The Great Escape
July 13, 2017

copyright Jay Ducharme 2017

For the last leg of our upstate New York trip, we drove four hours northeast to visit The Great Escape in Lake George (actually, Queensbury).  When Karen and I were  dating, this was our favorite park.  It was the first park where we took our kids.  The park began in 1954 as Storytown, U.S.A.  It was the first theme park in the country, beating Disneyland by a year.  At the time, it was themed to Mother Goose stories and children could interact with the storybook characters.  There was an entire village of kid-sized buildings that adults couldn't enter.  It was a really magical place for a child.  Its creator, the legendary Charlie Wood, gradually expanded the size of the park and its offerings.  The park's name was changed to the Great Escape in 1983.  The park first caught my attention in 1994 when Wood rescued one of the greatest roller coasters ever built: the Crystal Beach Comet.  That ride began its life in 1927 as the Cyclone at Crystal Beach amusement park in Ontario.  It was one of the most extreme coasters ever built and legend has it that the park kept a nurse on duty at the exit platform to treat broken ribs and snapped necks.  It also was one of the first coasters to have a steel structure and a wood track.  In 1946, ridership had declined and maintenance was a problem.  The ride would regularly sheer bolts off of the structure.  So the park asked Herb Schmeck of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company if he could build a new ride out of the old coaster.  Since World War II was raging and supplies were scarce, Schmeck basically dismantled the ride like an erector set and rearranged the pieces to create the Comet, one of the greatest wooden coasters designs ever built.  When the park closed suddenly in 1989, Wood bought the Comet, dismantled it and placed it in storage at his other property, Fantasy Island, near Niagara Falls.   Originally, it was suspected he would rebuild the ride at that park.  But instead, Fantasy Island got a new ride, an homage to the original called The Silver Comet.  The Crystal Beach Comet was re-erected at Great Escape against the scenery of the Adirondack mountains.  Wood and the park's General Manager Tom Wages listened to the advice of coaster enthuiasts and historians during reconstruction, and they ended up with a coaster that ran even better than it did at Crystal Beach.  It was a joyous example of coaster preservation done right.

Two years later in a surprising move, Wood sold the park to Premier Parks.  Premier took the name of the park and began using it as a branding tool on their other parks (thus, Riverside The Great Escape, etc...).  Three years later, Premier bought Six Flags and changed the park's name to Six Flags The Great Escape.  The character of the park began to drastically change.  Many of the storybook attractions were removed, replaced with Looney Tunes characters.  Unique attractions like Jungle Land and Alice in Wonderland were shuttered.  The great Ghost Town Train was removed.  The Tornado, a classic dark ride, was removed.  And instead the midway became choked with thrill rides that didn't seem to fit the character of the park.  The Comet still ran at the far back of the park, but it had become rough.  Karen and I simply stopped going to the Great Escape, even though it was free with our Six Flag season passes.

So after years of avoiding it, Karen and I decided to check out the park one more time.  The forecast again was for severe thunderstorms.  Although we were blessed with sunshine for the previous few days, it looked like this one would be a washout.  The clouds were thick and threatening.  We arrived at the park about 10:30, just as they were opening, and drove the narrow winding road toward the unpaved parking lot on the opposite side of the highway from the entrance.  Our season pass got us free parking as well.  We walked up and over the bridge that spanned the highway, much like the arrangement at Six Flags New England.  We were greeted by the bright orange track of the Steamin' Demon, which sat on a hillside at the front of the park.  It was a great calling card, though the day we were there it was down for repairs.  Supposedly they were turning it into yet another "virtual" coaster ride.  I wondered when Six Flags was going to realize that those gimmicks simply didn't work.  Behind the coaster was the large building that housed the drop for Desperado Plunge, the park's log flume.  On the side of the building was a huge sign for Great Escape.  What I thought was interesting was that in small letters underneath it was, "a Six Flags theme park".  Could it be that the Six Flags influence had been dialed back?

We walked down the long ramp toward the entrance gates.  As at other Six Flags parks, the security checkpoint had been moved to a position before the ticket booths, I assume to prevent lines from backing up after getting tickets.  I was glad to see that the storybook buildings from the original park were still out front and in good condition.  We walked throught the gates and up onto the plaza at the midway's entrance.  An attendant handed us a sheet of paper detailing the park's rain check policy; evidently they were anticipating a wash-out.

Like a mini version of Busch Gardens or Hersheypark, we emerged onto a nicely landscaped path leading between rows of shops.  On the left was the Village Toy Store and on the right Coaster Candies.  The path opened up on to another plaza with shops.  From there we could turn right toward a 1950s-themed area or left toward the old Storytown area.  There was another steep path leading up toward the Old Woman in the the Shoe building at the top of a hill, so we walked up there.  Karen then took a breather inside the shoe.  We then followed the path downward toward a miniature village.  I was glad to see that the buildings were being kept in great condition, freshly painted and nicely landscaped.  Karen stopped into the little church to practice her organ technique.

Near the church was an attraction that had been relocated.  It was supposed to have been a recreation of the biblical account of  Jonah being swallowed by a whale.  The whale was bright pink in a blue pool and it had been located where many of the other storybook displays were, in the area that became the Looney Tunes kiddieland.  I was glad they saved this iconic piece of the park's history.  It was still a pink whale in a blue pool, but they changed its identity.  The little figure of Jonah was gone, and a sign proclaimed (in sketchy poetry) that the name of the whale was Moby Dick -- which was odd because Moby Dick was a white whale.

From there we followed the signpost toward the Ghost Town section.  I loved the entryway, a long curving dark cave tunnel that sloped upward.  Normally there was a waterfall near the entrance, but it wasn't running.  We walked through the cool seclusion of the tunnel.  Delighted screams of children at the other end echoed throughout.  We emerged next to the tall Condor ride, which wasn't running.  In the center of Ghost Town used to be an arcade, but in an unusual move it was replaced with a ride (in this case, bumper cars).  I got a kick out of the sign above the entrance.  It was for a barber shop and listed "C.R. Wood, Proprietor".  Somehow I missed the Ghost Town Jail next door which supposedly had an historical display of the park.

Desperado Plunge hadn't opened yet.   Behind it remained the eyesore of a building that used to house a Jet Star roller coaster, but which now was closed.  We circled around past the Canyon Blaster roller coaster, a really short ride that basically consisted of two helixes connected by a lift hill.   We passed on that and continued on down the hill back toward the Storytown area.  The little buildings were marked with numbers above each one; I wasn't sure of their significance.  The old petting zoo and the chatty rooster puppet had long given way to game booths.  Cinderella's Castle was still looking good, though the figures inside it were no longer there and her pumpkin coach was merely a photo op, not a ride.  There were also some storybook figures scattered throughout, such as the Knave of Hearts and the Three Little Kittens.  I wondered how many children knew those nursery rhymes any more.

We passed by the Grand Carousel, which looked spectacular in its setting at the edge of the storybook area, and walked down toward another mini Storytown area at the edge of the 1950s area (named Hot Rod USA).  As we passed the carousel, the diving show behind it was in progress.  It was funny how in over two decades, the show hadn't changed a bit.  We crossed over the arched bridge and queued up for the Swan Boats, one of the park's original rides.  In short order we were seated and began our silent trip gliding over the calm water.  Off to our right next to the Storytown Train tracks, were a sequence of colorful signs detailing the evolution of the park.  I also noticed that high up on a concrete and wood pad, the old (and ugly) theater dome had been removed.  In its place was Screamin' Eagles, a colorful and perfectly placed Flying Scooter ride.   Just beyond that, we could glimpse the old and long-closed Alice in Wonderland attraction.  It appeared to be open, with people walking through it!  A little further along was PoPo the Purple Dragon, one of the landmarks from the original incarnation of the park.  Our swan boat circled around a small island and headed back toward the Hot Rod section while the train rolled by on our left.   Within a few minutes, we returned to the dock.  There had once been a large round concession building with a slowly rotating car on its roof, sort of like a 1950s drive-in diner, next to the Swan Boats.  It had been removed and replaced with an expanse of asphalt, but the spinning car had been relocated to the track of Thunder Alley, the park's antique car ride.

With the uncertainty of the weather, I decided to make a video walk-thru sooner rather than later.  Karen followed me around, and it took quite a while.   Along the way I discovered that the Alice in Wonderland attraction was indeed open again.  The park had even spruced it up, and that made me happy.  I did run into one other surprise: there used to be a walkway alongside the length of the Comet rollercoaster that made for some great visuals.  But for some reason, the park had blocked it off and I had to double back.

Once the video was done, we decided to get some lunch.  There was a new eatery in the Fest area, the Skillet Markeplace, that offered fajitas, tacos and quesadillas.  But when we got there, the only choice for us would have been a cheese quesadilla.  So we passed.  Karen suggested the Timbertown Grill & Marketplace.  So we headed over to Timbertown, the park's kiddieland section.  The service was cafeteria-style and the decor was sort of country-and-western, with wagon wheels, a buckboard and picnic tables for seating.  But what really sold us on the place: they served black bean veggie burgers!  So we each ordered a combo, with fries and a drink.  The burger wasn't exactly piping hot, but it came on a bulky roll with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion a generous serving of fries for about $30.  The burger had a nice spicy kick to it.

After that filling meal, we went back out and over to the entrance to Jungle Land, which had been renamed Timbertown Trail ("featuring Jungle Land history").  The entrance was padlocked.  A few years previously it featured the Looney Tunes characters on the exterior, but it hadn't opened then either.  In fact it wasn't even listed on the park map, though the trail was clearly visible.

We walked back across the arched bridge into the Hot Rod area and queued up for the Storytown Train just as it was returning to the station.  The park appaarently had done a lot of recent track work along the route.  The engineer was very friendly, making small talk with all the guests.  In fact, all of the park employees we encountered that day were outgoing and friendly.  The park had used the train route as a sort of park museum.  There were billboards advertising attractions that were no longer in the park.  There were also items that once decorated various themed areas (i.e.: a stagecoach from Ghost Town).  The return trip gave us peaceful views of the mirror-like water

We then hiked up the hill toward the Fest area to take a trip on the Sky Ride.  The park had recently dealt with an incident where a girl for some reason wriggled herself out of the restraints and fell to the midway.  Her fall was broken by some guests who caught her.  This was yet another example of the bizarre circumstances amusement parks have to negotiate.  It wasn't the park's fault.  The restraints were locked and functioning properly.  This was an example of someone purposely thwarting the safety measures.  But even though it wasn't the park's fault, to their credit they took quick action and came up with a novel and very simple modification: a six inch padded metal rod had been bolted to the lap bar creating a barrier between riders' legs.  It was an elegant solution and made it nearly impossible for someone to fall out.  Fortunately, our ride was relaxing and without incident.  We strolled through the Fest section.  The large enclosed game area featured an odd concession, Rocky's Droppings, where you had to throw a baseball into a toilet.  The prize, appropriately, was a stuffed poop emoji.  We passed on that.

After all those sedate rides, we were up for something a little more exciting.  So we headed to the far back of the park where the Comet was hidden.  Along the way we passed by the Alpine Bobsled coaster.  The entrance to it was gated off and the ride was down for maintenance.  We walked past the waterpark areas and finally emerged onto the concourse where the Comet resided.  When the coaster first opened, small trees had been planted around it.  Those saplings had grown up into 20-foot high shade givers that now obscured most of the ride's long profile.  The coaster had also been given a new and somewhat bland sign at the top of the lift hill.  To its credit, the park was running two trains.  We queued up for the front and were seated in the next train into the station.  We sat down in the spacious seats.  But in what seems like an epidemic recently, the single seatbelt that spanned our seats was about three inches too short.  The lap bars worked fine.  Two attendants approached, each grabbing and end of the belt with both hands and tugging as hard as they could.  The finally connected the two ends.  Then the attendant on my side jammed the lap bar into my gut, knocking the wind out of me.  I had to flag her down and have her release it.  Then we were good to go and were dispatched out of the station, around the corner and up the lift hill.  It looked like the park was greasing the track, which was a good sign.  As we neared the top of the lift, the chain sped up and catapulted us down the first drop.  I was expecting some roughness, but the bottom of the first drop was smooth.  We soared over the first bunny hop and then up into the turnaround with increduble speed.  The turnaround flung us to the right side and then we plunged down the second drop.  The coaster was flying!  Each hill produced strong airtime and the turns some serious laterly G forces.  We returned to the station breathless.  What a great ride!  Kudos to the park for keeping it in such good shape.  I had worried because years before the ride was so rough it was almost painful.  But this time is was smooth.  It rekindled my love of the Comet.

I stopped by the photo booth and asked the attendant if I could get a digital copy of my photo.  She said yes, all I had to do was buy the season pass photo card for $19.99.  I told her I didn't want a season pass; I just wanted that one photo.  She said that I could purchase a day pass for $14.99 and get pictures on all the rides.  I said I didn't want photos from all the rides, I just wanted a single digital copy of my ride on the Comet.  She said that the pass was a great bargain.  So I asked about purchasing a printed photo instead.  She said I had to get the season pass.  A magnet?  The season pass.  A keychain?  The season pass.  So I passed.

We were in the mood for some ice cream, so we headed over to the Cold Stone Creamery that was located at the edge of the Storytown area.  It was definitely open, but no one was in sight.  So we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Behind us, the Jolly Tree Theater was presenting a typical '50s rock-and-roll review.  I walked around the building to the concession on that side.  There was a girl taking orders at the cotton candy stand.  But she was the only worker I saw.  I went back to Cold Stone.  Karen and I were about to leave when the cotton candy girl appeared.  She was all alone and had to work both concessions.  She apologized for the wait.  So Karen ordered a waffle "dish" of cookies-and-cream.  I ordered a waffle cone of sweet cream.  That came to $15.  I expected to find gold flakes in my cone.  We sat down at a cafe table alongside the water.  The ice cream was good.  The cones were like old shoe leather, impossible to chew and about as flavorful.

The skies continued to darken, so Karen and I called it a day.  As we passed Cinderalla's Castle, some sort of dance fever event was going on led by a big green turtle and a bear.  At least it wasn't the creepy old Mr. Six guy we saw last time.  We exited through the gift shop and I was delighted at what I saw: unlike the last time we were there, the park was now celebrating its uniqueness.  There were sets of posters, coasters, mugs, magnets -- all sorts of gifts specific to the park and its attractions.  There were four themed sets of souvenirs, all looking like watercolor paintings: one was a depiction of the pink whale, one was of the Swan Boats, one was a map of the original Storytown USA and another was a stunning depiction of the Comet's lift hill with a full moon behind it.  So I bought the Comet poster, plus a set of coasters.  I was tempted to buy one of everything, but I restrained myself.

Besides, there's no rush.  I was generally pleased with our trip to Great Escape, and would definitely return.  The deprecation of the Six Flags name was indeed significant. The park's management was being allowed to let the park be what it always was: a unique and delightful family destination.  And I was thrilled that rather than forgetting about their heritage, they were celebrating it while firmly grounding themselves in the present.  The charm that had faded from the park had at last begun to return.

Leaving when we did turned out to be a good move; as we drove onto the highway, rain began to fall.  But we didn't need that rain check; we had a fun time and were looking forward to making a return trip to The Great Escape, hopefully on a sunnier day.

Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions