Fantasy Island
May 26, 2018

copyright Jay Ducharme 2018

This year's Coasterfest™ was jointly sponsored by the Western New York Coaster Club and the Great Ohio Coaster Club. The first stop was Fantasy Island in Grand Island, New York. Since the last time Karen and I had visited the park, it had been sold to a new owner, the Apex Parks Group. I liked the charm of the old Martin's Fantasy Island, and I was interested to see what changes were being made.

The drive up on Friday was pleasant, with surprisingly few cars on the road for a Memorial Day weekend. At about 4:00, we arrived at the Radisson Hotel down the street from the park. We had stayed there before, but in the intervening years the establishment seemed to have gone to seed. The name Radisson usually indicated mid- to upscale rooms, and our stay certainly wasn't cheap. I originally wanted to stay two nights, but they were booked up for Saturday. The night we arrived, hardly anyone seemed to be staying there.

After we brought our luggage to our room, we wanted to get something to eat. A search of the Internet revealed that most of the restaurants were in North Tonawanda, and I didn't want to get back on the highway. (We later discovered that Grand Island Boulevard was populated with many restaurants that for some reason never showed up in the search.) So we decided to eat at the hotel's restaurant. There were ominous reviews online. One simply stated, "You've been warned." But tired from the long drive, we settled for the closest option.

We were the first customers of the afternoon and were seated at a table next to a panoramic window looking out onto the Niagara River. We were accompanied by a large wasp that was buzzing around at the window. I asked one of the staff to take care of it. He came over with a rolled up newspaper and whacked it. The stunned wasp dropped behind a heat register and the staff member poked around, trying to make sure it was dead. That staff member turned out to be our waiter, and he then brought us our menus. I ordered a Cajun-spiced salmon dinner. Karen ordered a shrimp salad. The waiter helpfully informed Karen that there wouldn't be any Romain lettuce in the salad, since it had been linked to an outbreak of e coli.

After a few minutes, he brought us a basket of rolls. Karen tried one and exclaimed, "This is the largest crouton I've ever eaten!" Indeed, the rolls were hard as rocks, both inside and out. Banging them on our dishes caused them to break into powder. I mentioned this to the waiter and he said he'd get us some new rolls. He returned in a few minutes and said that the chef claimed that was how the rolls were supposed to be served, hard on the outside and soft on the inside. I had one broken in half and demonstrated the problem by rapping the roll onto the plate and letting it crumble to dust. The new rolls were slightly better. The rest of the meal was okay. The salmon was spicy and moist, and the rice with vegetables was good. Karen enjoyed her huge Romaine-free salad.

We walked around the grounds alongside the river and then retired for the evening. The next morning we didn't want to take a chance on the hotel's breakfast buffet (which at most hotels would have been complementary but at the Radisson was $13), so we packed up and headed over to a nearby McDonald's for breakfast. Then we drove over to the park -- and completely missed the entrance. I had forgotten how nondescript it was. The parking lot was set back a few acres from the road, and only a one-lane road and small sign indicated the park was there. We drove past three new parking gates that were under construction; later on in the season, Fantasy Island would finally begin charging for parking. We parked up front. Gradually, coaster enthusiasts began arriving. Jason Hammond from the GOCC had made up some really nice Coasterfest™ buttons and handed them out.

The park's entrance hadn't changed since our last visit, still with its fairly generic ticket booths. Obviously, the name had been changed to just Fantasy Island (dropping "Martin's"). But the sign itself looked similar to the previous one. Geff Ford from the WNYCC handed out our registration packets, which included wrist bands to get into the park. By that point it was 10:00, so we affixed our wristbands and walked through the entrance gates.

An attractive stone waterfall was just beyond the entrance, in front of the park's 1961 Alan Herschell carousel. To the right was the station for the Iron Horse Train, where the sleeping giant lay just beyond. We walked alongside the tracks toward the small kiddieland section at the northeast corner of the park. The miniature golf course there hadn't yet open. There were a few more kiddie rides since our last visit. But I noticed one was missing: the Mother Goose ride that the park had installed several years earlier. Some workers were removing the last few pieces as I watched. One of the workers, Bill, approached and made some friendly conversation. It turned out he worked at Agawam's Riverside Park many years before and had traveled around as a performer at parks until he settled into maintenance at Fantasy Island. He mentioned that the park had some severe weather over the winter, which set back their construction by nearly a month. But he said they were hoping to have a new area of the park, Fairy Tale Forest, opened by the middle of the summer.

Indeed, the old storybook area of the park was fenced off and overgrown. That meant there was now only one way to get to the rest of the park: through the archway to Western Town. The new management had re-labeled sections of the park. The entrance area was called the Town Square now, Kiddieland was the area we had just come from, then there was new Fairy Tale Forest section, Western Town, Action Town and the generically named Midway for the southern section of the park that contained most of the thrill rides. Overall, it seemed like they were embracing the previous design of the park, just clarifying and enhancing it. I was glad to see that they weren't discarding the attractions that made the park so charming.

The Western Town area hadn't changed since our last visit. We walked down the hill toward the canoe dock. The island in the middle of the pond still had the stereotypical Native American scene, now somewhat of an anachronism. The display probably meant more to me and Karen (having grown up in an era when westerns were the main form of television entertainment) than most of the children currently visiting the park. It was one of the frozen-in-time qualities that appealed to me. The canoes weren't yet open. And the pond didn't look that inviting. So we continued on. We paused at the bridge by the pond. There were small vending machines there dispensing Cheerios. It wasn't for ducks or geese; the pond was stocked with catfish. We put a quarter in the machine and tossed the Cheerios into the water, watching the fish jump all over each other to nab the treats.

We climbed the hill toward Action Town. As we entered, I noticed a big plot of empty land on the right that used to hold a giant slide. The previous owner ran a carnival and might have taken it with him when he sold the park. But such a large stretch of empty land looked odd there, especially as we entered a section named "Action Town". The centerpiece of that area was the Silver Comet, the coaster that put the park on the map. An homage to the famed Crystal Beach Comet (which was later moved to New York's Great Escape) it was a surprisingly potent rollercoaster for a park that mainly catered to children. Naturally, I had to take a ride. I had forgotten how intense it was, with more lateral G forces than any other coaster I've ridden. I was glad the park was home to such a world-class ride.

That area of the park was also home to the Mind Warp spin-and-barf ride. It was flipping riders end-over-end and spinning them mercilessly. We passed on that and instead strolled down through the Midway section of the park. There was a ride in that area we used to enjoy, the Old Mill Scream, a log flume that was basically dropped into the middle of a giant lawn. But we discovered it had been removed a few years ago. So we queued up for the Antique Cars, another ride dropped onto a giant lawn. We were the first in line. The operator was waiting for his supervisor to give him the go-ahead. And after a few minutes we were chugging along the concrete path as other guests began queuing up.

After that, I wanted to film a park walk-thru. Rain was forecast for the day, but so far there had been intermittent clouds and sun. Karen waited outside the still-closed Basgetti's restaurant while I wandered the park. It didn't take me very long.

I had heard about a small park on the shores of Lake Ontario where Dan Wilke, a friend and one of the founders of the Western New York Coaster Club, operates a small carousel. So Karen and I drove about 45 minutes north to the small quaint town of Olcutt. At the main intersection off the highway, a red caboose served as the town's visitor's center. We continued traveling north to Olcutt Beach and parked along the street. The surroundings reminded me of a typical New England beach town, with quaint old shops and a lighthouse. The park itself was along a road running parallel with the coastline. A long covered walkway led to the park entrance.

Olcutt Beach Carousel Park itself was about the size of a town square and contained a metal building on the left that housed three vintage kiddie rides, a building on the right that housed a few games and a kiddie rocket ship ride, a stage where magic acts were performed, and at the back center a 1928 Herschell-Spillman carousel in an attractive pavilion with a 1931 Wurlitzer band organ. There were two ticket booths at the center of the complex selling ride tickets for 25 cents each. Dan's wife Anne was working at one of them, and we purchased a few. There were quite a few people in the park, most of them obviously with small children.

We headed over to the carousel, past a stone fountain bearing a horse's head. Dan greeted us at the entrance, happy that we had made the trip up to the park. There not only was a band organ in the ride next to the operator's console, but there was also a small trailer next to the pavilion containing a rare Wurlitzer 145-A band organ. Dan switched off the organ inside the ride and started up the 145-A. Both sounded great. We chatted for a while. Dan told us to check out Bye's Popcorn nearby. Then we took a spin on the carousel. After our enjoyable ride, we continued walking north through the park. There was a house on the left that had been converted into an eatery serving the usual park food. Just past it, the park ended at a narrow street running east-west. Beyond the street, the land dropped down sharply to the lake. To the east was a lush public park where people were playing games and having picnics.

We followed the road west, which led to a sort of mini-village on a boardwalk populated by The Lakeview Village Shops. We browsed through the many gift shops for a while. Then we were getting a little hungry, so we got some apple rollups (like egg rolls but stuffed with apples) and some Perry's ice cream. We sat at a cafe table looking out at the lake while we feasted. Both the rollups and the ice cream were really good. By then it was about 3:30, so we headed back to our car. We searched for Bye's Popcorn but couldn't find it. We even stopped into the Visitor's Center, but it turned out to be just a caboose stuffed with brochures. We couldn't find anything helpful. So bid farewell to Olcutt Beach and headed back to Fantasy Island.

We arrived back at the park about 4:30, and the parking lot was nearly filled. We walked over to the train and rode it to the south station to meet up with the others in Coasterfest™ for a group picture and then dinner. Club members began drifting over and within a few minutes nearly all of the 41 people in attendance had gathered at the middle turn of the Silver Comet. We all posed for pictures and then walked across the midway to our picnic pavilion. Karen and I were glad that the buffet featured veggie burgers! There was also a really good pasta salad and of course plenty for the meat eaters. We chatted with the club members as we ate. By about 6:00, we decided to head for our next destination: Darien Lake. There was going to be exclusive ride time on the Silver Comet after the park closed, but there was supposed to be a lot of traffic at Darien because of a big concert they were having. So we wanted to get a head start.

We strolled along the winding paths back toward the park entrance. As we reached the Town Square area, we noticed a commotion at the train. The wild west performers were staging a holdup. The train was stopped by the lawn behind the station. The performers were generally comical, mugging for the guests' cameras. But the performance ended in a fairly violent shootout leaving all but two of the characters dead in a cloud of gun smoke. Before we left, I stopped into the gift shop and picked up a really nice Silver Comet t-shirt. Then we bid farewell to the park.

We had an enjoyable day at Fantasy Island. I'm glad the new owners were committed to expanding and improving the park. It's a shame that we weren't able to see the new Fairy Tale Forest, but I'm sure we'll return. And we also had an enjoyable trip up to Olcutt Beach. We bid farewell to New York's Niagara region and headed southeast for the next stop on our trip: Darien Lake.

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