THE GREAT ESCAPE
Text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2005
|On the first of July, Karen and I took advantage of her day off from work and made a visit to New York's Great Escape. It was a two-and-a-half hour drive from our home, but entry was free with our Six Flags season passes. A new section was added for this year, Looney Tunes National Park. I wasn't sure what to expect. I thought that perhaps some kiddie rides had been placed on the midway where the old Storytown area was.
We got to the park at about 11:00. Route 9, where the park sits, appeared to have more development along it. There were new restaurants and stores. The park had re-worked its parking area across the street. It was expanded pretty far back. The sky was thickly overcast and the crowd was fairly light, so we were able to park close to the front of the lot. Something that caught our eye immediately was a massive construction project about a block down the road. It appeared that Great Escape was finally getting that hotel they had wanted for years. Karen said it looked like it was going to have an indoor waterpark as well.
Not much else outside the park appeared to have changed much. We walked through the entrance gates, up to the turnstiles and showed our passes. As we entered the International Village, the comforting familiar stone walkway greeted us. The old boar fountain was still there, though it was dry. There was a Guest Relations room that I thought was new. And there were the usual gift shops. For the heck of it, we stopped in a couple of them. But unfortunately, the Six Flags metamorphosis was almost complete. There were lots of Looney Tunes toys, as we expected. But joining them were Superman, Batman and Green Lantern toys. Plus there was the ubiquitous Mr. Six everywhere, from dolls to mouse pads. There also seemed to be different music playing. It was somewhat patriotic (like Yankee Doodle) but sounded as if it was performed by a small Irish band.
The old photo shop near the rest rooms had been replaced with a booth labeled, "Six Flags Great Escape Lodge." There were artist renderings inside the booth. An attendant was cheerfully handing out small brochures. It indeed was going to have an indoor waterpark along with the hotel, just like Cedar Point's Castaway Bay (but much smaller), and was scheduled to open this winter. That seemed a bit optimistic given that they were still framing the structure. The waterpark roof was supposed to be made of a material called Texlon that lets in UV rays so that guests can tan.
At the three-way juncture of International Village was a shop that had huge SALE signs in its windows. So we stopped in. Another cheerful employee told us it was a new store that they were trying out. We were hoping to find some older Great Escape souvenirs, but mostly it was Six Flags merchandise that apparently hadn't been selling well. Most of the merchandise was modestly discounted (a $15 shirt for $12). We walked through to another store that had random stuffed animals.
We headed up the steep paved path to the big yellow Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe display. The slide off of its second level was long gone, and the opening to it had been boarded up. But we were glad it was still there. Then we walked down through the original Storytown area with its nicely detailed kid-sized village. The little Mother Goose ride had been removed. In its place was an empty space surrounded by the ride's fence. Cinderella's castle looked good. The horse-drawn pumpkin coach was making its rounds. The moat around the castle -- once blue, filled with water and accented by two fountains -- had been painted beige and was dry. The petting zoo opposite it looked quite colorful with bright canvas tops over all the animal cages. We walked through, looking at the various goats, llamas and birds.
Nearby was a new Funnel Cake stand. We walked past it and around the corner where the carousel sat and headed down toward the new area. As we rounded the next corner at the base of the big pool (where another diving show retread was taking place, with the same tired lip-synched antics), we saw Looney Tunes National Park. It was quite a jarring experience. I was so used to looking over at a winding path where the big pink whale sat along with the little buildings and Jack and Jill climbing up the hill. Instead a bright yellow Zamperla Crazy Bus was rising and falling, swings were spinning...it looked like a Six Flags midway.
In front of us was the old schoolhouse, transformed into the Ranger Station. Brightly painted in cartoony primary colors, complete with cartoony mailboxes out front, it perfectly set the tone for the area. Inside the little building, some of the schoolhouse trappings remained. But instead of a teacher's desk, the dominant feature was a TV -- with a "rabbit ear" antenna -- playing a very old Bugs Bunny cartoon. But the soundtrack wasn't the cartoon at all. It was commentary from animators on the history of what we were watching, from how Elmer Fudd developed to the different animators who worked for Warner Brothers. I thought that was a nice touch. There were little schooldesks so kids could sit there and learn about animation.
