Sunday, September 13, 2009

Conneaut Lake Park Is Back Baby, Yeah! (Part 2)

Editor's Note: This post is the second in a two-part series covering NPN's recent visit to Conneaut Lake Park. Be sure to check out Part 1 as well!

With all the talk of trustees and lessees and volunteers (oh my!) in Part 1, those of you who aren't familiar with the history of Conneaut Lake Park may be wondering what for kind of cockamamie business plan they have in place up there. It's a legitimate question, and I might come close to adequately addressing it if I were to write a whole other multi-part series elaborating on the ins and outs of maintaining a "charitable public trust"--since that is, in fact, how Conneaut Lake Park's status is defined. But that's some pretty dry material, and let's face it: Both you and I would rather be looking at roller coasters or Tumble Bugs or some other kind of mechanized contraption which can be ordered from a catalog in any number of bright, shiny colors.

With that in mind, I'll give you the condensed version. The group known as the Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, Inc. is 15-member board responsible for the general oversight of the park, Beach Club, Hotel Conneaut, and numerous other parts and parcels which comprise the resort we know as Conneaut Lake Park. Ultimately, however, their power is limited because any decisions involving park assets must be approved by the Crawford County Court. That's all well and good, but what do trustees and judges know about running an amusement resort? Nothing!

That's where folks like the Liskos and Park Restoration LLC come into play. The purpose of such lease agreements is to bring in outside parties who are experts in their respective fields and allow them to do what they do best. Only trouble is, at Conneaut Lake Park they all began with a deficit. You can't raise money to make necessary repairs without getting people to the resort, and you can't get people to the resort if everything is figuratively (and in some cases, literally) broken. Add to that the mound of debt that the resort is currently saddled with, and you've got yourself a classic Catch-22.

That, in a nutshell, is why fundraisers and volunteer events continue to be so vital to this park's survival. Perhaps someday when the resort is restored to its former glory and all the debts have been erased, such crutches will no longer be necessary. In a way it would almost be a shame, as the outpouring of support that this park receives is an inspiration to us all. But enough with the business speak and sappy reflections. Let's move on to those bright, shiny, mechanized contraptions, shall we?

Toboggan or To-be-gone?

We'll begin with a somewhat bright, formerly shiny, theoretically mechanized contraption which didn't quite make the 2009 roster and is rumored to be on the chopping block. But why, spirit? Why must you torment us like this? Relax! The Blogger of Conneaut Lake Present always has a method to her madness. This photo, my friends, represents the circle of life. The Toboggan's scream-inducing days may be over, but would it be of any consolation to you if I said it might be replaced by a Ferris wheel, log flume, Scrambler, or possibly even another coaster? Because it might! Those are four of the ideas that Tim threw out while speaking about what he might like to bring to Conneaut Lake in the near future.

Being well traveled on the carnival circuit, the Liskos also recognize the value of the "newness" factor. "Sooner or later, you're going to have to start swapping some stuff out...just for a change of pace," Tim told us, noting that even for their rotating fairs, they strive to have something different every year. Keep in mind that we're not talking about permanent installations here; the Board would need to get involved for that type of project. Nevertheless, it would be refreshing to see some new rides mixed in with the old each season.

As far as park slogans go, Conneaut Lake has a comparatively meaningful one: "Where the Past Becomes the Future". It speaks to the strong foundations on which Conneaut Lake was built, and on which it continues to operate. All the ingredients for a successful 21st century park are there; they simply need to find the right recipe. Kiddieland, for instance, throws that kid friendly component into the mix.

Conneaut Lake's Kiddieland has been around for a good half century, but it received a special dedication in 1999. Mouse the Clown, a character played by Pauline Mandish, was a fixture at the park for many years. To honor her legacy, the park decided to name Kiddieland after "Mouse" shortly before she passed away.

A credit opportunity missed in the past is a credit opportunity to be gained on September 19...

Blue Streak may be down for the count this year, but Conneaut Lake Park did have one coaster in operation! The Little Dipper is a Herschell model which was added to the park in 1954. (Pssst... Here's a juicy little tidbit regarding that uber secret Blue Streak fundraiser you know nothing about--Everyone, and I mean everyone will be permitted to ride the kiddie coaster! Now forget I said anything about it so you're still surprised at the end.)

For a park of this size, Kiddieland has a pretty impressive little collection of rides. My biggest regret from a photography perspective is that I missed the ponies! (I'm pretty sure that whole 'lack of food' thing was affecting my brain by this point.) But if you look closely at the photo of Tot Gun, you can just barely make out one lone park patron riding off into the sunset on her trusty steed. Believe it or not, Conneaut Lake's pony track dates all the way back to the 1920s, although it did not always exist in this particular location. I'm sure more than a few kids were thrilled to hear that this attraction would be among those reopening in 2009.

Another victim of my impending starvation and general delirium was Splash City Water Park. These are literally the only two photos I have! While it's not a big water park by any stretch of the imagination, Splash City remains one of the key ingredients to the park's future. Water parks are all the rage these days, and it bodes well for Conneaut Lake that they have something to build on moving forward. Splash City made its 2009 debut just in time for the 4th of July holiday weekend, and looks forward to a full season of operation in 2010!

If roller coasters are king of the midway, here is the queen. No traditional park would be complete without a classic carousel, and Conneaut Lake Park does not disappoint in that regard. (Again: Foundations, foundations, foundations.) This beauty, along with the building in which she resides, was built in 1910.

I took a particular liking to this figure.

Conneaut Lake's carousel features hand-carved wooden figures, although some are newer than others. In 1989, the park sold some of its antique carousel horses in an effort to raise money for various projects, not the least of which was the complete refurbishment of the carousel itself. Many other parks would have settled for fiberglass replacements, but not Conneaut Lake. They contracted with a company called Carousel Works to obtain a new generation of hand-carved figures for this vintage ride.

Ghosts of the former bowling alley building past

As part of the 1989 renovation, Conneaut Lake's carousel received a gift in the form of 18 original oil paintings which were mounted around the center hub. These paintings feature various landmarks and scenes from Conneaut Lake's history, one of which depicts a particular fun house whose facade looks strangely familiar...

Speaking of park staples, one of the highlights of our visit was taking a ride aboard the Bessemer Railway System. We considered ourselves lucky to have this opportunity, as it would have been an impossibility just a few short years ago. Conneaut Lake's miniature train, which has been running in some form or another since 1904, is yet another attraction which has the community to thank for its existence.

When the 2002 season drew to a close, the writing was on the wall: The Bessemer needed help. Lots of help. Its wheels and axles were completely shot, and its track wasn't far behind. In short, it needed a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, such a major restoration effort would cost tens of thousands of dollars that the park did not have, so a bit of creative financing was in order.

The little engine that couldn't...until it scored some free replacement wheels and axles!

In 2006, efforts to save the train began in earnest with the kick-off of the Conneaut Lake Institute's "Brick by Brick" fundraising campaign. Much like the "Board by Board" campaign that is currently underway to raise money for the boardwalk restoration project, this campaign encouraged supporters to buy an engraved brick at a cost of $100 or $200 a piece. The plan (which has since come to fruition) was to use the bricks to pave the station's entrance area.

By July of the same year, Brick by Brick had raised more than $30,000! As if that weren't enough of a community outpouring, a local welding business stepped forward to replace the train's wheels and axles at no cost, and another local business donated the gravel on which the new tracks would be laid. Thanks to this tremendous show of support, the Bessemer Railway System reopened on July 2, 2006.

Given the amount of effort it took to bring this charming little train back online, I can only imagine how disheartening it must have been to see it sit idle, along with the rest of Conneaut Lake, through the following two seasons. Thankfully, the Liskos were able to bring it back to life by July of this year, and it was a joyous occasion indeed. Just ask the third generation Conneaut Lake Park ride op who manages the queue! You read that correctly: Third generation Conneaut Lake Park ride op. This park's roots run deep and strong.

Back in the day, the Bessemer caddied guests through a Western-themed town. These days, you'll pass landmarks such as a miniature golf course. Heck, they even threw up a roller coaster for our viewing pleasure!

Okay, so maybe that's not entirely true. Conneaut Lake's famous Blue Streak was designed and built by Edward Vettel in 1938, and it is more than self-sufficient. But sadly, in 2009, it really has been reduced to little more than landscaping for the Bessemer. If the flat rides were in bad shape following a 3-year hiatus, you can only imagine the state of a wooden roller coaster. The good news is that it won't remain in that state for long--not if the Liskos have anything to do with it!

That is one strange section of track...

Paratroopers, kiddie rides, Tilt-A-Whirls? No problem. The Lisko brothers are far from greenhorns in this business, and they've seen it all. But what of this wooden behemoth up in western Pennsylvania, with its shallow track construction and vintage trains? If it's challenges that the Liskos crave, they came to the right place. The idiosyncrasies of this coaster (at least compared to modern designs) are enough to challenge even the most seasoned maintenance crews, let alone an outfit that specializes in traveling rides. Make no mistake: The Liskos will have this coaster operational by 2010. But in order to do so, they're going to need a little help from their friends.

Challenge #1: The Track
"I know that back corner has to be done. That's a definite." I could almost see the figurative wheels turning in Tim's head as he mentally surveyed his wooden patient. "Lots of track," he mused, adding some new structural boards and perhaps a new drive chain to the to-do list as well.

The Liskos obviously have a good handle on the situation, but there's no room for guesswork when it comes to maintaining a roller coaster. Consequently, they've sought advice from many industry veterans. Clair Hain from Great Coasters International, a ride inspector from Ohio, and a couple of gentlemen who used to perform maintenance on the wooden coasters at Geauga Lake are among the many who have visited Conneaut Lake Park this summer to assess the Blue Streak's status and offer opinions.

