MAY 24, 2008

Text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2008

The Western New York Coaster Club began the 2008 summer season with their annual Coasterfest. This year's excursion featured three Pennsylvania parks, and the event drew the largest attendance in the club's history. Karen and I made the long drive out on Friday, May 23. Our first day was going to be spent at one of our favorite traditional parks, Waldameer in Erie. Along the way we stopped to eat at a Dutch Pantry restaurant. I had never been to one. It had great food and service, with the best cole slaw I've ever eaten and terrific shoo-fly pie.

The trees lining the highway were dotted with multicolor buds, giving the landscape the appearance of autumn. We spotted an alarming number of dead deer in the breakdown lanes. There were no fences along the highway to prevent them from strolling out onto the pavement. We even saw a small doe grazing near a guard rail.

We arrived at our Super 8 Motel in Mercer, PA, late that night. It was one of the nicer hotels we've stayed at. We got up bright and early the next morning and headed to one of our favorite restaurants, Bob Evans, for breakfast. We got to the park about 10:00. There were very few cars in the parking lot. Like the trolley parks of old, you could park for free, walk in with a picnic lunch and set yourself up in any of the expansive picnic groves, and then simply buy tickets for the rides you wanted to experience. Since the park seemed to still be asleep, we walked across the street to the large Tom Ridge Environmental Center. Off to the left we could see the long arching blue bridge and its cover over Peninsula Drive that supported the controversial track of Waldameer's new Ravine Flyer II coaster. The large swooping turn and hill on the other side of the road reminded me of the turnaround on Hades, the giant coaster at Mount Olympus Theme Park in Wisconsin.

The TREC sported a five-story observation tower overlooking the park. Karen spotted people on it, and the Center had free admission. So it seemed like a good way to spend some time. We wore our sweatshirts, which protected us from the persistent chilly wind coming off of Lake Erie. To the right of the Center was a large modern windmill that was continually spinning. The TREC was a fairly new building and featured many hands-on exhibits for children. There were large glass-encased structures in the center of the main room, about twenty feet high. Suspended inside the cases were whimsical carved wooden scenes that moved, many themed around fishing. We took the elevator up to the top of the tower. The panoramic view was spectacular. But even from up there, the entire length of the Ravine Flyer II wasn't visible. We could hear a familiar roar, and watched as the park tested both of the coaster's trains (one red and one blue).

We headed back to the park. The turnaround of Waldameer's junior PTC coaster, Comet, greeted us and perfectly captured the feeling of the park. The modest natural wood structure was trimmed with bright red handrails and was enveloped by tall trees. We walked through the quiet midway, which was immaculate. The large trash barrels stationed about were topped with large colorful clown heads that had big open mouths. It had been twelve years since Karen and I had been to the park. I was amazed how little had changed in that time. We passed by the colorful buildings and walked toward a picnic pavilion at the back of the park, next to the entrance to the RFII. There was already a line of enthusiasts forming on the exit ramp. The park had originally scheduled a session of "Exclusive Ride Time" for the evening. But evidently with the huge turnout they added a session for the morning.

Karen and I checked in at the Lakeview Grove pavilion (which was the station for the original Ravine Flyer coaster), picked up our wrist bands and Coasterfest T-shirts, and then got in line for the new coaster. Not much was visible from the non-descript station. The ride's structure was made of spindly steel. There was a convoluted knot of track behind the station. It looked similar to the severely-banked finale on El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure. The lift hill faced away from the station, diving off the cliff at the edge of the park. Other than that, I had no idea what to expect. We chatted with some of the other enthusiasts in line. The inimitable Marty Moltz was there, bemoaning how the nation was becoming "cheese-on-a-stick-less." I shared his grief, having found the delicacy at fewer and fewer parks over the years.

At 11:00, an hour before the park opened, RFII began operating. After about fifteen minutes, Karen and I found ourselves in the front seat (just by chance, since we were queuing up at the exit gate and didn't really have a choice of seats). The train left the station, turned a sharp left and started up the lift hill. It offered a stunning view of Lake Erie and was topped with eight bright flags that were wildly flapping in the wind. As we crested the top, we both gasped. The track just seemed to vanish. The drop was much steeper than we expected, and it veered abruptly to the right. We flew down over the cliff and approached the bright blue bridge over Peninsula Drive. There was a strong and sustained period of airtime as we crossed the highway. We swung around to the right and rose up into the second hill next to the Tom Ridge Environmental Center. Then we dove down and hopped back over the bridge with another period of sustained airtime. Like the end of El Toro, the rest of the ride was a confusing blur. There was a 90-degree-banked drop off the cliff (swooping above a campground), lots of twisting bunny hops with lots of airtime and severely banked turns back and forth. The coaster tracked beautifully and gave a glass-smooth ride. We hit the brakes breathless. The train still had lots of energy left. We rolled back into the station with everyone clapping, whooping and hollering. After over ten years of planning, Waldameer had built a world-class roller coaster. I saw general manager Steve Gorman on the midway and congratulated him on a great achievement. He was very pleased by our accolades.

