August2, 2004

Karen and I headed two hours north on Monday to spend the day at Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH. It would be one of the last free days we had together before our final trip for the summer. The weather was clear and warm, but not exceedingly hot and muggy. It was a perfect day to spend at a beautiful park.

We arrived at 11:30. The parking lot was just beginning to fill up. The stunning white L-shaped structure of the Yankee Cannonball coaster stood proudly off to the right, with that tall spindly pine tree peeking up above the center of the turnaround. The entrance said a lot about the park itself: the ticket booths were simple but attractively done to look like quaint gray stone structures. Colorful potted plants encircled the area. Pennants above the buildings waved in the breeze. The effect was a cross between an old English castle and an enchanted storybook village. With no season passes, Canobie either must draw different visitors every week or provide a fun experience to keep locals returning for its $25 admission fee. (After 5pm, it was $9 cheaper.) In past years, the park has been really crowded. Unlike Lake Compounce, a similarly small park, Canobie can feel claustrophobic when it gets crowded. Lines often move slower than at other parks. But for our day, the turnout was moderate -- good for a Monday but not overwhelming. A little sign at the ticket booth noted that the Pirate Ship and the Rockin' Rider (Galaxi coaster) were not operating.

After getting our hand stamped, we decided to head for the Cannonball. Although I really enjoy that coaster, I've been less than thrilled with the queuing. The station was attractive but small. Because of its design (with the transfer track and spare train directly opposite the loading area), the only workable way to load each train was to let people in after the previous ride has emptied. That wasn't only slow, but it also meant that each rider simply had to take whatever seat is available. Karen and I were lucky on many of our trips; we somehow ended up in the front seat. Once or twice we had gotten there early enough to be the first guests in the queue. But we weren't so lucky this visit. There was already a fairly long line, and we had about fifteen minutes until the park's official noon opening. So we took a chance anyway. We walked by the tall granite fountain in front of the ride. In years past, it looked like a Tidy-bowl toilet, with absurdly bright blue water flowing through it. This time the water was refreshingly clear.

We wound our way through the maze of queue rails and waited just below the station. The high stone foundation of the station had in the past been a repository for half-chewed gum. Mercifully, that had all been cleaned off (except for one or two pieces). An empty train was sent out. It climbed the lift, which faced away from us, and disappeared over the top. A little over a minute later it returned in a big clockwise arc through the curving brake run and then back to the station. A few minutes later the process was repeated, and then the park was open. The operator would dispatch the train with a monotone, "Enjoy your ride." When the train returned, she'd say in one breath, "Welcome-back-how-was-your-ride-please-exit-to-your-left," without expecting any reaction from the guests.

We ended up getting the third ride of the day, in the middle seat on the train. The headrests on the 3-bench PTC trains were a bit annoying, slightly obstructing our view. But at least the ride had single ratcheting lap bars and generous seat belts. We were quietly dispatched and the train slowly clattered up the old lift hill. The Cannonball was one of the first coasters to be preserved. It began life in the 1930s in Connecticut. Canobie purchased the ride and had to modify it slightly for their footprint. But it was restored true to Herb Schmeck's original PTC design. On a hot humid day, the ride can throw you all over the place.

We descended the lift with quite a bit of force, and even some air time. Then we traversed the typical Schmeck speed bump and then flew up into the right-hand dogleg turn. We dropped down that hill, flew over a nice camelback with some more air time (in the middle of the train!) and then rolled into the turnaround. We gained speed rounding the clockwise turn as we dropped, with strong laterals to the left. The we bounded up over two bunny hops nestled against the out-going structure. Then up into a low left-hand dogleg set against the first (with more strong laterals) and then one bunny hop after another back to the brake run. The ride was classic Schmeck: not much height (only a 63-foot drop) but a great sensation of speed and lots of air time. We left the ride smiling.

