Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dorney Park's 20 Years of Cedar Fair - Part 1

July 21st, 2012, will mark the 20th anniversary of the purchase of Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom by Cedar Fair from Harry Weinstein and Jean Harries, the then owners of the growing amusement and water park, for a cool $48 million.

Fast forward to late last Summer when the park announced their latest thrill machine, Stinger, during the announcement for which the current Park President and General Manager, Jason McClure, said something that caught my attention.

"Since Cedar Fair acquired Dorney Park they've invested $275 million in the park, evolving us from a park long ago started as a trout hatchery to the world class entertainment destination we are now."

The results of 20 years of additions
As that number rang in my ears I started to think back at all the expansions we've seen year after year, basically transforming the property along the way with new rides, slides, shows, food and retail buildings, midways, operations facilities, haunts and more.

Dorney is, after all, my home park and always has been, and I've been visiting during that entire period.  Instantly I had the urge to document all those years of expansions, and while it's nearly impossible to detail every change, I figure why not try?

What will follow is a series of posts that celebrate the park over the past twenty seasons under Cedar Fair via a cataloging of the progress the park saw, each step of the way.  Lucky for us I've collected what is probably too much memorabilia over these years, so we should have plenty to look at.

Since Cedar Fair closed on the property on July 21st, 1992, the company did not really have any say in that year.  Their first go at it was 1993, and even then they already had expansion on the mind.

From Cedar Fair's Annual Report
Quite understandably, Cedar Fair was both proud and happy to have made Dorney Park a part of their portfolio.  The previous year Wildwater Kingdom had added the Crayola Kids' Cove, and Dorney had replaced the Disco Dodge with the Krazy Kars, and added a couple children's rides as well.

With the 1993 season still eight months away, the new owners had big plans for the park.  A transplant from Cedar Point, William Near was named Dorney's General Manager.  Together the team of new leadership made a visit to the local planning commission to ask for approval for a then stunning $8 million in changes.

Among those proposed was an "80 foot high water ride, expected to be the world's fastest, highest, and wettest waterfall plunge," costing an estimated $3 million.  To fit the ride removals would be necessary, including the Stargazer Showplace theater, tank tag, and the Tomcat flat ride.

Concept art for Cedar Creek Cannonball

Another proposal saw a three quarter of a mile long replica steam engine train added to the area between Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom.

Promotional photo of the ride
The train would have stations in both parks, allowing visitors to travel between the two with ease.  Originally the ride would be called the Lehigh Valley Railroad, later the ride became Cedar Creek Cannonball, the name that stuck in the long term.

The actual ride was one engine with five cars, and was pulled from another Cedar Fair park - Valleyfair! - and moved to Dorney Park.  From a press released in 1993, "Built by Funk Manufacturing Company, the Cedar Creek Cannonball consists of an 11-ton engine, a tender, and five coaches.  Each of the five coaches will seat 35 passengers, bringing the train's hourly capacity to 700.  A one-way ride on its 3,090 foot track lasts 7 to 8 minutes."

Press photo advertising new for '93 rides and attractions

Another part of the expansion was the Red Garter Saloon, a much needed sit-down restaurant that would be added adjacent to the splash ride.  The "spectacular 1890's style restaurant and entertainment center" featured a selection of food offerings to guests who could also watch a live show, "Surfin' Summertime" was the first to premier.  The building was two stories, and 7,500 square feet in size seating a maximum of 200 people. Due to various delays the Saloon didn't really open until the 1994 season.

White Water Landing in its earlier years of operation

Eventually it was released that the splash ride would be named White Water Landing.  Approvals for the ride came late, and only after quite a battle about the height of the ride with the local planning office.

1993 Park Brochure
Standing 82 feet tall, White Water Landing was really a clone of Snake River Falls, a ride that was previously announced for sister park Cedar Point.  The turnaround at the top is more enclosed at Dorney due to sound requirements, but essentially they are the same.

Construction on White Water Landing went without issue, but because of the delays in building approvals the ride did not open until almost the end of July.

Built by Arrow Dynamics, the ride features an 80 foot drop at 50 degrees into a freshwater lagoon.  The wave created by the boat's impact was designed to be 128 feet long, 64 feet wide, and 25 feet height.  The ride's path was 445 feet long, and the boats reach 42 miles per hour at the base of the drop.

An added bonus to the ride was the exit bridge, which passed directly over the enormous splash created by White Water Landing.  Guests could get soaked on the ride, then equally drenched on their way out.  The ride was a hit, drawing folks from all over to come see the boats take the plunge and then the ensuing splash.

The park's press photo for their wooden coasters

1993 also marked the 70th birthday of Thunderhawk, the park's Herbert Schmeck designed wooden coaster.  In a world of less coasters, Thunderhawk was still a favorite among many enthusiasts during the period.  

With much less fanfare than the previous Winter, the park again moved ahead with expansion plans, even though '93's rides opened considerably later than park officials wanted.

Continuing on the momentum from the previous season, Cedar Fair again made a large addition to the park for 1994.  This year's trip to the local planning commission was much easier, since the ride they had in mind wasn't at all tall, loud, or colorful.

A "simulated white water rafting ride" is what the park wanted, and it was proposed for the Northern section of the former parking lot that was in between Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom.

Road Rally Drivers
Also added to the park was Road Rally, a ride in which drivers got to take a gasoline powered car around a track at a slow pace.  The ride's thrills didn't come from the speed, which is quite slow, but from the fact that kids were able to drive a car!

Road Rally was placed along the creek in the lower section of the park, replacing several picnic pavilions next to Thunderhawk in order to make room.  The ride, which uses 20 8-horsepower cars, was transported from Cedar Point, which also needed room for their new inverted coaster, Raptor.

The simulated white water rafting adventure was named Thunder Canyon, and was situated on four acres of land within the track of the Cedar Creek Cannonball.

Riders encounter many of these water falls

The attraction is 1,640 feet long, and designed by Barr Engineering, who also created the rapids ride at Valleyfair! and also Islands of Adventure, among others.  River rapids rides had premiered at other local parks in the past, but few of them contained the amount of interaction with waterfalls that Thunder Canyon does.

Press image for Thunder Canyon
The $3.8 million attraction opened a little late into the season due to a rough winter, but by Memorial Day the ride was open to the public.

Lasting around two and a half minutes, around 1,500 people were said to be able to take a journey though towering canyon walls and 14 different waterfalls per hour.  The reservoir for the ride was built so that it served as a dramatic backdrop to the loading area instead of being hidden backstage as with many similar rides.

To keep all that water flowing Thunder Canyon came equipped with 200 horsepower pumps to generate the river using one million gallons of water at a rate of 112,000 gallons per minute.

Thunder Canyon's iconic sign
The ride quickly became known as one of wettest versions of the rapids ride found at any park, with a very small chance of coming off the ride dry.

When speaking of the newly developed area that contained the two water rides and the Red Garter Saloon, park General Manager Bill Near said that the parent company "took an entire area of the park and made it look new and very 'Cedar Fairish.'"

A ride that was removed as part of the 1993 expansion was the Joker, and it made its return in 1994 in a new location near Hercules' pre-lift turnaround. 

Also of note was that 1994 marked the first season that separate tickets for Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom were not offered.  Instead, only one combination ticket was sold, formally uniting the parks as one.

The additions made to the park in 1995 focused on providing additional comfort for guests, as well as a major children's attraction.  In fact, '95 was known as the "year of the family" at the park, and included a Junior admission price of only $4.95.

A drawing of the new main gate entrance area

A major change that was noticeable to visitors immediately was a brand new entrance plaza.  With the parks now connected as one a new entrance was added between the two which replaced each park's older, and outdated entrances.  The $1 million addition featured all new ticket booths, entrance turnstiles, restrooms, and a service building with Guest Relations and group sales.

The new area was also a real example of Cedar Fair's style of additions, complete with white concrete with inlaid brick pavers.

The Antique Carousel
After entering the park guests also found another new ride, and antique Dentzel Carousel.  The ride was moved from Cedar Point, but previously was also located in Lake Lansing Park in Michigan, and Exposition Park in Illinois, having originally debuted in 1921.  Valued at $2 million at the time, it was built by William and Edward Dentzel, and carved by "renowned carver," Daniel Mueller.

Featuring a 153 Wurlitzer band organ and 68 different pieces, the ride made quite an impression as guests entered, creating a totally different atmosphere for Dorney Park. Guests can ride in different animals including a lion, tiger, deer, giraffe, and military horse.

The military horse on the ride was actually a replica, as the original stayed at Cedar Point's museum.  From the park's press release on the ride:

Over the years, it has been said that the carousel is also the home of the famous "Muller Ghost Horse."  The military stander with saber and pistol is host to a variety of fascinating stories; however, it is not the lone special carving on the carousel.  The deer has authentic antlers and the lion has a warrior carved on its side.  Additionally, one of the horses has a jockey carved on its side, which is said to be in the likeness of Daniel Muller's brother, Alfred.

The Bears on the '95 Press Kit cover
Another two and a half million dollars was spent on a brand new "children's fantasy village," Berenstain Bear Country.

Taking another queue from the successful children's areas at other Cedar Fair parks, corporate moved to turn a shady, but underutilized area near the upper section of Dorney Park into a new themed land.

The area had eight different play areas that allowed kids to expend plenty of energy, but also learn about "science, physics, biology, and computers" at the same time.

Designed for children ages three to eight, Berenstain Bear Country was advertised as "the first major multi-purpose attraction to open in the past decade at a major theme park in the Northeastern United States.

Concept art for Berenstain Bear Country

The land featured both inside and outside activities.  Inside the Bear Museum was Actual Factual Bear's "learning mobile," along with Dr. Grizzly's office, where kids could check their height, weight, or measure their heart rate.  The Computer Cave had touch screen computers, and a library of Berenstain Bear books.

Outside the land had a Boys Club with play activities, the Spooky Old Tree complete with a slide, and the Family Tree House.  A sand pit featured larger than life Dinosaur bones and other sections had play elements like teeter-totters, slides, balance beams, and monkey bars.

The Monster returned in 1995
A park favorite also made its return in 1995, the Monster.  Centrally located in the lower section of the park, the Monster's "twisting, spinning, and up and down motions" thrilled guests in one of 24, two seat cars.

Other capital was also devoted to less exciting, but necessary, items such as upgraded catering groves and picnic facilities.  Significant parking upgrades were also started which would last several years.

During the course of the Summer park leaders asked the local planning commission for a height variance to build taller rides.  Eventually scaled back to one height variance request for a "225 foot steel roller coaster," the debate over approving the ride raged on for months, leading the ride to be delayed from its planned 1996 debut to 1997.  Sister park Valleyfair! instead opened a similar ride the following year, most certainly not a coincidence.

With a gigantic new roller coaster delayed, Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom took a bit of the year off from big capital expansion.  Still, the $1.34 million spent for 1996 pushed the park over $25 million in investments since being purchased four years earlier, something Cedar Fair promised to do in a five year period.

The park also received a new General Manager, John Albino.  Mr. Albino, who came from food operations at Cedar Point, would lead the park for some time, and see the park through many of its largest expansions.

Swan Boats at Dorney Park
The only real attraction that guests were able to experience for the first time that year was the Swan Boats, swan themed paddle boats that were located on the park's Western lake. 

Plenty of other changes took place, though less noticeable to visitors.  A new administration building was built at a cost of over $1 million which consolidated park offices into one space.  Restrooms were built at the main entrance, and even more catering facility improvements were made.

The Main Midway after being built

Finally, the park's Main Midway, located just beyond the Antique Carousel, was built.  Seen above, it wasn't really much when it first opened, but certainly signaled things to come.

The Main Midway seen from above
Even though the new Midway, stretching 600 feet in length, was just some concrete, the park still had to gain approval to build it and in doing so spilled some beans about their plans for the area.

Dorney Park officials said that eventually built along the Midway would be shops, games, restaurants, and more - fourteen different locations in total.  The plan was to add a little to the area each year, until it was totally filled out.

The Midway also served a great purpose in connecting the entrance gates to the park's two newest rides, White Water Landing and Thunder Canyon, something that helped visitor flow.

The Wave Swinger
1997 was a real game changer for Dorney Park.  The capital that went into the park made news around the Country, but we shall get to that in good time as that wasn't all that was new.

First, more changes were seen on the Main Midway, which had opened just the prior year.  The park's Wave Swinger was given a grand new home at the end of the midway, just before guests reached the water rides.

The Arcade's construction
The placement of the ride was perfect, drawing guests down the way, and serving as a great backdrop to the area.  Just next to it was another new addition, the Funzone Arcade.

No, an arcade isn't the most exciting addition that was made in 1997, but it did show some interesting signs with its construction.  First, it gave a general idea of the theming that was to be expected along the Midway, as the structure looked like a old time movie house, complete with tall marquee.

Second, the Arcade had exit doors located at the rear, which placed guests right up against an empty field.  A sign of developments to come, at the time one could only imagine what may eventually be located there.

In order to keep guests around longer as the evening wore on, Dorney Park made an additional investment in the Laser Light Spectacular.

Press image of the Laser Light Spectacular
Created by Stone Mountain Productions, the Laser Light Spectacular was a "high-tech, multi-image, laser light and sound show" that was presented just before the park closed each day.

The show lasted 20 minutes and was projected on a screen that was erected next to White Water Landing that stood 40 feet high and was 50 feet wide.  The combination of popular music and a light dusting of fireworks quickly made finishing the day with the show a visitor tradition.

The Laser Light Spectacular featured different sports teams, patriotic images and different music genres including country, rock, disco, oldies, and more.  The park was able to push the Starlight Admission plan, which allowed entry to the park to see the show (and ride the rides) after 5 pm for only $12.00.

Press booklet image for Steel Force
Undoubtedly, the big news of 1997 was the addition of Steel Force.  After finally gaining the proper government approvals for their steel coaster, the park had announced the ride the previous September.  The news of a massive ride such as Steel Force quickly spread, and guests and ride enthusiasts alike couldn't wait to try out Terror on Rails.

Press image of Steel Force's layout
Advertised as "taller, faster, longer - a coaster the Metal with!" the buzz around Steel Force could be felt all over.

Plans for the coaster meant that it would be the tallest free-standing roller coaster on the East Coast when it opened, topping out at 200 feet above the park below.

The ride's station was to be located next to the Western lake, where the swan boats were added previously.  From there the lift would stretch out and across the park, with the coaster's first drop plunging right next to Thunderhawk's drop.

Press image showing just how tall the ride is
At the bottom of that 205 foot drop trains would zip along at a cool 75 miles per hour, considerably faster than allowed on the highways feeding guests to the park each day. 

As if those speeds and the drop wasn't enough, a tunnel waited at the bottom to swallow the trains.  Two tracks would run through that one tunnel, one at the base of the first drop and again on the return trip to the station.

The ride's second hill stands an impressive 161 feet tall, ten feet taller than the first plunge on the park's other big ride, Hercules.

With a third hill of 100 feet, fourth hill of 85 feet, and many additional air-time hills after, Steel Force's track length totaled 5,600 feet.  An enormous 360 degree helix was placed on the hill near Hercules, serving as a turnaround point for the ride.

A look at the ride from the local paper
Steel Force opened in time for the busy Summer season on May 30th after some small delays that pushed the ride's cost up from the original quote of $10 million closer to the $12 million mark.

Park press photo of Steel Force
The massive investment paid off, as the park saw an estimated increase of attendance over the 1996 season of 20-25 percent, an amazing increase for a park of its size.

The crowds that came that Summer not only challenged the capacity of the ride park, but also tested the amount of visitors that Wildwater Kingdom could comfortably accommodate.

Often after a huge investment like Steel Force Cedar Fair parks take 'a year off,' but that wasn't the plan for Dorney Park.  Instead officials again made their annual trip to the planning commission to seek approval for a handful of new rides and attractions.

We'll continue next week with a look at what was added in 1998 and beyond.  Click here for part 2!