Sylvan Beach Amusement Park
July, 2021

copyright Jay Ducharme 2021

Before we headed off on our trip to Ohio, there was one more place we wanted to visit, a classic frozen-in-time park (my favorite kind) nestled on the edge of Oneida Lake in central New York, Sylvan Beach Amusement Park. It was yet another small park that was hit hard by the pandemic over the last year. But it had sprung back and had reopened less than a month before we arrived.

Our hotel in nearby Rome, the Wingate by Wyndham, was a completely underwhelming experience. As with nearly every place we’ve been during 2021, there was a serious lack of help. And I understand and accept that. But for the price we paid, our room was really dated (to put it kindly). The desk in our room had an Ethernet jack, which was a necessity about 20 years ago but an anachronism now. The bathtub looked like it was rotting out. The bathroom was nearly out of both toilet and tissue paper. Probably the most unforgettable aspect was the dead spider on my pillow when we arrived. One of the hotel’s elevators was malfunctioning and so the staff put a potted palm tree in its open doorway instead of getting it fixed. And the breakfast buffet was pretty sad; their Belgian waffle maker was broken, so instead they offered cold Eggo waffles, a selection of fruit and some unappetizing looking egg patties and sausage. It was what I would have expected from a $49 hotel room, not one costing well over $100.

The city of Rome, however, was stunning. We had breakfast at a local place called Raspberry’s and it was really good. We were the only customers when we arrived, which worked out well because there was only one waitress on duty. I had blueberry pancakes and Karen got French toast, and it was all really good. After breakfast we stopped by the nearby Griffis Sculpture Park and strolled along its winding paths in a large field, looking at the collection of artwork. We could have spent most of the day there; the paths seemed to go on forever. There were some stunningly realistic pieces (such as a steel Pegasus) as well as a lot of abstract art. Interestingly, there was also a nicely landscaped yet barely challenging disc golf course intertwined with it all.

We made the 20 minute drive into the town of Sylvan Beach through winding back roads of mostly farmland and arrived at about 11:00 am. It was a Sunday, and given the large number of churches we passed along the way, we expected many people to be at a service and then maybe going to lunch. But the area was already getting crowded. It turned out that the town was hosting a big Corvette show with literally hundreds of cars lined up along the lakefront and on the town green. And there was also an extensive craft fair on the green.

We had no trouble finding a parking spot. There were multiple lots scattered about. Paying for them was another issue, though. It was a Sunday, and usually metered spots are free then. I noticed that some cars did have tickets visible in their windshields and I didn’t want to take a chance. I went over to a nearby ticket machine that charged $5 for a day pass. But the machine was dead. So I walked over to another lot across the street that had a working machine. It inexplicably charged $10 for a day pass. So I paid for that and put the ticket on our dash. Then we wandered about, strolling along the walkway at the edge of the vast lake. Speakers had been placed on towers in the parking lots and on the greens. An MC was announcing contest winners and details pertaining to the car show, along with the event sponsors. The park itself was easy to spot. The signature ride, a common Galaxi coaster, stood brightly along the lake side of the midway next to a Rotor. Since the park wouldn’t open for another hour, we browsed the craft fair tents which offered the usual items like candles, hand soap, wood carvings, jewelry and garden decorations. We found a colorful stained glass window applique of songbirds and purchased it.

We walked around the downtown area checking out restaurants. There was The Lake House, a giant white and blue building with a lighthouse built into it, set in front of a groomed sandy beach. It was a restaurant, bar and casino and abutted the park. There was a large and seemingly popular diner rimmed with neon, Eddie’s, that looked like a good spot for lunch. There was also a small ice cream shop, What’s the Scoop. We were mildly hungry at that point, so we went there. Karen got a small dish of cannoli ice cream and I got a vanilla milkshake. We went behind the shop where there was a small backyard with tables. We sat and enjoyed our treats. They were both very good. Karen noticed an odd structure nearby. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a neighbor’s small garden railway. It was a bit overgrown and looked like it hadn’t been used in a while. The day was mild and sunny with a light breeze, perfect park weather.

After we finished our treats, we headed toward the park. There was no formal entrance, just lots of sidewalks, streets and alleyways leading to different sections of the midway. Lengthwise, the park stretched from the parking lots to the Lake House. We found the small ticket booth near the south end. Individual tickets were $1.75 each, with each ride taking from 2 to 4 tickets. Karen wasn’t interested in riding anything, but there were a few rides I wanted to check out. So I went with the all-day wristband for $32. Interestingly, something called Carello’s Carousel was not included with the wristband. It was a separate concession.