We followed the winding shady midway toward the Starblaster, the S&S double-shot tower. It seemed like a great fit for the park, but I missed the old Klaus Satellite Jet that stood there for years. I'd ridden a double-shot before and really didn't feel like having my intestines shoved up into my neck, so I passed on it. Instead we headed next door to the Antique Cars which surprisingly had almost no line. We each got a separate car. The ride was pleasant yet really short. The circuit made an arc toward the Cannonball's lift and followed it toward the Starblaster. And that was it; we were back in the loading area. I guess Canobie made up for its length by having two auto rides. The other, the Canobie 500 (with sports cars), was a much longer and more enjoyable ride, but it also had a much longer line.

Another ride that normally had a long wait, the Sky Ride, was empty. So we took a pleasant and relaxing trip toward the picnic grove and back, soaring over the rare Caterpillar ride and the big old stone fountain. After leaving the Sky Ride, we decided to walk over to the park's Ole Boston section to ride The Boston Tea Party. That shoot-the-chutes ride has to be seen to be believed. Although not very tall and not very long, it puts out a ridiculously gigantic splash that not only engulfs the riders and viewers on the bridge above it, but people on the midway as well. This stands as possibly Hopkin's greatest shoot-the-chutes. The queue line (in fact the whole area) was beautifully themed, as well. The only odd thing was that peculiar cylindrical plexiglass tunnel covering the drop (to deaden the sound from screaming riders, so as not to disturb the neighbors).

As Karen and I entered the queue line, we noticed how clear the water in the holding pond was. It looked like it could have been bottled and sold as spring water. We sat in the second seat. Our heavy lap bar clicked into place. We slowly were pulled up the steep lift and got a great view of the lake. After turning the corner at the top, we entered the tunnel and plunged down to the holding pond. When the boat hit the water, our view was completely obscured by a thick wall of water that shot up in front of us. It was a little eerie, because we didn't get wet then. The water was just suspended there in front of us, and seemed to move with us for a moment. And then that entire wall collapsed, completely drenching everyone in the boat. As our vision cleared, I could see we were floating under the exit bridge, and water was still cascading off the end of that. It was like traveling under a waterfall.

This ride was a home run for the park. Everyone seems to love it. There was always a crowd of people around it. If they weren't riding, they were standing nearby on the midway or on the bridge enjoying the powerful spray flying off the boats. That whole section of midway really felt like a small Cape Cod town, and being right beside the actual lake was a bonus. The design and execution couldn't have been done better. This was an example of how a major ride can be integrated into a small park and pay big benefits. There was no water park (yet) at Canobie, but this ride alone probably filled that need for many of the guests.

We walked into the nearby gift shop, where Karen spotted a really nice little snow globe magnet that had the Corkscrew, Wave Swinger, Starblaster and Ferris wheel inside. By that point we were getting hungry. We checked out the Sons of Liberty Tavern across the midway, but the selections there were more dinner-like. We were in the mood for simple food, so we stopped by the International Plaza in the center of the park. For several years, food giant Sedexho has been handling all of the eateries at Canobie. That arrangement seems unusual to me; I don't know of many other parks that have one outside vendor handle all of their food concessions. But I guess it must work for Canobie. We each got a personal cheese pizza, Karen got cheese fries and I got some home made potato chips. The pizza was fresh and quite tasty. The chips were thick, flavorful and crunchy. The fries were almost identical to Potato Patch fare (in other words, quite good). In the past we had eaten almost exclusively at Portofino's Restaurant. But after that lunch, I was much more interested in trying the other food stands. Unfortunately, the portions were quite large and filled us up for the rest of the day.

To walk off the meal, we headed to the other end of the park. I was so amazed at how much shade the park had. I don't think that there was any stretch of midway in the sun. It made the park feel much cooler and cozier. I suggested going for a ride on Mine of the Lost Souls. As we passed the Policy Pond Log Flume, we noticed that there wasn't much of a line. Since there usually was, we decided to take a ride. Another Hopkins creation, Canobie's flume was beautifully integrated with the landscape, so much so that it's nearly invisible. The concrete trough was set down into the ground and the ride follows the lay of the land. Here again the water was sparklingly clear.

In the station, the logs were carried on a constantly-moving conveyor belt. That helped a lot with the loading procedure. The attendant was sometimes filling the logs, sometimes letting them go partly empty. When we approached, we were both forced to sit in the front seat, which was quite cramped. A man and his son sat behind us. Meanwhile, other parties of two were allowed to sit in separate seats. I didn't get it. The rider policies seemed to be enforced haphazardly.

