Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom
July 23, 2012

Text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2012

Karen registered for a J.W. Pepper music seminar in Paoli, Pennsylvania.  We arrived the night before, and the seminar didn't begin until the evening.  That left us a whole day free on Monday.  We decided to drive an hour north to visit Dorney Park in Allentown.  Karen had never been there before.  The park had been around since 1884.  The last time I had visited was twenty years ago with my buddy Dave.  It was a brief stop on one of our marathon coaster trips.  I think we were in the park for about three hours total, mainly to ride their recently built huge wood coaster Hercules.  At the time it was one of the largest wood coasters ever constructed.  But as typical (especially in the 1990s), bigger didn't mean better.  After one ride I had a splitting headache.  We sampled a few of the park's other offerings: the smaller PTC woodie Thunderhawk, the rare and intense Schwartzkopf Laser double-looper and a repulsive dark ride / mill chute that featured dioramas of eviscerated mannequins.  Overall, I wasn't impressed with the park, though I might have enjoyed Thunderhawk if I hadn't gotten a headache from Hercules.  But a lot had changed in the intervening years.  The park was purchased by Cedar Fair, owners of Cedar Point.  Hercules was torn down and replaced with Hydra, a unique steel looper from the Swiss firm B&M, and the park was given a complete make-over (including six additional new coasters).  The ride I was most curious about was Steel Force, one of the few out-and-back steel coasters built by Morgan Manufacturing.  Given my recent back surgery, I was a bit hesitant to ride any coaster.  But I didn't know when we'd ever return to the park.  So I figured I'd see what the lines were like and maybe chance a ride.

We arrived at about 9:30 on a beautiful (if hot) day and drove down the long narrow entrance road alongside the park.  The stock Intamin shuttle coaster Posessed was being subjected to its morning tests.  We were the only car on the road.  A 90-degree turn brought us up to the toll booths for the parking lot.  It was $15 to park, about the same as other big amusement facilities.  I still didn't like that practice though.  Why should we be charged such a high fee (which itself used to be what it cost for admission to many parks), when we then have to pay yet again to walk through the gates?  The parking lot was mostly empty, and we drove up the hill and parked next to another of the park's B&M steel coasters, Talon.  It's bright orange and yellow structure was striking and festive in the intense morning sunlight.  I had thought I might recognize something from my previous visit, but the sights were completely foreign to me.  The Dorney of two decades ago looked worn and tired.  But the new Dorney was bright and clean.  The park's entrance looked very similar to Cedar Point's.  There was a big dinosaur there advertising the Dinosaurs Alive upcharge exhibit (which The Point also had).  I was expecting to pay about $35 each for admission, but the cost was a whopping $49 each.  I probably should have hunted down some promotional discounts.

Past the ticket booths was a set of queue lines at the entrance gates, which were closed.  About a half-dozen lines had formed across the various gates.  Contemporary pop and dance music was playing over the loudspeakers.  Occasionally a voice would interrupt, announcing the time before the gates opened.  That was a thoughtful thing to do.  They also announced Dorney's family of the day, who would be officially opening the park.  While we waited, Talon's trains were sent empty along their course.  The roaring typical of B&M coasters sounded like some sort of beast lurking nearby.  I'm sure that was building anticipation in the younger guests.  Another voice then came over the P.A. asking us to remove our hats for the National Anthem.  A recording played of what sounded like Whitney Houston singing it.  Then an announcement proclaimed that the family of the day was going to open the park.  A mix of young and older voices could be heard counting down from ten to one.  The gates were raised and the small crowd began streaming in.

The first sight on entering the park (again, similar to Cedar Point) was the merry-go-round, labeled as the "antique carrousel."  It was a 1921 Dentzel machine and looked really nice.  It even had a working band organ, though a bit feeble and out-of-tune.  We walked down the main midway, which again bore a strong resemblance to Cedar Point's.  There was even a small fountain among the trees and plantings.  And that was something that impressed me -- shade!  And lots of it!  There were trees and flowers everywhere (including a lot of cannon plants), making the park seem more like a large garden.  There was also a lot of art deco architecture, giving the park a retro feel.  Scattered about were various dinosaurs, a reminder to pay the extra fee to check out the Dinosaurs Alive exhibit.

At the end of the main midway area was a Wave Swinger and a stock Wild Mouse.  I wanted to check out Steel Force before the park got too crowded, so we began winding our way along the park's twisting paths, frequently stopping to consult the map.  Occasionally we'd pass a sign that mentioned historical facts about the park.  We also passed the Mansion House Hotel, apparently a haunted house that opened only during Halloween.  We continued along the steeply sloping midway down toward the southern end of the park.  Steel Force loomed over the midway there, making Thunderhawk's lift hill look like a toy by comparison.  We crossed a bridge over a small creek where numerous ducks were sunning themselves on scattered rocks.

