Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Conneaut Lake Park Is Back Baby, Yeah! (Part 1)

Editor's Note: This post is the first in a two-part series covering NPN's recent visit to Conneaut Lake Park. Be sure to check out Part 2 as well!

Thus far in our coverage of our ambitious quest to tackle four historic parks in three days, Mike and I have taken you to Idlewild and Kennywood. While each of those parks has its own unique personality, they also share many things in common--classic rides, tree-lined midways, a good old-fashioned amusement park ambiance, and perhaps most importantly, a firm and unwavering commitment to preserving the historic foundations on which the entire industry was built. It is a winning formula, and one that has brought both parks much success through the decades.

We are officially halfway through the Great NPN Western PA Road Trip!

But if it were that easy to operate a traditional park in this continually evolving age of modern mega-theme parks, everyone would be doing it. Idlewild and Kennywood are among the rare specimens that have enjoyed gifted leadership and consistent patronage through the years. Not every park has been so lucky, as evidenced by the increasingly small number of traditional parks still in existence. The next stop on our tour took us to a park whose path has diverged quite drastically from that taken by the Kennywood family of parks.

Conneaut Lake Park is a land of stark contrasts. Freshly painted and refurbished rides stand next to empty, dilapidated buildings. Historic landmarks which have greeted generations of park guests stare down empty lots where other equally important landmarks once stood. A miniature train filled with smiling, laughing patrons runs alongside an eerily silent vintage wooden roller coaster that once ruled this midway.

Yet there is an intangible vibe at Conneaut Lake that is unmistakable. It is hope. It is pride. It is determination. It is what has kept this resilient little park afloat through the many trials and tribulations it has seen in recent decades.

I'm not going to spend this article dissecting Conneaut Lake Park's troubled past and doling out blame for its downfall. That story has been told many times before, and frankly, it doesn't matter. What matters in 2009 is the direction the park takes moving forward, and how we and the rest of the public respond to it. That new direction began a few short months ago, and it's where we will begin as well.

Ironically, the ride that stands out as you approach Conneaut Lake Park's entrance plaza is the one ride that never operated at this park before the 2009 season. While a Conneaut Lake purist might view this as a negative, it would be more accurate to think of this ride as a symbol of hope. The brightly colored Skydiver was brought to Conneaut Lake by the Lisko brothers of Lisko & Sons Amusements, without whose help there would have been no 2009 season.

The Liskos' first encounter with this classic amusement resort came in Fall 2008, when they operated rides at the park as part of the area's annual Pumpkin Fest event. After forging a relationship with the Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, the organization which owns the park, the two parties came to a multi-year lease agreement which would allow the Liskos to operate the park's rides during the regular season. Since this torch was passed, the changes at Conneaut Lake have been quite remarkable. Mike and I had an opportunity to chat with Tim Lisko during our visit, and I'll be sharing some of his thoughts with you as we explore.

That was then...

...This is ALMOST now, but not quite.

As you survey Conneaut Lake Park's offerings today, you'd never guess that this is the park's first summer season since 2006. The colors are vibrant, the midways are clean, and the rides are operating like the well-oiled machines that they are! But if you had visited the park a few short months ago, you would have beheld a much different scene. "It was rough," Tim told us. Years of neglect and idleness had left much of the park in shambles, and it was all the Liskos could do to get the majority of the rides up and running in time for the park's 2009 debut.

Luckily for them, they had help. The story of Conneaut Lake Park cannot be told without mentioning the scores of volunteers who continue to selflessly give of their time and resources to ensure that this park has a future. Nowhere is this more evident than at the annual Fall and Spring volunteer clean-up events, during which volunteers descend upon the resort from all directions to tidy the place up and give the various rides and structures a little TLC. "If it wasn't for all the volunteers, I still think we'd have been behind," Tim told us. "With them cleaning up and doing all the other stuff, it definitely helped."

More vintage Traver goodness comin' at ya!

Mike and I had not been at Conneaut Lake for very long before we discovered that this sense of community and pride extends to the park's employees as well. As we stood on Park Avenue admiring the second Traver Tumble Bug we would have the pleasure of experiencing during our trip, an employee working at a nearby concession booth struck up a conversation with us and proceeded to tell us all about the ride's history. And lest we think that this event was a fluke, the ride operator himself did much the same thing later in the evening, immediately before treating us to a VERY lengthy and much appreciated spin on this classic. (My love of all things Traver was most definitely stoked on this trip. I could hardly contain myself!)

The litany of Tumble Bug facts was not the only earful we received from Conneaut Lake Park employees during our visit. Ken Jones saw to that. Whether you realize it or not, you've encountered Ken before. He's the impassioned and impossibly energetic young man who pops up on many a forum to keep us apprised of all the wonderful happenings at the park. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Ken is single-handedly responsible for keeping Conneaut Lake Park on the enthusiast radar. He's like a one-man PR machine, and I love that about him. He was happy to exercise his mad PR skillz during our visit as well!

Like most traditional parks, Conneaut Lake Park has boasted its share of dark rides through the years. These days, only one remains: Devil's Den. Built by the Pretzel Amusement Company in 1968, it is a gravity-powered ride assisted by a chain lift.

While Conneaut Lake Park already has the distinction of featuring one more dark ride than some of the most well-known corporate theme parks, Ken told us that Devil's Den may welcome a "frightening" sibling in the near future. Back in 2006, local developer Greg Sutterlin (who has been affiliated with Conneaut Lake Park for many years) purchased the Fright Zone dark ride which once operated at both Westview Amusement Park in Pennsylvania and Erieview Park in Ohio. Fright Zone is a last-of-its-kind ride that was manufactured by the Allan Herschell Company in the 1950s. The ride is currently sitting in storage at Conneaut Lake, and according to Ken, the park is investigating options for installing it.

While a 2010 debut is within the realm of possibility, Ken said we will likely have to wait just a bit longer for this classic ride to make its official comeback. But I think we can all agree that such an achievement would be well worth the wait!

Going back to the present, there is still plenty of work to be done before Conneaut Lake Park can seriously consider any permanent additions. After speaking with Tim, it was clear to us that the Lisko brothers are a hard working team. They don't shy away from a challenge, and reviving a park which, for all intents and purposes, has been "dead" for three years definitely falls into that category. But hard working or not, this is not a task that one accomplishes overnight. "I need three years for it to get to where I think it should be," Tim told us.

In the meantime, don't arrive at Conneaut Lake Park expecting to be greeted by a scene that's straight out of the history books. That expectation simply is not realistic at this point. To the longtime Conneaut Lake patron, perhaps the toughest pill to swallow is the condition of the park's main midway, the section of Park Avenue between Comstock Street and Lake Street. This stretch, once lined with concessions and bustling with activity, remains a shadow of its former self.

The task of getting all these buildings and concession stands back into commission proved to be too much for this year, even for the likes of the Liskos. As a result, the majority of them remain boarded up--for now. The Liskos have done their best to liven up this section of the park by bringing in their own games and food concessions for 2009. While Mike and I opted not to try our hands at the games, I must give the employees an "A" for effort. They certainly did their best to entice us every time we passed by!

Gone, but not forgotten.

Perhaps our reluctance to participate in simpler pastimes was spawned by this sight. Located toward the far end of Park Avenue, this lonely concrete slab is all that remains of what was once billed as the largest ballroom between New York and Chicago. Over its many decades of service, the Dreamland Ballroom played host to everything from weddings to corporate conventions. It was a Conneaut Lake institution. Sadly, the dream came to an abrupt and untimely end on February 1, 2008, when a blaze set by an arsonist burned this historic structure to the ground. At a time when the entire park was teetering on the brink of extinction, this horrific event added insult to injury.

Across the street is an equally depressing sight. This facade belonged to a building which was originally constructed in 1909 (the same year as Dreamland) to house the park's bowling alley. It also enjoyed a brief stint as a fun house before being converted into the "Ultimate Trip", an indoor Scrambler featuring strobe lights and music. Unfortunately, the aging building's already feeble structure was weakened even further by the heat of the Dreamland flames. Despite efforts to reinforce it, the structure ultimately succumbed to gravity and collapsed in April 2008.

Almost gone, but putting up one heck of a fight!

While the damage done to the Dreamland Ballroom was irrecoverable, there is a glimmer of hope for what remains of the old bowling alley. As if in an act of defiance, the original concrete facade which served as the building's entrance stands tall and proud above the wreckage, and it has not gone unnoticed by park officials. According to Ken, they hope to preserve this facade and use it in the construction of a new building on the same site. And the future occupant of that building very well may be the Fright Zone!

After taking in the aftermath of the various tragedies that have beset Conneaut Lake Park over the past couple years, the building above was a sight for sore eyes. The Beach Club, a Conneaut Lake tradition since 1935, is located at the end of Park Avenue on the site where the resort's original boathouse once stood. It sits directly on the waterfront and affords some beautiful views of the very lake which gave this town (not to mention this park!) its name.

Mmmm food... That magical yet elusive source of blogging energy.

The Beach Club symbolizes many things to many people. For me and Mike, it symbolized our first real meal in 12 hours. Let it never be said that we don't bust our your-know-whats for this blog!!

Another Conneaut Lake tradition, this one dating back to 1903, is the Hotel Conneaut. Its picturesque setting overlooking the water only adds to its historic charm. Both the Beach Club and the Hotel Conneaut are operated by Park Restoration LLC under a lease agreement similar to that reached with the Lisko brothers. (Park Restoration LLC is a partnership of local businessmen, including Fright Zone owner Greg Sutterlin and several others.) The grand reopening of these two landmarks in 2007 and 2008, respectively, paved the way for the grand reopening of the park this year, and it stands to reason that the success of one will translate into success for the others.

Connecting the Beach Club and the Hotel Conneaut is a 650-foot-long boardwalk which was constructed in 1936. This beachfront area really emphasizes the fact that Conneaut Lake is more than just a park--It's a resort. Even without the rides, this is a beautiful spot to enjoy some boating and water activities, or simply to relax. You can even take a spin--er, float--on the Kaylee Belle tour boat!

The 73-year-old boardwalk has begun to show its age, and efforts are currently underway to restore it. Park Restoration LLC has also taken on this ambitious project, which they have estimated will cost approximately $180,000. When it's all said and done, the historic Conneaut Lake boardwalk will have a new foundation, new decking and railings, new benches, and new lampposts featuring energy-efficient lighting.

Visions of a NewsPlusNotes board are dancing in my head...

Like most other projects at Conneaut Lake, this one is a community effort. Earlier this year, a public campaign was launched to raise the funds required for the reconstruction. Donations of any amount are welcome, and for a cool $100 you can even personalize a board! Additional options are available for the "big spenders" in our midst who may be interested in donating something a bit more substantial.

Conneaut Lake's boardwalk is being rebuilt in sections, and in this shot you can clearly see the difference between new and old. What a transformation! This project is yet another shining example of what can happen when a community bands together to accomplish something for the greater good.

In Part 2, we'll take a look at some more fruits of this community's labors. Spoiler alert: You may even be given the opportunity to get involved and make your own mark on Conneaut Lake Park! [Okay, I know it's not much of a surprise since you already know about it, but let's pretend that it is. It will make the story that much more exciting!]