Canobie Lake Park, July 29, 2008

copyright Jay Ducharme 2008

On a sunny and warm Tuesday morning, Karen and I made the two hour drive to Salem, New Hampshire, for our annual visit to Canobie Lake Park, one of New England's hidden gems. We arrived just before noon. The parking lot (still free!) was about half filled. I had thought that by arriving an hour or two after opening time, that we'd avoid long lines at the entrance. But every teller's window was packed at least ten deep. People were still streaming in. And there were lots of groups (day camps, clubs, etc.) as well. Fortuitously, there were two discount coupons at the teller's window, giving us $10 off our total. It came to $50 for both of us, cheaper than a single person at Six Flags.

The first thing we noticed as we entered was the Huss Giant Frisbee (named Xtreme Frisbee) in front of us. Last year it had just been installed and looked drab and industrial. This year it sported lots of color and looked quite festive. The sprightly band organ at the nearby carousel was pumping out its merry tunes. We were a bit hungry so we walked over to the giant popcorn box. Last year the park offered T.T. Bud's Kettle Corn. It was really delicious. This year, there was a sign for kettle corn, but the stand didn't have any. So Karen opted for a box of plain popcorn.

We strolled south along the midway into the park's western-themed section. The small stage there still anachronistally featured the Blues Brothers show. We queued up for Mine of the Lost Souls, Canobie's elaborate dark ride. When it was first constructed, the mine cars never stopped moving. Passengers boarded via a moving treadmill. The treadmill was shut down a few years later. Then the operator's station was moved on top of the treadmill. This season the operator's station was placed even closer to the ride's entrance and featured new color video monitors. After about 20 minutes, we were on board and sent on our way. All of the ride's elaborate stunts were working, including the amazing decaying body. The cascading water at the end will probably never return. It rarely functioned correctly and wasn't very visible when it did. But it was still a really fun ride, a remarkable achievement for a small park.

We checked out the Dancing Bear Canteen at the far south end of the park. Since it always advertised barbequed ribs, Karen and I didn't think we'd find much to eat there. But to our surprise, they did have pork-free baked beans and corn on the cob. So I got an order of those and Karen got some steak fries. The food was good, and certainly was reasonably priced.

From there we took our time meandering through the winding shaded paths back toward the north area. Not much had changed. Castaway Island, the beautifully-themed waterpark, was doing a big business. Kiddie rides were bustling. The amazing shoot-the-chutes ride, Boston Tea Party, was sending its usual gargantuan splash across the midway. We walked past the Dancehall Theater, which this season was featuring a dog show. There was a poster showing a dog catching a Frisbee. The show was at 2:00, so we made a note of that.

At the far north end, the little catamaran was boarding for a tour of the lake. I missed the old Canobie Queen paddlewheeler. But it was nice to see that the park was still taking people out on the large lake. We took our seats and in a short time were gliding across the water. The catamaran was smooth and quiet. There was a gentle breeze coming across the lake. The trip was long and leisurely, much longer than the trip the Canobie Queen used to make. We made a large circle from the far north shore all the way back to the south shore. The site of the numerous stylish mansions dotting the shore brought gasps from some of the passengers. The park almost vanished into the thick woods along the lakeside. Besides the yellow structure of the Corkscrew coaster, the only other sign of the park came from the splash of the Boston Tea Party.

Back on solid land, we headed over to the Canobie Mall and checked out the gift shop. The bulk of their toys had been removed and replaced with shirts. At the back of the mall stood the old Hercules pinball machine, the largest commercial pinball machine ever constructed. It was a bit the worse for wear, with some bumpers not functioning. But it was still running, and better yet it was free! So we played a slow game with the billiard-size pinball moving ever-so-slowly along the playfield.

We walked past the dozens of brightly-colored plantings, the old water fountain and the busy rides. We were in a mellow mood, so the Sky Ride was next up. While we were waiting in line, Karen noticed a trash can at the nearby Pizza Ria; it was painted to match the eaterie, with large pizzas adorning it. Nearly all the trashcans in the park were similarly themed to match their surroundings. As we inched forward high above the midway, we watched the classic Caterpillar ride circle around, its dark green canopy arcing over the tops of the riders. The vast picnic grove at the back of the park was curiously empty; with all those groups I would have thought someone would be using it.

Although the temperature was in the upper 80s, we never felt that warm because of the abundant shade. We casually walked past the games lining the center stretch of midway. One of the game booths featured guitars and ukeleles as prizes. Karen wanted a ukelele ever since our Hawai'i trip. So I stepped up to the booth. There were three square plexiglass surfaces, about a foot in diameter. In the center of each was a stack of four colorful wooden blocks, the kind with the letters of the alphabet on them like children have. The object was to knock all the blocks off a surface in one throw of a beanbag. I paid my two dollars and the attendant handed me a beanbag that seemed much too light. Nevertheless, I wound up and threw hard, completely missing the platform. Sufficiently embarrassed, I stepped back. Two teen boys stepped up, eyeing the guitars. They each paid, took a beanbag and wound up. The first completely missed the platform. I didn't feel so bad. The other knocked the top block off a stack. I gave it another try. Karen suggested I throw the beanbag like a Frisbee. So I did, and I knocked over the entire stack. Unfortunately, the blocks remained on the platform.

Next we entered Canobie's arcade. There was a whole row of pinball machines (an increasingly rare sight) against one wall. We played the Elvis- and a Rollercoaster Tycoon-themed machines. I rarely do well at pinball, but I have a great time. We then played some Skee Ball. I used to be quite good at it many years ago. As it was, Karen and I amassed only about 17 prize tickets. We couldn't find any place there to trade in our tickets, though

We left the arcade and headed toward the carousel. It was strangely quiet and dark. As we got closer, it was apparent that it was closed. There was a security guard at the entrance, and two people sitting there. So instead I turned around and took a trip through the Tiki Maze. There were odd red handprints placed all over the glass inside the maze. There were also bumper-sticker-size signs warning guests not to run. Even with those plastered around, it was still tough to find my way to the exit. I was glad Canobie still had this delightful and rare mirror maze. We visited the gift shop at the park entrance. They had some really nice souvenirs there.

We stopped off at the Funnel Cake stand for some ice cream. Karen got hers with chocolate topping and I got mine with butterscotch. It was refreshing. It was also nearly showtime, so we headed back for the Dancehall Theater. When we got there, the place was still locked tight. Two men wandered over wanting to see the show as well. Karen took another look at the poster and exclaimed, "The show is every day except Tuesday." So we were out of luck.

The hot summer air was getting a bit more oppressive. The Boston Tea Party would have cooled us off, but we would have been drenched for the rest of the day. Instead we opted for the milder Policy Pond Log Flume. The line was really long, but it moved quickly under the shade of tall pine trees. The operator's station on this ride had been moved also, closer to the exit. I wasn't sure why. Our queue was cut a bit short when the operator called out for two people. Karen and I moved to the front of the line and sat in the front seat of a log. This really was one of the prettiest flumes ever built, hugging the ground and zig-zagging through a quiet forested area. The splashes got us slightly wet, enough to cool down a bit.

As we left the flume and walked past the Pirate Ship, we saw the Blues Brothers wandering the midway, saying hi to people who were generally ignoring them. They stopped to watch the Pirate Ship rock back and forth. The north train station looked fairly empty. The blast of the train whistle cut through the air, so we queued up. The old steam engine came chugging around the turn, its bell clanging and whistle blowing. We boarded for an incredibly slow trip back to the south end of the park. It was by far the slowest train ride I've ever been on. And there wasn't a lot to see. The track ran alongside the edge of the lake, which was pretty in the sunlight. But the track was sandwiched between that and the backs of buildings. Even so, it was one more enjoyable family ride at the park.

Portofino's Restaurant was next door. We stopped in, and the place was empty even though it was suppertime. I wasn't really hungry and just got a slice of pizza. Karen got a very expensive salad and some breadsticks. We sat quietly at a booth. Frank Sinatra played in the background. The pizza was okay, but not very hot. The breadsticks were good. It was the one area of Canobie that seemed to be lacking: the food was always adequate, but nothing special. Although prices seemed a bit more reasonable than in the past (at the Dancing Bear), some prices seemed steep ($6.75 for a salad). And for some reason the drinks were only available in small plastic cups. Everything else at the park showed a great attention to detail. But the food was merely passable. It wasn't always that way.

We had contemplated riding the venerable Yankee Cannonball coaster. But the line was really long and we knew that seating was random. (In other words, we couldn't get the front seat except by chance.) So we passed. Instead we headed for the Skee Ball game next to the BeBop Diner. Tickets could be exchanged there, although the measily amount we had couldn't get us much. Karen spotted a necklace that she liked. So we played a few more games and ended up with 76 tickets. She got her necklace. I got a little plastic ruler and an eraser. Then we went back to the gift shop where we got a really nice Canobie Lake street sign, a 3-D postcard, a stained glass carousel horse and a Yankee Cannoball magnet.

As always, we had a nice time. It appeared that a lot of other people were enjoying Canobie as well. And the management seemed to be handling the growth well. The park still retained its character while at the same time adding new diversions for its guests. We never felt pressure to ride everything in sight. Just walking along its shaded paths was a pleasant diversion by itself. Canobie was simply an enjoyable way to spend a day.

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