Darien Lake
May 27, 2018

copyright Jay Ducharme 2018

Last year, Karen and I made our first visit to Darien Lake in nearly 20 years. We had a good time, though we never thought we'd be visiting the park again so soon. But for this season's Coasterfest™ Darien was the second park on the schedule. So after our day at Fantasy Island, we headed off toward New York's town of Corfu. The park had informed us that there was a Post Malone concert on Saturday night, which was the first night of our stay at Darien's Lodge on the Lake. Hoping to miss the traffic, we left Fantasy Island at about 6:30. The concert was supposed to begin at 7:00, so I figured that if we arrive a half-hour after the concert started, we'd miss much of the traffic. That was partly true. About two miles from the park, traffic came to a standstill. The slow crawl to the lodge took about another half-hour. But once we arrived, we discovered that the lodge parking lot had lots of spaces left. Evidently, guests for the concert weren't staying over.

The lodge itself looked attractive in the setting sun. It had a rustic appearance, with lots of exposed timbers. The lobby inside sported a large chandelier made of moose antlers. When we checked in, we were given special wristbands and told to wear them at all times during our stay. Our room was at the far side of the lodge and was remarkably quiet. Since we had just come from the bountiful buffet at Fantasy Island, we weren't hungry. So after dropping our luggage off in our room, we walked out the back of the lodge, past the large swimming pool and toward the walkway along the edge of the lake. It was serene, with no obvious sounds of the park nor the concert, except for the occasional rush of a coaster in the distance. We passed by a few fishermen casting their lines into the water, the tall rides reflecting on the still surface. We walked alongside the wood structure of the Predator rollercoaster and then over to the gates of the park entrance. Then we turned around and strolled back in the cool evening air as the sun set behind wispy clouds.

The next morning, we awoke well-rested. When we had camped at the park in 1999, we ate breakfast at the Beaver Brothers Lakeside Cafe. (It was the same restaurant where we had a fantastic dinner on our last visit.) So at about 8:30, we followed the path around the lake and over by the Boomerang rollercoaster to the quaint log-cabin-style cafe with cortoonish beaver characters hanging from the rafters. We were two of the first customers of the day. The buffet had different offerings from our previous breakfast there. I tried out the hash browns, French toast sticks and pancakes first. The first two were very good. The pancakes were cold and dry. They had a make-your-own waffle station, so I tried one of those and it was good, but nothing like the original Belgian waffles we had been served on our first visit. I also had some yogurt. Karen had scrambled eggs, fruit, hash browns and French toast sticks. Overall it was a satisfying meal, and not too expensive. By the time we left, the cafe had filled with guests.

The coaster clubs had arranged for exclusive ride time on the park's newest coaster, Tantrum, at 10:00. Tantrum took the place of the enjoyably long log flume that we had ridden the previous year. It was yet another casualty of the seeming war on flumes taking place in the amusement industry. We walked over to the entrance gate near the Boomerang where guests were lining up, waiting to get in. There were security guards at the gate. Apparently they were going to wait until exactly 10:00 to open it. I realized that the other coaster enthusiasts probably had entered through the main gate at the other end of the park. So I showed one of the guards my event badge and explained we needed to get to the other end of the park for our ride time. He let us in and told us which paths to follow.

It felt strange walking through the deserted and silent midway. Every once in a while we'd encounter maintenance crews cleaning up trash from the night before. I asked one crew the best route to Tantrum. By then it was nearly 10:00. Karen and I hurried along the asphalt. We became aware of a powerful stench. Apparently, the park had recently decided to apply asphalt sealant over most of the midway. The oily smell became sickening after a while, and there was no way to avoid it.

Eventually we spotted Tantrum's orange and green track above the tree line. The ride was a pretty standard Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter coaster, similar to Untamed at Canobie Lake Park, which I had ridden. Untamed bounced my head around between the restraints, so I wasn't exactly eager to ride Tantrum. We arrived at the coaster's entrance. The ride was being tested, with its single cars clattering up the vertical lift, curving around at the top and then diving 95 degrees, doubling back in on itself, before soaring into an interesting high inversion that straightened out then flipped back into another inversion. Then the train twisted through a rapid-fire series of elements and hit the brakes. Off of the lift, the entire ride lasted about 20 seconds.

Karen and I sat at a table in the shade at the Potato Works (which hadn't yet opened). And we waited. The rides were supposed to open to the public at 10:30. It was then 10:10. Karen and I noticed some men in suits standing nearby talking to each other. I started to think I had the time or the coaster wrong. Then I saw some of the coaster enthusiasts coming toward us down the midway. It turned out that because the coaster was new, the maintenance crew wanted to check on some issues they had noticed. So the ride time was cut a bit short. But then, the ride itself was so short, it didn't turn out to be that big a deal.

Within a few minutes, the group queued up and soon were heading up the lift. The most common reaction from them was surprise at how smooth the ride was, especially given the amount of twisted track. They spent about 20 minutes riding and then split off for other areas of the park.

Karen wasn't up for thrill rides, so we were accompanied by one of the enthusiasts, Steve Crosby. The first ride we headed for was Ride of Steel, the intense hypercoaster at the west end of the park. There was hardly any line for it. As on our last visit, the park had only one train running. But with so short a line, it wasn't a problem. Within a few minutes, Steve and I were seated in the front and riding up the long lift. Though no longer a record-breaker, the first drop was still incredibly steep, long and fast. We sped around the sharp left turn at ground level, up through the powerful camelback hill, then down into the giant double-helix. After that odd flat run across the lake, we soared up into another big hill then down into the smaller double helix and finally across the killer bunny hops to the brake run. After nearly 20 years, it was still a really fun ride.

