Waldameer Park and Water World
Erie, PA
September 3, 2011

copyright Jay Ducharme 2011

The 2011 coaster season was drawing to a close, and Karen and I had two more parks to visit.  Although they weren't new to us, they were parks that we always loved experiencing.  It was all part of an annual weekend enthusiast event in the Buffalo area, sponsored by the Western New York Coaster Club.  It was our first time attending, and it began on Saturday at beautiful Waldameer Park with an event called Flying High (named after their amazing wood coaster, the Ravine Flyer II).  Karen and I rarely were able to get to coaster events, so this was chance to connect with people I'd known mostly through e-mails.

I figured it would be better to have a short drive at the end of our trip, so we left Friday morning for the Chateau Motel in Grand Island, NY.  We arrived in the evening.  It was a modest accomodation just down the street from the final park of our excursion, Martin's Fantasy Island.  The next morning we got up bright and early to make the two hour ride to Waldameer.  When we arrived in Erie, we stopped for breakfast at Bob Evans, one of our favorite restaurants.  Although I love the food, we were given so much of it that I was glad we didn't have one closer to home.  Check-in for the event began at noon; we arrived about 11:00.  So we drove down the hill and out onto Presque Isle, a peninsula that jutted into Lake Erie.  We walked along the shady paths as numerous bikers and joggers sped past us.  We gazed out over the peaceful lake.  There were threats of thunderstorms all weekend, but the sun seemed to burn off the clouds.  The sky cleared up, but the humidity was already oppressive.

We headed back under the bright blue bridge that the Ravine Flyer traversed and into the front parking lot, which was already half-filled.  Waldameer's classic PTC junior coaster, The Comet, was already thrilling its young riders even though the park didn't technically open until 1:00.  We made our way toward the back of the park to the Lakeview picnic pavilion for check-in.  It felt good to be back.  Waldameer felt like an old friend.  It was a place that seemed frozen in a simpler time, unhurried, shady and filled with whimsical landscaping.  When we arrived at the pavilion, Nancy Gorman (one of the park's owners) and her crew were there to check us in.  We were the first to arrive.  We were given wristbands with bar codes on them.  They were part of a new system the park had implemented to help with bookkeeping.  A guest would hold their wrist under a scanner when boarding a ride, which then unlocked the turnstile.  She asked if we had seen the new section of the park they had just added, North End.  We hadn't, so we made our way over to the small area to the right of the Ravine Flyer's station.  In typical Waldameer fashion, it was attractively landscaped with lots of flowers and statues of children at play.  The entrance to the area was through a large black-and-gold metal archway.  It was a small section, containing two kiddie rides and a Wave Swinger that was positioned on the edge of the cliff off of which the Ravine Flyer plunged.

We followed a path to the left of the area and came to a small plot of land next to the undulating track of the Ravine Flyer.  It was a memorial park for two former WNYCC members who passed away last year: Nancy Carrigan and Thad Lewandowski.  Their names were on two large stones on either side of a bronze statue of a boy holding a dog.  There were also two Ivory Silk Japanese Tree Lilacs shading the area.

The nearby Sky Ride was taking passengers, so we climbed aboard for a quiet trip over the midway's treetops.  As we reached the turnaround at the southern end of the park, we noticed another section that was new since our last visit: the Mega Vortex, a spinning ride, sitting next to another garden area with statues of children playing on monkey bars.  From our vantage point, we could see people continuing to stream into the park.  Many of the rides were already operating, even though technically they weren't supposed to open until 1:00.  When we returned to solid land, we headed back to the pavilion to see if anyone else had shown up.  Geff Ford, WNYCC's event organizer, was there checking people in.  We chatted for a while and then Karen and I headed back down the midway.

The Whacky Shack, Waldameer's fun dark ride, was beckoning so we queued up for it.  The ride's simple-but-effective stunts always put a smile on my face, especially the foreshortened doors and dizzying psychedelic room.  Some of the stunts elicited screams from Karen, but we both left the ride laughing.  Since it was right next door, I next took a walk through Waldameer's other fun house, Pirate's Cove.  Karen passed on it.  Created by legendary dark ride designer Bill Tracy, it too was filled with fun stunts, clever effects and tilted rooms.  There weren't many attractions like that left in U.S. parks, and I was glad that Waldameer had kept theirs in good shape.

The sun was beating down hard and the air was thick with heavy humidity pressing down on us.  It was the type of day that made the park's flume ride, Thunder River, very inviting.  The ride's signature was a long tunnel filled with mist and flashes of lighting.  There were two hills with splashes that got us mildly wet, enough to make us feel slightly cooler.  Next door was a lemonade stand, so we both got a refreshing ice cold glass.  We stepped into the nearby gift shop.  There were some really nice t-shirts that we made note of.  Karen was getting hungry so we walked over to the Potato Patch stand, hidden behind the big frog that advertised Waldameer's Water World (which naturally was crowded on such a hot day) and got an order of fresh fries.  As we sat at a cafe table and munched on the tasty treat, the Comet junior coaster rumbled past us on one side while the Paratrooper spun its screaming riders on the other side.  The sights, sounds and smells were of a quintessential amusement park.

