|The Great Escape
in Lake George NY was one of the first parks to
which I took Karen and the kids way back in 1995. At that time it
was still being run by "the father of theme parks," Charlie Wood, who began the park as Storytown
one year before Disneyland debuted. Great Escape at that time was
befitting its name, a wonderland of unique childhood fancy with some
rides thrown in for good measure. There were two lengthy
miniature railroads, a very funny dark ride and many other family rides
all surrounded by spectacular landscaping. Charlie Wood was also
responsible for one of the most significant roller coaster preservation
in history. In 1926, the
infamous Harry Traver built the Crystal Beach Cyclone in Ontario.
was possibly the most punishing coaster ever built. In 1946, just
before the end of WWII, the legendary Herb Schmeck of the Philadelphia
Toboggan Company was asked to make a new coaster for Crystal Beach
using the structural steel from the Cyclone. Schmeck engineered
what was possibly his greatest creation, the Crystal Beach Comet.
After Crystal Beach closed, Charlie Wood won The Comet at auction,
dismantled it and eventally meticulously rebuilt it at Great Escape
(including a restoration of the original Cyclone station). For
many years, it was my favorite roller coaster, fast and furious, yet
glass smooth and steeped in fascinating history.
Charlie Wood sold Great Escape to Premier Parks, which eventually became Six Flags. Year after year, Karen and I would return to the park only to find that more and more of the charm we loved had been removed, replaced with teen thrill rides that didn't appeal to us. The Comet seemed to be an afterthought in the park; it became rougher and rougher. After 2005, we stopped going completely.
What drew us back this year was Coasterfest, the annual roller coaster convention of the Western New York Coaster Club. For its thirtieth incarnation, the Coasterfest theme was "Back Where We Started." The WNYCC planned to visit the parks that were part of the very first Coasterfest in 1981. On Saturday, those parks were Seabreeze and Darien Lake. On Sunday were Sylvan Beach and Great Escape. I had to be at work on Saturday (Memorial Day weekend), so we missed out on the first two parks. Sylvan Beach would have been about a six hour drive for us, so we opted to just attend Great Escape for the day. The weather forecast was for severe thunderstorms, but we forged on ahead anyway.
We arrived at the park about 10:30, a half-hour after opening. We were both confused. The parking lot was still across the street from the park (and busy Route 9), but it was completely gated off. Further up the road, the hotel that was under construction on our last visit was now the huge Great Escape Lodge with an indoor waterpark. Arching across the road was a large concrete pedestrian bridge. There was a drop-off area in front of the park, so we pulled in there and asked an attendant where the entrance was. It had been moved about a mile down the road. So we drove back out onto Route 9. Sure enough, about a mile away at the top of the hill was a stop light and the entrance. The traffic at that point was chaos, with dozens of cars spilling out of the entrance road and onto Route 9. We managed to squeeze onto the entrance road. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. The road back to the parking area seemed to stretch forever, and the seemingly endless line of cars barely moved. On the left was an old collection of log cabins, which Karen correctly guessed was used as employee lodging. Along the opposite side of the road were a series of signs, mostly ads and pricing information (such as $25 for "preferred" parking). It was a half-hour before we arrived at the parking lot entrance. Four entrance lanes were open, but for some reason nothing seemed to be moving very quickly.
There didn't seem to be an enormous amount of cars in the parking area. And the area itself didn't seem to be much larger than the last time we were at the park. In fact, we parked in nearly the same location (across the street from Thunder Alley). It's just that now the lot was paved and had lighting. There was a long walkway with a floating bridge spanning the brook that fed the park's pond. Across the brook there were some picnic tables set up, a nice amenity for families that didn't want to spend the money to eat in the park. Then we hiked up the winding ramps to the pedestrian bridge across the road. It reminded me of the one built for Six Flags New England. Looking at the expansive panorama of the Great Escape from the bridge, it really didn't seem to have changed much, except that the colorful Rainbow ride that had sat near the road had been replaced with Sasquatch, a gargantuan dual drop tower that was painted a dull reddish-brown and yellow.