Next we headed next door to Darien's wood coaster, Predator. Steve and I got the front seat. The seat belts seemed more accommodating than last year, with a lot more breathing room. We rolled out of the station into the 180-degree turn up to the lift hill, where we glided under the cupola turned left and plunged down the first drop. It looked like the park had been doing some track work; there was quite a bit of new wood. Although the train still "hunted" a bit, it was a good punchy ride with a surprising amount of airtime.

We walked over to the nicely themed Boardwalk area. It was built with a nautical motif when Herschend briefly owned the park. The ground there was concrete, giving some relief from the heat and the smell of the asphalt. We got in line for the Giant Wheel, at one time one of the largest in the country. It took us 150 feet above the midway for spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Curiously, the large empty hillside at the center of the park was still there. I was surprised they didn't put the new coaster there, rather than remove a perfectly good ride. Below us, guests were out on the lake with interesting bicycle catamarans, sort of like elevated paddle boats.

After the ride, Steve went off on his own. Karen wanted to get some French fries at Boardwalk Food. So I circled around the lake to take a spin on a ride that was new to me the previous year, Motocoaster. I had forgotten that the only way to get the front seat on that coaster was by luck. Last year, there was hardly anyone in line and I lucked out. This time, though, there was a longer line and I ended up in the back seat. But given the unique motorcycle design and weight distribution, I figured I could handle it. There was a little more punch to the ride, with stronger lateral Gs, but it was still a really enjoyable experience.

I went back to meet up with Karen. At that point it was time for the group photo at Tantrum, so we walked past Beaver Brothers Bay (the kiddie area) and over to the coaster's entrance. Within a short time, the other club members had gathered and were lined up for the photo shoot. Then we all walked back around toward the entrance and filed down into the catered picnic pavilion area that was sandwiched between the waterpark and Ride of Steel. There were no veggie burgers this time, but there was plenty of pasta with marinara sauce and pasta salad. Curiously, for the hamburg eaters the only condiment was pickles. Within a short time, everyone was seated and feasting. Karen and I certainly had our fill with the pasta. The park also offered loganberry juice, which I had never tried. It was sort of like a really tart raspberry drink. We chatted with various club members while we ate. One of the topics of conversation was the recent announcement that Six Flags was entering into a lease agreement with Darien Lake. The hope was that Six Flags would keep Darien much as it currently was, rather than attempt to turn it into more of a teen thrill park. For dessert, the park had some Perry's ice cream treats. After the meal Geff Ford, the event organizer, gave away tickets to various parks. Karen and I got a pair of tickets to Funtown, a regular stop for us in Maine.

By then it was about 3:30. Karen and I decided to go back to our room and relax for a bit. There were quite a few fishermen around the lake and lots of activity at the lodge. But our air conditioned room was peaceful and quiet. Karen wanted to see a magic show that was going to be in the Grand Theater. The final showing of the day was at 7:00. So after an hour or so of rest, we headed back out into the park and leisurely strolled the midway. We took another ride on the Giant Wheel and visited one of the gift shops, where I got myself a vibrant Ride of Steel t-shirt. We stopped by Perry's Ice Cream Parlour and each got a tasty dish of ice cream. Then we headed over to the theater.

We were a bit early. There was hardly anyone in the theater when we entered. We sat near the center. The usual blinding lights were shining at the audience through fog machines. There were screens on either side of the stage. They appeared to be made of stretched bedsheets. They were playing videos of people on the street being interviewed about magic. Just before the show started, new videos started. They were a bit bombastic, singing the praises of the magician, Aaron Radatz, claiming he was one of the world's greatest. There were over-the-top testimonials from various organizations (including the Pentagon and "Las Vegas"). I can't remember a performer hyping himself that much before a performance. That didn't bode well. If he had to convince me how great he was before he did anything, he probably wasn't going to be very good. The theater began filling up. Then some showgirls appeared carrying light sticks. One of them said that there would be a big audience participation part at the end, and only people with light sticks could participate -- and the sticks were only five dollars. So the girls roamed the theater hawking their wares. And just a handful of audience members got them.

The screens displayed "Aaron Radatz - Magical Entertainer" and he appeared in a fog. He invited audience members to take pictures, just not flash photos. He brought out what appeared to be a trunk lid on a wheeled table. Then he attached the rest of the trunk to the lid and one of his girls popped out from inside. It was glaringly obvious that the table had a false bottom. He wheeled the table aside and talked about himself. He reminded me of Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter. His act got interesting when he brought audience members on stage with him. It wasn't that his tricks were surprising or even good, but that he was actually interacting with the crowd. He seemed to be a prop-heavy magician yet didn't have props of high enough quality to make an impression. The most interesting bit was a long story he told about two characters who wanted to be each other. He had two children from the audience and costumed them so that they were completely hidden, one in green and one in blue. He had correspondingly colored fairy-tale-style houses behind him. He would place the children in the houses and they would appear to switch costumes. The gimmick was fairly obvious, but the audience seemed to enjoy it. At the end, the kids appeared at the back of the theater. The final bit was pretty anticlimactic. He made what looked like plywood cut-outs of two boats appear, obviously wheeled onto the stage behind a cloth. He ended with a plug for his books and trinkets, which he announced he would be selling in the lobby. Karen and I slipped out the side exit.

As the sun set on the park, we strolled back to the lodge, concluding another fun kick-off to the summer season. We wanted to get some sleep for our long drive the next day. The park was still bustling with activity, and I was glad that Darien seemed to be doing well. Though I was concerned about what would happen to the park under Six Flags, I was slightly encouraged by our last visit to New York's Great Escape, where that park had been allowed to nurture its own identity. I was hoping the same opportunity would be given to Darien. After rediscovering the park last year, we like what we've seen and look forward to returning.

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