We floated into the trough, which turned left and approached the first lift hill. It was only about ten feet high. We splashed down into the trough and began our winding trip. I wondered if the water level was a bit low; the log kept bumping hard into the concrete trough. We drifted through the giant teepee that's shared with the kiddie boat ride. There were two little waterfall sections in the trough that usually are pleasant to ride over. This time it felt like the log was scraping bottom. We finally arrived at the steep 30-foot lift and then dove down into the final run. The boats put out a big splash, but it sprayed out in front. We both stayed fairly dry.

As we approached the Mine of the Lost Souls, it looked very empty. An attendant stood at the entrance, blocking it. The ride was closed for maintenance. So we turned around and headed toward the back of the Canobie Corkscrew. That whole Boomtown section of the park was beautifully themed, with fake cobblestones, rustic fences and authentic architecture. In the center was a shady area that had picnic tables scattered about and a stage in the middle. A country-western review played there. We didn't watch it, but could hear the finale. It was pretty standard fare, ending with a big "God Bless the USA" styled salute.

We walked by the nicely-themed but closed pirate ship. There were a couple of cranes sitting next to it, so it looked like it was getting a major overhaul. Taking a left from there, we walked toward the Corkscrew. There was a little concession stand blocking what was a maintenance road. It was a sort of mini-Starbucks, serving various types of coffee. The Corkscrew looked great. The station was a larger version of the Cannonball's. It was the first coaster with inversions that Karen ever rode, so it had sentimental value. But we weren't aching for another ride on it. To our right was the back of the Rockin' Rider. It had a peculiar paint scheme. Basically it looked like a pile of rusted metal. The cars were sitting covered up in the station.

Crossing the tracks of the Canobie Express, we decided to take the train to the other side of the park. On our way to the station we noticed the recently re-themed Be-Bop diner that featured a gigantic spinning cheeseburger in the middle of it. The adjoining Skee-Ball concession still had its classic 1950s facade.

We hopped onto the train, which was just about to leave. The station had a big water hose. The train was an actual steam engine, and the smokestack liberally spat water during the entire trip. I really enjoy long train rides, but this one seemed a bit silly. The train was probably clipping along at about 3 mph. It wasn't that there were hills to navigate, or even a lot of curves in the track. The train just barely crawled along, and under the carriage something was making an unpleasant grinding noise.

About ten minutes later we circled around the arcade at the back of the park, passing by a giant aluminum shell that someday will be the new Canobie Queen paddle-wheeler. (The original Canobie Queen rotted out.) We finally stopped beside Portofino's restaurant. It was just before two, and Karen wanted to see a new show in the Dancehall Theater, "Beatlefest."

We entered the giant ballroom. The stage hadn't changed since we saw the really good Elvis impersonator the previous season. There were a few hundred chairs set up. A runway cut about twenty feet through the center. There used to be a great view out of the lake-side windows, but the windows were curtained off. A sprinkler system had been installed on the roof, and what looked like long white balloons ran the entire length of the ceiling blowing cool air. It made the room quite comfortable. We sat near the front, to the left of the stage.

On the stage were two microphones, a replica of Paul's original bass and several amplifiers from the 1960s. A small screen hung down in front of the stage's main curtain. A strange sort of glistening red image appeared on the screen. It was a shimmering out-of-focus curtain. And in front of it stepped none other than Mike Myers in his Austin Powers garb. He did his schtick, pumping the audience up for a psychedelic show. I thought that was odd, because the performers were recreating the early Beatles, which predated psychedelia by several years. The curtain opened, weird psychedelic light patterns spun around on either side of the stage and out stepped a really odd sight: three men who were maybe in their 50s, who didn't really look anything like the Beatles. Karen and I just stared at them. They had out-of-place mop-top wigs, black suit coats and pointed black boots. "Paul" had middle-age spread that was straining against his suit. They were definitely imitating early 1960s Beatles, so those psychedelic lights seemed really out of place.

They picked up their instruments. A younger-looking Ringo imitator sat behind the Ludwig drum kit. Paul was on the left. George with his arch-top guitar was center and John (who looked nothing like Lennon) was right. They launched into "She Loves You." An older couple with two young boys were in front of us. One boy put his head between his legs. The other dropped to the floor and curled up. But by golly, the performers were remarkably good. They really were playing live and they did sound just like the original band. Their harmonies were solid, and their accents didn't sound phony. Their arrangements were letter-perfect. It was just so hard to look at them and not realize that they were old. Karen closed her eyes and just listened.

After their first tune, "Paul" introduced the band. And the guy sounded exactly like Paul. One thing that was different was that the real Beatles in their early years always looked like they were having a great time, laughing and smiling the whole time. This troupe was very straight-faced, appearing more business-like. Each member of the group got to take the lead on a song. And every one of them except for Ringo (who really didn't seem to fit in with the rest) sounded just like the real thing. "John" even had Lennon's idiosyncratic movements perfected. But they just looked so old.... From straight on, Paul's face bore a slight resemblance. But no one else came close. George actually looked more like Ringo than Ringo did. They introduced "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by encouraging the audience members (and there were a lot of them) to scream so loud they drowned out the band, just like it used to be. And the audience enthusiastically complied.

Their set seemed really short, maybe about fifteen minutes. Afterwards they introduced themselves as "Yesterday, from Las Vegas." They said they'd be available if anyone wanted to take pictures with them. Karen couldn't resist. A Canobie employee was there to snap digital photos and hand out a slip with a number on it. Some people brought their own cameras. There were about a dozen people in line. We walked up on stage and stood next to the band and complimented them. The camera snapped and we walked off with our slip.

We walked in a circle around the Vertigo Theater to the very back of the park. Hidden away there is the Psycho-Drome, an indoor Scrambler. Besides that and the picnic grove, there was nothing else on that stretch of midway. It seemed so lonely. Back toward the main midway was a quaint little arcade and the beautifully-themed Wave Swinger, "DaVinci's Dream."

The Canobie Mall used to be an old fun house. Not a trace of that history remained, however. It looked just like a small-town mall with little shops lining it, The Wharf restaurant and an arcade at the far end. We walked into the main gift shop and looked around. Among many other trinkets, they were selling a really nice colorful Canobie mug and an impressive park magnet. One really odd item caught my eye: among a stack of Canobie Lake baseball caps were several emblazoned with the name "Seabreeze." I wondered if Canobie had some relationship with Seabreeze Park in New York. I asked the elderly woman at the cash register about it. She had never heard of Seabreeze park. "Oh," she replied, a bit disgusted, "the kids we have here don't pay attention to what they're doing. We probably got a wrong shipment, but they don't care. They just stick the hats out there anyway." We stocked up on souvenirs and left the mall. Next door to the mall stood the remains of an ancient ride that hadn't run for years, the old rocket ship. It was now just a giant decoration.

Since I had a bag of goodies, I figured I'd go back to the car and get my camera. So we headed for the entrance. As we passed by the Cannonball, it was being evacuated. Some security officers were there escorting people out of the gates. The train was stalled on the brake run, and people were being taken out of it. Several mechanics were walking around there. It didn't look like anyone got hurt.

On the way to the entrance, we admired the architecture of all the little game booths near the main arcade. Canobie took such delight in the fanciful designs of the buildings. Some were made of stone. Some appeared to be castles. All were a colorful visual feast. We took a walk through the wonderful old arcade. Like Cedar Point, Canobie had many antique machines that were kept in good condition. The interior of the arcade looked great, with lots of colorful rope lights.

I couldn't pass up an opportunity to walk through Crystal Orbiter. This oval-shaped mirror maze used to slowly revolve, but hasn't in years. Unlike many of the early mirror mazes, this one was almost entirely made of steel, so there was little danger of it burning down. It was funny to watch all the kids walk through it. They would simply look at the well-worn floor and follow the path right to the exit. No challenge, no excitement; they would just get it over with. I decided to make it challenging, so I kept my focus forward. I could see how, if the ride were new, it would be nearly impossible to find the way out. (And that's probably why there are so few around now.) I kept wandering down one dead end after another as kids raced past me in all directions.

