final leg of our Flying High with a Blue Streak event was at Waldameer Park & WaterWorld, one of our favorite places. We packed up and sadly left Conneaut Lake Park
at about 7:00 a.m., driving up Route 79 toward Erie. Since we
were in Erie I had to stop for breakfast at one of my favorite
eateries, Bob Evans. I'm sort of glad that we don't have any of
those restaurants in New England, because I'd be eating there all the
time. The food -- especially those buttermilk biscuits -- was delectable. Decadent, but delectable.
From there it was a short drive to the park. We arrived at about 9:30. The skies were thickly overcast and the air was cool. I was stunned as we approached. The park entrance used to be a quaint little parking area next to the Comet junior wooden roller coaster. But although Waldameer was still a small family-owned park, it had grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. The old parking area had been replaced by a gigantic wave pool area. To its left along a newly-acquired strip of land was a massive paved parking lot. It no longer felt like we were driving up to a quaint little park; Waldameer now felt like a big-league theme park. I'm not sure I liked the change, but I understood why it happened.
We were the only car in the parking lot, and we took the first spot near the new entrance. There were two long rows of handicap spots in front of that, and strangely those would rapidly fill up with people who didn't have handicap plates on their cars. The only activity was a groundskeeper driving around the lot in a golf cart picking up trash. We got out of the car and walked toward the entrance. It was flanked by two tall rectangular metal spires. It looked unfinished, as if there should have been an arch connecting them. There was a small ticket building just past the spires. Waldameer didn't need a lot of booths at the gate; it was one of the few parks left in the U.S. that didn't charge admission. You could purchase an all-day wristband if you wanted to, or you could pay per ride. And Waldameer also let you bring your own food into the park. In fact, throughout the day people were streaming in with large rolling coolers.
Off to the left were several large picnic pavilions for reserved outings. We followed the new paved entrance path. There were rustic wooden split rail fences lining each side of the path. Inside the fence area, the ground was covered with gravel and there were innumerable picnic tables arranged throughout the shady area. As we approached the Comet, the path doglegged to the left into the park. Another path off to the left led down to the picnic pavilions. Next to that path was the station for the L. Ruth Express, the park's miniature railway. The park was quiet and still, except for an elderly gentleman walking through the picnic areas writing notes on a small piece of paper. It was the park's owner, Paul Nelson. I stopped to congratulate him on the park's progress and thank him for making such a wonderful family destination. "I started here as a dish washer," he said, "and I ended up owning the place."
The park wouldn't officially open until 1:00. Our check-in time was 10:00, and we had exclusive ride time on the Comet at 11:00. So we headed off to the opposite end of the park, to the Lakeview Grove next to the park's landmark roller coaster, the Ravine Flyer II. Along the way, landscapers were going about their business primping and watering plants. Waldameer had a lot of beautiful and often whimsical landscaping and statuary. One such display was in the middle of the Big Rigs kiddie ride, a statue of a boy pushing a girl on a swing under a tree. Hanging next to them were colorful tires filled with plants. Displays like that brightened up the whole park.
Something new to us at the park were the Wally Card kiosks. They were everywhere in the park, large yellow ATM-like machines. Their deployment was a brilliant business decision. Waldameer no longer accepted cash for anything, except at the entrance gates. If you wanted to buy food, play games or even pay per ride, you had to have a Wally Card. You put however much money you wanted into the kiosk and it would spit out what was basically a debit card with that amount on it. It would be scanned at rides, games and food concessions and the amount of each would be deducted from your card. It also could be recharged at one of the kiosks. The brilliance of this for the park was that the amount you put in the machine was generally in multiples of $5. However, because of the tax on many of the items, you would rarely (if ever) use up the exact amount on the card. That leftover amount was basically free money in the park's pocket. Another benefit was that the staff never handled money, so nothing could be stolen. You were free to use your debit card anywhere in the park instead if you wanted to, but given the unsecure nature of current debit cards I would think most people would opt for the Wally Card.
