Martin's Fantasy Island
September 2, 2012

copyright Jay Ducharme 2012

The amusement park season came to a close for us this year with one final trip.  The Western New York Coaster Club sponsored their annual Summer Send-off at Martin's Fantasy Island in Grand Island, NY.  We attended the Summer Send-off last year in humid drizzly weather.  This year, our third trip to the park, brought milder temperatures and bright sunny skies.  We stayed at Grand Island's Holiday in, which was located on the site of the Whitehaven Settlement.  I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but it was marked by a quaint stone building.

Sunday morning we headed north for a hearty breakfast at Bob Evans.  It's been one of our favorite restaurants (especially for breakfast), but for some reason they've never set up shop in New England.  After breakfast, we had about two hours until check-in at Martin's.  So we drove north toward Niagara Falls.  As we approached on the highway, the giant plume of spray from the Horseshoe Falls was clearly visible rising high into the sky.  The route was surprisingly empty -- until we rounded a corner near the parking area.  Traffic was at a complete standstill.  It was chaos.  On narrow roads with multiple intersections, cars were struggling to cut in front of each other.  Huge tour buses were attempting to turn around.  The last time we had been to the Falls was in 1996.  Parking was free then, and it was a short drive across the Rainbow Bridge to see the Canadian side of the Falls.  But now parking was $10 and we would have needed a passport to get into Canada.  After nearly a half-hour, we turned up a side street toward other parking areas.  One across the road advertised $10.  One next to us had no price, but I assumed it was the same company and the same price.  But we soon found out why that lot was empty: they were charging $20.  So we turned around and headed for the other lot.  We finally parked the car after nearly an hour.  The parking lot was in front of the "Gateway to the Falls," a giant blue-glass retail complex with dozens of food vendors and shops selling Niagara souvenirs.

We walked across the street toward the park that followed alongside the roiling Niagara River.  It was eerie how the water simply vanished, giving way to a view of the Canadian side and the famous Skylon Tower.  When we arrived at the edge of the American Falls, we were treated to the sight of a beautiful double rainbow arcing up from the mist.  The Maid of the Mist boat ride was doing brisk business on both the Canadian and American sides.  Hundreds of tourists were milling about the park.  We could see more people down below, walking along the stairs toward the bottom of the American Falls.  Karen and I headed back up-river toward the old footbridge that spanned the river.  There were far fewer people there.  It was an old stone bridge that had been retrofit with a metal span above it.  It offered impressive views of the river.  I was struck, though, by how neglected the park complex looked.  The bridge was rusted.  Weeds were growing everywhere.  Fencing was bent or broken.  Sidewalks were disintegrating.  It looked sad, especially next to such a storied and impressive natural wonder.

After that brief diversion, we headed back to our car.  Karen wanted to check out the Gateway shops.  We entered and felt stifled.  The huge all-glass building apparently had no cooling system.  Vendors had giant fans blowing hot soggy air around the complex.  We took a quick walk through and then went out to the car.  Merging back into traffic took about fifteen more minutes, but eventually we were on the highway heading south.  Within a few more minutes, we arrived at Fantasy Island.  It was a little after 11:00 and the parking lot was already filling up.  Just as last year, a cheerleading competition was taking place.  While we waited for our tickets, we chatted with a member of the American Thrill Ride Association and his daughter.  In a short while, Debbie Grudzien, the WNYCC treasurer showed up.  Geff Ford, the event organizer, was running late.  So she acquired our tickets and we headed into the park.

Not much had changed, and sometimes that's refreshing to see in a park.  It was sort of comforting in this age when everything else seems to be changing too quickly.  Buildings had some fresh paint, but little else was done to alter the park's charm.  The colorful carousel circle still dominated the main entrance area.  To the right was the kiddieland area, alongside the miniature golf course.  To the left was an orange plastic construction barrier.  The petting zoo was gone.  In its place was a vast empty expanse, with Humpty Dumpty standing guard.  It was sort of sad, because petting zoos seem to be disappearing from children's parks.  We later heard that the zoo was becoming too much of a liability, which I could understand.  And I was sure that the area would be filled with an appropriate attraction in the future.  Even so, it seemed to signal a coming change in the park.

There were still plenty of attractions for children, though.  The shady path lined with storybook displays still looked inviting for children of all ages and harked back to a simpler time.  A colorful new kiddie train ride had been added nearby. We continued along the winding paths and came to the canoe dock overlooking the grassy island depicting an Native American settlement.  The ride attendant at the canoes said he couldn't open yet because he was waiting for another attendant.  So we headed up the hill toward the west side of the park.  While the east side was filled with whimsy and lots of activities for children, the west side was more of a carnival midway lined with thrill rides, games and food stands.  The venerable Silver Comet dominated most of that area.  But there were plenty of other eye-catchers.  The nausea-inducing Mind Warp was flipping riders in every direction.  Flight was taking guests for a spin over 100 feet in the air.  The Crazy Mouse was whipping through its dizzying zig-zagging course.  There were also attractive plantings arranged throughout the midway.

The Silver Comet didn't have much of a line, so we queued up for the front seat and within a few minutes were rolling up the lift hill.  The steep, swift drop curved to the left and then the bedlam began.  The ride tossed us from one side to another, popped us out of our seats and plunged steeply around corners and through the structure.  It was nearly impossible to figure out where we were until we hit the brake run.  Having recently been to Funtown, I could see the similarities between their Excalibur and the Silver Comet.  Both were built by Custom Coasters to be inscrutable twisters.  Excalibur had the advantage of being hidden in a forest.  But Silver Comet, even though it was completely out in the open, was just as convoluted a ride and just as fun.

Next we hopped on board the Iron Horse, the park's miniature railroad, for a trip back to the front of the park.  The ride was pleasant, traveling next to the structure of the Silver Comet and then passing the park's campground and picnic areas.  We then headed back for the canoe ride and queued up.  After donning our life vests, we stepped into a canoe and paddled out onto the still lake.  It was a peaceful trip around the island.  We could have stayed there most of the day.  But it was lunch time, and our stomachs were growling.  So we headed back up the hill to the west end of the park and the pizza shop that was there.  Since we had dinner included with our admission, we just wanted something to tied us over.  A slice of pizza seemed a good idea.  The stand had a long, slow-moving line. As we waited in the sun, my head began to feel more and more congested.  My eyes were watering.  I started sneezing.  I hadn't had allergy attacks in recent memory, and I didn't know what was going on. Karen was sneezing occasionally as well.  After about ten minutes, we finally made it to the window.  We asked for two slices of cheese pizza, but were told we could only get slices of pepperoni.  If we wanted plain cheese pizza, we had to order an entire pie.  That struck me as really bizarre, and I had flashbacks of our trip to Holiday World where the same thing happened.

Instead, to recover from the baking sun, we walked over to the nearby log flume.  The ornate sign that pointed the way down the long entrance path had disappeared.  We had to look around to be sure we were heading in the right direction.  The line wasn't too long.  I still seemed strange that the ride just sat in the middle of a mowed field with no landscaping or trees, abutting the busy highway.  Even so, it was enjoyable and we got moderately wet, which helped cool us down a bit.

From there we made the long trek back toward the park entrance, where Basgetti's (the park's indoor restaurant) was.  I was stopping frequently along the way to blow my nose.  I couldn't figure out what was going on, why I was suddenly having that allergic reaction.  At Basgetti's they had slices of cheese pizza.  I also ordered a side of corn and Karen also got a salad.  The food was good.  Karen wanted to sit outside, but some persistent bees drove us back in, where there was no air conditioning.  At the far end of the restaurant, Father Time's Story Time puppet show got underway.  A few families sat around to watch as the puppets (apparently operated by a single puppeteer) moved to a pre-recorded soundtrack.  The last show we saw there featured Kermit the Frog.  The characters this time were more generic.  The story was about an elderly granny-type hotel proprietor who asked her guests to each pay $600 for a night's stay, but all each guest had was 39 cents.  So she let them stay anyway even though she was going bankrupt.  The last guest had no money and could only give the proprietor a hug.  And somehow that made everything turn out all right.  After that we walked through the archway over to the old west section and stopped into the Golden Nugget for some ice cream.

Feeling a bit more refreshed, we headed back toward the west end and took a spin on the antique car ride which, like the flume, existed in the middle of a mowed field.  Then we queued up for the Ferris wheel and were treated to panoramic views of the park.  By that point I was having difficulty breathing.  Karen recommended we go to a nearby drugstore and get some antihistamine.  So we made our way toward the entrance and ran into some more WNYCC members.  We stopped briefly to chat and then continued on our way.

The parking lot was completely full, and cars were spilling over onto the park's entrance lawn.  We got in our car and drove to a nearby Walgreens.  We found the antihistamine.  There weren't many left on the shelves.  I also got a bottle of water.  As we were checking out, the clerk commented that they were inexplicably selling a lot of antihistamine that day.  In fact, the clerk said her sinuses had been bothering her all day.  There must have been something in the air....

I took a pill and we drove back to the park.  We had to hunt for a parking space.  After we re-entered, Karen wanted to stop off at the Sweet Shoppe.  She got a piece of fudge and we found a nice shady spot to sit.  We were both surprised how tired we were.  That shouldn't have been a surprise: we both had long weeks at work; we had driven 7 hours to get to the park on Saturday; we were both having allergy attacks; we had been walking around in the hot sun all day.  The park dinner was at 5:00; we had an hour till then.  There was supposed to be a group photo and exclusive ride time on the Silver Comet starting at 8:00, but we didn't think we'd hold up that long.  Many of the WNYCC members were just getting to the park, but we had been there all day (not to mention the drive to Niagara Falls).  It wasn't like the old days when we could travel to multiple parks in a single week.

After resting a bit, we headed to the BBQ Barn and met up with the rest of the WNYCC contingent.  The menu featured either a roast beef sandwich or a turkey sandwich.  Since Karen and I were both vegetarian, we had asked for a cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato and some french fries.  Inside the Barn we pulled some tables together and sat as a group, catching up on how everyone was doing.  The park's signature wild west show started outside, and crowds gathered around to watch the shootout.  I asked Geff Ford if we could have the photo shoot after the dinner (since we had everyone together at that point) and he agreed.  So after the shootout ended, we all walked over to the Silver Comet for a group photo.  And then Karen and I said our good-byes and headed back to the hotel.  Thankfully by that point the antihistamine had begun to kick in and I could start to breath again.

It was unfortunate that we were both so exhausted to begin with, but we did have another nice time at Fantasy Island.  I was glad to see that the park was still really popular.  By the end of our stay, the midway was densely packed with people.  Geff pointed out to me that several of the rides (Mind Warp, Full Tilt, Mega Disco) were permanently mounted into the ground.  Previously, the owner kept carnival-style rides mobile in case he wanted to move them.  So there was a permanence to the park.  It seemed to be a work-in-progress, with old attractions disappearing and new attractions gradually being added.  At the same time, the charm of the park we found on our first visit (mostly in the east end) was still there.  And that was a good sign.  The park was expanding while maintaining its character.  And judging by the crowds, that was a successful formula.

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