Six Flags New England
September 1, 2014

copyright Jay Ducharme 2014

Karen and I picked a sunny but brutally hot and humid Labor Day to return to Six Flags New England in Agawam, MA.  Even though it was basically in our backyard, there had been little reason for us to go.  The park had systematically removed family rides in favor of high-thrill teen rides.  The food was outrageously priced and the selections reduced to hamburgs, chicken and pizza.  There was nothing for us to do there.  But this season two things drew us in.  The first was that the venerable Riverside Cyclone, one of the greatest and most terrifying wood coasters ever built, was being retired and replaced by a new steel coaster.  This was a trend at nearly every Six Flags park: their wood coasters were being turned into steel ones, with the park claiming that the public was no longer interested in riding wooden coasters.  (Ironically, they were keeping the much older Thunderbolt at the park.)  So I wanted to get one last look at it before it was gone.  The other reason was that the park made an offer I couldn't refuse -- a 2015 Gold Season Pass (which included parking) was selling for $49, less than the cost of a day's entry.  But it had to be purchased by Labor Day and activated in September.  So I bought them online and with one day remaining before our jobs consumed us for the next several months, we made the short drive to the park.

We arrived shortly before the park's opening at 10:30 and the parking lot was already filling up.  Two trams carried guests from the lot across the street over to the bridge spanning Route 159.  The parking fee was a whopping $20.  Fortunately, I showed the parking attendant the bar code from my season pass printout and we got in for free.  Then we hopped on the tram and were driven up to the bridge.  Normally, we don't mind walking the quarter-mile or so, but it was just too hot.

The bridge featured an interesting piece of product placement.  The risers on the long stretch of stair going up to the bridge had been screened with images.  When you stood in just the right spot, it looked as if the stairs were made up of cascading M&Ms.  After we had climbed up the seemingly endless staircase, I was surprised at how much the view had changed.  It wasn't so much the new rides in the park -- it was the trees.  They had grown so tall since our last visit that they hid most of the park from view.  We descended the stairs on the other side of the bridge and were standing in front of the Federalist-styled entrance.  There was a large flower display that spelled out "Welcome" but oddly it was at our backs.  The only way guests would normally see it would be as they exited the park.

We weren't sure what to do next.  In the past, we would enter the park and get our passes processed at a building on the park's Main Street.  But Karen spotted a Season Pass processing window to our right, so we headed there first.  As it turned out, the woman at the window told us that processing was happening around the corner, in the area once occupied by the Thomas the Tank Engine area.  So we headed there.  It was now called Whistlestop Park, similar to other Six Flags parks.  Strangely, the entire area seemed barren.  There was one ride off to the left and a spray park in the center.  But that  appeared to be all.  The building that formerly was the station for Thomas was now the Season Pass Processing building.  Behind it, though, was still Thomas the Tank Engine, but with its face removed.  We lined up with other people who were holding season passes.  To the left of the queue line were rows of laptop computers with barcode scanners.  People were entering their info and checking themselves in.  After several minutes had passed, it became obvious that we were in the queue line for the train.  The signage in that area was really confusing.  Karen spotted a supervisor walking by, so I asked him if we were in the right spot.  He was very friendly and told us he'd take care of our passes.  He disappeared around the corner and returned with our passes a few minutes later.  We were good to go.

We walked past the big pavilion containing the 1909 Illions carousel.  Nearby was a display advertising the park's Fright Fest for Halloween.  It was a stepped stone structure with a ghoul at the top playing a pipe organ.  Just down the hill was the building that formerly housed the Season Pass Processing; it was now the Rental CenterMain Street itself looked better than I ever had seen it.  The trees down the center of the midway had grown and colorful flowers had been planted around them.  The buildings had a quaint folksy architecture about them.  The pavement was no longer fake cobblestone (which was attractive but difficult to walk on); the street was simply an asphalt strip.  A little further down, Karen noticed a sign advertising the Go Fresh Cafe, an eatery featuring black bean veggie burgers.  Hallelujah!  That alone made the trip seem worthwhile.  After so many years of there being so little in the park that we could eat, the management seemed to have responded to our plight.  We were definitely going to visit the place.

At the bottom of Main Street, the Looney Tunes characters were posing for photo ops with guests in front of the Looney Tunes Emporium.  To the left of that we could see one of the last remaining structures from the old Riverside Park: the giant neon sign for the Thunderbolt roller coaster.  The ride itself seemed to have been given a fresh coat of white paint and looked good.  From there we proceeded north.  The massive lime green structure of Goliath, the 200-foot-high suspended looping shuttle coaster, dominated that area.  Beside it, seeming out-of-place, were two buildings themed to a New England seaside village: Wharf Caricature Company and a weight guessing game.  Between them hung a giant shark, a holdover from when those buildings marked the entrance to Shipwreck Falls, the shoot-the-chutes ride that used to occupy that spot.  We climbed the stairs opposite those buildings and took a ride on the New England Skyway.  That afforded us a really good look at what remained of the Cyclone.  The lift hill had been partially dismantled and a the structure for a new steel lift, steeper than the original, could be seen above it.  Some of the north end of the ride had been disassembled, including the rise into the second hill.

We arrived at the north end of the park and had a much better view of the work being done.   The Cyclone's entrance was blocked off and sported a sign reading, "Cyclone stormed out of New England".  Karen spotted some bright orange inside the ride.  I was amazed to find that RMC was already into the conversion; their orange iBox track had already been laid from the original station, around the corner and part of the way up the lift hill.  It was heartening to see that the park was hanging on to at least a portion of the original ride.  I had thought that the wood structure was going to be simply bulldozed.  But it appeared RMC was utilizing some of Bill Cobb's layout.

To the north of the Cyclone was one of the park's newest rides.  The area used to be home to one of the first (and one of the smallest) Skycoasters.  But its replacement looked much more impressive.  Sky Screamer was nothing more than a swing ride.  But it was 400 feet tall.  Normally, I didn't do swing rides; they made me too dizzy.  But this one seemed to spin very slowly.  Since it was the tallest one of its kind, I had to ride it.  Karen waited near the Cyclone entrance as I queued up.  The queue line offered some nice views of the Blizzard River raft ride, which previously had been obscured.  Some of the mist from that ride drifted over the queue line, which was a nice benefit on such a hot day.   The ride had a surprisingly high capacity and we advanced through the line quickly.  An attendant walked by and gave us each a number that corresponded to stars painted on the loading area under the seats.  I found my number (six).  The seats had the usual bar that rode up and down on the chains.  But the bar also had a belt that clipped into the seat.  Plus there was a seat belt that wrapped around my waist.  I wasn't going to fall out.  The ride loaded quickly and the all-clear was given.  The ground disappeared from under me as we were pulled upward and began gently spinning.  As we neared the top, there was a constant and suprisingly strong wind.  Then the seats began to spin faster, much faster than how it appeared from the ground.  The ride afforded some pretty spectacular views, not only of the park and the Cyclone construction but of the entire Pioneer Valley as well.  We were at the top for only about 30 seconds and then descended, landing back on my assigned number.  I was a bit dizzy, but not overly so.  Karen met me at the exit an pointed out a display that had been set up for the Cyclone's last ride.  I sat for the photo op, even though it was a lie.

We headed back down the midway, past Pandemonium (the Gerstlauer spinning coaster), and we walked up the side path into Crackaxle Canyon.  What used to be a quaint western-themed area lined with trees was now dominated by Goliath.  The little booth where I used to get pan-fried potatoes was long-gone, replaced by a drink stand.  For a while, the park had opened up an alleyway that led back to the entrance.  But it had been blocked off.  I was baffled as to why this park was designed with so many dead ends.  We walked down the path at the south end of Crackaxle Canyon and walked back toward the Thunderbolt entrance.  It was about noon, so we decided to have lunch.  The veggie burger place was located in the kiddieland area that used to be themed to the Wiggles.  Now it was accessed under an arch that read Centerstage.  That area had, as might be expected, a large stage to the left.  The Primo Pizza indoor eatery was to the right.  Kiddie rides were scattered about.  At the back of the area was Go Fresh Cafe.  The one guy staffing it looked extremely hot and tired.  We each ordered a black bean burger.  I got sweet potato fries with it and Karen got regular fries.  I gave him my Gold pass, since it was supposed to give a discount at selected stands.  But I guess this wasn't one of the them.  Our total came to a hefty $41.  After we paid for our order he went in back to make it.  It took about ten minutes, but he finally brought it out.  We looked around for someplace to sit, but there were only benches in the sun.  So Karen suggested heading back to Primo Pizza and eating under cover.  That was a good idea; the large room was nearly empty and the shade was a necessity.  The burgers were large, with lettuce, tomato and condiments already on them.  They each were wrapped in a large soft potato bread roll.  It was absolutely delicious, with just enough flavor, texture and a spicy kick.  The sweet potato fries were also really good.  It wasn't cheap, but it certainly was worth it.  As we sat there, video screens on the walls ran trivia questions about the park, intermixed with current scores from the world of sports.

After that filling meal, we walked over to Route 66, the antique car ride that was another reminder of the old Riverside Park.  The cars had been changed from the old Model T style to a 1920s hot rod.  The queue line had been shrunk considerably, no longer proceeding over a bridge crossing the ride's track.  There wasn't much of a line anyway, and what was there moved quickly.  We were soon seated in a a bright yellow car and were traveling along the shady route.  I was happy to see that the park kept it in shape.  It was one of the few non-thrill rides and was a refreshing change of pace.  The kids especially seemed to have a great time "driving".

We then followed the long steep staircase down toward the DC Comics area.  The Catwoman's Whip coaster at the bottom of the stairs didn't seem to the doing much business.  That ride was nearly invisible among all the trees and plantings that had grown up around it.  Next to it was Hall of Justice, "an interactive experience".  But it was closed on Mondays.  To our left was the awkwardly-named Batman: Escape from Arkham Asylum wild mouse coaster.  Towering over everything, though, was Bizarro, formerly my favorite steel roller coaster.  The heat was starting to get to Karen, and she wasn't up for a ride.  But I decided to take a look at the line and see how long the wait was.  The park appeared to be running just one train, which wasn't a good sign.  We walked down into the queue line.  It was now like a hedge maze, filled with bushes nearly as tall as I was.  We couldn't see any line until we reached the line under the station, which was packed.  From there it would have been about a two hour wait, so I passed on it.  Instead we walked up the wonderful winding path back up to the main midway, with the coaster's track wrapping all around us.

We entered the gift shops near Main Street.  I was hoping to find some sort of Cyclone momento.  But there wasn't any.  There were a lot of Goliath t-shirts and a lot of generic Six Flags merchandise.  We decided to end our stay with a stop into the Cold Stone Cremery in Crackaxle Canyon.  So we walked back up the hill into that area.  There were still signs of the delightful theming that was so prevalent, from the horseshoe prints embedded in the ground to the big water wheel.  We both ordered a "Like It" sized dish of sweet cream.  Karen's ended up being quite a bit larger than mine.  We headed for the nearby air-conditioned JB's Smokehouse BBQ.  It was nearly empty and felt more like a sport's bar; there were about a dozen TVs hanging from the ceiling, all broadcasting Six Flags info.  We breathed a sigh of relief to feel the cool air.  Our ice cream was really good, rich and flavorful.  I noticed a peculiar sign above some trash cans.  They looked like some sort of award banners, except they didn't make much sense.  The one in the center read, "Riverside -- TRASH -- 1912 established".  The banners on either side listed the various names of the restaurant we were in.  But on all of them, the most prominent word was TRASH.  It was an odd pairing, making it seem like the established venues were garbage.

From there we checked out one more gift shop that advertised clearance items for under ten dollars.  But it offered mostly superheroe action figures and capes.  And that concluded our day at the park.  It was nearly 2:00, and we lasted far longer that I had thought we would.  If it hadn't been so hot we might have ridden a few more rides, including the train and Blizzard River.  Overall, I was impressed with the progress the park had made in the many years since we had been there.  I could see the ways in which the management was trying to improve the guest experience.  The food offerings were certainly a big improvement.  There was a bit more shade, though they could use a lot more.  The lines weren't painfully long (probably because most of the guests were in the waterpark).  The employees were pleasant.  The was the first time in over a decade where I actually thought I'd like to return to the park.  That alone is a huge improvement.

The marquee above the games along the Rockville section of the park advertised the Cyclone's rebirth as Wicked Cyclone, mentioning four inversions and 14 airtime hills.  That will definitely bring me back next season.  Though I never wanted to see the original ride torn down (and wished the park had simply maintained it better), the new ride looks as if it could be absolutely terrific.  That's one more reason for visiting a place in my backyard in which I previously had little interest.  Six Flags New England must be doing something right.

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