|The weather was looking threatening, but that didn't stop us from starting off the 2017 coaster season with our annual trip to Quassy Amusement Park
in Middlebury, Connecticut. Quassy has continued to grow, adding
more rides and attractions. It's yearly seasonal kick-off, Wooden
Warrior Day, continued to attract coaster enthusiasts from near and
far. But for us, this day was complicated by a big fundraiser at
the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round,
Derby Dazzle, that coincided with the Kentucky Derby. It was
going to make for a long day, but I was determined to attend both.
It was about an hour-and-a-half drive to Quassy through heavy downpours. The forecast had been constantly changing all week, from possible flash flooding to sunny skies. Fortunately, as we neared Middlebury, the rain let up. Each successive year, the park had moved up the start time of Wooden Warrior Day. Check in this morning was the earliest it had ever been, at 8:30. We arrived about 8:45 to find quite a few cars in the parking lot. The coaster was already running. We walked toward the guest check-in tent under cloudy skies, fog and a fine mist. Within a few minutes, the mist ceased and was replaced by strong winds. It looked as if dark clouds were being dragged from the skies, rapidly moving off to the northeast. We registered, picked up our day-glo t-shirts and (after stowing them in our car) queued up for the Warrior. I was glad I had worn a jacket, but overall the air was comfortable.
Karen noticed some humorous new signs in the queue line. Evidently, lots of people had been losing their personal belongings on the ride, so notices had to tell people to hang onto their stuff. The park had also installed a chain across the queue line at the station. As the park's popularity began to grow, so did the practice of line cutting. So the chain deterred that. The two girls operating the coaster were friendly and efficient, and in a very short time we were seated in the front and dispatched up the lift hill. That was especially impressive considering this was the park's first day of the season, so evidently their staff had been well-trained. The flagpoles lining each side of the lift were bare. Last year, the flags were looking a little tattered, so perhaps the park was in the process of replacing them. We rounded the tight turn at the top with a surprising amount of speed and flew down the first drop. The flexible train blasted through the speed bump and whipped through the left-hand turn heading toward the curving tunnel. The rain made the track slick. The speed caused amazing airtime throughout the ride, and the tight turns didn't slow it down. We hit the brakes with lots of speed to spare. Everybody in the train was cheering and clapping. Going into its eight season, Wooden Warrior was still a terrific coaster.
We went around in line and queued up again, and within a few minutes were back in the front seat. More enthusiasts began showing up and the train was running mostly full. After our second ride, we decided to walk around the park and check out what was new. We walked to the southwest section of the midway. The big addition this year was a new building to take the place of the old food concession near the train station, Bella & Bessie's Sweet Shoppe. The building's exterior was lush natural wood clapboard, and that look was being extended to other nearby buildings, including the carousel. It made the midway look warm and classy. Inside the Sweet Shoppe was an antique taffy-pulling machine that the park was fine-tuning. The shelves weren't fully stocked yet. Next to the Shoppe was a pizzeria.
We wandered over to the lakeside. The park had replaced their two classic Hampton kiddie rides at the water's edge with new brightly colored models from Italy. While it was sad to see the antiques go, the new rides will certainly be more attractive to kids. From there we walked up toward the ever-expanding Splashaway Bay waterpark area, which hadn't yet opened for the season. We then walked back to the Warrior and took another enjoyable ride in the front seat.
The clouds gradually began to part, and the sun began peeking out about 11:00 as the park opened to the public. The Big Flush, the park's water slide next to the Warrior, was running but I doubted if there would be many riders. We queued up for a relaxing trip on the Quassy Express, the train that encircled the park's big open field and also passed under the Warrior. After that we checked out the small gift shop. There was a new Wooden Warrior magnet, but the workers were having trouble getting the cash register open. So I made a mental note to pick up a magnet before we left. We checked out the big arcade next door to see if there was anything new. They had a display of prizes you could win with tickets from the game machines (like SkeeBall). One of the prizes (for 4000 tickets) was a portable CD player, like the old Sony Discman but cheaper. I didn't realize portable CD players were still being made. It struck me as a quaint throwback to a different era.
From there we walked over to the Quassy Restaurant to get a snack before lunch. The workers there were having trouble with their cash register as well. We got an order of French fries and onion rings. By the time our order was ready, the registers were working. The onion rings were huge and tasty. The fries were good too. Then we went in back of the restaurant to the patio where our lunch would be. I saw George Frantzis, one of the owners, and we chatted for a while about the improvements to Quassy over the years and changes in the amusement business.
We headed back toward the Warrior. We passed by the kiddie coaster, where are group of enthusiasts were taking a ride. As we passed by the park office, Ron Gustufson, the park's publicist, emerged and we chatted a bit. He pointed out the new chair that the park's staff had just built. There, in front of the Big Flush, was a huge Adirondack chair that miraculously had appeared since the last time Karen and I had walked by.
By this point the parking lot was filling up and the midway was getting busier. The toll booth in the parking lot displayed a sign advertising $45 per carload, which was a pretty good bargain considering Six Flags charged nearly $50 a person. We took another ride on the train, and after that it was time for lunch.
We made our way back to the patio area. Ron was on hand for another auction to benefit the New England chapter of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. A sizeable group gathered and lined up for food. As usual, the park offered veggie burgers. Karen and I got ours, and also some penne pasta, condiments and drinks. The food was delicious and plentiful. As we ate, Ron began the auction. First up was a large print of Wooden Warrior photos. That sold for just $20. Next up was a six-foot banner made to advertise the construction of the Warrior. I ended up winning it for the bargain price of $30. The last item was a collection of Quassy merchandise that went for $20.
After the auction, we said our goodbyes so I could get home in time for the Derby Dazzle. The Holyoke Merry-Go-Round debuted this event nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. It seemed like a perfect marriage: the horses at the Kentucky Derby with the horses on our carousel. That first event brought in a crowd of about 200 people. I was in charge of the audio/visual needs. I had rented a 9-foot projection screen and a projector that was positioned in a big tent just outside the pavilion. The projector was hooked up to an antenna that received the live Derby broadcast. The evening was a smashing success, so we repeated it the next year. But other organizations caught on and began offering their own Derby nights. That cut our attendance in half. We tried it again a few years later, but still it brought in very few people. That was six years ago, and the Board decided to try it again this year.
So when we arrived home, I quickly changed into my Derby "costume" (white shirt, striped pants, vest and a white hat) and headed off to Holyoke. The previous night I was at the Merry-Go-Round getting things set up and discovered the antenna we had used was no longer working. Luckily, I had brought a backup antenna that I brought from home and set that up instead. Over the intervening years, the technology had changed. Over-the-air television broadcasts were now digital. So instead of a projector, I got a 65-inch 4k television (graciously donated for our event by the Holyoke Rent-a-Center). We set it up high on a table. I hooked up my antenna to it and was able to pick up 32 high definition stations! The picture was spectacular.
The event was scheduled from 5:00 to 7:30. I arrived at 3:30 to make sure everything was working. Luke, the head mechanic at the ride, helped me set everything up. The local catering facility The Log Cabin was providing all the food. The main table near the entrance had assorted appetizers (and would later have desserts). Waiters circulated about the pavilion with trays of various hors d'oeuvres. (My favorite was a tiny grilled cheese in a shotglass-size container of tomato soup.) There was also a bar set up at the ticket counter. Local musical luminaries Dan Kane and Fred Marion were providing the entertainment. Another big draw was a raffle that allowed guests the chance to win an actual Kentucky Derby racing ticket.
People began arriving about 4:30. Many of the women arrived dressed in fancy attire, with hats reminiscent of what women would wear to Churchill Downs. The television was tuned to the Derby's pre-show events. Meanwhile the betting tables were busy. There was not only the Derby ticket raffle, but guests could also place bets on the Merry-Go-Round's horses. I had made up some betting slips with blurbs about each of the sixteen outside horses and the two chariots. I placed tape on the deck of the ride, sectioning it off like a roulette wheel. I had fabricated a large arrow and affixed it to the ride fence. Each horse wore a ribbon with a number on it, matching the betting slips. We had our own "Run for the Roses", one at 5:30 and one at 7:00. The ride would be briefly started and then allowed to coast to a stop. I'd announce the "race", making up the order as I went along. When the ride had slowed significantly, I would guesstimate which horse would stop at the arrow and announce that one was in the lead. Usually, another horse (the one behind it) would win by a nose. The winner received a souvenir Merry-Go-Round glass. As if that wasn't enough to keep people busy, there was also a silent auction of themed "buckets". Guests could place tickets at the bucket of their choice. Some had wine, some had a selection of chocolates, one had a stay at a fancy hotel.
I was basically the emcee for the event, keeping guests apprised of the many scheduled activities on the program. The guests continued to drift in. Tables had been set up around the perimeter of the ride so that people could sit, chat and eat in comfort. I was approached by a woman who was bartending at the ticket booth. She asked if I was Jay Ducharme. She had read all about Mountain Park on the Internet (including this site) and said she was inspired by that to delve into more historical research. That was very heartening; it made me glad that there may be a younger generation interested in learning more about their heritage, and in discovering the rich history of this area.
At 6:15, names were drawn for the winners of the 20 Kentucky Derby tickets, matching the 20 horses in the race. The weather conditions at Churchill Downs were much like what Karen and I experienced at Quassy: it began with torrential downpours. The track was a river of mud. But by post time, the sun had come out. At 6:20, I turned up the TV's volume and people gathered around. The famous Call to the Post was played. People sang "My Old Kentucky Home". The horses lined up at the starting gate. Because of the conditions, the starting time was delayed by about 15 minutes. But finally they were off, and guests stood around cheering for their favorite horses.
Because of the race delay, our remaining activities were rapidly run together. First was the ladies' hat parade, where a winner was selected for the fanciest hat. There was also supposed to be a mens' tie contest, but hardly any men at the event wore one. So I would say that contest was a tie. After that was the second Merry-Go-Round "Run for the Roses". Then came the silent auction. And that brought the evening to a close.
The day had a lot packed into it, and I was pretty exhausted by the end. But I got to spend a day at one of my favorite small parks and then got to spend the evening with the ride that nurtured my love of amusement parks in the first place. And that wasn't a bad way to start off the 2017 season.
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