Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Illinois

One of America's most populated states and home to one of the three most important cultural hubs (Chicago), Illinois is a big deal to everyone who doesn't border an ocean and even some of those people too. In pure population of the city itself, Chicago is home to a million more people than LA and is larger than any Canadian city other than Toronto. Beyond Greater Chicago, there are vast agricultural spaces, traces of Route 66 (which starts in downtown Chicago and runs southwest to St. Louis), half the Quad Cities, the capital of Springfield, and a number of small cities not heavily known outside the midwest.


-Six Flags Great America is one of the two Marriott's Great America parks that opened for the Bicentennial and was divested of in the early 80s. As is often the case, most of the coolest attractions the park ever had haven't run in years, though it does have some cool old theming pieces and a few really solid coasters.

-Schaumburg is home to a Legoland Discovery Center location, complete with a Kingdom Quest trackless dark ride.

-Navy Pier has a new ferris wheel (the old one is in Branson, MO now), wave swinger, carousel, and kiddie drop tower. Joining it in downtown are some very theme park-esque exhibits at the amazing downtown museums. The Museum of Science and Industry is home to The Coal Mine, which takes riders on a mine train ride using authentic equipment. There's also the multimedia heavy U-505 exhibit, which is incredibly huge and all indoors. Over at Adler Planetarium, you can line up to take a short ride into a giant metal ball which will imitate the night sky over Chicago.


The first place I ever moved out of my Mom's to was a friend's floor in Midlothian in the South Chicago 'burbs. I never found a job to get me by before Cedar Point opened for the '03 season and started employing me, so I wound up having a lot of time to drive around. I had brief tastes of the vast horizon bending fields prior, but I really dove in and went just about everywhere I could while I waited for my phone to ring with a crappy service job offer. Since moving to Michigan 8 years ago, I've been back many times, but many things I recall from the not all that distant past are long since gone. Kiddieland in Melrose Park is now a Costco, and so is Hillcrest in Lemont. House of Kicks on 95th lasted only a couple of years before coming down. There were a ton of indoor kiddie parks under the Dinorex name, and they're all gone or renamed too. Long before I arrived, there was a whole large scale indoor theme park called Old Chicago: you can still ride the Arrow Corkscrew at Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire, but the building that went with it is long gone and now an auto auction lot.

Still, the weather up in the Windy City is such that indoor facilities are always going to be popular ideas to operate. Safari Land in Villa Park is the largest other than the Legoland Discovery Center, and features a decent size roller coaster, electric go karts (though these may be getting removed for a new attraction right now), Tilt-A-Whirl, and bumper cars in addition to arcade games and ticket redemption. The Brunswick Zone bowling alley in Naperville has some kiddie rides, and the Romeoville location features bumper cars. If you just want to eat, Schaumberg also has a Medieval Times Dinner theater.

Away from the Windy City, Illinois is still pretty darn cold in winter, and destination retail seems to be a place where rides and attractions of this sort can flourish. Scheels', an outdoors store in Springfield, has an Eli Wheel and race car simulators. Bass Pro Shops are pretty legendary in how over-the-top their decor is, and their East Peoria location often breaks out a carousel for usage at special events.


Santa's Village was a place that very nearly joined the list of defunct parks. It opened back in 1959 during a time of great kiddie park expansion and ran continuously for nearly 50 years. In 2005, the gates shuttered for the last time. The owners had invested poorly in new attractions and were out of money, and it stayed closed until 2011. Divesting of many rides, the park was pretty much counted out until new owners took over and reopened it. There's been somewhat of a revolving door the first few years with many used rides being brought in and replaced, but 2017 seems to be the first year where entirely new attractions will start to populate the park in place of what were piecemeal initial additions. While rides like the ARM drop tower and Interpark Zyklon aren't entirely unique, there are some attractions left from the previous incarnation of the park. The SFVD Engine No. 3 attraction is pretty much a Santa's Village original; picture a sideways facing hayride but with water cannons and you put out fires. Different, no?

While the future of Santa's Village seems relatively safe, Donley's Wild West Town is not nearly as being on firm footing. Currently for sale in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, the owners (the Donley family, duh) are just straight up old. The patriarch is 87, and he's at the point where day to day operation of even a small amusement park is getting much for him. There are offers, so I hear, and it seems like operations will continue into 2017. But it may be wise to look into visiting sooner rather than later to get a feel for it. It is a love affair for the couple who own it and effectively built it from scratch to primarily display their collection of Western artifacts.


In 2015, the USDA recorded that the state of Illinois was the state in the union that produced the largest number of pumpkins. So great was the differential between Illinois and the rest of the field that nearly 318 million pounds of pumpkins produced in the state was a sum greater than #2-4 combined. Harvest time in Illinois is a very big deal, and this has led a number of pumpkin growers to expand their options beyond merely picking one's own future Jack O' Lantern and becoming fall time fun zones.

First on our list is Richardson Adventure Farm, which claims to have the largest corn maze in the world. Ramp based zorbing and ziplines are available here too. Stade’s Farm and Market in Harvard, IL is home to Stade’s Farmtractions Theme Park. There are fairly traditional amusement rides at this agro-tourism park such as a ferris wheel (with barn motif), small carousel, and kiddie whip, but also many fairly homebuilt attractions such as pneumatic apple cannons to fire, a mirror maze built from old animal transporters, or a pedal cart dirt track. Not to easily be outdone are the two Goebbert's Farms in South Barrington and Hampshire feature their own wild homebuilt stuff. South Barrington features all sorts of animal attractions and "mining" for light excitement, and more sturdy entertainment in the form of an Haunted House walk-through attraction and a strange robotic pumpkin eating dinosaur.