We walked through the entrance gates with our Six Flags season passes. There were quite a few seniors manning the turnstiles. As we emerged onto International Village area, the new park mascot (a moose) was having his picture taken with some children. An older woman in a circa-1800s dress was calling out to guests to have their picture taken at Old Time Photo. We stopped into some of the shops in that area. There were a couple of interesting though generic roller coaster shirts, candy, fudge and generic stuffed animals. We turned right and headed down toward the small pond and the old Swan Boats. It was heartening to see that the kid-sized storybook buildings had not only been preserved but had also been given a fresh coat of paint. The homes of Peter Pumpkin-eater, Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose plus workshops like the candle maker's and the clock shop were all in remarkable shape after a half-century of use. One thing that seemed anachronistic, though, was that all through the park the sound system was blasting teen dance music. It didn't matter which section of the park we were in (except for one), it was the same music everywhere. And unfortunately there wasn't much of a selection -- there were only about a dozen tunes that played over and over, interspersed with advertisements.
We were feeling hungry so we walked across the bridge to the area now called Storytown. We passed by the area once occupied by the classic 99 Train ride. It now contained a few cafe tables. Our favorite Famiglia pizza shop was now rebranded to Six Flag's Primo Pizza (though oddly the sign said it featured pizza by Famiglia). On our last trip to Six Flags New England, we were disappointed by the limited food offerings and exhorbitant prices ($8.99 for a slice of pizza). At this Primo's, however, $8.99 got me a really large slice of pizza, cheese breadsticks and a salad. That was much more reasonable and the food was really good. My slice was the size of a personal pan pizza. There was plenty of salad for both of us to share. And the breadsticks themselves, which Karen had, were like another pizza. As we ate, the Boomerang coaster behind us was making test runs. (It turned out that it was making test runs the entire day.)
After stuffing ourselves, we queued up for the nearby Storytown Train, the only railroad remaining at the park. Though I was glad that the park had kept this train running, I missed the Ghost Town train. We stood in line for quite a while before the train returned to the station. The slow, relaxing 15 1/2 minute journey first took us in a loop around the Boomerang coaster and then along the pond toward the north end of the park beside the raft ride. The park had begun to restore some of the storybook characters that used to populate the midway. PoPo the Purple Cow, Humpty Dumpty and others now sat alongside the train route, as did signs detailing the history of the park. That was a nice touch.
We walked up over the bridge and headed toward the Ghost Town area. Along the way we passed by Cinderella's castle, which had been restored and looked better than it had in years. Across from that was the old Petting Zoo which was closed up and had a sign informing us that Six Flags was remodeling the area. The area surrounding the Ghost Town cave entrance still featured the original western-themed kid-sized buildings. The dark cave was still fun to walk through, especially for some of the kids around us, and it still provided a magical experience when we emerged into the bright daylight in a completely different area of the park. Not much had changed there since our last visit. A country-western soundtrack gave some relief to the incessant dance beat everywhere else in the park. The big gift shop still sold western goods. The saloon, though, seemed abandoned. There were some tables and chairs inside, but it was dark and had no food and apparently no entertainment.
The sun was now burning through the clouds and we were feeling the intense heat. Karen cooled off at a nearby mister. Then we queued up for the park's flume, Desperado Plunge. Behind the flume used to be a hillside with trees. That had been leveled to build the giant ugly metal building that housed Nightmare at Crackaxle Canyon, a mild indoor roller coaster. But that coaster had been abandoned five years earlier. Its queue line was closed off and overgrown, an inexplicable eyesore. I couldn’t understand why the area had been left that way.
Within a few minutes, we were seated on the flume and drifting along the winding blue trough. It used to be very serene as we passed by the forested hillside. But with the hillside gone, it seemed more like we were cruising past an industrial park in a slum area. The buildings to the right that once looked like an old western boom town street were now dilapidated shells. As we approached the end of the ride, our log was pulled up into the big building that housed some animatronic lumberjacks. I was glad to see they were all functioning. Our splashdown was fun and got us just wet enough to cool us off a bit.
From there we left Ghost Town and walked up the winding hilly path of the charming miniature town, which brought us to the home of the Old Woman in the Shoe. Curiously, there were now three metal benches implanted in concrete surrounding the shoe. I had no idea what the benches were for, unless a children's show took place there. But there were no signs to indicate any show times. We followed the path back down to the midway. A 1950's-styled rock-n-roll show was in progress at the Jolly Tree Theater. It continued the practice of so many parks, with performers doing karaoke to a pre-recorded soundtrack.