Toward the back of the maze, I could see the area where the old Kozmo Jets used to be. It was all dug out, with a circular concrete foundation in the middle and tall telephone poles encircling it. A nearby sign proclaimed, "Coming Soon -- Wipe Out." It looks like it might be a surf-themed Chance Wipe Out. Eventually I found my way out of the maze, wishing more of these were still around.

As we walked up toward the carousel, I noticed it was dark inside the pavilion. As we got nearer it was obvious that it too was closed. The band organ wasn't even playing. I was surprised; that ride was always Canobie's pride and joy. It was unusual to find it not working. The ride was a menagerie of different animals by various carvers. The ride platform was an unusual tiered structure, like a wedding cake. The last time I rode it, it packed quite a punch, spinning quite rapidly.

We walked around the building to the photo booth and handed one of the attendants our ticket from the Beatle's show. A 5x7 picture cost ten dollars, but we figured it would be a nice souvenir. The two attendants talked amongst themselves for a while. One finally said, "I'm really sorry. We know your picture should be here. But it looks like our camera malfunctioned. I don't know what happened. But if you want to go to the five o'clock showing we can take another one." We thanked them and left.

I put my bag of souvenirs in the car and got my camera. Canobie's big swimming pool at the entrance was doing a good business. We headed to the Giant Sky Wheel behind it. The ride was given a fresh paint job and looked great. The station had been completely re-done, with rich wood railings that looked like mahogany. The loading procedure was painfully slow, but we eventually got on board and had an enjoyable and long ride. Even though the wheel was really high, the park was so heavily forested that not much was visible from the top.

We headed into the old west section again and this time the Mine of the Lost Souls was open. There wasn't much of a line, which was good. Usually this ride had the longest wait next to the Cannonball. The treadmill along the loading and unloading area looked as if it hadn't moved in a very long time. The ride cars, themed to look like mining cars, used to pace the treadmill and would never stop moving. You would walk onto the moving platform and then step into the car. I thought it was a really efficient way to load the ride, but it could be a dizzying experience for some people. Now the cars would stop like a standard dark ride. As with the flume, the operator was cramming as many people into the cramped cars as would fit. Karen and I ended up in the back of one.

This ride was created by Sally Corporation, and it had their "look." The quality of the animatronics varied quite a bit. The ballyhoo outside the ride, a prospector beckoning the guests, was pretty realistic. Some others looked more like mannequins with mouths like ventriloquist dummies. As always with this technically complicated ride, many of the numerous stunts weren't working. Some sound that usually functioned correctly was missing, and other sound that rarely functioned was working. The most stunning effect in the whole ride, a disturbingly realistic man who lies down and decays into a corpse, worked flawlessly. Another effect toward the end of the ride, a headless man, was missing entirely. The big finale of a waterfall was gone, and in its place were three odd rope lights. As we returned to the station, an attendant blandly said, "Please exit to your left."

This brings me to the only complaint I have about our stay at Canobie: nearly every worker there seemed to either hate their job or have absolutely no interest in it. I can't remember anyone smiling. No one struck up a conversation. No one seemed to care that we were there. Many of the workers seemed to be internationals, a common trend at parks. But that's no excuse for poor customer relations. A little friendliness would go a long way.

We stopped at the Pickaxe Pub. I got a caramel apple sundae, and Karen got a strawberry shortcake sundae. There were huge and delicious. We sat in the shade at one of the nearby picnic tables to eat. Then we returned to the Boston Tea Party and stood on the midway and got soaked. We walked through the small kiddieland, which for some reason I thought was bigger. I wandered around taking some pictures and then we decided to call it a day.

Canobie really was a gorgeous park, shady and restful and fun for the whole family. The Yankee Cannonball was a wonderful mid-size coaster that unfortunately had a difficult loading station. The Boston Tea Party was a spectacular attraction, a real crowd-pleaser. There are many well-placed and landscaped popular rides. The food was good. The park's location was ideal. It was easy to find, right off of I-93. They've obviously been doing something right. In an era of giant theme parks, Canobie has remained essentially unchanged for decades but still seems to draw people in -- without a season pass. It remains one of New England's true gems even if their employees don't know how to smile.

Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions