Idlewild Park
May 27, 2016

copyright Jay Ducharme 2016

For the second leg of our Coasterfestâ„¢ trip, we were going to stop at both Lakemont Park and DelGrosso's in Altoona.  But both parks were closed the day we were there.  Our motel temptingly overlooked the quiet acreage of Lakemont, with its baseball stadium next door.  Instead we made our way to one of our favorite restaurants, Bob Evans, for a delicious breakfast, preparing us for our two-and-a-half hour trip to our next Pennsylvania stop, Idlewild Park in Lignonier.

We arrived at the park about 10:30.  It was advertised as being open with "limited operation" for their Outdoor Classroom event.  There weren't many cars in the parking lot when we arrived, but there were several busses.  Like Hersheypark, Idlewild offered a senior discount.  But they raised the bar a bit -- you had to be 60 to qualify.  So Karen got the discount and I didn't.  Our total admission came to $77, quite a bit more expensive than Hershey.  Interestingly, Idlewild had you pay for your admission at the parking gates.  That was understandable since parking was technically free and since there were so many different entrances to the park, they would have needed a half-dozen ticket gates.

For several years running, Idlewild was voted as the best children's park in the world.  It had seven loosely themed areas, and most of them were like a separate park.  We entered the nearby Storybook Forest through its giant book and encountered Mother Goose.  She sat in her small room backed by a wall with shelves containing photos of all her "children".  There was also, incongruously, a digital phone/answering machine on a small table with a watering can.  But I guess even Mother Goose had to keep up with the times.  We chatted with her aimiably.  She was very excited about the newest addition to Storybook Forest, a big castle for its 60th anniversary.  It was still under construction (delayed because of an unusually wet spring) but she encouraged us to check it out.

Sure enough, when we exited her little house, there it was across the pond: a big colorful castle under construction.  The Storybook Forest was as large as some entire amusement parks.  There were lots of shady winding paths punctuated by statues of storybook characters, some familiar (like the seven dwarves) and some obscure (generic elves?).  Karen stopped into the little red schoolhouse to give a grammar lesson.  But the best aspect of the area was the costumed characters that interacted with the children.  There was a pirate on the Good Ship Lollipop handing out lollipops.  Karen had a long talk with the Old Woman in a Shoe, who had a grandson stationed in Mosul.  She asked us what we thought of the new practice of drafting women into the service.  We also chatted with Mary Mary Quite Contrary and Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother (who really should keep a better eye on her house; there was a nefarious character lurking inside).  Outside of the new castle and the mysterious disappearance of Raggedy Ann's house, Storybook Forest was the same as it's been for much of its existence: frozen in time, from a simpler era when children didn't need to be dazzled by technology or special effects.  It felt very peaceful and safe, a protective bubble from the complexities of the modern world.  But I wondered how many children were familiar with the characters depicted in Storybook Forest.  How many parents still read nursery rhymes to their children?  Children increasingly seemed to be immersed in characters created by big media conglomerates like Disney and Marvel.  Many of the children who we observed walking through Storybook Forest couldn't seem to identify much of what they saw.  The structures were just colorful buildings and figures without context.

We departed Storybook Forest and passed the Jumpin' Jungle, an outdoor play area with a rope climb, ball pit and various other activities.  Karen paused to whack out a tune on the giant tubed marimba thingy.  Then we wandered through the next  area, Hootin' Holler, the obligatory western-themed section.  Westerns were a huge part of American culture during the 1950s into the 1960s, with the airwaves and theaters saturated with entertainment such as the Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and Bonanza.  So most of the park built during that era -- even Disneyland -- featured western themes.  Again, I wondered if this area had become an anachronism to modern children.  I was sure it meant more to Karen and me than it did to a five-year-old.

Many of the buildings in Hootin' Holler were receiving facelifts, including one of my favorite attractions, Confusion Hill.   We passed by a big iron smoker emitting a heavenly barbecue smell behind a sign advertising roasted corn.  I would have to sample some of that later on.