From there we headed toward what used to be the storybook area but had been re-made into a Looney Tunes kids' area. We discovered that it had been re-themed again, this time into Timbertown, featuring the moose mascot. It was still a colorful and modern area for children. The only identifiable reference to the former Looney Tunes theming was on the Honey Swings which still sported the Tazmainan Devil's arms. I thought the park did a really good job with the area, and the Timbertown theme seemed more in the spirit of the original park. At the north end of Timbertown was the closed-up entrance of the former Jungleland, now listed on the park map as Timbertown Trail. Evidently, Great Escape was planning on re-opening it. Judging by the number of families that walked up to the entrance and expressed disappointment that it was closed, re-opening the attraction seemed like a good idea. Karen and I checked out the Timbertown Cafe. She had read online that Great Escape featured veggie burgers at one of their eateries. But this wasn't it. There was the standard Six Flags offerings of hamburgs, hot dogs, fried chicken and french fries (which for some reason were always served topped with bacon).
We left Timbertown. Back at the building near the Jolly Tree Theater, formerly occupied by a Subway franchise, a Cold Stone Creamery now featured a few basic ice cream offerings. Karen and I both got an order of sweet cream, hers in a cup and mine in a cone. the portions were really big and had a peculiar price structure: "Like it" or "Love it" (the latter of which was 20 cents more). Karen got "Love" and I got "Like" but the portions seemed about the same to me. The ice cream was good but was a bit pricey at about $6 a serving. Then we walked up over the bridge into the Fest area. Greeting us on the other side of the bridge was the big circular flower garden. In the center of it used to be a statue of an eagle, but it had been replaced by a giant mardi-gras-like head. We took a trip on the peaceful Sky Ride. The water show had begun at the giant pool behind the carousel. This year's version featured divers dressed vaguely like penguins, though they looked more like dogs to me. The performance featured the usual antics of diving tricks and splashing the audience, but added some trampoline acrobatics as well. The Sky Ride seemed really popular, with nearly every seat filled. It was really relaxing.
As we continued walking toward the Fest area, the giant cloth dome that used to house a 180-degree theater sat there shuttered. Next door, Alice in Wonderland was also shuttered, though it was still listed on the park map. In the center of the Fest area used to be the Trabant ride (which was also still on the park map). But all that was left of the ride was the platform, now rimmed with cafe tables. In the center of the tables was the eagle statue that was once in the flower bed. The ride area had been renamed Eagle Terrace. It looked nice, and probably was quite pretty when lit up at night. Many guests probably never realized that it was once a spin-and-barf ride.
The biggest change to the area was the Alpine Fest Haus, which replaced the old and more rustic beer garden. The Fest Haus seemed quite a bit larger and featured a stage at one end. We checked out the menu, but once again it was the usual hamburgs/hot dogs/fried chicken/fries with bacon, expanded slightly with sausages and beer. Nearby, the Alpine Bobsled ride was roaring through its course, sounding like thunder. We opted for the Raging River ride and sat in the big raft with a father and his three kids. Just as the raft left the station and went under the queue line bridge, there was a spray nozzle shooting downward which got us all a bit damp. The rest of the ride was surprisingly dry but really fast, and we spun mercilessly as if we were on a Tilt-a-Whirl. I can't remember the ride ever spinning that much. The giant waterfall near the center of the ride wasn't running, but right near the end of the ride was an overhead pipe creating a curtain of water. We all got wet, but not drenched except for one of the kids. The kids, incidentally, all wanted to immediately go back on the ride. Karen and I were so dizzy, we needed to get to stable ground.
So we followed the eastward path toward our old friend, The Comet. Along the way we passed the old statue of Paul Bunyon. He looked strangely out-of-place without his ox, Babe, that used to stand beside him. On the opposite side of the walkway was the wave pool section of the sprawling Whitewater Kingdom waterpark. And beyond that, almost completely hidden out of view by trees, stood the impressive white metal structure of The Comet. It seemed a shame that such a magnificent-looking coaster was hidden away at the far end of the park. But the setting, overlooking the Adirondack mountain range, was beautiful. As was so often typical, there were very few people in line for the ride. Even so, the park was running two trains so there was almost no waiting. And as usual, we queued up for the front seat. One train later, we were seated. The ride attendants were unfailingly enthusiastic and chatty, high-fiving guests (especially small children) and smiling continually. In the past, Six Flags drew heavily on international workers. For a few years, they all seemed to come from Poland, then the eastern bloc. This year the ride attendants were mostly Asian. They all seemed to be having a great time.