When we arrived at the Lakeside Grove, there were two attendants there handing out wristbands. We were the first to arrive, and we picked up ours. The park had generously provided our group with coffee and donuts. But since Karen and I had just had a hearty breakfast at Bob Evans, I passed on that. Instead, we strolled about the quiet park. We decided to queue up for the Comet, since we couldn't queue up for our seats (and we of course wanted the front). Since the last time we were at the park, the Comet was given a new brake system that now allowed the park to run both of their original two trains. Right next to the Comet's entrance was the entrance for WaterWorld. On our itinerary, it said that the waterpark area would be open to us at 1:00. But guests were already entering.
Gradually, coaster enthusiasts began arriving and queued up behind us. There weren't any ride operators in sight. I would have assumed they would test the ride before it opened. Perhaps they had already tested it. Right at 11:00, two operators appeared. The turnstile at the entrance had a bag over the barcode scanner that was mounted on top. One of the operators removed the bag and unlocked the turnstile. We could then wave the barcode on our wristband under the scanner and enter. Being a junior coaster, the front seat was a tight fit for both of us. But we squeezed in and the operator sent us on our way. The ride hadn't changed: it was still a fun and gentle journey. More enthusiasts began to arrive in the line. Even though Steel Dragon, the park's steel spinning coaster, was also open to them, most preferred to wait for this classic wooden ride.
As we walked about, the park seemed more claustrophobic to me. In its attempt to give guests more and more attractions, the midway was becoming congested with rides, concessions, stages, cafe tables ... there just seemed to be too much in too small a space. The park was hemmed in by a highway on one side and a cliff on the other. There didn't appear to be much more room to expand (at least not easily). Once the crowds began arriving, I could imagine that we'd be elbow-to-elbow with each other. Since we had an hour-and-a-half before our buffet lunch, I decided to record another of my park walk-thrus while there was still room to move. Walking the entire park took only about 12 minutes, which says a lot about how little ground there was to cover.
At noon, the midway started to come to life. More rides began to open, and more people began to arrive. Even so, most of the major rides wouldn't open until 1:00. One ride that was open was the Whacky Shack, the terrific Bill Tracy-designed dark ride. So we got in line for it. Karen wondered why the recorded announcement of warnings started with, "Hello, earthlings!" There was nothing about the ride that dealt with outer space. But I guess nothing in the Whacky Shack made any sense; that was the point. Skeletons were side by side with giant rats and psychedelic rooms. The ride always made me smile. While we were in line, the Showtime Theater across the midway was presenting a country western revue, with the usual pre-recorded music that the performers sang along with. Later in the day the production was a music revue mashing up '50s, '60s and '70s music.
Next, Karen and I took a relaxing trip on the Sky Ride, gliding high above the midway. Every single cab on the Sky Ride had a large sticker on the back for the local rock music radio station, which was broadcasting at the Music Express near the front of the park. Most parks used a continuous pre-recorded loop of rock songs for a Music Express ride. Waldameer had found a clever way to get sponsorship and also have more varied music on the ride.
After that, it was time for our lunch. So we walked around the corner from the Sky Ride to the Lakeside Grove pavilion where the hungry enthusiasts had begun to gather. Marty Moltz, who the day before had told me he was going to wear an outfit to help him "blend in", might have been thinking of the wrong park. His shirt would have blended in well at Conneaut's Devil's Den. He was quite thrilled when the park manager, Steve Gorman, presented him with Waldameer's best facsimile of his coveted cheese-on-a-stick: three mozarella sticks skewered with a candy apple stick.
The buffet was really good and pretty expansive. The park even provided us vegetarians with veggie burgers. There was also macaroni salad, potato salad, chips, hamburgs, hot dogs, really good baked beans, fried chicken and ice cream. There was plenty for everyone. Just beyond the pavilion, the train of the Ravine Flyer II was blasting through its course along its heavily-banked track. We were supposed to have a special walk-back at 3:00, so to kill a little time until then Karen and I went back out onto the midway.