So we strolled down one section of the midway. There were concessions on either side, the usual carnival games but appearing to be decades old and housed in structures from the early 1900s. It really was like stepping back in time. Carello’s Carousel was housed inside a big red pavilion that acted more as an arcade. Coin-op games were crammed around its perimeter, nearly concealing the ride, which wasn’t easy to do as it took up most of the building. The owners claimed to have been in business there since 1896. The carousel dated from that era and was a 3-abreast model. But in the 1980s, Carello’s sold off all of its original wooden horses and replaced them with new aluminum menagerie figures from the Theel Company. They looked vintage, like C.W. Parker animals, stretched out with long snouts. The chain link fence around the ride was only a couple inches from the deck, which surprised me. And the ride revolved surprisingly fast. Anyone sitting on an outside horse had better keep their legs in the stirrups.

We continued walking north. There were some food concessions, including Kahuna’s Burgers and Floats, the park’s largest eatery. Some of the concessions were closed up, once again a common sight since help was scarce. Just past that was a retro Playland arcade that had an entire attached room just for Fascination, which long ago used to be a popular park game (sort of a combination of Bingo and SkeeBall).

Just past that was the ride I had heard so much about: Laffland, the park’s vintage Pretzel dark ride. The facade consisted of the ride’s name in giant 3D letters, behind which were giant cutouts of two happy clowns in colorful costumes, one on either side. The slogan on the front of the building read, "You’ll laugh, you’ll scream, you’ll holler, you’ll howl." The ride still had the original cars which had pretzels molded into their sides. The ride operator was friendly and chatty. He was telling me that lots of dark ride enthusiasts loved this ride. I eagerly climbed aboard. He pressed the start button and the car lurched forward, turned right and slammed through the entrance doors.

When I was a child at Riverside Park (now Six Flags New England), they had a Laff in the Dark which at the time was my favorite ride in the park. I could stay on it all day. Laffland was the closest similar experience I’ve had since then. The stunts in Laffland were mostly silly and simple, like Halloweens of old, with cartoonish cutouts of devils and witches, plus the obligatory oncoming bus. But what I enjoyed most were the sudden and rapid changes of direction, as if I were on a collision course with each stunt yet veering 180 degrees at the last second like a Wild Mouse. The groaning of the electric motor and the clicking of the wheels seemed so familiar to me. I rode it three times in a row, giggling the whole time, and I probably could have stayed on it all day.

After that we walked across a green to the southeast where there was a small kiddieland section. Before the pandemic, the green was home to a mini golf course. But the owners had removed it for the time being. There were just two employees to handle all of the kiddie rides. I was surprised to find many of the same classic rides that were at Mountain Park, including a rare Sampson kiddie Ferris wheel plus many of vintage Hershell kiddie rides like the auto cars, Sky Fighter, turtles and pony carts, all appearing to be in mint condition. There was also a rare Pretzel Whirlo. I was really impressed with the apparent care the park had taken with rides that were now 70 years old.

The park also had two vintage Eyerly rides in great condition: a Rock-O-Plane and a Roll-O-Plane. There were also bumper cars, a Himalaya, a vintage Tip Top, a Rotor, a tea cup ride, bumper boats and of course the Galaxi coaster. I was going to take a ride on the coaster but when I approached the station I found a sign stating it was closed and that they were in the middle of repainting it.

So instead Karen sat in the shade while I filmed a park walk-thru. After that I was thirsty, so I stopped at the Snack Shack for a fresh-squeezed lemonade. It was really big and really good, and cost a reasonable six dollars.

Karen was getting hungry, so we headed back toward the town to one of the eateries we saw, Eddie’s. It was about 2:00, and the roads were thick with traffic. Crowds of people were now shoulder-to-shoulder along the sidewalks. Eddie’s was really busy, but we were able to get a seat fairly quickly. Karen ordered a salmon salad with onion rings, and I ordered a Mediterranean salmon wrap. The food arrived fairly quickly and was really delicious. My wrap was freshly made, with crispy lettuce and veggies. It had a surprisingly large slab of grilled salmon that was excellent. Even the onion rings were done to perfection.

After that we headed back toward the park. The midway was now much more crowded. I took one more ride on Laffland. We stopped into the park’s gift shop. They had some nice t-shirts, but unfortunately all in kids’ sizes. We then strolled across the parking lot and onto an old concrete pier that jutted into the lake. It was an interesting structure made of thick arched concrete that apparently had been battered by years of exposure and now was mostly giant hunks of broken stone keeling over into the lake. We stood there for a while feeling the lake breeze and listening to the sound of the waves. Then we called it a day.

I really liked Sylvan Beach Amusement Park. Although it didn’t offer a lot for us to do, I considered Laffland worth the price of admission. I probably would have enjoyed the Galaxi coaster if it had been running. But Sylvan Beach was more than the park. It was the synergy between all of the activities in that area. Perhaps we were lucky to have arrived on a day when there were so many events taking place. Or perhaps Sylvan Beach is usually like that. In any case, it was an enjoyable area with a lot to do. So there certainly would be enough to occupy a family for a day. And there were plenty of decent food offerings as well. I’m glad Sylvan Beach weathered the pandemic. It looked like it has a bright future. I hope it won't be too long before we can make a return trip to this charming community and park.

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