MAY 26, 2008

Text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2008

The final stop on our Coasterfest trip was Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. The park was owned by the Kennywood group, and it exhibited many of the same qualities that have made Kennywood so beloved. The park was easy to get to, straight along Route 30. There were threats of severe thunderstorms in the weather forecast, but the day was starting out warm and sunny. We pulled into the first entrance that we came to. (There were multiple parking areas.) It was parking area A. We told the one attendant at the gates that we were with the Western New York Coaster Club, but he didn't know anything about it. (We later discovered that the park had just opened for the season three days before.) There were a lot of cars already there. A benefit marathon was in progress, as was a civil war re-enactment. We drove in (without having to pay anything) and parked by the long train tunnel on the left.

I had been to Idlewild with a friend in 1991. But it was an afterthought. We were at Kennywood and made a side-trip to Idlewild at night, just a few hours before it closed. Karen, the kids and I visited the park several years later. But it was again a brief evening stop on our way to Ohio. Even so, in that short time we had so much fun that Karen and I vowed to return for a longer stay. One thing that stood out for us was that the park had the most outgoing and friendly employees we had ever encountered, including one (our guide through the park's notorious Confusion Hill) who was downright hilarious. This year was the 70th birthday of the park's wooden roller coaster, named simply Rollo Coaster. Though I hadn't gotten many rides on it, I remembered that it was fun.

The entrance reminded me of another of our favorite parks, Knoebel's, with numerous parking areas skattered about, a picturesque creek (the Loyalhanna) running through it and no clear entrance area. We could walk into the heavily wooded park from just about any direction. Idlewild was divided into seven areas that all blended together. Some had more theming than others. From where we were, much of the park was behind a tall wooded fence with one open gate at the far left end and another near the center of the parking area. There were no traditional ticket booths or formal entry gates. Karen and I stood around for a while, uncertain where to go or what to do. We didn't see any other members from the club. After several minutes, we spotted some members getting out of their car. They weren't quite sure what to do either. Someone finally discovered that we were supposed to have met in parking area C, near the Rollo Coaster. So we followed our map and walked toward picnic pavilion C8. The park hadn't opened for the public, but there were many people milling about in civil war garb. The path toward the pavilion was blocked off with caution tape. Some nearby park supervisors told us to simply walk on through. The scent of a campfire filled the air as we walked. There were several tents pitched on the grass. It looked just like a photo from the civil war. Women in dresses were preparing meals. Men in high boots and sporting thick beards sat around on old wooden chairs. A blacksmith was heating up some coals next to an anvil.

The picnic pavilion was a beautiful stone and wood structure beside a babbling brook. Birds were flitting about. Next to our pavilion was another that was made entirely out of hewn logs. They were constructed in 1999, but looked brand new. High on a hill next to us, partially hidden by trees, was another picnic pavilion, a huge ancient white building (one of the oldest in the park) that used to be a dance hall. Lining the walkways were attractive rustic streetlamps. The surroundings made us feel relaxed. The ambience was less like an amusement park and more like a campground.

There were free drinks set up for us, so we filled our cups as more club members drifted over. About 9:45, the park's supervisor of merchandise arrived and expressed his sincere apology that the Wild Mouse wasn't running. They were still awaiting parts for the ride. He said to make up for that fact, the whole day was on Idlewild; we didn't have to pay for our wristbands. I thought that was extremely generous of the park, considering that Idlewild wasn't a "ride" park in the style of Cedar Point or Six Flags. At the ride-heavy parks, a lot of enthusiasts go simply to ride the biggest and fastest coasters, and if the rides go down then it sort of ruins the day for them. But Idlewild's Wild Mouse wasn't a ride that coaster enthusiasts flocked to. And neither was Rollo Coaster. Like Kennywood and Knoebel's, it was the entire park experience that made the place enjoyable. So refunding our entry fees simply because one of their rides was down seemed excessive. But it also displayed the friendly outgoing nature of the park and its employees.

We were walked back to the Rollo Coaster for some "Exclusive Ride Time." The supervisor was continually apologetic about the Wild Mouse being down. I actually had been looking forward to riding it. I had ridden it once before with Karen and the kids. It was the most unique Mouse I ever rode. What I remembered most was the wonderfully demented lift hill that tilted from side to side as the car was pulled to the top. As we walked over for our ERT, the park was extremely quiet. About the only sound came from a large circular fountain in front of an ice cream stand.

