Quassy Amusement Park
May 7, 2011

Karen and I had been anticipating this event for months.  Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, CT, dismantled their 60-year-old Mad Mouse coaster last year.  For years, rumors had floated around that the park was getting its first wooden coaster.  And this year, the rumor came true.  The park held a contest among local schools to pick a name, and Wooden Warrior was the winner.  Quassy had a "soft" opening Easter weekend, and the following weekend was the official park opening (in persistent rain).  But today was a special event for coaster enthusiasts, Wooden Warrior Day, to formally introduce the new ride.

This weekend the weather was cooperating; the sun was shining through puffy clouds and the temperature was in the sixties.  We arrived at the nearly-empty parking lot about 9:00 and parked next to the booth where later an attendant would be collecting the parking fee.  Wooden Warrior was an impressive sight as we drove in.  The lift hill and run up to the brakes ran parallel to the parking lot.  The lift itself looked somewhat smaller than I expected.  It was set onto slightly higher ground and so didn't use that much wood.  There was a 180-degree turn at the top.  Then the first drop dove down parallel with the train tracks in the picnic grove.  There was a really small speed bump and then a sharply-banked left-hand rise up to a hill that looked like a mini camelback.  The next hill rose up behind the train station and then plunged into a tunneled horseshoe-shaped right-hand swoop-drop.  That was followed by a triple-up, a sharp left-hand turn, the two bunny hops alongside the parking lot and finally a banked left-hand turn into the brakes, circling a newly-planted pine tree.  The entire layout was in the form of a T, and took up remarkably little of the expansive picnic grove.  The ride was designed by The Gravity Group, which built the mammoth Voyage for Holiday World.  Although Warrior was billed as a family ride, it didn't look like a typical "kiddie coaster," such as Waldameer's Comet.  Outside of the lift, there wasn't any straight track over the Warrior's entire course; it was all sharp hills and sudden twists.

Two mechanics were at the brake run working on the single train the likes of which I had never seen before.  It was a Timberline, the first of its kind built by the Gravity Group.  The train was sleek, like a high-performance sports car.  The dark blue fiberglass body had a separate leading nose in front of it that was low to the track.  There were six two-seat cars, so it was able to negotiate tight turns.  The seat backs were tall, with protruding padded shoulder guards.  The lap bars were peculiar arched structures attached to either side of the train.  There was no other wooden coaster train remotely like it.

A member of the American Coaster Enthusiats spotted us and came over to chat for a while.  Karen and I then wandered about the quiet midway.  It was much the same as we remembered it from our trip five years earlier.  A new ticket booth had been constructed.  There were still curious pieces of amusement park art and figurines in various places.  The collection of animal statues still stood at the center of the park.  There was a fairly new and colorful kiddie drop tower, and of course the Mad Mouse was gone.  But the park still seemed refreshingly frozen in time.  Some prices had changed: instead of a 25-cent night during the week, they now had a 50-cent night.  But what other park in the U.S. could boast those prices?

We headed toward the picnic grove by the train station.  The registration table was being set up with boxes of t-shirts, sweatshirts and mugs commemorating Wooden Warrior.  The man there said he'd be with us in a few minutes, not that we were in a hurry to register.  George Frantzis II, the park's owner, appeared to help with the setup.  I chatted with him briefly, jogging his memory about a video we were both in a decade ago.  Boston's Channel 5 ran a weekly magazine program, Chronicles, and one edition featured New England amusement parks.  There were segments about both Quassy and Mountain Park, and we were both interviewed.  We heard some rumbling in the distance.  At the far end of the midway, a young assistant was wheeling a cart piled high with wooden blocks.  It got stuck, and Frantzis ran over to help the kid.  As they tried to free it, piles of blocks tumbled to the ground.  Karen and I went over to help pick them up.  They were souvenirs, sections of southern yellow pine stamped with the Wooden Warrior logo.  We piled the blocks behind the registration table, and more people began to drift in.  Registration officially opened, and to my surprise we each not only got a t-shirt but also a souvenir block.

The air was warming up. We went back to our car to stow our loot.  I put on the Warrior t-shirt.  Then we headed for the Warrior's queue line for two hours (!) of exclusive ride time.  The queue had two unmarked paths split by a metal fence.  We were the first ones there, so we followed the path on the right, which took us up a long ramp and ended at the station exit.  Two men working on the train told us we could get to the entrance from there, but we couldn't see how without jumping across the station track.  While we were puzzling this out, a line of enthusiasts marched up the entrance and queued up.  The station was small, but the management wisely built it to allow guests to queue up for any seat they wanted.  Karen and I hustled back down the exit and then made our way to the entrance.  As we walked, I stared curiously at the ride's structure.  I had never seen a coaster put together like the Warrior; all connecting crosspieces on coaster structures were usually nailed into the bents (the vertical posts).  But on Warrior, there were steel plates bolted onto the bents, and the crosspieces were then attached to the plates with a single bolt.

We finally arrived back at the station and were second in line for the front seat.  The ride attendants seemed to have some difficulty with the lap bars, which didn't want to open.  George Frantzis arrived to helm the ride and gauge our reactions.  They sent an empty train around first.  Oil was evident on the tracks, a good sign.  There was a sharp dip out of the station, and it thrust the train into the lift hill chain.  The train crested the lift, speedily turned and dove down the first hill with a roar.  It flew out to the tunneled turn and sped back, barreling by us at close proximity.  It hit the brakes with energy to spare and then made a slow, careful crawl back to the station.  The first set of passengers were dispatched and they returned less than a minute later whooping and cheering.  That was a good sign, and Karen and I were next.

We climbed into the train.  There didn't seem to be much leg room at first.  We sat down in the molded padded seats.  They were surprisingly comfortable.  The "shoulder pads" on either side of the train weren't even noticeable to us.  The crescent-shaped lap bar curled inward and held us comfortably but securely.  The seats sloped back slightly, and gave us the sense that we had more leg room.  I looked down at the leading nose of the train, with a silver arrow bolted to it, in front of us.  Normally a wood coaster train's side friction wheels would have about an inch of play between the rails.  But on this train, the side friction wheels fit snugly between the tracks with hardly any play at all.  The train was dispatched and we rolled out of the station with a surprising burst of speed.  The chain engaged smoothly and we climbed the short lift.  On the right side of the lift, there were actual wooden stairs instead of a catwalk.  I thought that was a considerate thing for the park to do, making it easier for guests in the event the train got stuck on the lift.

We crested the lift and there was another surprising burst of speed.  We whipped around the hill and were surprised again by a sharp pop of airtime, a mini speed bump at the very edge of the first drop.  And then we dove down the steep but short drop.  The first innocuous looking speed bump threw us up into our lap bars.  We turned sharply up into the next hill (the camelback) and again were thrown out of our seats.  Then down and up into the loud dark and impossibly tight tunnel.  We blasted into the powerful triple-up, turned the corner into the bunny hops and then flew into the brakes cheering.  We were hardly in our seats during the entire ride.  Wooden Warrior was an airtime monster with some great laterals thrown in.  It took us completely by surprise, much the way Cornball Express had at Indiana Beach.  From the midway, the ride looked pretty unassuming, but it packed a whollop!

The brakes kept jogging on and off as we crept back into the station.  But right at the end, the train slipped too far past the sensors and the attendants couldn't open the lap bars.  So they simply asked, "Do you want to go again?"  And everyone cheered.  They sent us back up the lift for another thrilling ride.  The trains tracked beautifully and felt really comfortable.  After our second ride, I took a break to get some pictures.  By then more people were queuing up.  Every trainload of riders came back clapping and cheering.  Quassy had a definite winner, and George Frantzis looked very pleased.  All through the day we ran into Frantzis, whether we were riding or strolling the grounds or at a food concession.  He obviously was actively involved in every aspect of the park's operation and was genuinely friendly and eager to talk.  I thanked him for including vegetarian items (veggie burgers and salads) on the park menus, and he told me about his own continuing on-again-off-again experiences with vegetarianism and veganism.  That was one reason he offered vegetarian items.

Karen and I took a few more rides on Warrior.  The queue line was getting longer as more enthusiasts arrived.  Eventually over 120 were in attendance.   I walked to the top of the nearby waterslide tower to get some high shots of the ride.   Then we went into the park's arcade.  There was just one pinball machine in there, a few Skeeballs and an air hockey table.  Most every other machine was a video game.  We played the one pinball, Roller Coaster Tycoon (ironically based on a computer game) but had to give up when the balls got stuck on a ramp and the machine timed out.

Then we walked over to the lakefront next to the kiddie rides, where the old Mad Mouse coaster used to stand.  The park was still and quiet, like the water on the lake.  The big waterpark nearby wasn't yet open.  We headed back to the Warrior and took a few more rides.  The coaster seemed to have gotten faster in the short time we were away, with the airtime becoming more violent.  But it was still great fun.  We walked about the midway some more.  There were lots of park-made photo spots, painted plywood scenes with cut-outs for heads and arms.  A new one near the park's YoYo featured the Wooden Warrior with General Custer,  where I encountered my evil twin.  The park was operating their old kiddie coaster for the enthusiasts.  So I took a ride in the front seat, which turned out to be surprisingly smooth.

The park opened to the public and guests began filtering in.  At 12:30 we headed back over to the picnic pavilion for our lunch.  The park was offering hamburgs, hot dogs, chicken, pasta and three types of salads.  Before we ate, though, Frantzis took the microphone with the park's publicity director, Ron Gustafson, nearby.  They were going to auction off some items to benefit ACE New England.  The first three items were banners that advertised the construction of the Warrior.  I bid on them, but Ron (who functioned as the auctioneer) kept saying there were going to be some "good stuff" offered later on.  So I held back.  After the banners all sold, they offered two wheels from the old Mad Mouse.  I won the load-bearing wheel for $35.  The auction raised just over $100.

We sampled some of the salads, which were quite good.  But we decided to try Quassy's veggie burgers in the Quassy Restaurant.  The air was beginning to cool a bit, so it felt good to be inside.  We got veggie burger baskets, with french fries.  It was pretty good.  Besides having lots of historical pictures in the restaurant, there were a series of contest essays written by students about why their mothers deserved to be Quassy's Mother of the Year.  As we went back outside, Karen spotted the one of Quassy's wandering characters and stopped for a photo op.  We headed back to the Warrior.  The line was much longer now, but it moved quickly.  I noticed a sign near the station that honored the students who chose the ride's name.   Quassy really seemed to care about its community.

Within a few minutes we were back at the front.  I swear the ride felt even faster than before.  The airtime, though not as sustained, felt like Cedar Point's Magnum XL-200.  We next walked to the nearby train station.  The ride itself was always rather unspectacular, simply circling the outskirts of the picnic grove.  But it took on new interest because it now passed beside and underneath the structure of Wooden Warrior.  It still made two full circuits for an enjoyable 5 minute ride.  After we debarked, we walked to a new stage set up beside the carousel.  A magic show was underway.  Kids from the audience were lined up with chimes and wood spoons.  An assistant tapped on a child's shoulder to indicate when they should hit their chime.  The whole thing seemed a bit awkward but in the end the kids were able to tap out a rough version of "Happy Birthday."  I'm not sure how that tied in with "magic," but the audience seemed to enjoy it.

Next it was back over to Warrior.  The skies had begun to darken and a cool breeze drifted in.  The line wasn't too long and soon we were back in the station.  Guests had discovered that they could line up for the front, and many were taking advantage of that.  The Warrior train was flying through its course and the roar in the tunnel was really impressive.  Rain began lightly falling.  Some young girls having a birthday party were in line ahead of us.  Just as they boarded the train, the skies opened up into a torrential downpour.  They came back into the station soaked.  Another couple in front of us boarded and were sent out.  By the time they returned, the rain had stopped and the sun peeked back out.  When Karen and I boarded, the track was soaked.  When we arrived at the top of the lift, we were pushed to the first drop with amazing force.  The rest of the ride was like trying to stay on a bucking bronco.  Every hill felt like an ejection seat.  We returned to the station laughing and clapping.

As we exited the queue line, I noticed that the grounds crew was preparing lots of new plantings.  I imagined that in a few years, the park could begin to look as picturesque as a mini Busch Gardens.  The staff at Quassy was friendly and outgoing, as exemplified by George Frantzis.  Although still quite small, the park has a beautiful location and room to grow.  Wooden Warrior is a tremendous achievement for the park, and will certainly put Quassy on the map for all coaster enthusiasts.  It's a "junior" coaster only in size.  It's a perfect example of how, when well designed, a small coaster can provide lots of thrills.  Karen and I will certainly be returning to the park.  Though there's not a lot for us to do, Wooden Warrior will be well worth the trip.  If in the future Quassy adds additional "adult" rides like a Ferris wheel and antique cars, it will give us a reason to stay longer and visit more often.  But for now, congratulations to the whole team at the park and at Gravity Group on a masterful job.  Wooden Warrior has conquered Connecticut!

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