For the first time in a long time, Karen and I were able to attend the Western New York Coaster Club's Flying High summer send-off event. It traditionally was held over two days with the first day at Conneaut Lake Park, but with that venue currently in a state of flux it was shortened to just one park, Waldameer in Erie, PA. The co-sponsors of the event were the Western PA chapter of the American Coaster Enthusiasts along with the National Amusement Park Historical Association.
It was a long trip out to Erie. We probably should have broken up the trip into two days. We left early Friday morning and arrived exhausted at the Glass House Inn at about five in the afternoon. We had stayed at that quaint motel a few times before. Now it was under new management, and a little of the charm had slipped away. The new owners did a lot of remodeling so that the rooms looked more like we were in a generic hotel. The bathroom hadn't been touched though, and rather than quaint it now simply looked outdated. We collapsed and fell asleep shortly after unpacking.
The next morning we arose early. Karen had taken a menu that was in the motel's office. It was for Butch's Place, which was just two blocks away from us. It opened at 6:45 am, so we walked over to the plaza where it was located. I ordered blueberry pancakes and home fries; Karen got scrambled eggs and home fries. The pancakes were some of the best I've ever had, and the home fries were excellent. After that filling breakfast, we walked around past the still-sleeping shops in the plaza. Erie had an arts project in 2004 which populated the city with frog statues. There were a few still standing in the plaza.
At about 9:15 we headed out, first taking a drive down Peninsula Avenue for a relaxing ride through Presque Isle State Park. Event registration was slated to being at 10:00. By 9:30, Waldameer's main parking lot wasn't opened. So we drove around back to the W2 gate. There was one other car there when we arrived. When we were in Sandusky in July, I had mentioned the Flying High event to our son-in-law Andrew. He had the day off from work, so he decided to drive up with our daughter and grandkids to join us. This would be the grandkids' first time at Waldameer. As we waited in the parking lot, the park's manager, Steve Gorman, arrived to assist another group that was having an event that day. I said hi to him and we chatted briefly. Then our family members showed up, as did Bob and Yvonne Wheeler from the WNYCC. They were managing registration for this event. So we all headed over to the Lakeside Grove at the other end of the park to get our wristbands.
When we got there, everything was set up and ready to go. They even had boxes of donuts for everyone. There were two exclusive ride time sessions starting at 11:00, one on the Comet roller coaster and one on the Whacky Shack. So after we checked in, we headed over to the Comet. The park had two trains running on it. Just before 11:00, the ride operator tested the trains and then opened the queue line. You couldn't queue up for individual seats; it was the luck of the draw depending on where you were in the line. I was with our grandson Ben and we ended up in the second seat. The venerable Herb Schmeck-designed junior wooden coaster was still a lot of fun, with surprising speed and delightful pops of air time. Ben really liked it.
From there we headed over to the Whacky Shack, one of the few classic Bill Tracy dark rides left in the world. The line for that was a lot longer than the Comet. I chatted with some coaster enthusiasts I hadn't seen in a while. Ben was curious about the recorded spiel that played in the line. It started with, "Hello, earthlings!" Ben was confused, thinking it was an outer space ride. Within a few minutes we had boarded the small car and were sent on our way. I was laughing through most of it, but Ben definitely wasn't having a good time. When the ride ended, he exclaimed, "That was creepy! Really creepy!" I guess I didn't know how to see the ride through his eyes. When I was his age, I would go on Riverside Park's similar Laff in the Dark over and over again.
We took another ride on the Comet, and by that point the rest of the park started opening to the public. I asked Ben if he wanted to walk with me through Bill Tracy's other masterpiece, the Pirate's Cove. He was hesitant at first, but I told him it would be like Kennywood's Noah's Ark, which he loved. So he took a chance. I had him go in front of me. He had no trouble navigating the moving floorboards at the beginning. He liked the shrinking corridor illusion, which was followed by the mirror ball maze. But when we got to the tilted room, he began laughing. So I knew from then on he'd be all right. When we got to the famous stunt near the end, where three skulls are calling out, "I ain't got no body," he just stood there and stared at them fascinated. When we exited the ride, he immediately wanted to go back in. So we did. Once again when we got to those skulls, he just stood there entranced, watching them. He ended up walking through four times in a row.