The Rollo Coaster station was simplicity itself and fit in well at the park. The name of the coaster was painted directly onto the station in a thick curled font. Just outside the station was a giant inflatable birthday cake commemorating the ride. The coaster was designed by one of my heroes, Herb Schmeck, who was the president of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and one of the most prolific coaster designers of all time. The ride was situated along a narrow curving hillside and it was a remarkable piece of engineering. At only 27 feet high, the ride might be easily dismissed as a kiddie coaster. But Schmeck ingeniously used the landscape to his advantage, creating a punchy ride with pops of airtime and strong laterals throughout the entire course. The structure was surrounded by thick trees, making the ride seem faster than it was. One club member mused aloud whether Lake Compounce had gotten their inspiration for Boulder Dash from Rollo Coaster. And indeed there were many similarities. There were even stretches of track on Rollo Coaster that looked nearly identical to Boulder Dash. The main difference was scale.

The small station didn't allow us to choose where to sit in the train. Karen and I ended up in the second seat. The train was still braked and dispatched manually with wooden levers. Since the hillside curved off to the right, none of the coaster was visible from the station. The small but comfortable train rolled around 180 degrees to the left and climbed the short lift. As we crested the hill, the drop just didn't seem right. It was so short (especially having ridden Phantom's Revenge at Kennywood the previous day). It only looked to be a few feet down. But that was part of Herb Schmeck's genius. We gently rolled down the first drop and curved to the right as we popped out of our seats and slid to the left. This pattern kept up as we gained speed, bouncing up and down over the little hills and curving to the right. Like a baby Boulder Dash, the turnaround slung us to the right. We caught a glimpse of the Captain Kidd's Adventure Galley water play area and then we bounced all the way back to the station.

The coaster wasn't thrilling the way that a 200-foot-tall coaster would be. Instead it was just plain fun. As the supervisor told us, "We don't have the biggest or tallest anything here." Record breaking doesn't matter as long as a ride can produce smiles.

A different supervisor was standing nearby, and I asked him if it would be possible to get some photos of the idle Mouse. He was happy to take me over to the area. The ride stood silent, shrouded by tall trees. The trees made the ride seem much taller than it was. The supervisor told me that the coaster was purchased from Alton Towers in the United Kingdom (which had in turn purchased it from a park in Austria). It was one of the few Wild Mouse coasters designed by the great Werner Stengel and manufactured by the Dutch company Vekoma. Besides the oddly-tilted lift hill, another thing that made the ride unique was the long nose on the front of each car. On sharp corners, it created the perception that the car was going straight off the track. We thanked the supervisor for allowing us in there and headed back to the group. On the way we passed by the Flying Aces ride, which was still in the process of being re-assembled for the season.

The line for Rollo Coaster was quite long, so Karen and I walked across the midway to admire the 1931 PTC carousel. It was the second-to-last carousel that PTC shipped and it bore many similarities to the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round. It even had a similar (and rare) Artizan Factories band organ and stylistically similar interior scenery panels. It was a pleasure to see the ride in such good condition.

We wandered back to the pavilion. At 11:00, the club re-grouped and the merchandise supervisor brought out two cakes to celebrate the coaster's birthday. He also talked to us about the park, the third oldest in the United States. I was somewhat saddened that many members of the group were talking amongst themselves and not paying the slightest attention to the supervisor. Idlewild had extended us many courtesies, and it seemed the least we could have done was be polite. The supervisor then had some prizes to give out. He divided the room. A volunteer on our side raised his hand, but no one on the other side apparently wanted to participate. The supervisor asked one of the staff passing out cake to come up. As was done at Kennywood, he asked a series of questions about the park and Rollo Coaster. Another employee wore a hat with a bulb horn on it, and the horn would get squeezed by whomever wanted to answer. Lots of interesting facts were brought out. It was strange that the staff member (who had been there a few years) couldn't answer as many questions as the club member. In the end, the club member won some T-shirts and a bag of Rollos candy. But everyone was given really nice Wild Mouse keychains and Idlewild koozies.

