Waldameer Trip Report - 6/7/12
Day 5: Waldameer
Waking up and leaving is the price that must be paid at the end of every visit. Like the sad drive down Harbor Boulevard when leaving Disneyland or returning to the Orlando Airport after a week full of fun and adventure, the departure from Cedar Point is always a little painful. As we packed up for a long day on the road and our final destination of the vacation, I knew the whole Cedar Point skyline was waiting, and this time we’d be seeing it in reverse.
Our day would be long thanks to the easily six hours of driving ahead of us. We were headed to Toronto, but we had a fun diversion planned at right about the halfway point. As I’m sure you’re well aware of by now, I try not to leave any park unvisited, and while that isn’t always feasible (as we’d actually see later in the day) a few stops along the way are just too special to overlook.
That special park would be Waldameer, one of the oldest parks in the country, and one of several small, classic amusement parks that can be found in Pennsylvania. It may not have hit the map as strongly as Kennywood or Knoebels (two amazing parks I still need to get to), but its history and charm are at least as notable.
What’s most notable to the amusement industry may actually be a relatively new addition, the much-acclaimed wooden coaster, Ravine Flyer II. Its name alone is a throwback and a nod to the park’s past, and in fact the layout itself has a few things in common with its namesake, the ill-fated Ravine Flyer, demolished in 1938.
But there’s a whole enchanting park full of attractions both old and new, and it was an easy call to make a short detour off of I-90 and include it in our modest tour. Thanks to its small size, we’d have no trouble getting the feel for the place with just the short visit we could make. Unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to do the park full justice in just a few hours, but the great thing about traditional parks like this is that you can really get to know them by experiencing their handful of signature attractions and just generally enjoying the atmosphere.
The exit from the Breakers was tough nonetheless, though not because of the early hour, and Megan took the wheel as I wanted to take in one last eyeful of the park heading back to the mainland. It was right around 8am, so there was almost no activity, and the rides were of course silent, which made it a little easier.
We checked out, loaded the car, and hit the road. Wrapping around the back of the park and down the peninsula was an appropriate bookend to the visit, and I’m glad it was done without having to endure a park full of screaming guests. After just a mile or so, we were out of the park, and the mild dejection quickly turned to the usual road trip excitement.
Plowing through Cleveland as its traffic eased for the end of rush hour, it was another couple thankfully uneventful hours before we arrived into Erie. With our GPS plotting the way to “The Woods by the Sea”, as the park’s name translates from German, we were into the small but active parking lot just a bit after the official 10:30am opening. Even as you approach it, you’re able to immediately see how well this park fits naturally its environment, with rides and attractions among thick groves of trees.
The ticket options are pretty much what you’d expect at a park of this ilk; patrons have the option to buy rides a la carte, or purchase an all-inclusive wristband. We’d been playing it by ear up to this point, not sure how much time we would have, or when we’d need to hit the road, and as we queued up for the ticket book, we still needed to make a decision.
Combining a set of busy ticket booths, and interest in a handful of different rides, and a somewhat confusing no-cash pay-per-ride system, it seemed like a wash, and we went with the full package, if only so we wouldn’t have to worry about it. We paid gate price, but at $24 per person, we knew we weren’t getting gouged, even if we didn’t end up riding enough to have made it worth it.
Despite a good bit of madness getting into the park, we seemed to be ahead of the growing and frenzied crowd, and we had no trouble getting to our first, and the obvious destination, Ravine Flyer II. We zipped through the queue and found the quiet station, with no train in fact. I suppose we got used to uber-efficient operations at Cedar Point, but this place could hardly be expected to push it by having two trains going.
With such a highly regarded attraction, I wanted to make sure I gave it a proper assessment. That really just meant making sure I got a couple rides in, and checked it out in different spots. For now, we’d hit the front, and even waited an extra cycle for the front row. My expectations were high, and I was glad it wouldn’t be too long to see if they’d be met.