Heading into the main section, I noticed a "No Smoking Area" sign, an unusual and welcome addition. To the left, where Jack and Jill used to romp, the hill had been removed and in its place was the Krazy Bus. Behind it was some delightfully colorful stonework. To the right was a midway game. Beyond that was a humorously-themed kiddie swing called Taz's Tornado. The arms of the swing were actually the Tazmanian Devil's cartoon arms. His head spun around on top of the ride. It was really well themed. In fact, all of the many rides displayed wonderful attention to detail. Wile E. Coyote's Rocketsled was a nicely-themed Zamperla kiddie coaster, similar to Holiday World's Howler. In the center of the entire National Park was a sculpture still under construction, listed on the park map as a dancing waters display called Water Popjet.
Another classic Storytown building had been given new life. The old Three Bears house, which used to be attached to an actual bear cage, had been renovated into Granny's place. Inside it was a small bedroom with pictures of Tweety and Sylvester on the wall. Behind it was the little Elmer Fudd Scenic Railway. The old Coco Loco Cafe, one of the most forgettable eateries in the park, had been transformed into the Character Cafe. It featured pretty standard prepared food (hot dogs/hamburgs/fries). The Wilderness Theater, where there used to be animal shows, was redecorated for Looney Tunes shows. And at the very end of that section, one of our favorite attractions was still there, but closed. Instead of a giant gorilla, Jungle Land's familiar double-gabled hut featured a poster of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck in "Rabbit Seasoning." I tried to stand on a ledge to look over the fence and see what was in there, but a nearby maintenance worker shooed me away.
Karen and I stood there and looked at the beautifully landscaped grounds around us, the happy children eagerly climbing onto the rides...and we somehow felt sad. The Great Escape was no longer Charlie Wood's park. Looney Tunes National Park made that quite clear. I really appreciated the nods to history, though. There was a lot of thought put into keeping bits of Storytown and seamlessly integrating it into the theme. I think the management has done a spectacular job, and I'm sure the area is going to be a big hit. It kept Charlie Wood's idea of a children's park and brought it into the 21st century.
But we couldn't help feeling sad for what had been lost. This was at last no longer the park we had grown to love. What brought us back time after time to Great Escape was its uniqueness. It had so many things no other park had, from the corny old Tornado dark ride to the long Ghost Town Train, to Jungle Land and the gigantic hand-carved wooden elephant, to Alice in Wonderland, to the silly children's songs that played throughout most of the park. That's what we loved about it. We just loved relaxing with the park's slow-paced frozen-in-time atmosphere. Under Six Flags' management, the growing park has wrestled with an identity crisis of sorts, whether it was a family park or a thrill park, whether it was a Storytown or a Six Flags. It was very obvious, standing in Looney Tunes National Forest, that the park was unequivocally a Six Flags park. There was no going back. That's what made us sad.
From there we made the slow progress across the newly-paved bridge toward Oktoberfest. We stopped into the Mad Hatter gift shop, which no longer sold hats. It had yet another assortment of Looney Tunes items. We took a relaxing ride on the old Sky Ride and then headed to the very back of the park and toward our old friend The Comet. Hidden away behind Splashwater Kingdom, isolated from all the other rides, what was possibly the world's greatest wooden roller coaster looked so lonely. Very few people were in line. Maybe the park could use the vast amount of space around the coaster to install a few flat rides and bring more people down that end. Happily, both trains were running even though they were 3/4 empty. We had a 1 train wait for the front seat. I was glad to see that the track looked as if it had been greased. We climbed into the red train, clipped the single seat belt, lowered our lap bars and headed off. On the slow turn to the lift hill, I could feel the train hunting, bouncing back and forth between the rails. The hillside behind the coaster, which once was nothing but dirt, now was dotted with grown trees. The chain performed its infamous speed increase, yanking us over the lift hill at an alarming pace. We flew down the first drop and hit the bottom with tremendous force, jackhammering a bit. But that was about the only really rough spot. The rest of the course was taken with impressive speed and non-stop air. But the positive Gs had gotten a bit too intense for me. A good re-tracking could bring the ride back to its old glass-smooth self. Still, we were happy to be reunited with such a storied coaster. Perhaps on more crowded days the Comet would be busier. But I wish it had a place of more distinction within the park, where it could really be shown off. When it was assembled at Great Escape, it was the biggest thing in the park and only the second roller coaster there. So it was naturally a big draw. It was the reason people walked all the way back there. But with so many distractions in the Six Flags version of the park (including five other roller coasters) the poor Comet seemed to be ignored.
We were getting hungry. As we passed through the Oktoberfest section, though, we had to take a walk through Alice in Wonderland. We entered under the giant tree and popped out in that hidden fantasy world. Like the Comet, with so many other distractions in the park I wondered how many people bothered with this simple pleasure. There was a large open area in the center of the display. That would make a terrific place to put in a small teacup ride themed to the Mad Hatter. The entrance to the queue could be through that giant tree. That would allow the park to keep Alice in Wonderland intact, but at the same time bring in another family ride.
We could tell the park wasn't that crowded because Itza Pizzeria was normally mobbed. But when we got there, only four people were in line. Each queue there used to have an entrance and an exit. But for some reason, there was only one queue for both entering and exiting and that made for a bit of confusion. There were six people behind the counter, yet no one seemed to be doing very much and only one queue line was open. We stared at the selection and prices. Gone were the old slices of cheese pizza, a quarter of a whole pie, that cost only $2.50. The choice was either a 16-inch pizza for $15.95 (Wow! That's a dollar an inch!) or an 8-inch personal pizza for $4.99. I ordered the 8-inch and Karen ordered the cheese-filled breadsticks. A small soft drink was $3.49 and a large one was $3.69. Why would anyone bother with the small one? It was cheaper to order more than you could drink and throw some of it away.
Thankfully, the umbrellas were back at the picnic tables. But oddly, instead of being inserted into the proper holes in the middle of the tables, the umbrellas were strapped to the fence next to the tables and placed between them. My pizza was slightly burnt and difficult to describe. It tasted a bit like zucchini. Karen's breadsticks were sort of like doughy mozzarella sticks, but tasted better than my pizza. Our drinks were just bloody huge. A gaggle of geese sat across from us on a patch of grass next to the Swan Boat stream. There were three small children clinging to the fence and staring at the geese. The kids' mother was trying to get them to look at the nearby Boomerang coaster. But the kids didn't care about the rides. They were fascinated by the birds.
Since we were right next to it, we hopped a ride on the Storytown Train. On the park map, the ride was listed as closing at dusk. A night ride on the train might be fun, but since it traveled through an isolated forested area the park was probably concerned about wild animals on the tracks. The train operator reminded me of some of the characters I used to work with at Mountain Park, carney guys who were friendly and harmless but looked a bit scary. This guy was probably in his 50s, wore an odd hat with no brim, had tattoos on his arms, a blond moustache and was missing teeth. He walked as if he was about to fall over any minute. There were only two other people in line besides us. We sat down and a few minutes later the operator came over to us and in a hushed voice welcomed us to the ride and told us to keep all our bodily parts inside the train. He walked over to the engine, and a group of guests walked up to the gate at the end of the train. So he walked all the way back to the gate to let them in. When the were seated, he gave them the spiel. As he walked toward the engine, more guests entered the queue. So again he went back to the gate to let them in. All through this the guy was unfailingly pleasant. Great Escape had some of the friendliest employees this side of Idlewild. Eventually the train was full and with a loud toot of the whistle we were off. I looked ahead at the track, which seemed disturbingly crooked. The rails wavered back and forth along the course. In many areas, the ballast under the track had disappeared and weeds had completely obscured the rails.
We passed by the spare train, which since Six Flags bought the park had gradually deteriorated. Its paint had faded and peeled off and most of the metal had badly rusted. A maple tree was growing along the side of it, beginning to surround the metal. Looney Tunes National Park reflected beautifully in the stream as we passed it. But it looked like we were in a different park. We passed by the old Jungle Land. All of the animatronics were gone, but the rope bridge was still there. We could also see the giant tiki statue still standing at what used to be Jungle Land's exit. To our right we could see the maintenance area. There sat the Jungle Land animatronics and the big pink whale, like abandoned children.
After arriving back at the station we noticed that Thunder Alley, the beautifully maintained set of 50s Cadillac cars, had very few people in line. There were two operators, one at the entrance and one at the exit. We queued up and the line moved fairly quickly. Then all the cars suddenly stopped. A little girl was in a car only a few feet from the exit ramp. The ride operators walked out across the track, evidently looking to see how many cars were stuck on the course. We waited a few minutes, and a maintenance man arrived. There were three empty cars closest to the station. He began working on those, disengaging the motors and pushing them into the station. I thought it odd that nobody bothered to help the little girl out of her car. Finally, the maintenance man pushed her car the few feet up to the exit ramp and she got out. Someone asked a ride attendant how long it would be, and the answer was, "A while." So we left the queue. As we walked away, we could see a little boy stuck in a car at the far turn. He looked completely helpless there, and no one was paying attention to him. It seemed like the least they could have done was escort him over to the exit.
My camera battery died, so we walked back to the car to put it (and a bag Karen was carrying) away. We got our hands stamped with simple black letters that read, "PARK." Then we re-entered and headed for Ghost Town. We passed by the Elvis impersonator that the park had featured in the Jollytree Theater for a few seasons. He didn't look much like Elvis. He didn't sound much like Elvis. But he had a white sequined jumpsuit with a high collar and a pompadour haircut and porkchop sideburns. People seemed to be enjoying it.
I was glad Six Flags kept the cave entrance to Ghost Town with the waterfall cascading down. It was a great idea Charlie Wood had, to bring guests magically out into a completely different land. That section of the park was fairly deserted. We headed for the Poland Spring Plunge, one of our favorite flumes. It was closed. Nightmare at Crackaxle Canyon, the indoor Jet Star coaster, didn't interest us. And neither did Canyon Blaster, possibly the shortest adult coaster ever created. We wandered through the large gift shop. Nothing caught our eyes. There was a small Roy Rogers lunchbox selling for $13.95. There was a whole section of John Deere souvenirs, but nothing that would remind us of our day at Great Escape. We walked down the hill by Canyon Blaster's helix. The train was rolling through its brief course, and was eerily silent except for the clanky Arrow lift hills.
On the way down the hill we stopped into the quaint little ice cream shop. There used to be delicious handmade blueberry ice cream there. But that was replaced by Dippin' Dots and Edy's hard ice cream. We looked over the limited flavor selections. The sign listed vanilla and vanilla bean among them. We looked at the freezer and saw two similar containers. We asked which was which. The young man behind the counter quietly replied that they were both vanilla bean. So we each ordered a waffle cone with vanilla bean.
"How many scoops do you want?" he asked, almost deadpan.
"I don't know...two? Three?" Karen said, perplexed. "How much is three scoops?"
"It doesn't matter," the kid said, sounding almost forlorn. "It's all the same price."
I thought, heck, I might as well order sixty scoops and see what he says. But we each got three. As he was getting my cone, another worker entered and said to him flatly, "You're supposed to wear gloves." The kid slowly put my cone down on the counter, put on two plastic gloves and then resumed making my treat.
Karen and I sat on benches in front of the miniature General Store. The ice cream was good, just like what we could buy in a grocery store for a lot less money. Then we hiked over to Raging River. In a short time, we were floating through one of the most dizzying raft rides I've ever been on, spinning mercilessly throughout. But we hardly got wet at all. When we exited the ride, we were going to head to the Ferris wheel, but it was closed. So we walked around the Fest area. The Alpine Boblsed was running, but we didn't have any interest in riding it. We walked by the giant circus tent. Two employees were standing in front of it, one with a large snake and the other with a cockatoo. At first I thought that was a neat way to get kids to interact with the animals. But then I discovered their real motive: they wanted people to pay a dollar to have their picture taken petting the animal. We passed it by.
It was almost three o'clock. The park was scheduled to close in three hours. There really wasn't much else we felt like doing, so we headed back for the exit. As we passed by the Jollytree Theater, an older woman was sitting all by herself in the front row, waiting for Elvis to return. We walked through the exit's large gift shop, hoping to find something memorable to take home. We didn't even see any Comet merchandise. There was, however, a lot of yellow T-shirts that had a little stick figure on them, as if drawn by a small child. The stick figure was smiling and carrying what looked like a crude knife. Next to the stick figure was scrawled in a child's handwriting, "The quickest way to a man's heart is through his chest with a sharp object." Karen and I looked at it and sadly shook our heads. What a statement for a "family park" to make. As we walked away, I heard some other guests who spotted the shirt laugh and say, "That's really funny!"
I guess maybe we're just out-of-touch or getting old or something. Maybe we're just incurably nostalgic. The park's new slogan stated, "Life Should Be Fun." Well, it used to be. We always had a wonderful time at the Great Escape. But gradually over the years, we've left more and more disheartened. We got that strange Six Flags feeling that we get at so many of their parks, an odd feeling of guilt thinking we should be having more fun. On this trip we spent less money there than probably any other park we've ever been to. Were we getting tired of parks? On our recent trips to Knoebel's and Kennywood and even Cedar Point we had a lot of fun and were happy to spend a lot more money -- and we didn't even get into those parks for free! So what did Great Escape do wrong? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. The park has chosen to move forward and take on a new identity, one of a generic Six Flags property. With another Six Flags property a short distance from our house, why should we bother driving so far to the Great Escape? What brought us back there time and time again has gradually disappeared. The only thing we would go back for (besides the fact that it would be free) would be to see Jungle Land when it re-opened...but I noticed on the park map that it was no longer even listed.
Farewell, Storytown. Your time, like Charlie Wood's, has passed.
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