Goebbert's Hampshire location has dry slides, a haunted house and "pumpkin eating dinosaur" of their own, and more importantly, a train ride. The midwest seems to be a hub for railfans, and it should come as little surprise that rural Illinois farmer types love their trains. Larger scale, ride-able trains can also be found at Kuipers Family Farm in Maple Park (also home to Farmer Jed’s Haunted Shed) and Royal Oak Farm in Harvard (there's a carousel there too).

All of these things are family operations, and one hypothesis I have going these days is that we're seeing fewer and fewer people willing to take these risks on their own and receiving little or no credit for having done so. Walt's Dream has been dragged out a million times, but Walt was also a man with a burgeoning media empire and billionaire friends whom he could lean on to provide corporate advertising. The lack of fresh blood means we're relying on increasingly older people, and the risks inherent with that. Take for example Dollinger Family Farm in Channahon, home to a narrow gauge tourist railway (The P&J) run by Jerry Stinebring. Jerry's wife Paula, the P of the operation, passed in 2012. The two had run the railway together since retiring from Caterpillar, and it is now entirely reliant on his own expertise and love of steam powered rail. He owns one steam train built by Crown (same manufacturer as the two Busch Gardens, Hersheypark, and Kings Island trains) as well as a gas powered one of his own design. Who will follow him? Is there someone who can? For those solely concerned with gigantic 9 figure dark rides, this isn't a concern. But it should be as it is a greater societal loss; we are losing people who had imagination and desire, and replacing them with, what, people who make Youtube videos playing Dreamcast games?


There's actually several train based attractions in Illinois which stand alone. The Prarie State Railroad Club in Big Rock run their trains for the public occasionally in Plowman's Park. Illinois Live Steamers are a similar situation, except they collectively purchased a 7.5 acre plot to run their equipment on. The Deerfield and Roundabout Railroad of Lake Forest has a website filled with historical info to go along with their infrequent steam train rides.


Many times over in this series, I've used the term "Family Entertainment Center". Shortened to FEC, this term encompasses a somewhat wide variety of indoor and outdoor facilities. Generally speaking, FECs range from small amusement parks/water parks to theme restaurants not unlike Chuck E. Cheese. The general linking thing between all of these is a business model that promotes constant guest spend for individual activities over a pay-one-price model. What do I mean by that? FECs are heavy on upcharge experiences: bumper boats, mini golf, go karts, Eurobungy. They are heavy on arcade games and specifically ticket redemption. They may have rides. They may even have fairly big rides. But they aren't really competing for large scale group sales, but rather things like children's birthday parties or team building exercises via laser tag. They merge all of these individual things under one umbrella and then sell it. That's an FEC.

Illinois does not have a single pre-WW2 traditional amusement park remaining in the state since Kiddieland closed, and if you're looking for remnants of anything, you'll be touring the grounds of UIC (built around the Midway Plaisance from the 1893 Columbian Exposition). Haunted Trails/Enchanted Castle's three locations within the Chicagoland area are probably the most well known such places, featuring a mix of rides (including kiddie coasters at the Haunted Trails spots), mini golf, batting cages, and arcade games, all anchored by party rooms where overpriced pizza can be consumed. Less diverse is Par-King, possibly America's finest mini golf facility. The holes feature tons of automated action and huge obstacles and are immaculately maintained. Unlike almost any other course I can think of, there's staff that hands out golf clubs, directs individuals to particular courses and take time to try and space out players to prevent them from running into one another. Homemade? Sure. But phenomenal nonetheless, and not all that far away from Chicago's legendary Superdawg drive-in either.

For something remarkably weird, one must head to the town of Metamora, located just a short distance from Peoria. Didley's Place is a restaurant first, an outdoor movie theater second, and a family entertainment center third. With the exception of the diesel miniature train, everything here is pretty much homemade. The ferris wheel almost seems to be using kiddie Zipper cars or something. The carousel is basically folk art of the folkiest sort.


Illinois, like many places, has all sorts of community operated rides. There's a vendor operated Giant Slide and skyride at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and a train ride at the Sandwich Fair. Pittsfield, IL's Lions Club has a small carnival that they operate during fairs in town, and Waterman's Lions Park is home to the regularly operating Waterman and Western Miniature Railroad. Jacksonville, IL's Rotary Club operates a Eli Wheel at a community park. Chicago suburb Elk Grove features a kiddie park called Pirates Cove, and Freeport has operated a carousel at Krape Park since 1959. There's even a state park with a train ride: the Wildlife Prairie State Park has a 40 minute train ride on the Prairie Zephyr. Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, and Scovill Zoo in Decatur all operate carousels in addition to their animal exhibits.


Jasper Sanfilippo is a multi-multi-millionaire you've likely not heard the name of. His father's company is the parent of Fisher Nuts, and he himself was CEO for quite awhile. Jasper and his wife Marian have a keen interest in automation, and I don't mean industrial/manufacturing types. I mean automatic music machines, steam engines and things of that nature. His collection, located in his private estate in Barrington, IL, is home to a ride that is nothing short of spectacular. There are only 4 remaining Salon Carousels in the world, and this is the lone one in North America (the two most well known are at Europa and Efteling in Europe). Eden Palais is considered the most complete and original of them still in operation, but is only able to be visited on occasions where the home is doing tours (minimum group of 40) or open for charitable events.

Salon Carousels different from more traditional merry-go-rounds in two distinct ways: first, the "salon," or room. They had large structures specifically intended to cover and surround the carousel, almost all of which were done up in audacious amounts of gold leaf and crystal. The other is the way the carousels typically moved. They were almost all steam powered, and rather than use the jumping mechanisms we know on most carousels, movement is entirely generated in the base. Salon Carousels were, for the late 19th century, often anchors for European midways. This is the best one you can find.

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