Before we reached Steel Force, we encountered the entrance for Thunderhawk.  It was the ride I remembered most fondly from my last visit to the park.  It had been designed by my hero Herb Schmeck in 1923.  Plus, there was no one in line for it.  It seemed to be a lonely relic of the park's past, with peeling paint that wasn't quite white nor was it the bright yellow of years past.  I had to go for a ride!  Karen and I walked through the labyrinthine queue and climbed up to the station.  We walked right over to the front seat as the train returned to the station with a handful of passengers.  We sat down in the comfy PTC trains and buckled ourselves in.  There appeared to be grease on the track, which was a good sign.  The train slowly rolled out of the station and turned 180 degrees, gliding through a trough below grade and up to the lift hill.  The trough reminded me of the similar one on Cedar Point's Blue Streak.  We were slowly pulled up the lift, crested the top and flew down the first drop and then over a classic Schmeck speed bump.  We were greeted with a strong pop of air time at the top of the second hill.  The track banked to the left 180 degrees and we flew back toward the station.  Then we turned back again.  The layout was a confusing zigzagging knot of track, each end capped by delightful airtime.  The run back to the station was over a small series of bunny hops.  The track needed a little TLC, but overall it was a really fun coaster, a unique hybrid twister/out-and-back ride that kept me guessing where we were heading next.

Next door to Thunderhawk was Road Rally, a nicely landscaped auto ride themed to sports cars.  Again, no one was in line.  We both sat in a single car with Karen "driving."  The route was peaceful, shady and brief.  It was a good respite before we tackled Steel Force.  We headed down a shady path in the middle of Thunderhawk's structure and emerged at a concourse that prominently featured yet another dinosaur and the entrance to Dinosaurs Alive.  To the right was the big logo and station for Steel Force.  It turned out that this was the ride's 15th anniversary.  It still looked brand new.  The logo reminded me of Kennywood's Steel Phantom.  Visually, the ride itself was very reminiscent of Cedar Point's groundbreaking Magnum XL-200, with the same color scheme and even similar trains.  Amazingly, there was no one in line for this ride either.  The park was running two of their three trains.  We sat down in the front seat and buckled ourselves in.  The seat was typical Morgan: low molded fiberglass with thin padding.  The front of the train was nearly level with my chin.  But it was comfortable and airy.  We rolled out of the station and turned 90 degrees left up the lift.  It climbed the 205 feet slowly, giving us time to savor the height.  As we crested the lift, the chain slowed down to a crawl, a wonderful effect that forced us to stare down the impossibly steep drop in front of us.  Wind blasted our faces as we plunged down into a tiny tunnel at the bottom.  We flew up and into the second hill which produced sustained floating air time.  The top of the next hill banked to the right and sent us into an intense triple helix.  We crossed over the ride structure and into a long trim brake that slowed us down a bit.  And then we began the return trip across a string of camelback hills that floated us out of our seats the entire length.

What a great ride!  It was smooth and exhilarating, packed with sustained air time.  It really was very similar in design to Magnum, except that on Magnum the hills were shaped more like triangles which produced violent painful air time.  Steel Force had much smoother transitions, allowing us to float gently over all the hills.  I would have kept riding it all day, but I didn't want to push my back too hard.  So I contented myself with one memorable ride.  We stopped off at the ride's photo booth and picked up a fun picture as a memento, plus a t-shirt.  This coaster alone made Dorney worth a return trip.

From the queue line of Steel Force we could see the Dinosaurs Alive exhibit in the distance.  Karen wanted to check it out, so we paid the additional $5 each at the ticket booth.  Karen noticed a humorous caution sign designed to keep people from trying to get too close to the animatronics.  The newly poured concrete path was sprinkled with fossil impressions.  The exhibit featured lots different types of dinosaurs, most I'd never heard of.  All of them moved, either on a timer or a motion sensor.  Some had buttons that could be pressed to make various parts move.  Speakers were embedded in fake rocks, creating dino roars (though no one really knows what they sounded like) and ambient jungle sounds.  As we wandered along through the shade of the forest, Adam, in safari clothing, approached us from down the path and asked us if we'd like a guide.  He seemed to be very knowledgeable about dinosaurs and the various historical periods and regaled us with lots of interesting facts.  There were all sorts of colorful creatures along the way, although many of the recreations were based upon pure speculation.  Even so, the sheer size of the models and their movement would have struck fear and wonder into me when I was a child.  The exhibit finished off with the dinosaur most people know, Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Then we exited through the requisite gift shop, which was of course stocked with everything dinosaur.  The exhibit was worth the price of admission, and Adam was an excellent guide.  I could see how this might be a really thrilling experience for kids.

