Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Massachusetts

Riverside Park was my first regional amusement park experience. All my memories and writings pitch my first visit in 1992; my family and I went to see a tertiary family member race his Street Stock at the speedway there and go on some rides. I was mortified of them. Unlike the rides I was familiar with at Disney World (and often afraid of then too), these felt more mechanical and menacing. I was horrified riding the Thunderbolt, so much so I didn't ride the Cyclone until a trip much later in 1996 when I had become interested in being a coaster geek.

By the time I was a regular poster on rec.roller-coaster in 2000, Riverside was almost unrecognizable. The park of the early-mid 90s had been a punching bag online, I'd discover, with the most polarizing roller coaster possibly of my lifetime. It was incredibly weird: there was a Skyride acquired from Coney Island's Astroworld with globe shaped cars. There was a monorail to nowhere. There were several increasingly rare flat rides like the Huss Tri-Star and a Bayern Kurve which I either loved or were too small to ever ride before they were gone. There was a pathetically short prototype log flume, a gigantic ferris wheel, and an Arrow Shuttle Loop that would become my first inverting coaster and often a talk of many a middle school exhortation of bravery. There was even that weird, archaic 1/4 paved race track where legendary local racers went wheel-to-wheel every week in their modifieds (New England racers didn't run dirt late models or sprints. We do pavement and we did big ass modifeds.) And by 2000, almost everything I named and more was all gone. All of it. Even the name "Riverside Park" and its mascot (Ricky The Raccoon) were no more. And by the next year, that polarizing coaster (the Riverside Cyclone) was a shadow of its former self.

Six Flags New England occupies the same space as Riverside Park and much of the same infrastructure, but is different in many fundamental ways. It is better run than Riverside was: to this day, it is the only park where Six Flags' lax attention to detail and capacity were still grand improvements over the preposterous cheapness of Ed Carroll. Policies about assigned seating on rides disappeared and coasters ran more than one train. The park's season was quickly expanded to include Halloween events and start in mid-April. And it got rides. Big rides. The entire race track space became a Super Hero Island-esque section themed to DC with Superman: Ride of Steel being the anchor. A wild west section anchored by a Vekoma Mad House called "Houdini - The Great Escape" was developed, and eventually the park was pushed out into the old parking lot for expansion and the development of a water park. The person I married wound up working there for a season as her final work experience credit for college. Six Flags New England isn't an unknown facility, but its one I have many a feeling about and how it relates to me even writing about the hobby here or anywhere else.

Had I been a little older and been in New England a little longer, I'd have more to tell you about when it comes to the historic amusements in the state. Both Lincoln Park and Mountain Park closed after the 1987 season: I never saw either in any state, though the best man at my wedding can attest to having nearly died climbing the lift hill of the old Lincoln Park Comet 13-14 years after the park shuttered. Pirate's Fun Park in Salisbury was somewhere I could have gone, but never did because I didn't understand why I'd need to travel 2 1/2 hours for a kiddie coaster. By the time I found out about the dark ride and scraped together the money, it was gone.

I can tell you about one park though that closed in recent times: Whalom. I didn't go until 1999, but I met a good number of people there, one of which has been a friend of mine for nearly 20 years. I was one of the last people to ever enter their Fun House. I was at opening day in 2000, and would see the park deteriorate throughout the year the sale of the carousel, and increasing rumors of its demise. I was on the next to last public train on the Flyer Comet: my mom was actually on the one after. We saw the train went around one more time after that, and then it went silent. I wouldn't end up on the grounds again until a brief break from the action at a heavy metal festival in 2005 when my buddy Will and I toured what was left. The Satellite, bought from the legendary Palisades Park, had been torn to bits and was strewn about. The Flyer Comet had partially burned. Roofs had caved in. The bumper cars look like they had been hit by scrappers. There's condos there now. When Whalom's doors closed, the Twin Towers will still standing. It was actually about the halfway point in my lifespan up to now. That's somewhat terrifying to me.