Geek shot! Geek shot!

The Blue Streak's track is a bit of a curiosity to the modern-day builder. Whereas the track constructed for today's wooden coasters is comprised of numerous layers of wood which sit atop cross supports, the Blue Streak sports a "shallow track" design, where the cross supports actually separate the layers of track into two sections. This feature is very obvious in the photo above.

Getting Blue Streak's track up to par will be no easy task. In some areas, it's in such a state that even the gauge is wrong. But after the Liskos work out the initial kinks (so to speak), Tim foresees this type of track work falling into a maintenance schedule where certain sections are worked each year. "We'll replace one [section], and then just kind of work a section each year," he told us, gesturing toward the various sections of the coaster. "By the time you get back to this section here, it should be done again."

We want to come out and play! Pleeeeease Mr. Lisko?

Challenge #2: The Trains
All this talk of track work is making the Blue Streak's trains impatient. They want to ride the rails now! Alas, they aren't quite up to par either. While Tim hasn't looked too closely at the trains yet, the reports he received from those who had indicated that one of the trains needed to be rebuilt, and the other would probably need to have its restraints updated. HORRORS!!! Let's not get too crazy with the latter, eh?

Classic Vettel

Classic NAD

Wear and tear is not the only issue here. Historically, two different types of trains have run on the Blue Streak. The red train is the original, which was constructed specifically for this coaster back in 1938. The silver train, a Century Flyer model, was manufactured by National Amusement Device in the 1960s.

While the NAD train ran safely and consistently on this coaster for many years, it never quite "fit" right, and I mean that literally. As Tim explained, the spread between the wheel axles on the NAD train is not ideal for the Blue Streak's design; they are too far apart. He inquired about the feasibility of moving the axles, but the ride inspector advised against it due to the sheer amount of work involved. With that in mind, the Liskos are not afraid to investigate other possibilities with regard to rolling stock. They're even considering testing out a train that used to run on one of Geauga Lake's woodies. "The more, the merrier," Tim commented.

Challenge #3: The Funds!
Determining what repairs need to be made in order to render the Blue Streak operational is half the battle. The other half is equally as challenging: Financing said repairs. That's where you come into play! (Altogether now, everybody feign surprise...)

Conneaut Lake Park and Lisko Entertainment LLC are teaming up to host an enthusiast event on Saturday, September 19, with all proceeds going toward the restoration of this classic coaster. For a small fee, you can enjoy (among other things) a Blue Streak walk-back tour, a silent auction, and all the rides you can handle on Conneaut Lake's Little Dipper. (Read: CREDIT) But all of those perks are secondary to the sense of satisfaction and pride you will gain by knowing that your dedication played a role in getting this old girl back into service.

Ken tells me that he and Tim will be working out the final details of this event tomorrow, so we'll be sure to post an update as soon as it becomes available. Don't squander this opportunity to make your mark on the industry! The future of Conneaut Lake Park--not to mention that of a one-of-a-kind vintage wooden coaster--hangs in the balance.

Editor's Note: Updated details on this event can now be found here!

The effort to revive Conneaut Lake Park has seen many fits and starts through the years. Many have tried, but thus far, none have fully succeeded. That pattern ends in 2009. Sure, it's a tough economy and many of the locals are (rightfully) hesitant to put their faith and hard-earned dollars into a park whose leadership has disappointed them in the past.

But that was before the Liskos came into the picture. They are the real deal. Aside from being an Ohio State fan, Tim is a heck of a good guy. [I bleed blue and white.] I'm willing to overlook that one minor personality flaw if he pumps just as much spirit and energy into Conneaut Lake Park, and after the conversation we had with him, I don't think that's a question. "We started our carnival business the same way--from scratch," he noted. "I just want to get by. I just want to survive this year. We've been doing the [traveling] end of this for years, and I'm not afraid to work."

He ain't just whistlin' Dixie. Freshly painted, functional rides speak louder than words, and the message they're conveying is that Conneaut Lake Park is back! "I've got ideas, I just need to grow into it," Tim said. "I got my feet wet. That's how I'm looking at it." So what will happen when they get to a point where they're 100% satisfied with the state of the park? "I could buy a boat then! I could be out on the lake watching," Tim joked. But on a more serious note, when I asked whether the possibility exists for this arrangement to become a more permanent thing, he responded, "I think so. The potential's here, so why not?"

Mike and I would like to sincerely thank both Tim Lisko and Ken Jones for taking the time to speak with us during our visit. If their energy and enthusiasm are any indication, I think we will have many more opportunities to visit a successful and fully operational Conneaut Lake Park in the very near future. We certainly wish them the best!

If you'd like to see even more of Conneaut Lake Park, check out our public album on Facebook. (The first half of a Kennywood album has been uploaded as well!) But this is not the end of the road [trip], my friends. Not by a long shot! There's another gorgeous traditional park lurking up in northwestern PA, and Mike will be taking you there very soon...