Friday, August 24, 2018

Parkscope Unprofessional Podcast Hour #153 - Kebab Puns

Part 1: Joe is joined by Alicia Stella of Orlando Park Stop and Theme Park Stop on YouTube. We have a breezy talk about the new Potter coaster, Universal's history, the "good ole days" were not good, Universal announcement pacing, Disney projects, and more!

Part 2: Brian McNichols from Touring Plans gives us his initial impressions and review of Universal's new Aventura Hotel.

Part 3: Joe and Mike talk to Brian about his first trip to HHN, give him some tips, and we share the scare zones and houses we are most excited for this year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Wisconsin

Wisconsin is known for two things on the global stage: beer and cheese. Sometimes these are put together and used to dip pretzels into or used to smother burgers. Under those circumstances, one might expect that its residents would perish from heart disease at some of the highest rates in the US. They actually rank around midpack - just like they rank in most categories such as overall population and size. How? Well, Wisconsin is a well educated state thanks to it's outstanding public institutions, and thus has above average doctors for the other demographics it otherwise shares. Very much a purple state, it is responsible for both Paul Ryan and Scott Walker's notoriety on the American political stage, but historically has a substantive number of democratic candidates which it has pushed forward (including current senator Tammy Baldwin).

It's biggest city isn't where the NFL team is located - it's actually the third largest city where you'd find that. There's also no NHL team here in spite of it being cold and conducive to hockey fandom thanks to the overbearing influence of the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago as a whole really casts a shadow on much of the populated portions of the state. It's the top market from which Wisconsin Dells pulls tourists, and the existence of Six Flags Great America as being positioned halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago's respective downtowns forever dooms the city to never having a substantive park to truly call it's own. There's lots of outdoor space here and plenty of great summer recreation of the "real" kind. And more often than not, that recreation has led to amusements sprouting up near by.

The obvious starting point is the Wisconsin Dells. In the 1920ss, tourists flocked here because of the gorgeous glacially-carved sandstone that reflected off the calm waters of Lake Delton. That Lake Delton is actually a reservoir constructed pretty much entirely for establishing a leisure resort has become secondary in the discussion of the Dells, as Lake Delton itself increasingly becomes perceived as merely a source of water rather than an attraction. Noah's Ark was the first really big attraction in the area: it has historically been much more than a water park, even containing indoor attractions like a a 4-D Theater and a Haunted Swing (think Vekoma Mad House, but smaller) rethemed twice, most recently to Curse of The Crypt. Their premier attraction these days is the 1/4 mile long water coaster Black Anaconda, which was the world's longest when constructed.

It was the development of the first American full scale water park under a roof at The Polynesian that changed everything in the Dells. Soon, large water park resorts sprung up left and right, establishing brands: The Wilderness, Kalahari, and Great Wolf Lodge are its most well known by far. Chula Vista Resort doesn't have a national brand, but it does have both an indoor and outdoor water park with water coaster. And then there's Mount Olympus. Oh, Mount Olympus.

Jim Laskaris is the classic hard working immigrant story - arriving in the US from Greece as a teenager, he acquired a technical education and spent time in the Navy before moving his family to Wisconsin Dells in 1970. There he slowly built a variety of tourist aimed businesses: restaurants, small motel, and go-kart tracks. It was the last of those, the go-karts, for which he would ultimately become famed. Big Chief's expanded throughout the 80s and 90s, building larger and larger multi-level kart tracks, and then soon after, wooden roller coasters. 4 in all would ultimately be acquired, named after the figures of Greek antiquity: Cyclops, Zeus, Hades, and Pegasus. Jim Laskaris died in 2003 - struck down by an out of control motorcyclist as he walked out to get the mail at his winter home in Fort Lauderdale - leaving his son Nick in charge. In the years after, Big Chief's became Mt. Olympus, a Greek-themed theme & water park resort that absorbed neighbors.

In order to not invite ourselves too heavily to libel lawsuits, we should traffic in facts here. This year, Wisconsin Dells was selling tickets to the park for $3. Parking is usually in the $20 range, but there is still POP admission for the general public at $3. Three. US. Dollars. Over the years, the Laskaris family has expanded vastly it's holdings, buying up other attractions in the area as they've closed or never opened. The Indoor Theme Park, which certainly appears to be little more than a prefab steel warehouse, contains Zamperla rides acquired from a nearby restaurant who's efforts to get an amusement park off the ground came up short for some mysterious reason. Motels up and down the strip of WI-12 are now painted white and blue (though many Tripadvisor reviews show the phones in room having never been given new slips for identification of the hotel) having been acquired, with various "all inclusive" style packages being made available. Pizza, breadsticks, park admission, parking, towels, 3 hours of resort exclusive ERT (so exclusive you can pay extra for it at Mount Olympus if there for the day), and more can be yours for prices in the $80/night range.

Wisconsin Dells has a pile of smaller attractions worth noting, just as any other tourist trap would. Top Secret Attraction is also owned by the Laskaris family: shaped like an inverted White House (a la Wonderworks' upside down buildings), it has an array of upside-down house scenes, an appearance by some sort of rock monster, and dinosaurs. The sign outside proclaims "Today Only! $5" which really needs a comma as it has been $5 for many years consecutively. Mr Marvel's Wondertorium is independently owned and operated: there's sideshow acts and museum pieces inside this weird joint. For some light scare action, there's the Dells Zombie Outbreak (laser tag where you shoot zombies) and two more traditional haunted houses (Ghost Outpost and Haunted Mansion). I would be remiss not to reference the Tommy Bartlett empire, including a science center (Tommy Bartlett Exploratory) and water skiing show. Tragically, the largest independent parks in the area (Riverview Park and Timber Falls) have closed their largest rides or are outright defunct, including a really solid wood coaster. The entirety of the Dells seems to be shifting more and more in favor of the indoor water parks.

Green Bay has a gridiron football team (I use this to differentiate for all 4 readers outside North America who might be confused) which is publicly owned; the only such entity in American pro sports. It shouldn't be that big a surprise then that they also have a publicly owned and operated amusement park perhaps: That's what Bay Beach is. There's a really long train ride, some notable flats (Scat2!) and of course the Zippin Pippin. Elvis' favorite coaster, torn down at Libertyland many moons ago, was recreated here in Green Bay, Wisconsin. By most accounts, the ride which exists today is actually far superior to the original. I personally think it's among the 10-15 best wood coasters in the country, and I'm a big time wood coaster fan. The city also has a more traditional FEC called Kastle Park should you just be looking for some go karts. But really, just go to Bay Beach. Rides on the Zippin Pippin are something like $1.25. Really! No lie!

Museum or theme park or neither? Your call when it comes to Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Founded in the home of Ringling Bros/' headquarters, it is part open air museum dedicated to preserving "Ringlingville", a series of buildings that were used by the circus during the summer months. It is also part actual circus, with a permanent 3 ring circus with daily circus shows in the summer time. There's also historical collections related to carnivals and the wild west shows of the early 20th century that one can leaf through if they've got enough time.

On the outskirts of the metro Madison area is Little Amerricka; named for founder Lee Merrick and, well, America, it's the kind of park that I love to highlight in these pieces. Not enough is ever done to look at the work individuals do to create their dream amusement facilities, and this is one of those situations where one man's uncompromising vision has led to a super unique park with really cool stuff. At Little Amerricka, you'll find the prototype Chance Toboggan coaster, one of the last operating Herschell wild mouse coasters, Hillcrest Park from Chicago's PTC Little Dipper wood coaster (with all the custom metal work retained), a monorail (with single cars!), a haunted house built out of what looks to be a single wide trailer, and the Train. Custom built from the ground up with a roundhouse and a bunch of engines, the train looks slightly different than your average park train to start with, but once you realize it's a nearly 30 minute, two mile journey out into the country side and a farm, you really come to appreciate how unique this place is.

Unique. One Man's Vision. These are often quotes attribute to Walt Disney, but they describe any number of legendary figures of the 20th century, including a Wisconsin resident with a uncompromising attitude towards architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright was, and is, rightfully considered a legend. Many believe he is America's first truly great architect. Among the people he influenced was Alex Jordan Jr., a young architect who desired to train at Taliesin in Spring Green. At least, that's the apocryphal story. Whether or not he ever met. Wright is disputable, to say the least. What isn't in dispute is what Jordan Jr. constructed a short distance from the master's school. He constructed what must be considered the single most audacious "residence" in American history. He built "The House On The Rock".

When touring the House On The Rock, guests tour the unorthodox living spaces (there are no bedrooms here, but many, many sofas) and their myriad of themes. They will see the music machines. And then the music machines will get every larger. And larger. And larger. And with that, the other rooms will increase in scope and size. Eventually, you arrive in a room big enough to house a dirigible with a statue of a giant sea monster (sperm whale-ish) that's eating a row boat and it's off to the races. Nothing in your life prepares you for this or any of the spectacle that follows - steam punk, a carousel with hundreds of pieces, thousands of dolls, the list goes on and on. It is a modern spectacle on par with anything in the Americas, if not the world. Anyone seriously interested in themed spaces not only should go, but as a practical measure, must.