The park formally opened to the general public. Karen and I decided to start our visit in Story Book Forest at the east end of the park. On the way, we passed by Jumping Jungle, a busy play area with lots of interesting things for kids to do. There was a small netted arena with air jets that made balls float in the air. There was a large gym-like area with a long net to climb and chutes to slide down. There was the Jungle Organ, a series of large tuned pipes that kids could whack with paddles, producing tones. The great thing about this area was that it wasn't restricted to just kids; parents were playing right alongside their children.

The Story Book Forest was one of the most enchanting things I remembered from our last trip. Unlike Charlie Wood's well-known Storyland in New York (now The Great Escape), the Forest wasn't just a collection of static buildings and statues. It was a wooded area covering several acres and populated with actors portraying various characters that kids would know. The actors went out of their way to involve the guests in the stories with them.

We entered the area through the gigantic story book. Inside was a little room. An older woman sat there in a white ruffled dress. It was Mother Goose. She welcomed us and invited us in, and told us to enjoy our stay. The first building we encountered was a little red schoolhouse. We walked inside. There was a woman dressed as a school marm. She didn't seem bothered that two grown people had entered, and invited us in. Two small children followed us, and that's when the actress became more animated, asking the children to write their names on the blackboard in chalk. There were already dozens of names there in many different colors. Back outside, Karen paused for a picture with a clown figure holding a bass drum. On the drum was written, "Welcome to Story Book Forest. Here childhood is eternal and imagination is king."

We passed a display featuring Little Miss Muffet. It might have been frightening to children if it weren't for the fact that the large spider was wearing comical shoes and white gloves on its many legs. Then we encountered a big empty chair. We stood there puzzled for a minute. I was sure that the last time we were at the park this was where Raggety Ann sat, next to her house, asking us for help finding her brother. But there was no house to be found. Nor was Raggedy Ann. In fact, there seemed to be far fewer characters around than we remembered. Perhaps it was because the park had just opened for the season and school was still in session.

The Forest had many winding paths. Although there was a general direction to the overall layout, it gave families plenty of freedom to explore. We next encountered the Crooked Little Man's house. Inside were crooked little furnishings. A bridge led across a brook to the Jolly Miller's, which sold snacks. Up on a hill was a display of the Little Engine That Could. Nearby was the Good Ship Lollipop with a pirate (wearing sunglasses) who looked more like a young business executive. But he was very popular with the kids because he was handing out lollipops. And like a good child, I accepted one.

As we walked along the paths, there were humorous signs placed about the lawn asking people to stay off the grass. Nearly every storybook character imaginable was on display, from Goldilocks and the Three Bears to the Old Woman in a Shoe. Karen got to meet Geppetto and I unsuccessfully tried to pull Excalibur from its stone. There were also several old displays from the original version of the Story Book Forest, preserved with plaques identifying them. There was a petting zoo of sorts with the Three Billy Goats Gruff and the Three Little Pigs. (Why are they always in threes?) And we finally met up with Raggety Ann, who had been re-located but was still looking for her brother. Red Riding Hood was wandering around looking for her grandmother. We found Hood's house, but her grandmother didn't look so good....

One of Karen's favorite displays was of the gnomes playing in the forest. They looked so peaceful and happy off in the distance, like hobbits in the Shire. Everywhere we looked there was color and beautiful landscaping. Just before the exit was a gigantic jack-in-the-box, smiling in a part-silly/part-scary way. Then we exited through the gift shop, somewhat sad that we were leaving. The store had some beautiful ornaments, with various images from the Story Book Forest. We bought a few, put them in our car and then continued exploring the rest of the park.

The next stretch of midway (past the Jumping Jungle) was themed to a boomtown and was called Hootin' Holler. There was the Mineshaft Kitchen, a large eatery. It was followed by many shops and a few well-disguised rides. One was the aforementioned Confusion Hill, a tilty room with a detailed backstory. It was a fairly long walk-thru "ride" and Karen got really dizzy in it, so we passed this time. Another ride that blended in with the surroundings was Dizzy Lizzy's, which created the sensation of spinning upside-down in a small room. It was one of the most successful implemetations of that popular illusion. The whole area felt like it had been there a hundred years, with well-integrated thematic elements. Every building looked authentic and was shaded by trees and fronted by flowers.

At the Gazebo Stage, a country band was entertaining the crowd. Nearby was a nicely-themed funnel cake stand. A treat there called Apple Fries caught my eye. We stopped in and I ordered some. It basically consisted of sliced apples briefly deep-fried with no coating on them. Then the apple slices were rolled in cinnamon and sugar and topped with ice cream and whipped cream. Karen and I sat at a table, eating and listening to the band. The Apple Fries were really tasty, juicy and not at all greasy. I'd never eaten anything like it before.

After that we walked past a quaint miniature golf course and headed across the long bridge to Raccoon Lagoon. This was almost like a completely different park. There were about a dozen old-style kiddie rides dotting a heavily forested area. Also in this area was the unique MisterRogers' Neighborhood trolley. As we crossed the bridge, Karen saw a sign for the civil war group. They were giving a demonstration in the baseball field at that moment. So Karen and I made our way through the kiddie rides to the ballfield at the far end. There were several bleachers for spectators. On the huge lawn was an older man with a confederate cap, anachronistically holding a wireless microphone while standing next to an old cannon. He was giving a history lesson on the civil war, focusing on the achievements of the confederate forces. He said the men would be giving an artillery demonstration. Karen noticed several soldiers putting cotton in their ears. So she figured we might not want to remain so close.

We walked back into the Raccoon Lagoon section, periodically hearing the thunderous boom of the cannon and the pops of musket fire. Though the rides in this area were obviously old, they were very well cared-for. There were not only antique cars for the kids, but also a set of hot rod cars called Ricky's Racers (named after the park mascot, Ricky Raccoon). There were kiddie hand cars, plus something I've never seen at any other park: adult hand cars! This was one of my favorite rides when I was a kid at Mountain Park. At Idlewild I was able to relive my childhood. Naturally, I had to take a ride! Karen hopped on one too. It was a really good upper-arm workout.

There were many other classic rides. The little circular boat ride was positioned just behind a gigantic fountain in the middle of Raccoon Lagoon. The Doodlebug was a little electric trolley that ran in a circle. There was also a small hedge maze. But the big attraction in this area was MisterRogers' Neighborhood of Make Believe. Fred Rogers grew up not far from the park and frequented it as a child. He had approached Kennywood about creating a special ride for Idlewild. Rogers and his company created the storyline for the ride. The trolley that children recognized from the television show would pull up to the station and take passengers on a ride through the Land of Make Believe.

The guests were loaded in groups. There was a large waiting area on shaded benches. Signs all around the area quizzed guests on different facts about the Land of Make Believe, in case the guests had never watched MisterRogers' Neighborhood. While we were waiting to board, Ricky Raccoon came by to greet the children there. Within a few minutes, our trolley arrived and we boarded. Each trolley had a conductor who was also a sort of tour guide. On our last visit, our conductor was very high-spirited and funny and that's what made the ride so enjoyable. This time our conductor was friendly, but obviously new and probably a little nervous. But just the same she was very personable.

The trolley rolled forward with that tinkling piano line from the television show and entered a short tunnel. We emerged in the Land of Make Believe and encountered life-size mockups of the actual sets. Our first stop was at the castle of King Friday. A curtain opened and a well-done animatronic figure of King Friday emerged. He greeted us. The conductor did most of the scripted repartee for us. The King wanted to invite all of his friends and neighbors (us included) to a "Hug and Song" party. He asked us to find all the people in the neighborhood and invite them. One by one, the trolley brought us to the homes of all the different characters. It was quite magical, with the sets placed deep in the forest and surrounded by trees and plants. Lady Elaine Fairchild showed us some musical instruments she was working on. The shy Daniel Striped Tiger played peek-a-boo with us. At each stop, the conductor would lead us in calling out, "Come along, come along to the castle's Hug and Song!" In the final tableau, everyone had arrived at the castle and King Friday led us all in a song. I had expected the King to then say something like, "All right, now hug the person on your right," which could get very awkward. But to Fred Rogers' credit, what the King said was, "Now hug the person you want to hug." We said our goodbyes to the Land of Make Believe and returned to the station. Fred Rogers always had such a gentle way about him, and this ride was a perfect reflection of that. It was also the perfect ride for Idlewild.

We stopped off in the nearby gift shop, which had many souvenirs including a colorful trolley magnet. Then we noticed that the Loyalhanna Limited train had stopped nearby. So we hopped aboard. The ride was peaceful, traveling through the dense forest, crossing over the creek and then turning toward Hootin' Holler. We went through a long structure that appeared to have once been a tunnel, but the side toward the creek had been completely removed. It was more like traveling alongside a tall wooden fence with a roof. We disembarked beside a big old rusted steamroller and headed back to our pavilion for some more free drinks. An older woman who wasn't in the WNYCC had set herself up in our pavilion. She made a comment that the rides were no good here, and if we wanted to ride a real coaster we should go to Kennywood. I told her that I really like Rollo Coaster and that Herb Schmeck did and incredible job designing it. But she didn't seem to care.

Karen and I headed back down toward Hootin' Holler. The air was hot and muggy, so we lined up for Paul Bunyon's Loggin' Toboggan, which had quite a crowd. We discovered why as we got further into the station. Although attractively landscaped, this was one of the shortest flumes I had ever seen. There was a sort of S-curve out of the station, a 180-degree right-hand turn up to the lift and then a splashdown. Because of its short length, there were only four boats. We finally sat in our "log" and drifted out of the station. In about a minute we were back in the station, just slightly wet.

From there we walked toward the Olde Idlewild section of the park. This area was a maze of 3-foot-high white fences. It created a visual coherence and also made it look like an old county fair. There were standard rides you might see at a county fair, like the rare Caterpillar (with a new canopy!) and a cable-driven Big Eli Ferris wheel. We lined up for the wheel, and it brought me back to my days running a very similar one at Mountain Park. These were my and Karen's favorite type of Ferris wheels, with a unique sensation of flying up in the air and floating back to the ground. After a long ride cycle, we boarded. The wind had started to pick up and clouds were rolling in. As at Knoebel's, there were some terrific views from the top but most everything appeared to be forest. It was difficult to see any rides.

By that time it was late afternoon. We headed over to The Back Porch, a quaint little sit-down restaurant that looked like ... well ... a back porch. We both ordered salads. Karen also got ravioli with marinara sauce and breadsticks. I got ravioli with alfredo sauce and breadsticks. The cashier took quite a while to get us through the line; he seemed unsure of what he was doing. The prices, surprisingly, were quite a bit more expensive than Kennywood. The ravioli and salads were quite good. It was interesting that we were first both offered the kids' portions (4 pieces instead of 6). Karen opted for that. I should have done the same; that was a lot of pasta. Karen's breadsticks were really good. Mine were more like pretzel sticks.

After that we walked down toward the big Soak Zone waterpark. Dark clouds were rolling in, but there was still a crowd splashing away. We passed by the old civil war cannon used in the artillery demonstration and came to a long bridge arching back over the creek to Raccoon Lagoon. We strolled quietly along the peaceful trail. I noticed black dots flitting about. Suddenly, we were completely surrounded by swarms of bees. They were only flying at a level about up to our waist, but it was a sea of them. They didn't seem to be interested in us, however. They were dashing madly back and forth from one side of the path to the other, sometimes colliding with us but not really doing us any harm. Nevertheless we quickened our pace and the swarm faded into the distance.

We emerged near the adult hand cars, and I couldn't resist taking another ride. I began to seriously consider building one in our backyard! I turned the little handles and pedaled myself around the track. There was one stretch that turned very slightly uphill, and I could feel my arms straining to keep myself moving. Occasionally the wheels would slip on the narrow track. Even so, it was a lot of fun. I could have spent the rest of the night on that ride. Unfortunately, the streak of good weather we had was coming to an end. Rain began falling. We didn't mind it after the heat of the day. We leisurely walked back over the bridge spanning the Loyalhanna Creek and wandered through Olde Idlewild. I got a good butter pecan ice cream cone. As the rain briefly came down, we stopped into the gift shop at Hootin' Holler and picked up some more souvenirs. We really didn't want to leave. The park felt like home.

We said one last "Happy Birthday" to Rollo Coaster and bid goodbye to the charming park. We hesitantly left behind MisterRogers' Neighborhood, Raccoon Lagoon and the Story Book Forest. We knew we would have to return here again. It was a perfect end to Coasterfest. At all of the parks, we were able to simply relax and enjoy the atmosphere without feeling like we had to rush from ride to ride. There was no need to have "the biggest and the fastest." And at Idlewild, although there were many rides we enjoyed, we had a wonderful time simply strolling along the shady winding paths of the midway. For us, that's what made it a truly great park.

Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions