Lake Compounce
October 9, 2021

copyright Jay Ducharme 2021

On a cool autumn Saturday when the leaves were just starting to turn, Karen and I made a return to what used to be one of our favorite amusement parks, Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut. There were several reasons why we stopped going. One was what seemed like the park's increasing focus on thrill rides as opposed to family rides. The bigger reason was the park's decision to remove its Sky Ride, which was one of our favorite rides in the park. While I understood the park's reasoning (an accident on a similar ride at another park), I think their Sky Ride was so iconic and unique that they should have found a way to make it safer. To my knowledge, there had never been an accident on the one at Lake Compounce. Simple seat belts probably would have done the trick. But the park apparently had no interest in keeping the ride, and that was a disappointment.

Usually in the fall, Lake Compounce would launch into its Halloween events. Those leaned toward the more intense and terrifying, including its long-running Haunted Graveyard to benefit Juvenile Diabetes. But this season for some reason the Haunted Graveyard packed up and moved down the highway to Quassy Amusement Park, a place ironically more family-friendly than Compounce. To compensate, Compounce chose to go back to its roots and offer a retro Halloween experience, with pumpkin patches and scarecrows and employees dressed in flannel. That's what brought us back to the park. I wanted to support a friendlier Halloween season, rather than the malevolent ones that have become standard at most parks. Liz and Dan, our daughter and future son-in-law, accompanied us. Dan had never been to the park before, so I was interested in what he'd think of it.

After an hour drive, we arrived at about 10:15. The park had just opened and had advertised that the first 100 children in the park would get a free trick-or-treat bag. Karen was worried that the place was going to be mobbed. But when we arrived, there were just three rows of cars in the vast parking lot. The weather was mostly overcast with the temperature in the mid-60s, a typical autumn day. We walked along the path toward the park, where leaves were just starting to drift to the ground. We arrived at the park's signature tunnel under Lake Avenue, which had been given an attractive makeover since our last visit. There were also large banners on each side of the tunnel proclaiming this year the 175th anniversary of the park. Inside the tunnel were humorous Halloween decorations, including a set of pots with witches' legs growing out of them.

The tunnel then opened up onto the entrance area with the ticket booths. I was stunned by all the colors. All the buildings had been repainted in a bright festive palette. Even the carousel horse in the center of the flower bed was different, a much larger yellow steed rearing up on its hind legs (and sporting a witch's hat). There were still abundant flowers and landscaping everywhere. It looked like a brand new park.

We had bought our tickets online and printed them out, so it was a simple matter to show them at the ticket gates. The park now had security checkpoints after the gates. We passed through them without issue and emerged onto the Main Street area. Liz wanted to ride Ghost Hunt with Dan, so we took a right and headed around toward the back of the park. We encountered the first of several trick-or-treat stations for kids. This one was a little wooden shack that housed some friendly-looking witches handing out treats. The way they were dressed, they looked more like characters out of a Dickens novel. As we walked along further, there was a rather dejected-looking scarecrow sitting in a shack next to a large maze made out of hay bales. And then a little ways from that, in front of the large waterfall below the pirate ship ride, was (appropriately) a friendly pirate. So the park was certainly making good on its pledge to have a more family-friendly event.

We passed by the Zoomerang coaster, which didn't look like it was running. At that point we were right next to the Zoomer's car ride, so we queued up for it. There was only one family in front of us, and soon we were all seated in our respective cars and traveling along the winding road. Instead of the usual 1950s soundtrack in the cars, it was playing Halloween-themed tunes. And all along the course were fake spider webs, skeletons and other non-threatening decorations. I was pleased to see that not only were all the lights working on the cars, so were the horns. It appeared that the current management was taking a lot of pride in the park, and that was good to see.

From there we walked up the hill toward the back (west) end of the park. Further north of where we were was a tall wooden fence, beyond which was the now idle Haunted Graveyard. That was a lot of acreage, and I wondered if the park was going to reclaim it and further expand the park. They had extended the waterpark about as far to the east as they could. With the mountain to the west and the lake to the south, it seemed like the only other option was to now built further north. We walked past the new (to us) Timberjack Chowhouse, one of the few eateries in the park that was open. It served veggie burgers, which was a plus. Next to that was the great Saw Mill Plunge log flume, which unfortunately was closed. We then turned the corner at the northwest end of the park and headed south. Liz spotted Thunder and Lightning, the park's intense Screaming Swing ride, and wanted to give it a try. So she and Dan hopped aboard. Meanwhile opposite that ride, the park's newest coaster, Phobia, was sending passengers through its grueling course. When it debuted, I wondered why they park had chosen that ride for that particular location. But when I saw it in person, I understood. It sat on the highest point in the park and completely dominated the skyline. It was a pretty impressive sight, though it wasn't something I had an interest in riding. It did take up a lot more space than the flat ride that previously occupied that space, though. The trade-off was that this stretch of midway was now a dead end. Previously, a path connected up with Ghost Hunt and the path toward the center of the park. Now you had to double back.

Liz and Dan found Thunder and Lightning to be really intense. So we queued up for the nearby Ferris wheel to give them a chance to recover. It was a pleasant and brief trip above the park. Karen noticed that behind us, Boulder Dash, the park's signature wood coaster, was silent. We assumed it was going to open later in the day. After that we circled around toward Ghost Hunt. Along the way, we passed by another eatery that was serving pizza and grilled cheese. Ghost Hunt was the park's interactive dark ride that had remained pretty much the same since it was built over two decades ago. It normally had the longest wait of any ride in the park, but today we waited only a few minutes. I noticed they had added some new tech: some new score readouts on the cars and a video screen at the exit that showed the final scores of all the people in your car. The ride itself was pretty much the same, shooting at targets along the way. Everything seemed to be working great. Daniel ended up with the high score, over 100,000. He enjoyed the ride.

After that we were all a little hungry. Liz got herself a coffee at a Dunkin Donuts tucked underneath the Ghost Hunt building. I noticed that the Boocifer animatronic still appeared on the upper level to taunt passersby, along with his two squirting gargoyles. When Liz had her coffee, we headed for one of our favorite treats near the park entrance: Potato Patch French fries. We each got an order, and Liz and Dan also got chicken tenders. We headed over the the patio next to the swing ride to eat. The fries were just as good as we remembered.

After that nourishment, we decided to ride the Wildcat, the park's older wooden roller coaster. Along the way, we stopped for a photo op at a colorful sign beneath the Wildcat's lift hill. A passing park employee graciously offered to take our photo. Liz and Dan noticed the train station across the midway, so we walked over to the Compounce Railway and climbed aboard. The sign above the station claimed that the railway was established in 1997, which was strange since the narration aboard the train claimed that it was one of the oldest rides in the park. The train provided its usual leisurely journey along the lakeside. The difference this time was that it didn't stop at the south train station, since the south end of the park was closed. Along the way we passed by the ever-expanding waterpark section. The change to the area was pretty stark. Where once was a tree-covered hillside was now a flat desert-like desolate area of dirt and detritus. Toward the far end of that area was what appeared to be a carnival ride on an abandoned trailer. Reaching the southern end of the circuit still offered an impressive view of the midway across the lake.

After we returned to the station, we headed for the entrance to Wildcat, which humorously had above it one of the old PTC coaster trains filled with skeletons raising their arms up. The coaster was originally designed by my hero Herb Schmeck of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and was built in 1927. When Hershey bought Lake Compounce in the 1980s and bulldozed most of the original park, they also bulldozed the Wildcat and had it rebuilt by Curtis Summers and Charlie Dinn, infamous for their rough wood coasters and their avoidance of any nasty forces like air time. So the Wildcat reopened as a tamer version of its original self. In 2017, the park had the entire ride retracked by legendary coaster builders Martin & Vleminckx. They also acquired brand new Millenium Flyer trains from Great Coasters International, which were especially good on coasters with tight turns. So I was eager to ride it, since it used to be near the bottom of my list of favorite coasters. The one thing I didn't like that hadn't changed was queuing; it was luck of the draw. You had to take whatever seat you ended up with. That decision puzzled me, since their station had plenty of room to allow people to line up for whatever seat they wanted. But as luck would have it, Karen and I ended up with the front seat! Liz and Dan sat behind us. The seats were a lot smaller than I expected, with very limited leg room. The individual lap bars had a protrusion underneath that dug into my stomach. And worse, the ride attendants were stapling people into their seats, pushing down as hard as they could on the lap bars. That's why I always stick out my stomach when they come around, so that after they leave there's a little space left. Karen, Liz and Dan didn't do that, though, so they were pinned in place.

The ride operators would send the train off with the request, "When I say Wild, you say Cat. Ready? Wild!" And people in the train would yell back "Cat!" And that would go on until the train had left the station. As we rolled off, I could immediately feel the difference. Unlike the old PTC trains which used to shimmy back and forth along the track, the GCI trains ran more like a steel coaster, clinging tightly to the track with very little play. As it turned out, that would be a bad thing on this coaster. We glided up the lift and then plunged down the first drop. The bottom of the hill was remarkably comfortable, with only mild positive G forces. Then we rose up into the first fan turn, and that's where the problems began. Because of how tightly the train hugged the track, we could feel every bump and separation in the steel. It was like riding over pebbles. And the seats didn't have much padding to absorb that. The air time hills were mild for me, since I had a little play in my restraint. But for the others who were stapled into their seats, it was like a kick in the gut. The ride seemed to get rougher as it progressed and we were thankful when we finally reached the brake run. Daniel thought he got whiplash from the ride; he neck and shoulders were aching. Liz and Karen both had headaches. My back was sore. I had hoped that the retracking and new trains would make the ride run smoother, but somehow the modifications had the opposite effect. I couldn't understand why.

No one wanted to ride anything else after that, much less Boulder Dash. As it turned out, we couldn't have ridden it if we wanted to; for some reason that coaster was closed down for the entire day. We wandered over to the park's nearby carousel. Its band organ wasn't running; instead there was piped-in Halloween music. I noticed that one whole row of horses was missing. We sat on some benches there to relax a bit. I went to get some bottled water. Like many other parks, Compounce had resorted to bringing in food trucks to help feed the guests. Most were charging $4.50 for a bottle of water. I found one run by the Waterbury Police that was charging $3.99. After we rested, Liz wanted to check out the park's gift shop. Since our day was winding down, I decided to film a new walk-thru (which didn't take me long because so much of the park was closed). And after that we headed out for dinner at a Japanese restaurant down the street, Sweet Mango.

I really wanted to like this park again. Years ago, Karen and I used to visit several times a season. I was happy to see the park embrace a family-friendly event for the Halloween season. I was really impressed with the park's architecture and landscaping. There were many new attractive signs, including an impressive archway over Main Street. I also grew to like the look of Phobia. It was the right coaster in the right place. And if it weren't for the pain induced by the Wildcat, we probably would have stayed longer even though there wasn't much else for us to do there besides enjoy the atmosphere. I did appreciate how the park looked like a Halloween from my childhood. It had an innocence to it that was refreshing. I'm hoping the park continues this tradition. It would be enough to get us to return, as long as we steered clear of the Wildcat.

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