How much mini golf is there in Wisconsin? All the mini golf. When it comes to the most interesting, there's The Ruins Adventure Mini Golf in Oconto that has Mayan elements, Red Putter's Door County WI theme, and Nine Below in Milwaukee - a bar with "build it yourself" mini golf.  There's also a smattering of Family Entertainment Centers featuring golf, go-karts, and other stuff - Elmer's Fun Park, Bears' Den, Kartway, Settlers Mill, Egg Harbor Fun Park, and Eagle Falls all operate in Northern Wisconsin where residents often find themselves vacationing in the summer. Further south and closer to the population bases are Prarieville Park and the Chubby Seagull.

Carousels and Trains have some representation too: The Toy Train Barn in Argyle is not merely a place to buy trains, but has a fairly substantial miniature train to ride on too. The Lumberjack Steam Train and Camp 5 Museum is a shared experience: train to the camp museum to visit and see how the logging industry was in the olden days of the late 19th century, and train to leave. The Henry Vilas Zoo has a train ride and carousel (a modern "Conservation" one); same with Fond Du Lac's Lakeside Park (also has a kiddie whip ride). The Menominee Park Zoo has a 50s era Herschell metal carousel, and Waterloo's Fireman's Park just reopened their CW Parker Carousel from 1911 this past July. Sadly, one item can't be visited any more - Ella's Deli in Madison closed its doors early in 2018 as the owners seek to retire. The business is being parted off, including the metal Parker 2-row carousel that sat inside and a second Herschell carousel, not used by them, which had been in storage since acquisition a quarter century ago.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the biggest single attendance grabber in the state: The Wisconsin State Fair. According to Carnival Warehouse, attendance for the 2018 fair broke 1 million yet again. With an independent midway, there's plenty of large equipment that shows up to join the permanent skyride and one of the more impressive rows of permanent food stands you'll ever see (really - they're like full size restaurants and bars located in the shadow of the fairgrounds grandstand).

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...West Virginia

Not long ago, a study was done to determine which state was the "most mountainous". Not which state had the biggest mountains, but the state where it seemed that people would encounter the most mountains or most perceptibly be around mountains. That state was, to some folk's suprirse, the one that had already received the nickname "The Mountaineer State" over a century prior. West Virginia usually gets short shrift from the coastal elite as a state that is deeply backwards culturally. History says that the state was created when Unionist counties in space not particularly conducive to cotton growing within Virginia broke away as a result of the US Civil War. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, West Virginia was home to much of the violent fighting between mercenaries hired by coal mines along with occasional assistance received from the US Army (including aerial bombardment!) against newly unionized workers seeking higher wages and safer conditions.

Yes, West Virginia has problems. That's what happens when the infrastructure for your area is largely left up to the state to fund and there's no flat land anywhere. If it wasn't for deals worked out by (former Klansman and future Democrat) Senator Robert Byrd via "pork barrel spending", who even knows what the state would resemble in terms of rail lines, freeways, and buildings. West Virginia probably needs a lot more of that long term to become more sustainable, if that is even a possibility.

Those ancient days of labor union fighting coincided with a period of of small trolley companies and their amusement parks. West Virginia had many such parks - I did some light research and came up with the names of 15 long, long gone parks. Some of these had closed a century ago with nary a sign of their existence except a road that had never been renamed. Only one park remains in the state - Camden Park, a 116 year old ex-trolley park built by the Camden Interstate Railway Company along the banks of the Ohio River. The park long appeared on the endangered list - I remember going there for the first time and seeing the long defunct Thunderbolt Express Arrow Shuttle coaster sitting there in an advanced state of decay - but has seemed to turn around with some reasonable investments and clean up. Camden is even making an unexpected appearance in a video game - Fallout '76.

With so few permanent facilities in the state, we should go about mentioning the largest single collection of amusement rides the state sees: the West Virginia State Fair. Reithoffer sources the rides at present, and this year's event will see 3 coasters going up, along with a pile of flat rides.

West Virginia has a few small water parks: Waves of Fun in Huntington and Water Ways in Julian are the main outdoor facilities the state has. ACE Adventure Resort in Oak Hill has a "water park" in so much as they have a swimming hole with a bunch of big inflatable things in it to climb on or jump off of. More interesting is the "non themed" attractions they have - walking the maintenance paths inside the New River Gorge Bridge, spelunking, zip lines, and white water rafting.

Finally, Wheeling's Oglebay Good Zoo is not only AZA accredited and alone in the state as such, but home to a train ride that's pretty lengthy and leaves the zoo itself to wander into the surrounding 1650 acres of Oglebay Park.