Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Connecticut

For almost 20 years of my life, my primary location of residency was The Nutmeg State. All of my primary and secondary education from 1st grade through what college I completed took place here. Between 1989 and 2008, I went all over the damn place. Whether it was being the brat following his dad to work sites (he owned a paving company here), or on my own exploring every back corner, I know the state of Connecticut exceptionally well even many years after having moved west.

Connecticut is not a big place, but it is a place that is population dense. More people live here than in Arkansas or Mississippi, a fact that is often forgotten when discussing what is or isn't "real America". It claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger and the revolver, thus giving it the responsibility of having inadvertently killed more US citizens than any other state. Hartford was known for its position in the insurance industry, but that has eroded, and the state is primarily known for being home to major universities and where many a high powered executive lays his head after taking the train into Manhattan for work.

Geographically and ethnographically, the state is split in two pieces by the Connecticut River, which flows north to south, meeting the Atlantic Ocean in Long Island Sound. The eastern side of the river is home to a collection of old mill and whaling towns in various degrees of economic struggle. The western side is home to the 14 most populated cities in the state, and 21 of the top 25. As you'd expect under these circumstances, that means most of the amusements you'd ever have heard of exist on that half. But not all.


Most of my youth was spent in New London County, one of the three counties located east of the Connecticut River. Things were generally sleepy out this way until the Mashantucket Pequot tribe obtained the funding to expand their bingo hall and create the "indian casino" boom in the 1990s. Now branded as the MGM Grand, and facing competition from the Mohegan Sun Resort & Casino, more tourists pour into this area of Connecticut than at any other time in history. Most arrive via I-95 coming from Metro New York, with a smaller percentage heading in from Providence and Boston. Much of the tourist infrastructure intends to meet them on their way to gaming. Yet, this is also a summer playground for families and has been for generations thanks to the rare combination of historic attractions and sandy beaches. Mystic Seaport is by far the most well known such item, grabbing over 300,000 visitors a year to the open air museum facility.

New London, CT is home to Ocean Beach Park, a city beach with a small amusement park of mostly kiddie rides, water slides that date to the dawn of the modern aquatics industry, and the state's best arcade. Off of Route 85 heading south from Hartford towards the Crystal Mall, one can also run into Dinosaur Place at Natures Art Village. The main attraction here is a "Dinosaurs Alive"-esque walk through the woods to admire giant animatronics. The gift shop attached is huge and features a lot of interesting local food items that are worth perusing. Eastern CT is also the location of the largest fairgrounds in the state; Portland and Hebron are probably the most impressive you'll see in Southern New England outside of the Big E grounds in Springfield, MA.


Hartford, the state's capital, is seen by most as a literal crossroads. CT-2, I-91 and I-84 all crash into one another here in the sort of ghastly fashion most cities try extremely hard to avoid now. Also like many cities, there's still a reputation of danger downtown that makes it a virtual dead zone most days after 5PM. The city does operate a gorgeous 1914 Stein and Goldstein carousel in Bushnell Park, but that has limited drawing potential. If one chooses to, they can head down Route 15 towards the Merritt Parkway via the Berlin Turnpike, and discover the closest thing the state has to old Route 66. The Hartford area's Stew Leonard's grocery store is here: yes, the original is in Norwalk, but this one is just as good. There are three total in the state, and they all basically resemble a cross between Whole Foods and Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati. There are huge animatronic displays everywhere you turn. If static displays are OK with you too, you can go just a little further south on the same road and run across Safari Golf, a Doo-Wop era mini golf course with enormous plaster animals and bright blue waterfalls.


The major population centers of the Northeast are the nexus of the coaster enthusiast world. Trolley lines built amusement parks starting back in the 1800s at the end of their lines to promote off-peak use, and several are still operating today. Two of these are found in Connecticut. Now, in fairness, one is not really an "unknown" - Lake Compounce holds a number of notable distinctions. It is the oldest amusement park in the Americas. It is home to a wood coaster that has taken home both Amusement Today Golden Tickets and top Mitch's Wood Poll honors over the years. The Skyride there is a gem, running nearly vertical up the first 7 or so towers in one of the steepest ascents/descents in the world. There's also a real live trolley on loan from the folks at the CT Trolley Museum. I worked in rides there for the better part of 4 seasons, and there's a lot of memories and emotions attached to it. But again, it isn't that hidden. Less known is the New England Carousel Museum, roughly a 7 minute drive away from Lake Compounce's gates. No carousel here to ride, but horses undergoing restoration or kept as museum pieces and plenty of info about the history of the genre.

A few exits down I-84, another old trolley park operates on the shores of Lake Quassapag. Quassy Amusement Park, as it is known, would be borderline unrecognizable to me now having been years since my last visit. From the 1960s until the mid 2000s, the park's star attraction was a Herschell Monster Mouse, one of a dying breed of such old wild mice. However, with the ride wearing out and the park looking to modernize, it was removed in favor of a updated family coaster, the Gravity Group built Wooden Warrior. That ride (a much punchier attraction than the stat sheet suggests) has led to a wide scale rediscovery of the park, and it has ceased to act as little more than a "credit stopover" for enthusiasts traveling the New England/New York route in search of parks. As big an improvement as that is, I kinda miss the old Quassy, with its rickety Herschell Monster Mouse coaster, an arcade packed full of absurdly ancient claw machines and coin pushers, and a souvenir shop where the park's logo was screened onto literally any shirt they could find. My 1996 Fiesta Bowl Nebraska National Champions/Quassy Amusement Park shirt is a cherished possession.

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