It’s a left turn out of the station, and a slow climb up the modest lift. Not surprisingly, RFII is one of those awesome coasters that takes advantage of natural terrain to sport a drop longer than the height of the lift. You only rise 80 feet above the station, but the twisting rightward first drop sends you 115 feet down the hillside. It’s not too much of stunner, but gives a great pace, hitting almost 60 mph.
The action quickly turns from exciting to wild as that drop sends you right into a dark tunnel and then up and over the ride’s signature overpass. This one-of-a-kind feature is an arching bridge that sends trains over Peninsula Drive into some of the park’s nearby, but otherwise separated acreage. It also provides a great parabolic hill in both directions, giving some nice air.
While still heading away from the park proper, you’re off the bridge and back on the ground for just a moment before rising up in a left-then-right S-turn, which takes you into the coaster’s main turnaround – a sweeping right rise. It hits its peak, then dives a good ways down and to the left and finds the return trip over the bridge.
Just on the other side is the same tunnel, and a moment of darkness in a rolling climb up back to the station level. But the ride isn’t over yet, as a few more hops are thrown in for good measure, along with the grand finale. It starts with a high–G left turn under the lift, and rapid-fire twist to the right, which throws trains into an absurd 90-degree bank and back down the hillside one last time. It quickly climbs back up to the right, and throws in another could hops and a couple more right turns before meeting the final brakes.
It’s not even a minute of action, but it is unpredictable, unprecedented, and unrelenting. There is a great mix of hills, drops, and twists coming so fast, but so naturally. The navigation of the terrain is unique treat, and it provides an out-of-control feel without ever getting even close to rough or unpleasant. It had lived up to its billing after a single ride, but we all know I wasn’t going to stop there.
I looped back around into the queue, and aimed for backseat ride to bookend, though I did so without Megan. She seemed to enjoy it, but it may have been a little too much action for her tastes. I waited patiently for my second ride and chatted a bit with the friendly teenaged station attendant while we waited for the train to return. He even suggested I check out Cedar Point if I liked this ride. I thought better of providing the obvious response that Cedar Point doesn’t have anything like this.
As I waited, I couldn’t help but notice I was one of only a couple adults in the station, which was full mostly of young kids probably getting their first taste of a serious roller coaster. I instantly flashed back to my formative years visiting The Great Escape in upstate New York. Family vacations, schools trips, even an outing with the scouts, I really came to love amusement parks visiting the small but archetypal family park. I may rant and rave about Disney, but my fondness started at a traditional park for sure. Going even deeper, it was manic rides and re-rides on the then-reborn Comet that really cemented my enthusiasm, probably forming the same kind of lifetime memories that the kids around me in the station were forming.
It was time for my backseat assessment in just a couple minutes. Not surprisingly, it’s even wilder back there, and I was really impressed by the tenacity the ride offers. My first Gravity Group offering was a heck of a place to start. It’s a somewhat short layout, forgivable considering the real estate and budget the ride works with, but it goes a long, long way to show that length isn’t everything – and it provided some wonderful encouragement that a small park like Waldameer was willing to make such a sizable investment on a major roller coaster. That it’s such a historically aware investment is the icing on the cake.
Having hit the primary headliner, I quickly reverted to enthusiast mode and went to track down some credits. I was again on my own for Ravine Flyer 3, though it was no surprise that Megan chose to skip the tiny Miler kiddie coaster. As glad I was to get the credit, I was just as glad that I didn’t get knocked around to get it – though I probably deserved it for such a desperate display.
The next coaster was far less about a token ride, and instead a trip back in time on Comet, the classic PTC designed by the renowned Herb Schmeck. Far less of a thrill ride than the aforementioned Great Escape coaster of the same name, this 1951 entry is a classic double out-and-back affair that epitomizes everything a family coaster at a family park should be.
We had just a cycle or two before we got our ride, selfishly taking the front from otherwise deserving kids as we just missed getting the ride before. The operators took their time dealing with the understandably inexperienced clientele, and I’m sure their assistance was appreciated.
The ride offered was a fun and raucous jaunt through the trees. It provided a nice, if not thrilling entry to all of the future coaster lovers that surely were on the ride with us. I just appreciated the shade, the breeze, and the feeling that I was riding something someone built in their backyard. That, and my knees didn’t get too banged up either.
There was one last coaster to hit, but first we wanted to check out one of the park’s famed dark rides as the crowds began to fill in. Whacky Shack is a wonderfully unique custom creation that takes riders for a creepy, creaky, and weird trip. Again it was a ride meant to take you back in time, and we were eager to take in all the tacky spookiness.
It was a few minutes in the queue before we loaded, but we were soon sent into the odd combination of haunted house and fun house. The hum of the electric track was a throwback by itself, and the slanted hallway, twisting tunnel, and fluorescent skeletons started things off in style. We endured horns, blasts of air, and even an outdoor drop halfway through the ride.
Back inside was a heartbeat hallway, a strobe room, and more spooky antics of ghosts and, oddly, sharks alike. The finale was another jarring horn, and we couldn’t help but exit with huge grins on our faces. It was absolutely absurd, beyond campy, and exactly what we hoped for from a ride like this at a park like this.
Gauging way back on the custom-o-meter, we headed to the end of the midway and queued up for the last coaster, a common but still interesting spinning Wild Mouse called Steel Dragon. The name may promise more than it delivers, but it’s thankfully a Maurer Sohne, one of the better purveyors of this type of attraction.
We found an even busier queue, and the novelty of small-park operations wore off when we was that only two cars were in use. It was about 15 minutes before we were halfway through the queue, and things came to a half as a third car was mercifully added. That the car was added entirely by hand, including both shifting the transfer track and pushing the car onto the track was just another old-school bonus. How quaint. Another rare sight was when the maintenance guys released the harnesses and climbed aboard then and there.
With the improved capacity, it was only a few minutes more until we got our ride. It wasn’t exactly the most turbulent ride I’ve had, spinning-wise, but it was a nice throwback to both Crush’s Coaster and Sonic Spinball – a couple of our more memorable spinning mice coasters.
Eager to savor a bit more of the park's natural beauty, I wanted to take a ride on the freefall tower. X-Scream was right next door, and surprisingly quiet, so I whipped out my phone to orient myself towards the sea, and picked my seat accordingly. It was a slow rise to the top, which allowed a terrific view of nearby Lake Erie and Presque Isle. The drop wasn’t long but nice and sudden, and a recommended stop, at least if you’ve got a wristband.
We’d put in a good effort so far, and with most of the highlights covered, it was time to grab some lunch. With zero research, we just grabbed the standard fare at a nearby food booth, and I got what I deserved with some pretty awful school lunch chicken nuggets. We picked a nice spot to eat, along the busy midway, next to the Monster, and unfortunately within earshot of a live show venue. It was a high energy effort clearly aimed at a demographic a couple decades younger than we were.
Cutting across that craziness, we dared enter Pirates Cove, a walkthrough clearly in the vein of the Whacky Shack, though with a buccaneer treatment. It started out rather similarly to its ridden counterpart, but the seafaring motif does come on strong. It’s room after room of odd sights, eerie sounds, and a constant fear of what’s around the corner. Nothing too startling ever actually comes, but the scenes and gags seem to go on for a rather long time.
Keeping things traditional, and looking to take in more of the park, we headed toward the center and had a very short wait for the Sky Ride. Like the classic at our local Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, it’s less about transportation than a scenic view ever so slightly above the action, and this one is even a round-trip. Not more than a couple dozen feet above the midway, and not even above the treetops, it’s a wonderful chance to survey the park and soak up ever more of the delightful atmosphere.
