the glass.)

After that we wandered through the old seaside area of the park. To the left, the big old storage building (which I believe was once a roller skating rink) had been given a fresh coat of paint and new doors. It looked brand new. To the right, the great Boston Tea Party shoot-the-chutes ride was drenching half the midway. Although it was a beautiful day, the temperature was only in the 70s. We didn't want to walk around the park soaking wet and freezing, so we passed on that.

Since Karen and I are vegetarians, it can be challenging to find edible food at parks. So Karen was excited to discover (from their website) that Canobie was serving a Mediterranean dish at the Sons of Liberty Tavern, consisting of hummus, pita bread, falafels and vegetables. We checked the menu outside the Tavern, and sure enough it was listed. It was still a bit early for lunch, so we continued down the midway. Beautiful landscaping was everywhere, and there was nice attention to detail (such as at the Fried Clam shack).

At the north end of the park, the old paddle-wheeler The Canobie Queen had been replaced by the Blue Heron Lake Cruise, a small catamaran that sailed smoothly over the large expanse of calm water. The boat had already left the dock and we didn't want to hang out there for a half-hour, so we continued walking. Da Vinci's Dream, the beautifully placed swing, was thrilling riders. Karen remarked on how much Canobie reminded her of Busch Gardens Europe. The park was so lush.

Around the corner from the swing used to be the old Paratrooper ride. That had been replaced by the Vekoma Skater, which originally had been plopped down on the site occupied by the old Galaxi coaster (which was now occupied by the Frisbee). The Skater looked much more at home in its new location. We walked past it and into the Canobie Mall, which used to be their old dark ride. It was now...well...a mall, with shops lining each side. At the far end was the Vegas-style Jackpot Casino eminating music by Dino, Frank and Tony.

We walked out past the old rocket ship. A new photo-op was constructed there, two cut-out space suits. You could stick your face in the helmet. Next to that was the antique car ride. There wasn't much of a line for it, so we queued up. The "pit crew" did an excellent job of moving guests along. Within a few minutes we were riding along the peaceful course. Along the way, I noticed another nice touch by the park -- they had kept the spinning moon from their old Klaus jet ride and re-used it when they built the Starblaster.

After that we decided to hop on the Yankee Cannonball. The queue for this venerable coaster had been redesigned, with the lines running lengthwise. It made a lot more sense and was thankfully still shaded by a big tree. But the line moved excruciatingly slow. I had plenty of time to re-read the historical sign with facts about the coaster. While waiting in line, the P.A. system on the small midway stage across from the coaster blared out, "Yo! Yo! Y'all come on over in ten minutes for CL5, the best in hip-hop and R&B!" Sure enough, ten minutes later a muscleman in black tights appeared with two girls in pink jumpsuits. They jumped about the stage to a thumping bass doing that sort of half-gymnast/half-cheerleader thing that passes for modern pop dance. Then a white guy wearing all black and a backwards white baseball cap entered and began singing in that style heard so often on American Idol, that of a kid who's listened to Vanilla Ice and Eminem, trying desperately to imitate Stevie Wonder. The small crowd seemed to be enjoying it.

We finally boarded after about 1/2 hour. Because of the station design (we couldn't choose a seat), we ended up in the first seat of the last car in the train. Outside of a bit of spinal compression from where we were sitting, the coaster gave its usual peppy ride with lots of airtime.

There's nothing like a good coaster ride to whet the appetite. So off we headed for the Sons of Liberty Tavern. We walked in and looked for the cafeteria line, but there was none -- just a bar. A waitress came over to us and asked how many. Karen said two, and the waitress seated us in a quaint wooden booth and gave us each a menu. That was a pleasant surprise, since every other eaterie in the park was cafeteria-style. We put our hands on the table and it felt as if it had been covered with glue.

"Could you wipe up our table?" Karen asked. "It's a bit sticky."

"Oh, it's always like that," the waitress replied offhanded. "There's nothing we can do about it."

Karen and I looked at each other and sort of shrugged. The waitress asked if we wanted anything to drink. Karen got her usual Diet Coke. Since there was a bar, I asked for ginger ale. "We don't have that," the waitress said apologetically. "All we have is Sprite." I told her I'd have a water.

Karen and I looked over the menu. Naturally, we were going to ask for the Mediterranean entree. It wasn't cheap at $8.95, but hopefully it would be a sizeable portion and we could share it. The waitress returned promptly with our bottled drinks (no glasses). She asked if we were ready to order. Karen told her what we wanted.

"Oh," she said, disappointed. "I'm sorry but we don't have that." I asked if it was just briefly out-of-stock. "No, we haven't had it all season. We might get some in sometime in July." Karen and I looked at each other. What the heck was it doing on the menu, then? Why was it prominently advertised on their website?

The waitress then added, "We also don't have the clam chowder or the fried ravioli either." I asked about the tuna sandwich. "No, we're out of that too."

Karen was crestfallen and told her we'd just pay for the drinks (which came to five dollars). I suggested taking a walk down to Portofino's, Canobie's reliable Italian eaterie. So we walked over there. We wondered if it was closed; it seemed dark inside and we couldn't see any people. But I opened the door and was greeted with a blast of air conditioning. It was open for business. I got a plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce and garlic bread. Karen got a garden salad. The people behind the counter seemed very eager to help but not very coordinated, as if they didn't know who was supposed to do which job. Our order (without drinks) came to over $16. Karen's rather small salad alone was a whopping $6.95!

We sat out on the veranda and ate. A cute little baby in a stroller next to us kept eyeing our food; and no wonder -- all it had to eat was a rice cake. The water lapped gently at the lake shore. There was a gentle breeze. My pasta and bread were quite good. Karen's salad was...well...salad.

We decided to make another try for the Blue Heron Cruise. But the boat had just left. At that point, Canobie's steam train rolled into the station. So we hopped aboard for a relaxing ride along the lakeside. It still amazed me as the park rolled past our view that with all the changes the park had seen over the last several years, it managed to keep its uniqueness intact. It still felt like the Canobie Lake I first visited nearly two decades ago.

Even though the weather wasn't too steamy, the waterpark was crowded. The landscaping around the Canobie Corkscrew had aged nicely and made the ride much more picturesque than when it was new. Hidden behind a building were even more trees and flowers waiting to be planted. We disembarked in front of the Be-Bop Diner, with its spinning hamburg. The hamburg used to be inside the diner area, but it really served no purpose there and was hard to see. It looked much more impressive high above the midway. Strangely, in its place in the diner was a figure of Betty Boop standing in the middle of flames.

We headed to the old west section of the park at the southern end. A small sign explained Canobie's philosophy in creating the area. I found it interesting that Canobie was gradually re-inventing itself as a theme park, but it hadn't really advertised that. Three distinct themed areas emerged over the years: the western section (which was the first), the New England seaside area and the "Tiki" beach area. Each was separated from the other with transitional stretches of midway, blended into the next by using what Canobie has everywhere -- trees and flowers. Even so, each section somehow retained the feeling of a turn-of-the-century trolley park. It certainly didn't feel like Six Flags or Disney.

In the past, Canobie featured country and western acts on the little stage in the center of the western section. That made sense. But instead, this year the featured act was a Blues Brothers tribute. It really seemed anachronistic there. It might have been better suited to the stage across from the Yankee Cannonball.

We queued up for The Mine of the Lost Souls, Canobie's high-tech dark ride. It was a fairly long wait. The operators didn't seem very thrilled to be there. (At least they were in the shade.) The station had been re-designed. Originally, passengers stepped on a moving sidewalk (basically a big conveyor belt) and climbed into the mine cars, which never stopped moving. Over the years, the sidewalk sometimes moved but usually was stationary, and the operators simply stopped the cars for boarding. The operator station had now been reconstructed directly on top of the sidewalk, which I guess will never move again. I assume the park had problems with the moving sidewalk system, but it seemed to cycle riders more quickly than the stop-and-go method they were using.

Eventually Karen and I boarded one of the cars and took our trip through the dark mine. The numerous animatronics proved quite robust and looked great. The cascading water at the end (which never quite worked right) was the only stunt not functioning, although a sound effect of rushing water was quite prominent.

We then headed over toward the picturesque log flume. The queue was completely filled, and that probably meant close to an hour in line. Karen wanted to see a new show in the Dancehall Theater, "Fly," which started at four o'clock; it was almost three. We listened to a Dixieland Band playing in the Timber Trail gazebo. Then we decided to take a ride on the Giant Sky Wheel.

First we stopped by that gigantic popcorn box. Karen got some regular popcorn. I got a small bag of T. T. Buds Sweet and Salty Popcorn. It was a bit pricey, at $3 for a small bag. But it was the best kettle corn I've ever eaten. We queued up for the wheel and by the time we finished munching on our popcorn we were ready to board. From high up, the changes to Canobie's entrance were even more obvious and striking. As with Busch Gardens and Knoebel's, it was amazing how little of the park we could see from the air; it mostly looked like a forest. I was also amazed at the parking lot -- it was completely filled, and cars were being parked on the grassy area opposite the Cannoball turn.

We strolled over to Canobie's unique carousel, with its stepped platform and variety of figures from several different carvers. Their showpieces included a large Dentzel lion and a beautiful reindeer. Karen and I sat on two jumpers. The ride wasn't fast but it was enjoyable. I noticed, though, that instead of their band organ a CD of symphonic music was playing on large speakers. I wondered whether Canobie had abandoned its Wurlitzer. Karen pointed toward the inner scenery where there was an open door. "Isn't that your friend who fixes the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round band organ?" she asked. Sure enough, it was Bob Newman. I called out to him as we went around, and he spotted me and hopped on the ride. He said the tracker had a slight malfunction, a spring popped out, and he'd have it running again in a half-hour.

When the ride stopped, Karen and I headed over to the Dancehall Theater. On the way we stopped to get some lemonade, but the stand had run out and they were making some more. So we kept on walking. The theater was nearly pitch black and packed. The show was just about to start. I followed Karen to the back of the theater where there were still a few seats on the far left side. The stage had a small alcove on the left, a long tall white picket fence running the length of the stage, and another small alcove on the right. We sat down and a man appeared in a costume sort of resembling a monkey. He beat out a rhythm wildly on a set of congas placed in the left alcove. Then the light went out on him and came up on the main stage. People in similar costumes slowly crawled over the fence and onto the stage to loud thumping dance music. They started jumping around in that acrobat/cheerleader style. Part of the problem from where we were sitting was that the performers would move off the stage and onto the floor, at which point we could see only their heads bobbing up and down. Lots of small children in the audience were standing on their chairs trying to see what was going on. Then the performers disappeared.

Two other performers, a man on the left and a woman on the right, appeared and each grabbed what looked like two long red silk scarves dangling from the ceiling. They each wrapped their arms around the cloth and spun themselves so that they basically wound themselves up toward the ceiling and then back down toward the floor, doing acrobatic headstands along the way. That was pretty impressive. Two other performers appeared in the right alcove and struck some shaky poses, as if they were imitating (poorly) statues frozen in various positions.

Then they left and more jumping monkeys appeared. Again, we could only see their heads and feet bobbing up and down above the crowd. Karen and I both had enough. We walked back out into the sushine. We decided to head for the Blue Heron Cruise, but once again we just missed the boat. We headed back toward the carousel. On the way we stopped and got some fresh-squeezed lemonade, which was quite tasty. Karen also got a soft pretzel. I checked on Bob, who was just finishing up. The organ was running again and sounded great. He told me that he and his wife (who live in Rhode Island) were heading out for a walk when Canobie called about their organ. So she and Bob headed up north instead. We chatted for a while and then bid farewell. I knew I'd be seeing him again soon; he was going to begin refurbishing the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round band organ in the fall.

On the way out, Karen and I stopped in the little gift shop at the entrance. I told the woman at the counter how much I liked the re-designed entryway. She agreed that it was nice, but said she really wasn't fond of the Frisbee. She said kids would load up on food from the nearby candy apple stand, ride the Frisbee and then throw up all over the midway. She was glad the ride wasn't running that day.

Karen and I began our long trek back home. I was really pleased that Canobie had the foresight to make sure that even new rides and changes blended in with the overall look and feel of the park. There were a few missteps this year, perhaps just growing pains. The Skater looked ugly when it was first installed, but on this trip it blended in well with its surroundings. Hopefully the Frisbee would be adapted to its surroundings as well. I wished that the park had invested in a different type of ride; so many parks have Huss Frisbees (including nearby Six Flags New England). I wished that they had chosen a more unique ride that would have fit the area better. After all, it was the first major ride visible as guests entered the park. Canobie was never a "thrill" park, and having such a ride so prominently displayed might give the wrong first impression. I was also concerned at how uncoordinated the food service seemed. Sodexho was usually more professional and efficient there. And I wasn't too thrilled by the choices of entertainment this season. We've definitely seen better shows at Canobie. Hopefully those glitches can be soon ironed out.

But concerns like those won't deter Karen or me from returning. The crowds at the park (unusual for a Sunday) attest to the fact that the management has been doing something right. With careful growth and a continued eye for details, Canobie can remain the most beautiful amusement park in New England.

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