We headed back toward the entrance so that I could stow my bag of souvenirs in the car.  The stamp they put on my arm was a picture of Schroeder from the Peanuts comic strip.  We  then strolled back out onto the shady midway, passing by the Whip, one of the park's many older traditional rides.  Judging by the number of lights on the building (and on almost everything else around), the midway must have looked gorgeous after dark.  We spotted the beautiful art deco sign for the park's Zephyr train and headed for the queue line.  While we were waiting for the train to return to the station, I noticed that the unusual track was held together by welded metal ties.  Within a few minutes we could hear the squeaking of the rails and horn blasts as the Zephyr turned the corner into the station.  The beautiful art deco train looked similar to the one at Lakeside Amusement Park.  The cars were enclosed, which felt a bit claustrophobic from the inside.  The ride itself was long and slow, and the shade from the enclosed car was a break from the heat.  Though it was difficult to see much along the route, there was plenty of pretty landscaping.  The best part was the home stretch which ran alongside the creek.

We were getting thirsty.  Karen spotted a fresh-squeezed lemonade stand nearby.  She got a strawberry flavored one and I got a regular.  They were both really tasty.  She wanted to see the park's ice show that started in about an hour.  So we decided to first take a ride on the park's other train.  We walked up the steeply sloped path toward the other end of the park.  There were hills everywhere, which were somewhat daunting to navigate.  But the hillsides were always picturesque.

It was a long walk to the north end of the park.  The Cedar Creek Cannonball was a modern faux steam engine and its course was a big circle around the park's rapids ride.  The cars, in contrast to the Zephyr, were open and airy.  Ironically, though, there wasn't nearly as much to see on this fairly brief ride outside of the rapids (which admittedly were pretty impressive).  From there we headed back toward the main midway, passing by the White Water Landing shoot-the-chutes ride, which was nearly identical to Snake River Falls at Cedar Point.  The boat pushed out an impressive wall of water.

It was then twenty minutes before show time, so we headed over to the Good Time Theater to see Snoopy's Big Bow Wow.  We climbed the steps to the entrance.  Karen tugged on the doors, but they were locked.  I checked other sides of the theater, but that was the only entrance.  A small crowd began to form.  After a few minutes, Snoopy appeared to greet the guests and have his picture taken.  A few minutes after that, the doors opened and we entered the large cool theater.  The stage curtain was closed and the proscenium was surrounded with lighted multi-colored blocks.  Karen pegged two of the larger blocks on either side as projection screens.  We sat in the center on the contoured plastic chairs.  The theater gradually filled up to about a third of its high capacity.  An announcer told guests that the first two rows of seats might get wet during the show.  The two screens on either side of the stage came to life and played excerpts from Peanuts cartoons.  The curtain opened and the show began.  The main skaters were introduced, along with Snoopy.  Cedar Fair was certainly getting mileage out of its licensing of Charles Shultz's Peanuts characters.  The revue was an odd mix of musical styles.  The Banana Boat Song with colorful cartoony set pieces would give way to John Lennon's Imagine and psychedelic costumes which would then shift to Razzle Dazzle from the musical Chicago.  None of it made much sense or had much coherence, but the crowd seemed to love it.  My favorite number featured rain pouring from the ceiling across the front of the stage as the skaters danced lyrically.  (I can't recall what song played.)

We next stopped in for lunch at the small Coasters Drive-In, styled like a 1950s diner (complete with antique cars parked outside).  There were a few tables inside, and Karen grabbed one while I ordered.  The only other option would have been to sit outside in the baking sun in front of the rock-n-roll revue stage.  Coasters offered a veggie burger basket, with Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle plus fresh fries for a reasonable $8.95.  That's what Karen and I opted for.  She got a Diet Pepsi to drink and I got a vanilla milkshake (which was really just soft serve vanilla ice cream in a cup).   The burgers and fries were really good and hit the spot.  On the walls of the restaurant were many large historical murals featuring scenes from Dorney's past.  Just outside, the Screamin' Swing was going through its paces.  Much smaller than the similar ride at Cedar Point, it cost an extra $2 and a steady stream of guests were paying for it.

With only a few hours remaining before we had to head back for the music seminar, we decided to cool ourselves off on a water ride.  We first stopped into Good Time Gifts so Karen could get a pair of flip-flops.  (We didn't want to ride all the way back with soggy sneakers.)  The guy behind the counter was really friendly and helpful, offering to cut off the tags on the flip-flogs so that Karen could wear them right away.  I had brought mine in the car, so we dropped our shoes off in the car and then headed for Thunder Canyon, the rapids ride we had seen from the Cannonball.  From the train, we had seen the copious waterfalls along the course so we knew we were going to get drenched.  When we arrived, the line was the longest I had seen so far at the park, though the queue was only about a third full.  It turned out that the ride had broken down and the line was at a stand-still.  But within a few minutes things were working again and the line started moving.  As with everything else at Dorney, the ride featured impressive landscaping.  The loading system was unusual: the operator would load five rafts at once in the station and leave one empty at the end.  Rafts coming in would be stacked in a long holding area until the station rafts were released.  A gate near the lift then stacked the rafts there, releasing them gradually up the lift hill.  We boarded a raft with a middle-age couple and in a few minutes rolled up the lift hill and then were gently deposited in the wide concrete trough.  The water moved swiftly and the raft bumped into the sides of the trough, spinning us mercilessly.  There wasn't much bobbing up and down in the water.  Instead, the entire course was populated with drenching waterfalls that pretty much guaranteed no one would stay dry.  I considered that a sort of cheat; I preferred a rapids ride where the movement of the raft got us wet.  But the ride certainly got the job done.  By the time we slogged to the exit, we were completely drenched.  In the hot sun, it felt wonderful.  And we were glad we wore flip-flops!

We had time for one or two more rides.  So we headed for the last area of the park we hadn't explored, along the way admiring whimsical bits of landscaping.  We passed by the Camp Snoopy kid's section of the park, similar to what was at Cedar Point.  A huge inflatable Snoopy stood watch over the area.  We also passed by Hydra, the big looper that took the place of Hercules.  The old wood coaster was famous for its surprising dive out of the station before its lift hill.  Hydra provided a similar surprise, placing an achingly slow heartline roll directly out of the station.

Continuing down the hill around the ride we saw the Demon Drop, an infernal Intamin contraption that had spent many years at Cedar Point.  At the very bottom of the hill there was Thunder Creek Mountain, a classic log flume ride.  Very little of the ride was visible from the station.  It looked really short, as if it just left the station, went up the hill and then splashed down.  But it was actually a long and pleasant trip, rubbing elbows with both Steel Force and Hydra.  The lift itself was a bit odd, with a sort of kink in the middle.  The drop was a long shallow ramp that produced a decent splash.  We both really enjoyed it.

It was 3:30 and we had just enough time for one last ride, we climbed the slope back up toward the Ferris Wheel, which stood on one of the highest points at the park.  Next to it was the park's other merry-go-round, the simply-named fiberglass Chance Carousel.  I wondered why they had named that ride after the manufacturer, but had called their other merry-go-round the "antique" carousel instead of the Dentzel carousel, after its manufacturer.  We boarded the Ferris Wheel (the only one we've ever ridden with seat belts) and were soon were treated to an impressive panorama.  As with other favorite parks of ours (i.e.: Knoebels and Canobie Lake), the midway was difficult to see because it was shrouded in foliage.  Only the coasters and taller rides like the drop tower were readily visible.  That made Dorney a pleasant place to simply stroll through, even on a hot day.

As we were leaving, we passed by the Sugar Shack.  For the heck of it, we walked in.  There were all sorts of candy confections, and also some t-shirts we hadn't seen elsewhere.  I noticed an interesting looking white pretzel.  The guy behind the counter was really outgoing (like all of the attendants at Dorney) and raved about the pretzel.  He said it was white chocolate mousse (with crushed walnuts).  So I got two of those.  Karen got a dark chocolate pretzel.  And I got another t-shirt as well.  As we were leaving, the guy urged me to let him know what I though of the pretzel.  So I took a bite.  It was heaven!   And with that, we left the park for the trip back to the music seminar.

We had a great time at Dorney!  It far exceeded my expectations (and my memories).  There was a good balance of rides, with plenty for the entire family to do.  Steel Force -- after only one ride -- became one of my favorite steel roller coasters.  Thunderhawk was lots of fun, too.  The food was quite good and reasonably priced.  The staff was friendly and helpful.  From talking with them at the park, it's apparently fairly crowded most days.  We happened to go on a slow Monday when storms were threatening (but didn't materialize).  Cedar Fair was doing an incredible job with the park, shaping it into a mini version of The Point (which wasn't a bad thing).  It was clean, bright and beautifully landscaped (and probably looked great at night).  We never even saw the huge adjacent waterpark, which seemed to be quite busy.  My only confusion was on the price.  Cedar Point, a much larger park with far more rides, cost $51 to enter (without a discount).  Given that, Dorney seems to be priced a bit too high (even with the waterpark included).  The season passes at Dorney are reasonably priced ($69 plus a one-day ticket), so for locals it's probably quite a bargain.  Still, I'm really glad we took the time to visit it.  The next time we're back in the eastern Pennsylvania area, we'll definitely make plans to spend more time at Dorney, a nearly perfect amusement park!

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