In 1984, another traditional park closed in Massachusetts. Paragon Park in Hull sat along Nantasket Beach and was the quintessential shore park. There was a huge wood coaster (Giant Coaster), since relocated to Six Flags America in Maryland, a dark ride, multiple flats and kiddie rides, an early flume attraction (Bermuda Triangle), carousel, and more. 1984 is a year that claimed a huge number of parks in the United States as a result of the liability insurance crisis that year. Deregulation in the insurance industry seems to have led to a situation in which the cost of liability insurance suddenly skyrocketed, often in excess of 300%. For small parks on the cusp of profitability, this massive expense buried many. After Paragon closed, the community rushed to try and recoup some of the loss, purchasing and now operating the carousel on the old park grounds. A Fascination parlor also operated in Hull up until 2014-2015, but seems to have quietly closed. A Dream Machine arcade does still operate, however. Speaking of archaic reminders of amusements past, Joe's Playland and a nearby go-kart facility are the only remaining amusement businesses in the once exciting Salisbury Beach.

Any discussion of themed attractions in Massachusetts shouldn't happen without Old Sturbridge Village. While well known in the region, its national recognition isn't nearly at the same level. It's an open air museum intending to convey life in 1830s Puritannical New England. Lots of people in period costumes, lots of old buildings, lots of craftsmen. OSV is a classic middle school field trip destination for anyone living within 3 hours of it.

More straight up amusement oriented are a pair of exceptional carousels. The island of Martha's Vineyard is a decent length ferry ride from the coast, but it is home to the nation's oldest platform carousel, dating to the 1880s. There's also the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, which like the machine in Hull, is a PTC Carousel saved from the local defunct traditional park (Mountain Park). It's considered an exceptionally well carved carousel, but also represents a great example of civic pride and resident's organization and determination to keep something great.

Western Massachusetts is like some weird off-brand Vermont. Or a colder Kentucky. Culturally it is as different from Boston as Orlando, Florida is from Guadalajara. It is often very lovely, but also filled with towns no one has heard of or remember exists half the time with such a heavy lean in state politics to Boston and the surrounding area. There are two ski resorts with summer activities here worth mentioning: Berkshire East has a mountain coaster and a canopy trail, while Jiminy Peak has a much more substantive collection. In addition to their mountain coaster, there's a Soaring Eagle zipline (S&S founder Stan Checketts current product), alpine slides, scenic chairlift rides, and the totally bizarre "Giant Swing". That last item seats four, restrains with OTSRs, and basically runs off pure gravity after pulling riders to a release point and cutting them (like a Skycoaster). I've never seen another.

The lone city of commercial value in Western Mass, Springfield, is also home to the Eastern States Exposition (Big E), which features pavilions dedicated to each individual state and their commercial/agricultural products, as well as rides from North American Midway Entertainment. With well over a million visitors annually and as it acts as a de facto state fair for nearly all the states of New England, it isn't terribly unknown or hidden. Closer to that definition, but still substantial events, would be the large fairs in Brockton and Topsfield. Brockton is the largest Reithoffer sourced carnival in the region, while Topsfield is one of Fiesta Shows' biggest gigs.

Edaville Family Theme Park has changed names multiple times in recent years. I always knew it as Edaville Railroad, but it later became Edaville USA, then Edaville Family Amusement Park. What is now known as Edaville is actually a fairly new development: the original "park" - a scenic rail ride -  went bust way back in 1992. After several abortive attempts to restart the business, the park as we know it now obtained the Thomas the Tank Engine license and reopened in 2013. There's now two operating coasters on site, with the intent of getting the wacky Kersplash Water Coaster (a one-off Miler contraption originally installed at the Washington State Fairgrounds) running in 2017, but also several family attractions, train rides, and even a scenic monorail.

There is another train attraction of the miniature variety worth mentioning: Waushakum Live Steamers have a couple of public events a year in which individuals can ride some of their larger gauge trains. Their annual meet seems to take place on the last weekend of August.

Discussing scare attractions in Massachusetts used to begin and effectively end with "Spooky World", then based in Foxboro. Now that they've relocated to New Hampshire, the Salem Wax Museum and their array of scares is easily the top dog. Yes, it's that Salem, the one infamous for witch burnings and general nonsense back in the 1700s. Rebranding themselves as a tourist destination with that in mind, there's ghouls and witch talk a-plenty, especially around October 31.

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