We then walked through the Olde Idlewild section, basically a standard midway where most of the rides were located.  The lightposts there were adorned with flags reminding us that Idlewild was indeed voted Best Kid's Park.  The midway looked like an idealized county fair, with rides surrounded by white picket fences and simple white wooden clapboard buildings.  There was a sort of town square with a large fountain at the center.  From there I could hear the faint sound of a band organ.  The park's PTC carousel was nearly identical to the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round that I used to run at Mountain Park.  They even had a working Artizan band organ.  At least, that's how it appeared.  It turned out that the facade was the only connection to Artizan; the actual guts from a Calliola.  It sounded good, though the music seemed too modern to my ears (Driving My Life Away, I Walk the Line, etc...).  But I guess for kids, those songs would be ancient history.

Across from the carousel was the park's Herb Schmeck masterpiece Rollo Coaster.  Though a junior wooden coaster, it gave quite a ride and made good use of the hillside, like a mini Boulder Dash, following the hill's curving contour and using the elevation change to great effect.  Unfortunately, being a junior coaster, the seats were a little tight.  It also had a small station that didn't allow for any-seat queuing.  There was also a fairly long line.  So we passed on it for the time being.

Every so often we would hear an enormous boom explode throughout the park and nearly jump out of our skin.  Idlewild was hosting some civil war reenactors who were out in a field firing off cannons.  The reenactors seemed to be at the park during every visit we've made.

We continued on to the far west end of the park next to Lake Bouquet.  Soak Zone, the water park, expanded greatly since our last visit.  In the distance, I could hear a familiar clacking.  Behind us, hidden in the trees, was the park's one-of-a-kind Wild Mouse.  I had only ridden it once or twice, because every other time I had gone to the park it was out of commission.  So I walked over to the entrance and watched as the cars traveled the twisted circuit.  I stood around taking pictures as people passed in front of me in line.  Since the ride so rarely operated, I wanted to get as many shots as I could.  There were two things that made the ride special.  One was how the trucks were placed toward the back of each car.  That meant when you got to the edge of a hairpin turn, the nose of the car would extend right off the end of the track making it seem like you were going to plummet to certain death.  The other thing was the lift, which had been banked to the left.  So as you were pulled up the track, it felt like you were going to tip over.  I don't know of any other coaster that had that feature.  It was really unnerving and was a good setup for the rest of the ride.  I stopped taking pictures and walked up to the station -- just as the ride operator announced that they were experiencing technical problems and the ride was being closed.  It wouldn't operate for the rest of our visit.  I guess I shouldn't have taken so many pictures....

So Karen and I walked across the long bridge toward Raccoon Lagoon, yet another area of the park.  Whereas the Olde Idlewild section featured teen and adult rides, this area was like a giant kiddieland with lots of vintage rides.  Our first stop was the Loyalhanna Limited, the park's miniature railroad that had one station here and another in Hootin' Holler.  It was a slow, long and pleasant ride through the woods (with some odd little buildings -- including an outhouse -- scattered along the route), over the Loyalhanna river, through a long sort of half-tunnel and then at the Hootin' Holler stop behind Confusion Hill.  The return trip was really short, basically back across the river and right to the Raccoon Lagoon station.

From there we went next door to Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, a reconfiguration of the park's unique MisterRogers' Neighborhood that had long been a big attraction at Idlewild.  The park figured that with Fred Rogers no longer around and his show off the air in most markets, the ride had run its course.  The park kept all the original set pieces but removed the complicated 3D animatronics of the original ride and replaced them with cartoonish 2D cutouts.  The move was controversial, but it made sense.  The park wanted to keep the memory of Fred Rogers (who was from nearby Latrobe) relevant to a new generation, and this was a good way to do it.  The children really seemed to like the ride, and many of them wanted to ride it repeatedly.  The story was nearly identical to the original ride, only with younger versions of the original characters.  The prince invited everyone to a hug-and-song party, and we had to tell the neighborhood.  Each of the neighbors was the junior version of the original, with essentially the same commentary.  The one switch was at the clock that originally hid Daniel the Tiger, who played peek-a-boo with the children.  The clock was still there, but this time Daniel's father stood next to it.  The ride ended at the castle with all the characters present.  You are entreated to "hug the person you want to hug".  And then everyone sings a song.  It was still an enchanting ride for small children, whether they knew Daniel the Tiger or not.

One of the more unique features in Raccoon Lagoon was a hedge maze.  The last time we were at the park, the hedges were less than two feet high, perfect for small children but rather pointless for adults.  I was surprised to see that the hedges had grown wildly up to nearly six feet in height.  I was also surprised to see that it was now blocked off.  I didn't know if that meant it was shut down for good, but it was no longer shown on the park map.  Maybe kids were no longer interested in such simple pleasures, but I would have loved to wander through it.

The rest of Raccoon Lagoon was pretty quiet.  There weren't a lot of young children in the park; most of them from the busses were middle school age.  I headed over to my favorite ride in the park: the rare adult handcars, basically paddle boats for train tracks.  But unfortunately there was no ride operator and the cars had been moved far off so that no one would try to use them.  Karen kept an eye on me as I considered sneaking in the gate.

By then it was about 1:30, so we walked back across the bridge, headed west and stopped into one of the park's sit-down restaurants, Boardwalk Pizza.  There wasn't much of a menu choice for us: pizza, macaroni & cheese, salad or breadsticks.  So I got the Mac & Cheese (which included a breadstick) and Karen got a salad and breadsticks.  At first I thought the girl behind the counter was an exchange student; she didn't seem to understand anything we said when we placed our order.  She just sort of stood there blankly.  An older woman served me my mac & cheese.  I asked for my breadstick from the girl, and she just stared at me.  Karen had to tell her repeatedly that she also wanted breadsticks.  The girl just turned away as if she didn't understand.  Finally a coworker told her to get the breadsticks and the girl reluctantly opened the oven and with a vinyl-gloved hand poked some breadsticks that were sitting on a tray (and discovered they were in fact hot).  Then she put on an oven mitt and struggled to get the breadstick tray out of the oven.  When she finally had it, she grabbed an empty box with her other hand.  Then she looked around helplessly trying to figure out where to place the box into which she was to put the breadsticks.  Karen was getting really frustrated watching her.  A co-worker moved some other items on the counter and the girl set the box down and slid the breadsticks into it.  It turned out that she wasn't foreign; she just didn't care.  It was as if she didn't even want to be there.  Once she boxed up Karen's breadsticks, I asked for the one I was supposed to get.  She turned and looked at the now-empty oven and said, "Well that means we'd have to make more."  Then she walked away.  So I asked the cashier if I could have a serving of applesauce instead of a breadstick.  He sheepishly said it was his first day and he didn't know.  So I said, "Never mind.  I'll just buy the applesauce."  But he couldn't figure out how to ring it in.  His supervisor came over and she couldn't figure it out either.  So she said, "It's the same price as milk, so just ring it up as a milk."

Karen and I sat down to eat.  The breadsticks, of course, were stale and hard.  The Mac & cheese was good.  Eventually I saw them take some more breadsticks out of the oven so I went back and asked the girl for my serving.  She once again just walked away.  The older woman got it for me.  Is this endemic of the age we're living in?  It was just like my recent experience at Six Flags:  the people whose job it was to serve me seemed to have no interest at all in doing their job.  Maybe the job market was so tight that the parks had to take whoever they could get.

After that disappointment, we went back out onto the midway.  The Wild Mouse was testing, but a worker blocked the entrance.  Karen was beginning to wither from the heat so she sat in the shade while I filmed a park walk-thru, which took about 40 minutes.  After that I was feeling a little peaked myself.  I was going to get a fresh-squeezed lemonade, but the stand was closed. So I decided to try a roasted corn.  We headed back to Hootin' Holler and walked inside the eatery.  The counter where the roasted corn was supposed to be was squeaky clean and obviously unused.  Next to it was a taco stand; across from it was another food stand.  I asked one of the workers about the roasted corn.  He had to check with his manager, who told him they weren't selling any.  It was all a ruse.

That ended our stay.  Though I know it was early in the season and the park claimed limited operation, it was a disappointment.  The limited operation should have come at a limited price.  Instead we paid full price for essentially half a park.  I guess if you have small children, the park would make sense if it had kids prices.  Then you'd pay for one or two adults, and less for your kids.  But Idlewild charges full adult admission for anyone over the age of three.  So you'd better hope that Idlewild is in full operation when you go, or it'll give new meaning to the phrase "Soak Zone".

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