July 2005

Text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2005

On a beautiful 90+ degree day, Karen and I made our annual pilgrimage to Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire. We had gotten two one-day passes at a discount through Costco. The park in past visits had always been a delight. In fact, it was where I took Karen on our first date ten years ago. I didn't know if much had changed for this season, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

The park's entrance, located on North Policy Road in a residential area, always seemed so understated. The colorful letters above the entrance led to a non-descript parking area, much as it had since the 1930s. Happily, Canobie still offered free parking. The dogleg of the Yankee Cannonball greeted us there. It appeared to have a lot of new trackwork. The turnaround seemed to have been altered slightly, with a noticeable dip in its middle. It was almost like a half-hearted Bill Cobb hoop-de-doo.

We arrived at about 11 a.m., and there were already quite a few cars in the parking lot. That was encouraging for a Monday, which traditionally is a slow day for amusement parks. Although the gates technically opened at 11, very few rides operated until noon. As we approached the gates, we could hear the carousel's band organ playing nearby. I really liked hearing it, instead of the canned music that's at so many other parks. Immediately inside the entrance was the big swimming pool. Once popular at so many parks across the nation, Canobie has been one of the few to keep theirs in good shape through the years. It still attracted a lot of swimmers too.

Karen and I could hear the familiar splash to our left. We headed toward the Policy Pond Sawmill. Set into the ground in a meticulously landscaped area, this flume ride has always been one of my favorites. It was more like a Lazy River ride than a flume, casually gliding along its gently curving course. A nice touch was the giant teepee, which was shared with the Kiddie Canoe ride. Kids might think they'd pop out on the other side of the teepee and drift away down the flume's trough.

After that refreshing splash, we walked next door to the Mine of the Lost Souls. I never knew what to expect from that dark ride. It had so many high-tech effects, that something almost always wasn't working. This time through, the raging water at the end was the only malfunction. The eerie headless man was back. He had disappeared last season, possibly for repair. Even the disturbing crypt scene worked flawlessly. I had thought the dead person who spoke there was an animatronic. But it always seemed too freakishly real. I think it was actually done with a video projection of an actor. Either way, it was very effective.

We walked through the wonderfully themed Old Canobie section. The renovation of the Pirate Ship had been completed, and it looked great. There was even a comical pirate clinging to the bow. We turned left after the ship, and came face to face with the park's new addition, Castaway Island. It was a jaw-dropper, as if we had suddenly stepped onto a Tahitian island complete with palm trees and beach sand. The only clue we were still at Canobie came from the Corkscrew coaster to our right. The area wasn't massive, but it was certainly packed with plenty to do. There was the requisite water play area with the giant tipping bucket (which emptied much more frequently than others I've seen). There was a humorous refreshment bar inside the mouth of a giant comical shark. The entrance to Castaway Island was through a hole in the side of a volcano.

But most impressive of all was the attention to detail in the theming. Bamboo was everywhere. There were appropriately themed benches, grass huts. There was even a themed photo booth! The theming seemed to have crept a bit down the midway as well. Next door, the "Alpine Swings" had been given some bamboo, making them appear a far cry from Switzerland. But the Jungle Bounce fit right in.

Even one of the oldest buildings in the park, the old roller rink, was spruced up. Two huge rolling doors were partly opened, and we even got a rare peek inside. The building still appeared to be used mainly for storage, but it appeared to be in good shape.

By that point it was getting near noon and we were hungry, so we headed over to Portofino's, the park's indoor eatery. All the food in the park is concessioned out to the giant food service company Sodhexo, which does a really good job. We passed by the Dancehall Theater, which was featuring The King Lives!, yet another Elvis tribute. We saw that one a few years ago, and it was very well done. The performer did an excellent job recreating Elvis' Vegas years, unlike the lame imitation at The Great Escape. But we didn't need to see it again. Besides, we were inundated with Elvis everywhere in the park. There was Elvis merchandise in all the gift shops and even a prominent Elvis pinball machine in the arcade.

Just past the theater was another nice Canobie touch, a stone fountain near Da Vinci's Dream. The park was brimming with beautiful plantings and displays. When we arrived at Portofino's it hadn't opened, so we took a trip on the always peaceful Sky Ride, over the top of the stone fountain (the oldest structure in the park) and the rare classic Caterpillar ride, still in perfect condition. In fact, all the rides were in great shape. Karen commented that everything looked freshly painted.

Portofino's opened up, and we each ordered some tasty pizza. I looked out at the lake, but didn't see the Canobie Queen, the park's double-deck paddlewheeler. Last year it sat at the dock, stripped down to its skeleton. This year it was nowhere to be seen. But there was a small metal flat-bottomed boat with a canvas top sitting there. The sign at the dock still said Canobie Queen but the map listed it as the Blue Heron. We passed by the lakeside train stop, which had yellow caution tape stretched all around it and a sign that read, "This attraction temporarily closed." But within a couple of minutes, the train came rolling on by and stopped there.

We waited on the dock for the boat and got a seat right in the front. We actually liked this ride more than the old Canobie Queen. The Blue Heron moved faster through the water, but it was smoother (even with choppy waves) and gave a longer ride at a faster speed, covering more of the lake. We were treated to views of the many expensive homes situated along the shoreline populated by people who complain about Canobie's noise level. (Since the park's been there well over a hundred years, the residents should have been well aware of the situation before buying a house there!) What amazed me about the panoramic view we got, was how unobtrusive the park was. It was pretty much hidden away by trees and nearly silent. All that could be seen were parts of the Corkscrew and the Boston Tea Party, plus a couple of buildings on the shore and the beautiful Da Vinci's Dream ride.

After that restful and breezy twenty minute trip, we strolled into the Lake Arcade and played a Simpson's pinball machine. Then we walked over to the gift shop next to The Wharf restaurant. I was amused at the theming of the Fascination arcade next to it, with its flashing "Jackpot" sign, glitzy glitter backdrop and jazzy soundtrack of Sinatra and Tony Bennett. The gift shop had a few new items that we noted, to purchase before we left. They also still had a few of the Seabreeze hats that were sent to them by mistake last year.

We then passed by the old rocket ship ride, which was now a giant decoration on the midway. I was amused to find that they had placed Kosmo next to it. Kosmo used to be the "mascot" at the old Klaus Satellite Jet ride, which was replaced a few seasons ago by the Starblaster Double Shot tower. I really appreciated how the owners of Canobie treasure its history. I think that has helped the park remain unique in our otherwise mass-produced world.

The Antique Car ride had a really long line, so we passed on that. The ride would have been pleasant, but very short. I wish they would extend its track so that it ran alongside the dogleg of the Yankee Cannonball. They could even weave the ride in and out of the Cannonball's structure, like Knoebel's did with their car ride.

We stopped into the big arcade. A man named Dave Cook used to keep all of Canobie's antique arcade machines in top shape. But he left several years ago, and many of the old machines weren't working on our visit. In fact, many of the new machines weren't working either. We played the Elvis machine (which was quite fun). I got one of Canobie's typically delicious fresh-squeezed lemonades. Then we walked over to the stretch of games near the Yankee Cannonball. One caught Karen's eye. It was a fairly standard ball-rolling game, where various small themed objects (like horses or cars) advance horizontally along tracks, as if they're racing. This one was themed to the Yankee Cannonball and called Coaster Chase. So we sat down with several other people to play. I didn't think I was having too much luck. My ball keep drifting around and rolling into the "Low" hole with every other throw. The bell went off, and it turned out I won! I chose a Marge Simpson doll for Karen (she likes Marge's hair).

We needed some cooling off after that, so we headed for The Boston Tea Party, possible the greatest Shoot the Chute ride ever built. I was still astounded by the gargantuan splash this tiny ride made, drenching much of the surrounding midway. That whole area displayed the park's meticulous attention to detail, from the cobblestone walkways to the giant fish (cod?) hanging from the Fried Clam shack. We queued up for the ride and in a few cycles were seated in the front of one of the big boats. The lift was swift, that strange plexiglass cage around the drop still seemed weird, but our splashdown was spectacular, completely drenching everyone.

We then crossed the midway to the Yankee Whaler ice cream shop. I got a dish of coffee ice cream and it was the best I'd ever had, rich and flavorful. We stopped into the gift shop across the way. They had one of those brown "Images of America" historical picture books that so many cities, towns and amusement parks have. This one featured Canobie Lake, so I had to get a copy. Then we decided it was time to hop a ride on the Yankee Cannonball. I've mentioned in the past how much I've enjoyed this coaster, and also how unfortunate it was that the park can't allow patrons to line up for whatever seat they want. The station's curving design, with the transfer track opposite the loading area, simply couldn't accomodate it. So Karen and I got in line and crossed our fingers. While we were in line, a father was attempting to get his son to go on the coaster. The son was resisting quite strongly. The father finally wrestled him into the line against his will, until the boy's mother came and rescued him.

While we were waiting in line, a new show began on the Kiddieland Stage where Bozo usually performed. It was a Britney Spears tribute and it really didn't seem to fit in with the park's wholesome family atmosphere at all, especially in that location. Luckily, the queue moved quickly and soon Karen and I were third in line. Then there was a pause, and the attendants helped on a handicapped family who filled the back car. We were let in, and the three people in front of us grabbed the front car. So Karen and I sat in the front seat of the middle car. The only real problem with that was that the tall headrests on the seats in front of us obstructed our views. The ride operator, who sounded as if he was from Scotland, dispatched us promptly. The trip was swift and smooth, and even in the middle was filled with airtime. The new turnaround felt a little bumpy. In about 50 seconds the ride was over.

We walked back toward the entrance, and I had to do a double take where the old Crystal Maze was. It was now called the Tikimaze and was lined with bamboo. It had been given a fresh paint job, making it delighfully tough to navigate through. One kid in front of me was hurrying along, saying to his sister, "Just follow me! I know how to get through this no problem!" And then he ran headlong into a glass wall. I collided with one as well. It was the best time I had in a mirror maze in many years.

Behind the Tikimaze was the new Chance Wipeout ride, with a surfer theme. Again the detailing was terrific, with a 3-D surfer riding a wave over the entrance and a giant starfish on top of the ride. Next to it was another nicely themed shop called Surf's Up. The giant fake palm trees surrounding it looked convincingly real. There was even nice detailing behind the shop, with fake herons lounging on the beach.

As we passed the Skeeball arcade and the Bebop Diner, I felt strangely disoriented. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I knew something wasn't quite right. The old Rowdy Rooster skooter ride was there, as was the Tilt-a-Whirl. And then it suddenly hit me: the Galaxi coaster was gone. It had dominated that section of the midway for as long as I could remember. And in its place was...nothing. There was a vast expanse of red concrete where the coaster's structure had been. There were a few small portable concession stands placed around the perimeter, and only a couple of them were open. Scattered about were small trees sitting in giant pots. But then I noticed at the far end of the concrete, where the loading station for the Galaxi used to be, was a new ride placed cross-wise. It was a standard Vekoma Skater, basically a large variant of their popular Rockin' Tug ride. I stared at it for a while. It seemed fairly popular. There was a long line in the makeshift queue. But it looked out-of-place. Everything else in the park had been so well-themed. The Skater didn't fit the area very well (both physically and thematically) and looked like it was somehow a mistake. In fact, it wasn't even listed on the park map. (There was just a blank grassy area.) Everything looked so incomplete, I wondered if Canobie had other plans for that area and if this was just temporary.

Karen and I walked around to the back of the Canobie 500 car ride to get another look at the Skater. The long platform spun rocked back and forth on the banana-shaped track. Some people standing nearby were watching it in awe, saying, "That's wicked! You're not getting me on that!" Although it was impressive to watch, I was disappointed with how poorly it fit into the rest of the park. The Corkscrew felt that way, too. With everything else so heavily themed (and in that area, almost exclusively with bamboo), why couldn't they have gotten a ride that matched the theme? Why a skateboard? Why not a surfboard? Canobie had set the bar pretty high for themselves. With so much spectacular theming in the park, anything less stuck out like a sore thumb. I hoped that this was temporary. It was one of the few times I'd seen a park remove a coaster to put in a flat ride. Perhaps eventually a Vekoma coaster was destined for that area.

We queued up for the Giant Sky Wheel, which was loading very slowly. But in a few minutes were were taking a pleasant long ride high above the park, admiring the view. When we first rode this together a decade ago, "I love Jay" was inexplicably written on our cab's post. Though the cabs have all been replaced in the intervening years, we still remember that coincidence fondly.

We strolled along the midway once more, not wanting to leave. On the Kiddieland Stage was a frequent performer, one of the park's two peacocks. During our many visits over the years, a peacock somehow always seemed to get up onto that stage during the day and stand there as if it was in a fashion show.

We noticed that the Round Up, painted a bright yellow, wasn't running. The Dodgem building next to it appeared to have been repainted to blend in better with the Tiki theme across the midway. The old Matterhorn seemed to disappear behind the trees. No loud music announced its location as at so many other parks. There was only the ever-present sound of the nearby carousel's band organ (which happened to be playing the theme from the Muppet Show).

We headed back home at about 5 p.m., quite satisfied with our day. Even with its few minor flaws, Canobie Lake must rank as the most beautiful recreation area in the northeast. The management has continually shown an attention to detail and a commitment to a quality guest experience. We loved the food. We loved the shade. The workers were unfailingly polite and friendly. And the cost to get in was very reasonable (even if we didn't have the discount from Costco). By the size of the crowd there, it looked like a lot of people felt that way as well. May Canobie have another 100 successful years!

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