Waldameer succeeded where many other parks had failed: building a family-friendly thrill ride. It wasn't the biggest or fastest coaster in the world, but it was well-paced, exciting and re-rideable. It made good use of the landscape, and the bridge over the highway became a calling-card for the park. No one could ignore Waldameer now. It was a bold move and succeeded beautifully.

The park opened to the general public, and the crowds began pouring in. Karen and I walked over to the Comet. The lone operator was leaning against the railing. The queue line was empty. We walked up the long ramp to the gate. Waldameer's Comet is one of only a few PTC coasters that still operate with flanged wheels instead of side friction wheels. The operator told us he was waiting for more workers so that he could test the ride. After a few minutes, another operator showed up. The first operator got into the train and was sent up the lift hill. The train rumbled through its figure-8 circuit, shaking the station as it passed overhead. The loud station bell rang, signaling the train was about to return. The carousel next door played its bright music. In another minute, Karen and I were seated in the front. Off we went, up the small lift hill. The gentle drops produced mild air time and the flat turns gave a surprising amount of lateral force. The hallmark of the Comet, though, is the dense foliage overhanging the track. It's a fun little ride, and a great first coaster for kids.

As we walked through the park, we noticed whimsical bronze figures placed in various locations. A high school band was performing jazz on the midway stage. We strolled to the park entrance to ride their train, The L. Ruth Express. The last time we were at the park, the train broke down right before we boarded. This time it was running reliably. We saw Dan Wilke there. He was one of the founding members of the Western New York Coaster Club. We chatted for a while until the train returned. The ride was enjoyable, much longer than I expected. The route went through Waldameer's waterpark and circled through the lift hill of the RFII. Then it returned and traveled through the picnic groves at the other end of the park, finishing up with an unexpectedly long and dark tunnel. We also passed by the ancient "Merry-Go-Round Grove" pavilion, which was originally built to house a carousel but ended up as a picnic spot.

It had begun to warm up, so we put our sweatshirts in the car and then headed toward the Thunder River flume. Next door was Pirate's Cove, a walk-thru fun house designed by the legendary Bill Tracy. I can never pass up a walk-thru. Karen wasn't too keen on this the last time we were at the park. Much of the interior was pitch black. But she took a deep breath and gave it another try. The entry was lined with bars like a jail cell and backed with mirrors. There was a moving floor (sort of like walking on a cross-country ski training machine). Then the real fun began. We turned a sharp right-hand corner and were confronted with a dark and seemingly impossibly long corridor, ridiculously lopsided and rimmed in neon green. There followed dozens of the usual tricks and stunts (squishy floors, tilted rooms, rope bridges) -- and some unusual ones as well. There was a pitch black area with a twisting and very tight corridor framed by stacks of steel barrels, all painted with day-glo multicolored horizontal stripes. There was also a funny stunt depicting a skeleton drinking a bottle of whiskey.

Something seemed different about the fun house, and I couldn't quite figure it out until I neared the end. Shortly before exiting, there was a maze of iron bars to negotiate. But sections of the bars had been removed so that now we could simply pass by the maze and head directly for the exit. By looking at the floor, it was obvious that the removal happened recently. And then I realized that I could see the floor. There were lights on throughout the entire course. The lights weren't that bright, but they were enough to illuminate every corridor (except for the barrels, which were illuminated with blacklights). I assume this was done for safety reasons, and although sad it was certainly preferable to any number of alternatives the park could have taken (such as closing it down entirely).

Next up was Waldameer's great ride-thru fun house (also designed by Tracy), Whacky Shack. The ride layout was similar to the portable fun houses at traveling carnivals, with a roller-coaster-style dip in the middle. The ride is filled with all sorts of amusing stunts, some similar to those in Pirate's Cove, and has an ending similar to Knoebel's great Haunted House.

I stopped to get a "Fresh Squeezed Lemonade." It had a fresh lemon in it, but most of the cup was filled with crushed ice. It didn't take me long to drink it. Then we got in line for Thunder River. The flume was one of Waldameer's newer rides. It replaced a venerable Mill Chute ride that had been there for decades. The new flume was attractively landscaped with many fountains. The course ran through a long misty tunnel that used to play thunderstorm sound effects. Then it traveled up a small hill, splashed down, and headed for a larger lift hill. The ride ended with a moderate splash. We were both a little wet but nothing too bad.

In a sort of courtyard behind the entrance to Thunder River was Steel Dragon, a Maurer-Sohne spinning coaster. I had ridden the Zamperla spinning coasters, which had cars shaped sort of like Tilt-a-Whirl cabs. This one had seats that faced back-to-back. The ride looked a bit barren compared with the lush surroundings of the park. The ride was plopped on a concrete slab. The cars themselves were brightly colored, but the rest of the ride looked stark. The course began with a fairly standard wild-mouse-style zig-zag track. That was followed by wild twists and turns and steep banking. Depending upon the weight in the cars, they could either spin wildly or hardly at all.

Karen passed on the ride. I ended up sitting alone facing backwards going up the lift hill. Two kids were facing forward. The ride was much milder than I expected. We hardly spun at all. The twisted track was well-engineered and felt very smooth. I was surprised to discover that it was a good family ride, and a good fit for the park.

As Karen and I wandered back out onto the main midway, we encountered Waldameer's humorous mascots, Wally and Wendy. I'm not sure if they were supposed to be bears, woodchucks or chipmunks. But they were friendly and paused for a picture. As we strolled along the shady grounds, Karen pointed out a large wooden log that had been carved with the park's name and also sported a large wooden eagle. Across from that was a nicely landscaped kiddie truck ride.

We then boarded the Sky Ride, a long peaceful trip through the trees that gave us great views of the park. I had never realized how large the park actually was. After that relaxing journey, we were in a panoramic mood so we headed over to the Ferris wheel. Abutting tall leafy trees, the Ferris wheel provided an even more spectacular view. We also got to look straight down onto the Ravine Flyer 3, a Miler kiddie coaster. After leaving the Ferris wheel, we passed by Lil Toot, a kiddie hand car ride that skirted the Ravine Flyer 3. The whole park seemed so comfortable. There was nothing pretentious about the many objects decorating the midway. Everything seemed to belong there.

At about 4:00, owner Paul Nelson and Steve Gorman took the club members on a "walk-back" inside the knotted structure of the Ravine Flyer II. We posed for a group picture and were allowed to take lots of photos in areas that were normally off-limits. Nelson even opened up the motor house and explained how it worked. I was intregued by the self-oiling mechanism.

We headed back for the Lakeview Grove for dinner. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet and the food was pretty good, with a variety of salads. There were also the usual hamburgs and hot dogs and baked beans. After the dinner, there was a raffle and door prizes. And then Paul Nelson gave an emotional speech about how this was the last coaster he would build at the park. He was turning the reins over to his children who, he hoped, would build many more coasters in the coming years. Then the WNYCC presented Paul and general manager Steve Gorman with a large commemorative sign for the Ravine Flyer II, similar to the sign the club placed on the Great Escape Comet. There were also presentations by the National Amusement Park Historical Association and the American Thrill Riders Association. The general consensus was that Ravine Flyer II was a magnificent accomplishment and well-worth the long wait.

I took one more ride on the RFII. There wasn't too long a wait for the front seat. Another enthusiast joined me. (Karen passed on another ride.) I expected another pleasant race through the landscape, but the coaster surprised me. The warm air and well-greased tracks had turned the previously enjoyable trip into a nail-biter. We flew down the first drop with ferocious speed. The airtime was much more severe. The ride was still smooth, but the world was flying by so fast I hardly had time to catch my breath. The end sequence was taken so quickly I thought we were going to come off the track. We hit the brakes with enormous force.

What a difference the day made! Our morning ride lulled me into thinking that the coaster was a pleasant and exciting family ride. But by the early evening, it had evolved into a full-blown thrill machine. Ravine Flyer II was still a lot of fun, but in a very different way. I didn't expect that much power out of seemingly so small a coaster.

To calm down a bit, I took another enjoyable walk through Pirate's Cove. Then Karen and I spent an hour or so just walking around the park and taking in the sights, sounds and smells. We didn't want to leave, but it was a long drive back to the hotel and we had to get up early the next morning. So we said our good-byes to Waldameer. Even if the Ravine Flyer II had never been built, the park would be worth a return trip. But now we had even more of a reason.

On the way out of the parking lot, Karen wanted to explore Peninsula Drive. So we followed the road down toward Lake Erie, and unexpectedly entered Presque Isle State Park. We weren't sure where the shady road would lead to. We kept following it through its winding course, past picturesque vistas of wide-open water and small cottages. We finally passed a lighthouse and drove alongside a row of sand dunes. We parked the car and walked over the dunes to find the wide-open expanse of Lake Erie at sunset. Smooth drifwood was scattered about the soft sand. There were also hundreds of smooth flat rocks. For the first time in my life, I successfully skipped stones across the water. We stared at the setting sun and listened to the lapping waves against the beach. It would have been nice to set up some lounge chairs and just relax there for the rest of the week. We took a deep breath and then headed back to the car. Coasterfest had just begun.

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