No trip to Waldameer would have been complete without a stroll through my favorite attraction in the park, Pirate's Cove. It was another delightful Bill Tracy creation, a classic fun house with moving platforms and tilted rooms and clever illusions. I still got a big laugh out the disembodied skulls chanting, "I ain't got nobody!"
Then we went over near the park entrance to board the L. Ruth Express. The park had recently purchased a new train and it looked dazzling. We boarded and were soon traveling through WaterWorld and off to the north end of the park. Then the train doubled back, headed past the station and toward the picnic groves at the far south end. After passing through a long dark tunnel, we arrived back at the station. It was a very enjoyable ride. After that I wanted to get a fresh-squeeze lemonade. So I had to first get a Wally Card. After some confusion about the exact procedure, I got one worth $25 and brought it to the lemonade stand. The clerk scanned the card, handed it back to me and told me how much remained on it.
We went back to the pavilion and chatted with some of the other enthusiasts. Paul Nelson appeared, took hold of a little microphone that was hooked up to a small speaker and thanked us all for coming, telling us that there were more exciting expansions coming next year to the waterpark, and that they were planning another coaster a few years down the road. Then Steve Gorman stepped forward and said he was going to take us on that special walk-back. By that time, the skies had cleared and the air had warmed up. Like a mother duck leading her ducklings, he marched us into WaterWorld toward the slide complex. We took a right up onto a bridge over the train tracks and then down toward the wave pool area across a huge expanse of concrete where a large sign displayed the next phase of the waterpark's expansion. We continued toward the highway, past another sign detailing the third phase of the expansion and then out onto the busy highway itself. He led us underneath the huge blue arched Ravine Flyer II bridge. We were afforded some unusual and impressive views of the track and structure across the highway.
From there he led us down a dirt access road (normally off-limits) abutting an RV campground where we were able to see the coaster's imposing first drop and tunnel. Then we followed him to a distant back area at the base of a cliff, which the park is exploring for possible expansion. After that, we headed back up the highway and into the park. All those views of the Ravine Flyer II whet my appetite for riding the coaster. So I queued up and sat in the front seat with another enthusiast. (Karen found the ride too intense for her taste on our last visit.) In short order we were rising up the lift hill. We screamed down the first drop, through the first short tunnel, over the bridge and twisted around up over the second hill on the other side of the highway. Then we flew back over the highway, blasted through another tunnel and then began the disorienting and twisted second half of the ride. When we finally barreled into the break run, I was exhilarated but exhausted. The group was going to have exclusive ride time on the coaster at 10:00 that night, but there was no way I'd survive more than one ride on it. And this was that ride. Waldameer certainly got a world-class coaster with the Ravine Flyer II. But one ride was plenty for me.
It was then nearly 6:00, and Karen and I could feel ourselves winding down. Gone were the days when I would stay at a park until it closed, riding everything I could queue up for. We were both beat. But I had to take one more stroll through Pirate's Cove. Afterward, we searched the midway for other enthusiasts we knew so we could say goodbye, but we didn't encounter anyone. The pavilion area was empty. I went into the park's gift shop and used up the rest of my Wally Card on souvenirs. (In actuality, $1.98 remained on the card -- again, money in the park's pocket.) After that, we said a reluctant farewell to Waldameer.
We still loved this park. Even though it seemed to be getting a bit too tightly packed, there was plenty for us to do -- provided we had the stamina to do it. There were more rides we could have taken (like Thunder River and the Ferris Wheel), and many others we could have repeated. I could have just kept walking through Pirate's Cove over and over and never gotten sick of it. And the Comet was easily re-rideable. But though the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak.
We drove down the street to our hotel for the night, The Glass House Inn. It was a charming frozen-in-the-'50s motel, immaculately maintained and surprisingly quiet. We had a good night's sleep and the next morning headed back for home (with of course a stop at Bob Evans for breakfast). As we drove east along I-90, the sun broke through the clouds casting its rays like welcoming arms along the highway. It was a fittingly picturesque ending to our final coaster trip of the season.
Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions