York's Wild Kingdom
June 11, 2016

copyright Jay Ducharme 2016

In what has become an annual early summer ritual, Karen and I headed to Ogunquit, Maine, for a few days of relaxation by the beach.  This year, we stayed at the coveted Norseman, a quaint resort planted in sand so close to the water that high tide laps at its foundations.  We arrived on Wednesday afternoon under sunny skies and mild temperatures.  We weren't expecting warm temperatures at this time of year in Maine; that's why this was still the off-season.  But the benefit was that we basically had the beach to ourselves.  As long as there was some sun, the air was pleasant enough.

We checked in and went up to our cozy room on the second floor.  The view was idyllic, with a large slider onto a deck overlooking the vast Atlantic Ocean.  The first order of business was to walk to Perkin's Cove along the famous Marginal Way to stop at one of Karen's favorite eateries.  A lot of work had been done in the past year, with landscaping along the path and some spectacular new homes built.  After about 45 minutes of walking along the cliffside, we arrived at the Cove and headed over to the Lobster Shack where Karen wasted no time in ordering a lobster roll.  I ordered one of their veggie burgers, a unique and tasty specialty of theirs made primarily with spinach.  After that satisfying meal, we walked back along Shore Road, past all the small specialty shops lining the street.  When we returned to the Norseman, low tide made the ocean seem as if it had retreated miles away.

The next day we took a trip to Kennebunkport and checked out the seaside shops there.  We stopped in to Maine Art, which was featuring an exhibit of whimsical work by David Whitbeck.  They also had an impressive collection of wind sculptures by Lyman Whitaker.  I ended up taking one of those home.

No trip to this area of Maine would have been complete without at least one stop at famous Congdon's Donuts in Wells where Karen picked up a half-dozen donuts for a tasty snack that would last us the rest of the week.  Congdon's also had one last giant honey-glazed donut on display, a foot in diameter.  We went back to Ogunquit, where Karen went on a mission to find kites.  We stopped into several stores.  Karen found a small one at a premium price.  It turned out that the best place to buy them was at the beach shop just beneath our room at the Norseman.  So armed with two kites, we went out onto the nearly barren beach and attempted to get airborne.  Karen gave me the big kite from the Norseman and she took the little one.  It was a bit tricky because the wind was gusting to 30 mph, blowing sand everywhere.  But Karen managed to get her little kite aloft while I was more like Charlie Brown with my big kite.  It would start to rise into the air and then nosedive into the dirt.  Two passersby commented that the spars on the kite didn't look right.  I couldn't see a way to adjust them.  Karen offered to trade kites.  She fiddled with the large one, and in a few moments had it soaring above the waves.  Meanwhile, I continually crashed the small one into the dirt.  Fortunately, there were no trees nearby to eat either kite.

Friday morning we walked down Shore Road early to find a breakfast place.  We liked how most of the restaurants had their menus posted outside.  The menu at the Roost looked appealing, so we stopped in there and were one of the first customers of the day.  Karen had scrambled eggs, fruit and a potato cake.  I opted for the lemon ricotta pancakes.  It was all delicious.  The pancakes especially surprised me; I never would never have imagined that combination of flavors, but it worked really well.  Then to work off that breakfast, we walked back along the Marginal Way, admiring the scenery.  There were several people fishing in the shallow pools left by low tide.  With so much exposed rock and sand, it was hard to imagine that in just a few hours waves would be once again pounding against the cliffs.

Karen then wanted to take a trip south to York.  She remembered an arcade there that had pinball machines.  So we drove south to York Beach.  All parking in that area was metered at 25 cents for seven-and-a-half minutes.  And the meters took only coins.  So it was a tedious process of feeding the meters until we had two-and-a-half hours built up (since we assumed we'd be there for a while).  Across from the primary parking area was the arcade and old bowling alley.  The arcade wasn't open, but the alley was.  We walked in there to find a few scattered games and a half-dozen neglected-looking candlepin lanes.  So we walked along the narrow streets, looking into the shops that were open.  A huge condominum complex was being built nearby.  Otherwise, there were the traditional little trinket shops of a beachside town.  We got to the end of one street, though, and there before us was the entrance to York's Wild Kingdom.  We had frequently passed the main entrance on Route 1, but didn't know about this back entrance.  A 12-cab Big Eli Ferris wheel loomed high above.  Next to it was a small carousel.  The entrance was to the right, and there was no gate.  So we walked in.

The midway was deserted.  There were a few workers milling about, but the park was obviously closed.  The buildings were still boarded up.  On the left was a structure labeled "Haunted House".  It looked like a similar one I had encountered years ago at Little Amerricka.   I notice a food stand where the park served veggie burgers; that was encouraging.  There was a large miniature golf course that was like an island in the middle of the park, and everything else surrounded it.  There were lots of tree branches scattered across the pavement, as if the park had been abandoned.  Most of the rides looked like they had been borrowed from carnivals; almost all of them were trailer rides, many with the wheels still on them.  We passed by a mirror maze that seemed really small.  Most of the attractions were old kiddie rides.  When we reached the west end of the midway, we saw the actual ticket booths and the entrance to the zoo -- and that's where the action was.  There were quite a few people there, plus a parking lot full of cars.  We followed a path back toward the east and passed by the one coaster in the park, a kiddie model, and two old fun houses.  There was a huge batting cage, and then we were back at the entrance.  It didn't look like there was much to do at the park, but we decided to come back when it was open.

On Saturday we bid a sad farewell to Ogunquit and headed to Congdon's for a hearty breakfast.  We then turned south toward York's Wild Kingdom.  The park billed itself as the largest zoo and amusement park in Maine; there were in fact no other parks in the state with both a zoo and amusement park.  We arrived at the Route 1 entrance at about 9:45.  We followed a narrow winding shaded road that featured signs with silhouetted animals and questions about each one.  Children would probably find that quite enticing.  It was a surprisingly long road, past two large parking lots and through a short tunnel, finally arriving at the parking lot we had seen the previous day.  There was a long dark wood fence along the edge of the entrance road bordering the park and it was decorated with animal outlines.  There were already quite a few cars there, and lines had already formed at the ticket booths.  The weather had turned cool and cloudy, but thankfully there was no rain.

The zoo was scheduled to open at 10:00, but the amusement park section wouldn't open until noon.  Karen and I didn't know if we could find two hours worth of activities to occupy our time.  We wandered through the quiet midway again.  But this time I noticed that the pavement had been cleaned up.  Even though the rides were closed, all their lights were on making the midway look a bit more lively.

The midway had ticket booths in various locations, so we could have just bought a few tickets since most of the rides were kiddie rides anyway.  But we decided to splurge and get the all-inclusive adult wrist band for $22, a reasonable price especially since parking was free.  So we queued up at the ticket booth and in a few minutes had our wrist bands.  The zoo began admitting guests, and we followed the line inside.

The first attraction to the left was a large cage containing gibbons that were climbing up the cage screens and swinging from the jungle gym-like structures inside.  Next to that was an arena for camel rides, which cost an extra five dollars and seemed to have no shortage of patrons.  We followed the path to the west, where the park offered free paddle boat rides on their extensive duck pond.  There were three small wooden bridges straddling the pond, and the boats could drift under them.  Crossing the three bridges led to the rest of the zoo complex.  It turned out to be much more vast than we had expected.  Most of the animals on display weren't native to the U.S., coming from far-flung regions of Australia, Africa and Asia.  There were the occasional recognizable animals such as goats, but most were more exotic.  There were lots of bird species on display, from parrots to emus to peacocks.  There were a lion and lioness, alligators, turtles ... pretty much any animal you could imagine.  The zoo seemed to keep going on forever.  While the more dangerous animals were kept safely caged up, many of the more harmless animals like fowl were free to roam, turning the entire place into a sort of petting zoo.  We saw a group of deer behind a fence, but when they saw us they simply ducked under the fence and came right over.  There was also a circular pit that held a small replica of the Alamo.  It was populated by about a dozen adorable prairie dogs.

We spotted a set of bleachers facing a large caged area.  It was the setting for Animal Presentations, a rather non-descript title for an interesting show-and-tell with animals not currently on display at the zoo.  The presenter told us about how the zoo chose and cared for their animals.  The first animal was from South America, a raccoon-like ringtailed coati.  The next was a rare pair of African porcupines that were the size of an average dog.  The last was a primate from Asia (the zoo had LOTS of primates).  For each one, the presenter told us interesting facts about the animal.  She also talked about how the zoo invented a feeding system that replicates the action of foraging for food.  She said it wasn't good for caged animals to simply eat out of a bucket; they needed exercise and needed to hunt for their food.  So the zoo invented disk-shaped feeders (each cage had at least two) that had a revolving cover with several small holes in it.  Each hole corresponded to a location in the feeder that held different types of foods that the animal would normally hunt for.  To get the food, the animal had to spin the disk until the cover properly lined up.  They used those feeders (and other modified versions) for most of the animals, including birds.

After that, we walked back toward the zoo entrance.  We thought we had seen everything,  but there was yet another section:  Butterfly Kingdom.  A long winding path next to a fence lined with butterfly sculptures led to a large ventilated quonset hut.  There were two doors that were pressurized so that the butterflies couldn't get out.  Stepping inside was magical.  It wasn't that the building was pretty or that there were twinkling lights; it was just that butterflies were everywhere, flittling about as if they didn't even notice us, swooping past our faces without a care.  There were many exotic species, and an incubator where metamorphosis was happening.

We followed the path out of the Butterfly Kingdom and headed toward the Woolf's Gift Shop, which was the zoo exit.  Along the way we saw my namesake in a cage, a plush-crested Jay.  One of the more accurate descriptions on the information plaque was, "noisy birds, often vocalizing for no apparent reason".

When we emerged back onto the midway, it was already past noon and the park was crowded with people.  Karen wanted to get something to eat, but the nearby snack bar had a line stretching out onto the nearby green.  So we walked toward the east end of the park.  Along the way we passed the Glass House and took a walk through it.  Since like most carnival rides it was basically a trailer, it featured a really narrow path obviously made for kids.  There wasn't much confusion about where to go; the path zig-zagged predictably from the right end of the trailer to the left.  But again, the ride wasn't made for us.  I'm sure kids found it lots of fun.

From there we headed to the ride I was most curious about, the Haunted House.  This too was only about the size of the Glass House, but the exterior was really well done with suitably rotting clapboards and boarded up windows.  Some girls went in before me and I could hear their screams soon after they entered.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but I climbed the shaky stairs to the entrance which featured a fireplace surrounded by cartoon Draculas and a poster of Houdini above it.  I turned right and encountered an extremely narrow and pitch black corridor.  It was a fairly simple matter of extending my arms a bit to guide myself along the path.  I could hear the girls ahead of me periodically scream.  There were occasional dioramas, but they were so dimly lit as to be almost invisible.  There was one stretch with a sort of cemetery fence on my left and nothing but empty space on the other side of it.  Like the Glass House, the path sort of zig-zagged back in forth.  One area had wood slats unevenly nailed to the floor.  By far the best section was near the end, a large room painted in black-and-white Op Art geometric patterns and lit by a strobe.  It was surprisingly disorienting.  The final zig-zag section had a floor with a buzzer that went off when I stepped on it.  Then I was back outside.  Overall, it was fun and definitely appropriate for kids, just scary enough for them.

We walked over to the nearby Fun House, another trailer model all made out of steel.  This one sported a huge gorilla on top that rocked back and forth.  The gorilla was attached to what looked like another small trailer, and that entire trailer was rocking.  It was like a miniature Noah's Ark ride.  There appeared to be a lot of moving platforms on the ride.  Plus it had a rare rotating barrel at the end.  I had to try it.  And I was surprised that Karen wanted to go too; normally she didn't enjoy fun houses.  The ride attendant was amiable, but was surprised that we wanted to enter.  I guess he was used to little kids running through.  So we queued up and began our journey.  The ride entrance had a corridor with green metal structures resembling trees that created a sort of maze, leading to a rocking corridor with stairs going up to the left.  The interior of the ride was painted with brightly colored flowers and leaves.  Like many of the park's rides (and fitting in with the zoo), it was themed to a jungle.  I climbed a set of steep metal stairs and turned left into a tight maze.  This was the trailer attached to the gorilla, and it was violently rocking back and forth.  I was having a great time staggering from one corridor to another.  Karen on the other hand wasn't nearly as thrilled.  That area led out onto a suspended bridge overlooking the midway, and then back inside the ride.  I walked around a right-hand turn and then came out above the entrance where there was a vibrating arched bridge.  That led back inside the ride, down some stairs and into a series of blacklit corridors adorned with various glowing figures painted on the wall (including, oddly, "LOL").  There were a couple of dimly-lit stunts like ghosts and a monster mask.  Then I made a right-hand turn into daylight and the spinning barrel, which I walked right across.  The attendant had a nearby switch and immediately stopped it so that Karen could get across.  It really was a fun house, at least for me; Karen, not so much.

Karen wanted to get something to eat, so we walked over to the snack bar at the east end of the park.  They advertised the best fried dough in the area, and I had forgotten about the veggie burgers.  So we each ordered a fried dough and a drink.  The girl behind the counter stared at us.  "Are you sure you both want a fried dough?" she asked.  We innocently nodded and then sat under a canopy at a picnic table next door to wait for our order.  I took another walk through the Haunted House while we waited.  After about ten minutes, our number was called and we walked over to pick up our order.  The fried dough was ridiculously huge.  Each one was the size of a whole pizza.  They had condiments on the side, so I put butter and cinammon sugar on mine.  And then we sat down and dug in.  It really was good, but now we knew why that girl looked at us funny.  We could easily have split one fried dough between us.  Even so, we each managed to finished most of it.

We had to try to walk off all that dough, so we headed back toward the west end of the park.  Many of the old but cute kiddie rides apparently had been given fresh coats of paint and were very colorful.  With the number of people in the park, it was also apparent that the park was really popular.  There were little displays mixed into the midway, like a gnome garden and a wide-eyed smiling tree, and other things to occupy kids, like a trough to pan for "gold".

The park had a lot of game booths.  They were inexpensive to play, and unlike many parks we've been to, had lines of guests waiting to play them.  The prizes were mostly plush characters from recent movies, including Star Wars, and that probably helped explain their popularity.  We also spotted the entrance to the park's arcade, almost hidden next to the Speedway go-cart track.  I didn't expect much inside, but the park surprised me again by having a wall of pinball machines, including two of the famous amusement-park-themed machines, Cyclone and Hurricane.  The latter wasn't functioning, unfortunately, so we played Cyclone which was in pretty good shape.  At 75 cents a game, it was a bit pricey.  But I was thrilled that the park cared enough to maintain the machines.

Just a short way down from the Fun House was another walk-through called Fun Haus.  It looked like it might have at one time had an Arabian theme, but now was a sort of Arabian/Egyptian zoo.  It too had a spinning barrel at the end.  The upper middle section was a slowly revolving platform.  The entrance was fascinating in a bizarre and sadistic sort of way:  it was a set of extremely steep moving stairs up to the second level, more like a moving Jacob's ladder.  Kids didn't seem to have any trouble scaling it like a rock wall;  adults were having a bit more of a problem.  I decided to pass on that one.  Instead, I created yet another park walk-thru, which didn't take too long.

There were really only three "adult" rides in the park.  Two of them were spin-and-barfs: a Scrambler and Spiral Twirl (a Round-Up), which I wouldn't ride.  The other was the Ferris wheel at the park's east entrance.  So we walked over to it.  The queue line was almost filled, and the operator was running less than half of the cabs.  We waited for about ten minutes, but it became obvious it would be about a half-hour before we'd be boarding.  By that point, it was after 1:00 and a storm was expected to blow in.  So we decided to head back home.

We had an unexpectedly good time at Wild Kingdom.  All of the workers were very pleasant.  Even though the amusement park section was pretty much a kiddie park, there were still some attractions we could enjoy.  Just the fact that the park had three fun houses (four, if you count a sort of jungle gym attraction near the arcade) was remarkable.  The zoo was surprisingly extensive.  The large number of guests attests to the fact that the park was doing something right.  When we were at the Animal Presentations show, the presenter asked if there was anyone in the audience who was new to the park.  She was delighted that there were quite a few new people, but she then said she was glad to see so many familiar faces.  That personal connection with the guests helped to give the park a friendly home-town feeling, like a local county fair.

We were glad we left when we did; as we began the drive home, the skies opened up.  But the next time we make a trip back to southern Maine, we'll be sure and return to the midway of simple delights at York's Wild Kingdom.

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