Darien Lake
July 11, 2017

copyright Jay Ducharme 2017

On a cloudy July day, Karen and I set out for upstate New York to visit three parks we hadn't seen in a while.  Our first stop was Darien Lake, in Darien Center, about midway between Buffalo and Rochester.  The last time we had been there was with the kids in 1999.  It had just switched over to becoming a Six Flags park.  It went through several management changes over the years and ironically was now being managed by Premier Parks, which was the company that orignally bought the Six Flags chain.  Darien advertised itself as having the largest campground in the state.  The park sat on about 1000 acres.  On our previous visit, we stayed at the campground and had a good time.  I was curious to see how the park had changed.

It was a long drive out, about six and a half hours.  Hanging over us were thoughts of the weather forecast: severe thunderstorms were predicted for most of the week.  We encountered heavy rains on the drive out, but as we got near Rochester the clouds began to break up and sunshine streamed down.  It was a long stretch down Route 77 off the Interstate through the rolling countryside.  We arrived at the park about noon.  The entrance was marked by not only a giant sign sporting the park's logo (a pretzel knot of roller coaster track that I felt didn't really represent what the park was all about) but also the red and blue structure of the giant Ride of Steel coaster.

We parked in front near the ticket booths.  There didn't seem to be very many guests at that point.  It was, after all, a Tuesday, not usually a popular park day.  Plus with thunderstorms threatening, people were probably inclined to stay away.  But at that point, there didn't appear to be a thundercloud in sight.  We walked over to the main concourse, which I didn't recognize at all.  That made sense given that on our last visit we stayed at the campground and never entered by the main gate.  To the left was the expanse of the waterpark.  The design of the landscaping and buildings incorporated a lot of natural stone, giving the area a rustic feeling.  We had purchased our tickets ahead of time online and simply showed our slips at the entrance gates and walked in.

The area behind the entrance gates was a blacktopped lane, arching slightly upward, with shops on either side.  Above the lane was a decorative arched wooden bridge lined with  flowers.  Some of the designs of the shops were whimsical.  For instance, a candy shop was adorned with colorful bas-relief jars of candy.  A little further down the lane was a large lighthouse, the entrance to a souvenir and apparel shop.  And just beyond that across a plaza was another gift shop, the Emporium (which bore a not-so-coincidental resemblance to the Looney Tunes Emporium at Six Flags New England).  In the middle of the plaza was a large brick Italianate fountain framed by cobblestones and featuring four fish spitting water into a center dish.  Everything about the park appeared neat and orderly, with an attractive formality that was artistic without being overbearing.  This was an amusement park, after all, and not a museum.

To the left of the plaza was one of the landmarks I remembered from our previous visits: Maria's Italian Kitchen.  The park had several sit-down eateries, and this was the first that most guests would encounter.  It was set down into a sort of gully accessed by winding landscaped paths.  The restaurant served a surprisingly wide assortment of Italian-American fare, including lasagna and ravioli, all for reasonable prices.  Next to Maria's was the entrance to Hook's Lagoon, the waterpark that we saw from the parking lot.

Karen spotted a Ferris wheel in the opposite direction, so we headed off to find it and encountered an area of the park labeled The Boardwalk, indicated by a wonderfully retro billboard that looked like a giant postage stamp.  Appropriately whimsical architectural flourishes were peppered throughout the area, such as a bas-relief anchor and twisting rope attached to the fencing on the side of a pavilion serving buffalo wings.  That eatery was fronted by an amusing and appropriate sign -- a buffalo with wings.

Next to that eatery was the Ferris wheel.  It was massive.  In fact, the sign in front of the ride proclaimed the Giant Wheel as the world's largest.  At least, that was the case when it was installed at the park.  Darien got it from the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.  As you might expect, the views from the top were quite spectacular.  Something I noticed from up there was an odd compact silver and yellow coaster across one of the lakes, abutting the campground.  I watched it go through its paces.  It was a launched ride and it was hard to tell from that distance but it looked like a rare Zamperla Motorbike coaster.

After that pleasant ride, we walked over to the other side of "Fun Lake" to the Tin Lizzy's, the park's antique car ride.  It was a pretty standard model, with open two-seat sporty cars.  There weren't any bridges, tunnels or forested areas; it basically followed the edge of the lake and back.  But it was a nice long ride.  After that we followed the path west past a nicely landscaped Huss Top Spin ride named Twister and near the structures abutting the campground.  Most of the buildings in that area were styled like rustic cabins.  There was even a giant wooden chair for Karen to rest on.  And next to that chair was the entrance to the Moto Coaster.  It turned out this particular model was Zamperla's prototype, the only one of its kind in the world. 

There weren't any people in line.  A steady stream of guests would enter the queue, immediately take their seats and then would be sent on their way.  Even though the structure looked compact from the distance of the Ferris Wheel, from the ground it looked imposing.   The course didn't look like much; there was a straight cable launch next to the station which sent the train to the end of the structure then up and to the right.  From there it was basically two figure eights back to the station.  So I queued up for the front seat.  The train consisted of pairs of motorcycles.  It took me a couple of minutes to adjust to the unusual positioning when I boarded.  I held on to two motorcycle hand grips, just like a regular bike.  The seat pitched me forward so that my chest rested on a cushion where the bike's instrument panel would be.  There was a set of footprints painted on the floor and putting my feet there caused me to bend my knees up to the front.  The ride operator engaged the unique restraints.  A padde bar pressed up against my back and squeezed me forward while a small padded bar on either side flipped out and locked against the back of my knees.  There was no way I was coming out of that seat.  It was sort of like being in a cushioned waffle press.

We rolled out of the station, turning a sharp right onto a long straight run of track and stopping.  A trolley attached to a cable rolled underneath us and locked.  I could hear what sounded like a compressor filling with air and suddenly we were pulled forward toward the track that sloped sharply up to the right.  The launch wasn't as punishing as some similar coasters I had been on; it was actually surprisingly smooth.  Banking and rising thirty feet into the air in that type of position, with nothing enclosing me on either side and not really sitting down, felt weird in a dangerous sort of way.  But it was also really exhilarating.  On each turn of the figure eight, the track would bank tightly, but just as on a motorcycle I would instinctively lean into it.  It felt completely natural.  The sense of speed and danger were heightened by the dense structure surrounding us.  In about a minute, we rolled smoothly into the brake run.

That was one of the most fun coasters I had ever ridden.  It was unexpectedly smooth and had enough intensity to be thrilling without being punishing.  The riding position was surprisingly comfortable but created enough of a sense of peril to add to the ride's thrill factor.  And the length, as short as it was, was just about right.  If it were much longer I think the novelty would have worn off and it would have become tiring.  I'm glad Darien took the risk of buying this prototype.  It was a rare type of coaster: exciting and unique yet also suitable for riders of any age.

We were getting hungry by that point and were deliberating where to eat.  We had thought of Maria's but weren't really in the mood for pasta or pizza.  We were right next door to the Beaver Brother's Lakeside Cafe where we had eaten a delicious breakfast when we had camped at the park.  So Karen suggested checking it out.  We weren't even sure if it was open.  There was a small outdoor bar connected with it.  No one seemed to be around.  But as we approached, a friendly waitress emerged and asked if she could help.  Karen mentioned that we were vegetarians and wondered if they had anything for us on the menu.  The waitress said that it was a little hard to find on the menu but to ask for the Field Burger.  All that sprung to mind was two buns filled with sod.  So we entered the quaint log structure.  There were toy beavers peeking out from the rafters as well as all manner of farm paraphrenalia.  There were a few other customers inside.  We were quickly seated by a window and brought our menus.  Sure enough, there in small print under "Burgers" was the Field Burger, a veggie burger topped with cheese, sauteed onions and mushrooms, lettuce and tomato.  So we each ordered one.  Karen got a side of a fruit cup and I got chips.  She also ordered a basket of French fries and her usual diet soda.  I got a lemonade (which, by the taste, was probably Hi-C).  It took a while to get our order.  The waitress was very pleasant and came back several times to apologize.  But eventually our meals arrived.  The burgers were huge, on large soft bulky rolls.  I had a ludicrous amount of chips, plus a large pickle spear.  The French fries were a generous portion in a large basket.  The burgers were insanely good, by far the best veggie burger I've ever had.  The sauteed onions and mushrooms added the right amount of flavor and body.  The chips were fresh and crips.  The pickle was great.  The fries were really good.  What more could we ask for?  Good food, friendly service and a fun atmosphere; this was one of the best park restaurants we'd ever visited.  Heck, it was one of the best restaurants we'd ever visited, period.

After that we headed west, past the arena for the nightly laser light show and toward the big lake where two of the parks main attractions sat.  First up was Ride of Steel,which debuted in 1999 as Superman: Ride of Steel, the world's first Intamin "megacoaster".  Riding it back then was a revelation; I never knew a steel coaster was capable of such a smooth ride and such extreme airtime.  I was left scratching my head over some of the design choices.  There were two massive helixes connected inexplicably by an extremely long flat straight run of track across the lake.  It was as if the designers forgot how to bend track at that point.  It could have easily been supplanted by two small hills, keeping the airtime going.  I thought the least they could have done would have been to put a tunnel there.  But outside of that quirk, the ride was a powerful jolt of adrenaline and generated a new interesting in non-looping steel coasters.  When the ride opened, it ran with two trains.  That always made me nervous because the new-for-its-day magnetic brake run was only about the length of a train and the incoming train stopped only a few feet from the station where another train was usually waiting.  Plus, the incoming train hit the brakes with an enormous amount of speed.  But even though that always made me nervous, apparently it wasn't an issue with the ride.

When I arrived at the station, the front seat only had a few people waiting.  I noticed that the deep blue vintage train looked brand new -- and there was only one of them.  I asked the ride operator about that.  He said that the original trains reached nearly 20 years old and needed some work, so the park opted to purchase a refurbished model and keep just one train in operation.  I was glad that this train lacked the headrests and constricting lap bars that had been installed on the Superman version at Six Flags New England. 

In a few minutes I was seated and the train rolled out of the station, around the tight left-hand turn and up the seemingly endless lift hill.  Due to the low sides of the train, I had a sensation of heightened danger, like on the Moto Coaster.  The track was narrower than the train, creating the illusion that I could plummet off the side of the lift.  Evenutally, the train crested the top and the track disappeared.  The nose of the train pointed nearly straight down and the train barrelled down the first drop over the lake and into a wide left-hand turn just above the ground.  Then it soared up the first giant camelback hill and I floated out of my seat.  Returning to earth, it sped past the surface of the lake, rose up slightly and entered the top of the first giant helix.  Still at high speed, we pulled some heavy G forces as we circled twice counter-clockwise and then shot out the bottom of the helix and across that odd long flat run over the lake.  We entered the bottom of the second tighter helix, circled twice clockwise and then curved around into a snaking airtime hill.  That was followed by two intense speed bumps and the rapid deceleration into the brake run.

After nearly 20 years of operation, Ride of Steel was still a phenomenal experience.  Its big brother at Six Flags New England, built a year later, was a better overall ride experience, but Darien's version was just as much of a crowd-pleaser.  It still ranked as the tallest and fastest coaster in the entire state and it was another feather in Darien's cap.  I stopped off at the photo station to inquire about buying a photo.  I didn't want to carry around a paper picture with me, so I asked if I could just purchase a digital copy.  "Of course," replied the friendly attendant.  I was expecting it to cost $15 like at other parks.  The price was just $3.95!  That was a much more reasonable cost, especially since it was less of an expense for the park.  And the photo came out pretty nice, too.

Since it was right next door, Karen and I queued up for The Predator, probably the greatest wood coaster ever designed by Curtis Summers and built by Charles Dinn (whose daughter went on to form the breakthrough wood coaster company Custom Coasters).  Summers and Dinn were responsible for the wooden coaster boom of the 1980s and '90s, building bigger and bigger rides like Hercules and Mean Streak -- rides that were huge but often boring.  Summers prided himself on "engineering out" any nasty forces like airtime and lateral G forces.  He was sometimes derided as a designer of subways, not roller coasters.  Even though his rides were huge they were often forceless.  And because of their extreme height and speed, they generally didn't age well, becoming extremely rough and unpleasant.  The legendary coaster designer for the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, John Allen, had a rule that no wooden coaster should be over 120 feet tall.  After that the forces on the wood became too great.  Summers' designs regularly exceeded that limit.

Although Predator still ranked as the largest wood coaster in New York, it was modest by Summers' standards: just 95 feet tall with 3400 feet of track.  That might explain why it was still running while many of his other creations had been torn down or heavily modified.  Predator was also unusual in that it sported several camelback hills which produced strong airtime, and had several lightly-banked turns that threw you to the side of the train.  In other words, it was a fun ride and not at all like the subway experience Summers was known for.

The ride's queue was lined with bright orange dragon lilies, contrasting with the weathered-to-grey wood station.  We climbed the two stories up to the station and walked over to the front seat where there were just two other people waiting.  At the operator's station, two plaques were affixed to the wall.  One was a commendation to the park from four roller coaster clubs (including the Western New York Coaster Club) for "keeping the wooden rollercoaster alive".

After one ride cycle we took our seats ... or at least, we tried to.  The seat belts were extremely short and the seats were padded so heavily that we had trouble fitting into them.  Karen couldn't even find one end of her seat belt; it was so short that just sitting down would completely bury it.  We finally were able to get secured, but Karen wasn't happy; it was an unusually tight fit.  We were dispatched onto the station's curving run-up to the lift hill.  At the top of the lift, the track continued forward a bit then curved to the left for the first drop.  There was a lot of new wood visible, and that was reassuring.  The first drop was fast and smooth, even though the train bucked a bit.  The first camelback produced sweet airtime.  Then we soared up at high speed into the first turnaround and were pressed to the right of the train.  The rest of the course was filled with camelbacks, bunny hops and some surprising changes of direction (including an unusual banked camelback).  I really enjoyed the ride and was amazed the coaster was in such good condition.  Karen didn't have a good time at all; she felt trapped.

By then it was about 3:00 and the sun was beating down.  We walked back toward the Boardwalk area and passed by the park's colorful Grande Carousel which sported a banner stating that it was the "ride of the week".  I wasn't sure what that meant.  It turned out that the carousel was refurbished in 2013.  A local artist painted all new rounding boards featuring local landmarks.  A local TV station then featured the carousel on a "Ride of the Week" segment.  To cool off, Karen stopped by Boardwalk Bob's Canoe Repair, a nicely themed pergola outfitted with misters that was near the carousel.  There were wood crates piled about, giving guests a place to sit in some shade.

Continuing the cooling-off theme, we walked over to Perry's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlour.  Karen ordered a dish of cookies-and-cream and I ordered a vanilla cone.  We sat in the shade of the patio to eat.  The ice cream was tasty and the break was welcomed.  From there we headed toward the central section of the park where there was a sort of cordoned-off island in the middle of the asphalt.  We continued  south and passed Shipwreck Falls, a shoot-the-chutes ride that had maintained its name from the old Six Flags days.  We passed by Viper, the big Arrow steel coaster built in 1982 and the first coaster to feature five inversions.  It was still a good ride, probably the best remaining Arrow looping coaster.  But I wasn't feeling loopy.

So we circled around the back of that island and encountered the entrance to Beaver Brothers Bay, the park's kiddieland.  It was a peaceful shady area.  Besides the usual kiddie rides, they also had a concession stand, Itty Bitty Beaver Bites, and a stage where there was a peculiar performance in progress that appeared to be a mash-up of pirates, puppets and Lord of the Rings.  That area wasn't the only place in the park where kiddie rides were located, though.  There were others scattered about the midway, including a kiddie version of the spin-and-barf Enterprise ride.  I was glad to see that the park didn't follow Six Flags' usual practice of installing a kiddieland for children, thrill rides for the teens and then nothing for older guests.  At Darien, there were plenty of attractions that adults and kids could ride together. 

And so we headed south to one of the family rides: the Thunder Rapids log flume.  The bulk of the ride meandered through an open grassy area, so there wasn't much to see.  But it was a fun relaxing ride that produced a mild splash from the big drop at the end.  Interestingly, there was no water coming down the drop, as there usually would be on a flume.  I guess if you wanted to get really wet there was Shipwreck Falls or the Grizzly Run raft ride next door.

We then walked back to the north end of the park.  Karen spotted a crowd entering the Grand Theater, which was presenting a production titled American Pop.  She suggested we check it out.  The theater's interior was really dark.  The seating was simple: rows of aluminum benches.  There were computer-controlled lights making abstract patterns on the ceiling, along with a mirror ball, and the lights often shown directly in our faces.  Popular hits from the 1950s through the 2000s were playing on the sound system.  A fog machine was working overtime.  Eventually the theater was about 1/3 filled and the show began.  It was a typical musical revue that we had seen countless times at other parks.  Two men and two women dressed in stereotypical costumes of the eras simply sang songs karaoke-fashion to a pre-recorded instrumentation.  I could also hear overdubbed vocals.  There was no story and no relationship between the characters.  The one aspect that differentiated this production from others was that they actually got the eras correct.  There had been a tendency at parks to mix up musical genres.  For instance, they'd begin singing Earth Angel followed by YMCA followed by Jailhouse Rock followed by Take On Me.   The musical eras jumped all over the place in a confusing mess.  But here they actually followed the historical jouney of popular music's evolution.  So kudos to Darien for getting that right.

We didn't stay for the whole show.  I had heard too many of those songs ad nauseum when I was a D.J.  We headed back out into the bright sunshine and wandered about the quiet midway some more.  I noticed a strange plot of land behind a building near Shipwreck Falls.  It was a hillside, the other side of which housed the slingshot ride near the park's entrance.  It looked like a ride occupied that slope at one time.  It was surprising to see an area of the park that large go unused.

By then it was almost 5:00.  Karen rested while I shot a walk-thru video.  After that, we stopped into various gift shops where I got some really nice t-shirts and some beautifully designed magnets depicting Ride of Steel.  Then we bid a fond farewell to Darien Lake and headed to our nearby hotel.

I was really impressed with the park and surprised it wasn't packed with people.  The waterpark seemed to be busy, so maybe that's where the crowds were.  There also seemed to be quite a few people in the campground.  And supposedly, the park drew big crowds for their concert series which took place in a giant amphitheater at the park's southeast corner.  But it was nice having a park mostly to ourselves on such a beautiful day.  The rides were great; the Moto Coaster especially impressed me.  The food was terrific.  And everything was reasonably priced.  The landscaping was wonderful and often whimsical.  The park came a long way from its early years as primarily a campground with a few rides through its Six Flags years when it was all about the rides.  I was glad to see the park found a happy medium and had settled into being a terrific family destination.  There was a lot to love about Darien Lake, and I'm sure we'll be returning.

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