We were dripping with sweat from the heat.  We dragged ourselves over to the station of the L. Ruth Express, Waldameer's minature railroad.  There were rows of benches on which to relax while we waited for the train to return.  We boarded near the front and enjoyed a relaxing shady ride along the edge of the cliff and through the structure of the Ravine Flyer.  Next we queued up for a pleasant trip on the Comet, a classic wooden coaster with mild dips shaded by low-hanging leafy branches.  It was a perfect and nostalgic family ride, a reminder of an age of simple thrills.

A small service was planned for the memorial park, so Karen and I headed back in that direction.  We took a spin on the Ferris wheel while we waited, as the Ravine Flyer 3 kiddie coaster ran through its course below us.  Then we walked to the memorial park.  The club members had already gathered there including Yvonne and Bob Wheeler, who I had known only through correspondence in my role as editor for the club's Gravity Gazette.  Geff Ford spoke of how thrilled he was to have such a fitting tribute to the club's members.  Steve Gorman, the park's manager, thanked Geff for the inspiration to create the memorial and mentioned how supportive Thad and Nancy had been of Waldameer and how the park felt it was a fitting tribute to them to have a garden surrounded by the Ravine Flyer.  Debbie Grudzien gave a moving speech about her two best friends who did so much for the WNYCC and how there couldn't have been a more perfect place for them than in the middle of a roller coaster.  Then we all gathered there for a group photo.

When the ceremony was finished, we went back to the Lakeview pavilion for our dinner.  Karen and I knew parks didn't usually cater to vegetarians, and we've been grateful when we could find something besides cheese pizza to eat.  The banquet featured the usual hamburgs and hot dogs, but also baked beans, potato salad and macaroni salad with veggies.  We also were able to fix ourselves sandwiches with lettuce, tomatoes and onions.  We sat with other enthusiasts and talked shop.  Steve Gorman joined us and we discovered that we both went to the University of Massachusetts at the same time.   Dan Wilke, one of the founders of the WNYCC, was there with his wife Anne.  He was spending more time going to band organ rallies instead of coaster events.  We talked about how when the WNYCC was formed three decades ago, there were very few gatherings for coaster enthusiasts in the U.S.  One of the missions of the WNYCC was to bring enthusiasts together at parks, and for many years the events were packed with people.  But over the years, more clubs formed and many parks began offering their own events for enthusiasts; the novelty wore off.  Along with that, the costs began to rise.  The result was that fewer members were coming to club gatherings.  Even so, about forty members had signed up for this final weekend of the summer.  Of those, about twenty were in the Lakeview pavilion.

After the relaxing meal, it was time to challenge the Ravine Flyer II.  The park had gone through nearly a decade of planning and building the ride, and they ended up with a world-class coaster that utilized the park's unique terrain -- and also some property on the other side of the highway via that big blue bridge.  Karen wasn't up to the ride's intensity, so I queued up for the front seat with Geff.  The park was running both of the Ravine Flyer's trains, but strangely they kept sending the blue one through the station empty.  It was interesting that the junior Comet coaster had a much longer line that the Ravine Flyer.  Perhaps the Ravine Flyer was too intense for Waldameer's usual family crowd.  Many of the families had small children who wouldn't have been able to ride the RFII anyway.

In a short time we were seated in the front seat and sent on our way.  The long lift hill started unusually slow, almost at a crawl, inching us forward.  About halfway up the hill, the chain picked up speed and pulled us over the crest, where we momentarily got a spectacular view of Lake Erie.  Then we plunged down the steep right-hand drop, blasted through a tunnel and then sped across the blue bridge.  We rose up into the twisting hill on the other side of the highway and caught our breath.  Then we shot downward and back over the highway into the unpredictable pretzel-like finale of the ride.  We returned to the station breathless.  The ride was really intense, but I was glad that after three seasons it was still fairly smooth.  We walked over to the pavilion and I asked if anyone wanted to accompany me again.  Jon took me up on the offer and within a few minutes we were enjoying another exhilarating ride.

As the sun began to set, Karen and I wandered about the midway one last time.  She joined me on another walk through the Pirate's Cove.  We stopped into the gift shop and I picked up some nice-looking t-shirts.  We admired the park's abundant landscaping and then got in our car for the long trip back to our motel.  If it hadn't been for the oppressive heat, we probably would have stayed longer.  But the weather just wore us out.  This was our third trip to Waldameer together, and my fourth.  My first trip was back in the early 1990s, when the park still had their charming old mill chute ride.  Waldameer really hadn't changed much since then, and that was comforting.  New rides seemed to fit unobtrusively into the park, maintaining Waldameer's character as it grew.  In this non-stop age of bigger-is-better, that was a refreshing change of pace.

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