Next to Pirate's Cove was Thunder River, the park's wonderful flume ride. But it was closed. So Heather went on the nearby Tilt-a-Whirl with the kids. After that, Andrew took Ben on Steel Dragon, the park's spinning coaster. I was glad Andrew and Heather were there, because there was no way I'd hold up after going on rides like those. Later on, Ben asked me why I don't go on spinning rides. I told him that when I was about eighteen years old, I went with some friends to Riverside Park. I went on one of the spinning rides there and I got so sick I couldn't go on anything else the rest of the day. I told him that there's a sort of switch in your inner ear. At some point, that switch gets flipped and then you no longer like spinning around. But there are some people, like my friend Dave, who still loves spinning rides and don't seem at all affected by them. Ben replied, "That's like my daddy. He can go on a couple of spinning rides, but then he can't go on any more."
Since our last visit, Waldameer had added a second spinning coaster, this one just for kids. It was called Whirlwind, and so the kids queued up for that. It was a pretty simple powered ride that traveled in a figure 8. It wasn't really a roller coaster, since it wasn't powered by gravity. But that didn't matter to the kids. They enjoyed it anyway.
By that point it was time for lunch, so we headed over to the Lakeside Grove, which is where the club meals usually took place. Bob and Yvonne were there handing out door prize tickets. For the meal, there were the usual hot dogs, hamburgs and chicken tenders. But they also had vegetarian baked beans, so that was a plus. There was also potato salad and macaroni salad. Karen and I each took a hamburg bun and went over to the condiments. I put on some mayo, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and pickles. There was also free ice cream cups and drinks. We all sat at a picnic table to eat. It didn't take long for the pavilion to fill up. It was the largest coaster event attendance I had seen in a long time, and it was good to see. After I had finished eating, I notice Paul Nelson, the park's owner, going over to get a soda. Since we were nearby, I approached him and told him how glad I was that he had been able to guide the park so successfully through the pandemic. He said he had been at the park since he was 11 years old, starting as a dishwasher at $300 a season. The owner at the time, Alex Moeller, took Paul under his wing and began training him. Paul stood there telling me his life story as if I were an old friend. This was his 75th year at the park, and he shared many fascinating lessons he had learned over the course of his life. The main aspect that tied it all together was the importance of building relationships.
He was called away to make a speech to the assembly. Then the microphone was turned over to Steve Gorman, the park manager, who had provided door prizes that were going to be raffled off as door prizes. There was a t-shirt and a section of the Ravine Flyer II track. The other prizes were signs that had been used in the park. One of them was a state ride certification sign, and Heather won it. After the door prizes were handed out, Bob reminded everyone that at 2:30 NAPHA was going to be giving a presentation at the Midway Stage. Also at 3:00 there was going to be a walk-back to the turnaround of the Ravine Flyer II. Steve cautioned that it was going to be a long walk, and that the temperature was in the 90s with high humidity. Karen and I decided to pass on that (although Ben said he was up for it).
After lunch we headed to the North End section of the park. Ben was looking forward to riding Lil' Toot, the kiddie handcars, but it wasn't running. So instead Heather, Andrew and the kids went on the Flying Swings. Since it was close by, Andrew, Ben and I headed for the Ravine Flyer II. There appeared to be a lot of new track near the station, which was a good sign. At the lunch, Steve had mentioned a new technique they were trying. Rather than delaminating the track and replacing individual boards, the company they hired took a Saws-All and cut out whole sections of track, then dropped in a new section. It saved a lot of money on labor because it didn't take so long. But the concept didn't sound right to me. The track gets part of its stability from the track laminations having alternating lapping, helping to bond the entire length of track. By dropping in new sections that weren't organically tied in with the rest of the track, it seemed to me that the track as a whole would become more unstable.
Ben wanted to ride in the back seat, which surprised me. Andrew went with him. I was able to line up for the front seat, and I'm glad I did. We left the station and were slowly dragged up the tall lift. At the top there was a brief view of Lake Erie, followed by the steep curving dive off the cliff. The train seemed to pick up an alarming amount of speed. The car was "hunting", slamming from side to side. We flew over the bridge so fast it was nothing but a blue blur. As we rose up into the turnaround, there was hardly any loss of speed. I was tossed from side to side in the train like a rag doll. The train began jackhammering as it dove back down towards the highway. There were pops of air time, but they were pretty violent. We blasted back up into the knot of track encircling the station. I was hanging on for dear life, trying to brace for the sudden changes of direction. When we finally made it to the brakes, I could feel my head pounding. That certainly wasn't the smooth family ride from its opening season. The coaster had developed into a terrifying white-knuckle endurance test. Ben said he had a good time, but Andrew seemed a bit shaken. If it was that rough in the front seat, I can only imagine what the back seat must have been like. I knew trains ran faster on hot humid days, but that alone couldn't have accounted for what we experienced. I wondered if the new track replacement technique had anything to do with it.
It was time for the NAPHA presentation. So while I headed over to the Midway Stage to watch it, the rest of the family stayed in the kiddieland section to relax a bit. At the presentation, Jim Futrell, a NAPHA Board member, gave a history of the park and then invited Paul Nelson over to accept a plaque commemorating 125 years of operation, a milestone that only 13 other U.S. parks could claim. Paul told a story of how, after his first season as dishwasher, he told Alex Moeller that he would come back only if was was given a more important job, one that was very necessary and that he was in charge of. So Moeller smiled and said, "You'll get it." He gave Nelson a gold whistle and a gold key. Nelson felt very important. Moeller then asked him, "Do you know what's below my office?" Nelson responded, "The ladies' room." Moeller said, "That's right. You blow that whistle and I'll stomp on the floor; I'll know you're there. Then you go to the men's room. And then you go to the ballroom. And you keep cleaning, and you do that every hour on the hour." Nelson said, "I have a sense of humor and I thought that was pretty good. I asked for it and I got it." When Moeller asked Nelson what he had learned from that, Nelson replied, "Don't ask for a promotion -- earn it!" Then Bill Linkenheimer from ACE took the stage to present a plaque to Steve Gorman for his years of hospitality and hard work on behalf of coaster enthusiasts.
I met up with the family at a set of cafe tables next to the Pirate's Cove. Ben naturally wanted to take another walk through it, so Andrew and I went with him. After that we queued up for the Sky Ride, which had the longest wait of the day. I told Ben to watch the process of boarding and disembarking from the cabs, since he had never seen that type of Sky Ride before. When it came our turn, he had no problem hopping up in the seat. We traveled high above the midway, chatting about various things including the proliferation of hair ties scattered across the roofs below us. He repeatedly mentioned how long the ride was. Eventually we made it back to the station, and he had no trouble disembarking. Andrew then wanted to check out the nearby gift shop. We walked in to find nearly every shelf bare. It was like that at many parks; very few of them were able to find vendors that had anything in stock.
From there we headed toward the south end of the park, near the main entrance, to ride the L. Ruth Express, the park's miniature train. As we headed in that direction, Isabelle spotted the Music Express and wanted to ride. So Heather volunteered to go on with her. While they were waiting in line, I decided to get some water. I suddenly realized that Waldameer was a cashless park, but it didn't accept mobile payments. Luckily I had a $5 bill with me, so I went over to a nearby vending machine to get a Wally Card. I then headed over toward the Midway Stage. I would have preferred the park's fresh-squeezed lemonade, but that concession was closed. I saw a concession selling water along with Icees. The lines were pretty long, but it was either that or nothing so I waited. And waited. And waited. I finally got my Icee and headed back to the Music Express. When I got there, everyone was gone. I checked my phone and Karen had texted me. Isabelle wasn't tall enough for the ride, so they had gotten in line for the train. I went over and met up with them. Opposite the train station, another one of the park's new rides, Chaos (a 360-degree looping Frisbee ride), was going through its sequence. Ben wanted to ride it but no one else was willing to go on it with him.
The train pulled into the station and we boarded for a slow and relaxing trip around the park. When we returned to the station it was already going on 6:00. Heather and Andrew had to head back home. So we said our goodbyes. After they left, I filmed another walk-thru of the park. There was Exclusive Ride Time on the Ravine Flyer II starting at 9:00, but Karen and I were wiped out and headed back to the Glass House Inn.
Although it was a bit too hot, we all had a good time at Waldameer. I'm glad the kids got a chance to experience it, and they seemed to enjoy it. It was distressing to me how violent Ravine Flyer had become, and it would make me think twice about riding it the next time we're at the park. But there were still plenty of rides for us to enjoy. Plus, everyone at the park is so friendly and the atmosphere there is more relaxed than at a big theme park. In many ways, it reminds me of Mountain Park, a fun family destination that's welcoming and affordable. I hope their next 125 years will be just as delightful.
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