In Six Flags tradition, the Comet's coaster tracks were bone dry. That helped slow the trains down a bit but also produced a loud squealing whenever they turned a corner. Our train left the station and ascended the lift. As we neared the top we felt the chain pick up speed, a fun adrenaline rush that impressed me when I first rode the coaster over fifteen years before. The first drop still felt impossibly steep. There was thankfully no jackhammering at the bottom, but the train did have quite a bit of shakiness to it. We rounded the first turn with strong laterals and flew down the second drop. The next two hills produced the strongest airtime on the ride, sending us into our lapbars just like Superman: Ride of Steel did. The next turnaround appeared to have been completely retracked with southern yellow pine (not the darker Douglas fir originally used), and ironically seemed to be the roughest part of the ride. The double-down was followed by the last turnaround and the most violent part of the ride, the rapid lateral snaps heading into the final run up to the brakes. At 65 years old, The Comet still packed a whollop.
As we left the ride, it was nice to see that the original large WNYCC plaque commemorating the opening of the ride was still there, as was a newer plaque from the American Coaster Enthusiasts. Although The Comet wasn't anywhere near as smooth as when it first opened, it was probably the best-maintained wooden roller coaster out of Six Flags' many parks. Overall, I still loved the ride. But it was just violent enough that I couldn't ride it twice in a row. We decided to walk down the the picnic pavilion area to see if any other WNYCC members had begun to arrive. On the way, we noticed more of those strange signs we saw at Six Flags New England, warning about high voltage near the coaster tracks.
The pavilion area was gated off. We managed to find a path around the gates and were suprised to discover the pavilions completely abandoned. In fact, they looked as if they hadn't been used since the previous season. There was a thick yellow coating of pollen on the picnic tables. Serving areas were in disarray. It was about 4:00, so we figured perhaps that the other members would start arriving by 5:00. We walked up toward the Ferris wheel and noticed an oddly-placed advertising display that worked like a vertical conveyor belt, rolling ads past a window. Six Flags must have gotten a deal on them, because they were scattered all over (at Six Flags New England as well).
We rested for a while on a bench under a tree and then made our way back toward the Storytown area for a ride on Thunder Alley, the antique car ride themed to the 1950s. The line had thankfully shrunk from earlier in the day. We didn't think we had long to wait until a family with Six Flags' infamous Fast Pass appeared and (having paid the extra $20 fee) were allowed to cut to the front of the line. Even so, it wasn't that long a wait and soon we were riding down the nostalgic highway with Elvis, the Coasters and Jerry Lee Lewis playing on the radio. And for one of the first times, our car horns worked! After that, we walked to the opposite side of the midway for a calming trip on the swan boats. (It would have been calmer if that dance music hadn't been playing everywhere.)
After the swan boats, we headed back toward International Village, passing by the appropriately huge sign for Sasquatch. As we approached the carousel area, there were two men with basketballs wandering around, trying to get people to dance. We couldn't tell if they were park employees, but they looked more like guests who were fooling around. One of them began playing with the sound equipment that was for the Mr. Six Dance Party. He got the familiar Venga Boys tune to start playing. He and his friend began bouncing their basketballs and calling out to passersby: "Come on! Dance!" It was all a little weird and uncomfortable.
We decided to make our way back to The Comet. Along the way, we heard music coming from inside the Alpine Fest Haus. We stopped in and a show, Rocknation, was in progress. As was evident from the title, it was yet another rock show. The stage was surrounded by round work lights. Two small TVs displaying abstract colors hung against a black backdrop. Karen and I both thought it would have been more appropriate to have a German oom-pah band on that stage and involve the audience, similar to what Busch Gardens does. Why another karoke rock show? The music was really loud, made worse by a group of girls behind us who were screaming at the top of their lungs as if they were at a top-dollar arena. We quickly left the building.
To the right of the Fest Haus was a children's play area. It might have been Wiggles-themed at one time, but as with all other Six Flags parks it was re-branded Kidzopolis. It had rides for small fry and a small sprayground. Although colorful, it somehow felt barren and unfinished, especially the Krazy Kars ride that looked as if it were taking the kids through a desert. But the tikes seemed to enjoy it.
Time was running short before the banquet was supposed to begin. We headed back toward the pavilions, pausing to look at the Raging Rapids from the observation deck, with its peculiar sign on the railing warning about high voltage. If there had been high voltage in the water, wouldn't all of the riders have been electrocuted? We arrived at the pavilion to find it in the same state we left it. That wasn't encouraging. Since we were next to it, we took another ride on The Comet. That ride felt a bit faster and slightly smoother. It was certainly a thrilling, powerful ride. As we exited, I noticed another odd Six Flags sign admonishing guests not to use "offensive gestures" or risk being ejected from the park. It ended with the cryptic encouragement, "Have a Six Flags day!"
The heat and constant walking were wearing us down, along with the uncertainty of when and where the club would be meeting. There were no signs anywhere in the park welcoming the WNYCC. I was expecting something because the club was a big part of the effort to rebuild The Comet. But that was in another era under different owners. We trudged up the steep hill toward the busy upper Splashwater Kingdom area. Then we drifted back down toward the Fest Haus. An outdoor show was beginning, something we had seen at Hersheypark and Busch Gardens: a couple of guys dressed as janitors began hammering out percussion on their trash cans. It was amusing and they got the kids in the crowd to join in.
We wanted to try the pavilions one more time before we gave up. On the way, we passed by the rock wall. A young guy was quickly making his way to the top as the attendant stood and watched. The attendants at Great Escape were really easy to spot with their neon-green shirts. That was a smart thing for the park to do, as it made it easy for guests to know who worked there. As we approached the pavilions, we saw some people there and I felt relieved. But it was just a family that had sat down to rest. The catering area was still in disarray. We walked to the far back area of the picnic grove, hoping to find something encouraging. Instead we found a shuttered haunted house that was probably used during Halloween. We left the pavilions confused and somewhat disappointed. We took one more look at The Comet's queue line, but it was still mostly empty and there wasn't anyone I recognized. Exhausted from the heat, we made our way to the exit. Karen spotted a supervisor in Timbertown. So I asked him if he knew anything about Coasterfest. He hadn't heard of it, but he helpfully got on his 2-way radio and began asking others. He finally got the answer that there was no banquet, but there would be rides for the enthusiasts after the park closed. We thanked him and continued toward the exit.
As we arrived near the carousel, we heard the familiar Venga Boys tune. There was Mr. Six with his dance party. He looked absolutely creepy, like some sort of zombie in a tux. The only part of his face that moved were his eyes. And by the way his body moved, he looked about as exhausted as we were. He sort of bounced around as the incessant beat thumped over the distorted PA system. His "dance party" consisted of a group of kids that were trying to imitate his rather half-hearted choreography. The music would stop and an emcee would ask, "How many flags we got? Oh, not enough! We need six! Keep dancing!" And the music would start back up again as a weary-looking Mr. Six resumed bouncing around. At that point we were sure that the two basketball guys we saw earlier weren't legit. It was interesting that nobody stopped them (at least while we were there).
As we made our way out of the park, I said goodbye to the bronze boar near the entrance. We exited through the big gift shop. To our surprise, there was just one generic Great Escape shirt; the rest of the merchandise was primarily Marvel and D.C. comics-themed toys and Looney Tunes figurines. That seemed really strange since those characters were nowhere to be found in the park. There was also a smattering of Family Guy and Simpsons merchandise. It made no sense, unless Six Flags assumed guests wanted to buy stuff they could get cheaper at WalMart.
Great Escape was filled with contradictions. On one hand there seemed to be a move back to Storytown's roots, a true family park for all ages, and I was glad to see that. But then there was the blaring teen-oriented music, rock shows and the thrill rides (though far fewer than at many other Six Flags parks). Timbertown Trail and Alice in Wonderland -- attractions that the guests really seemed to miss -- were listed on the park map and yet were closed. Perhaps they would open later in the season, but I wished there had been signs to indicate that. The park seemed to be a work in progress, trying to re-define its existence. I would have loved to see a return to the old Great Escape that I knew and loved. I was more pleased with the park on this visit than I had been for many years. It seemed like the management knew the park had lost something, and they were working to recover it. Memories are something that many older guests go to parks for, wanting to relive their childhood. But if a park changes too much, then those guests might be much less likely to return. Six Flags for years claimed to offer a "family" experience. Great Escape seemed to be taking that step in the right direction. Perhaps their future resided in their past all along.
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