A quick glance at the time indicated that we didn’t have time for too much more. It was another three hours to Toronto, and we didn’t want to get caught in the brunt of its notorious rush hour traffic. Fortunately we were headed inbound, but even that can get hairy, from what I hear.
Looking to take in more of the scenery, we headed to the Ferris Wheel. From there, I figured I could scout out the situation back at Ravine Flyer II, in the hopes of one more ride for the road. It didn’t take long before we were back up above the park, though now we were alongside it instead of in its midst. The view of RFII’s queue wasn’t what I wanted to see, as it was still running one train, and now the line wrapped a good bit of the way outside and around the station.
The wait probably wasn’t much more than 15 or 20 minutes, but it wasn’t too hard of a call to decide to get back on our way after this final ride. Even with just the pair of circuits, I have no trouble finding a spot in my Top 10 for it. It landed at #8, just behind Terminator at Magic Mountain, and ahead of Boulder Dash.
There were still a few more minutes to take in the sights and snap some aerial photos while we were still aboard. Back into the park, we took a few more photos, picked up a couple souvenir t-shirts and headed out.
It was just about 2pm, and that meant a mere three hours in the park. If we weren’t so ambitious with our plans, we would have enjoyed at least three more, and probably that same number of additional rides on Ravine Flyer II. Still, even in just the short amount of time, we were shown a great visit, and easily reminded that parks like this are meant to be savored.
Our time on the road wasn’t too painful; we did hit some congestion as we got into Toronto, but it wasn’t worse than any urban driving I’ve previously endured. It took a couple swings around the block to find the entrance to our hotel, and we soon pulled up at the Marriott Courtyard Downtown, and dropped of the car at the valet. We’d need it in the morning for the fourth and final park of this mad six-day tour, but we quickly went from park visitors to urban explorers as we headed out for an evening on the town. We’d be back to park visitors soon enough.
We couldn’t have been more pleased by our visit. Both Ravine Flyer II and Waldameer deliver exactly what you would hope for: fun, excitement, and a nod to a bygone era. While some long for the good old days, a visit like this shows me that as long as places like Waldameer still exist, we can enjoy a trip back in time, even in this day and age.
Coaster Count: 331 (268/63)
Favorite Steel, Wood: Montu, Thunderhead
www.gregscoasterphotos.com ← Go there! It's good!
At the beginning of last year I decided to start visiting smaller parks that I haven't been to. After the season ended I came to 2 conclusions. #1 small parks provide a lot of Fun with smaller crowds. #2 the majority of the best wooden coasters in the country are located in smaller parks.
Parks like Waldameer, Beech Bend, Knoebles,Indiana Beach, Mt. Olympus, Lake Compounce, and Michigan's Adventure have become world class destinations due to a wooden coaster. Look at Holiday World once they built the Raven or Dollywood once they built Thunderhead. The point I'm trying to make is, that there are a lot of parks like Waldameer. Smaller parks tend to try to add a destination wooden coaster. If all goes well it turns that whole park around. For us enthusiasts, we get to enjoy the hidden gems of the country and the parks thrive. The only challenge is visiting all these smaller parks. Just a thought.
I certainly agree, and while I aimed for Six Flags or bust as a teenager, I've come to enjoy parks of all different shapes and sizes as I've gotten older. Small parks have charm, history and unique character, and often wooden coaster gems to boot. The big chains cram in some amazing thrill rides. The Disney and Universal parks offer sublime immersion and unmatched operations. The Busch parks offer a great mix of thrills and setting.
It's no secret that the smaller parks can be significantly harder to get to, often not centered by a major metropolis, but that effort is part of the fun. So many of the smaller parks you mention are on my to do list, and visits to Waldameer, Lake Compounce, Santa Cruz, Lake Winnie, Rye Playland, etc., over the years have really whetted my appetite. It's definitely a challenge filling in the dozens of small parks, but it's a challenge I'll enjoy.
Favorite Steel, Wood: Montu, Thunderhead
www.gregscoasterphotos.com ← Go there! It's good!