Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Observations from Lakemont and DelGrosso’s

My rough plan for this year hasn’t exactly panned out, so instead I thought I’d offer a short review of two rarely visited or talked about parks.

I was in Pittsburg with a friend the other day. With Pensylvania so full of amusement parks, we obviously had to stop by somewhere…

We’d already been to Kennywood a couple of years ago and we were not fans, so decided to try out Lakemont. A tiny park, but it boasts the world’s oldest roller coaster still in operation and North America’s last surviving side friction – Leap the Dips. It’s also home to a Chance Toboggan (a ride type I’d yet to try) and another wooden coaster named Skyliner.

I was expecting the park to be nice enough. Pulling up to the place, the park itself is overshadowed by a contemporary business park that we had assumed was more like an outlet village similar to the one found at Lightwater Valley in the UK. It’s a real shame that it is not, it would perhaps draw much-needed visitors to the amusement park.

The ticket price for entry and a wristband for all rides and the waterpark, with the exception of Leap the Dips, was only $5 on a Friday. That seemed insane. Most ticket-based parks will charge that per large ride. The modest ticket price soon becomes apparent though, there’s nothing at this park. Literally. Well, there is a waterpark, and arguably $5 for any waterpark however awful is pretty damn good, and I suspect that’s what most local people come here for. But this park was completely dead. For a Friday afternoon sandwiched between 4th July and the weekend, this was crazy quiet. I cannot fathom how the park makes enough money to even cover staff pay.

The park reminded me of Oakwood and Lightwater due to the way it looks so unlike a typical amusement park, baring more in common with a play area at a local recreational park. I instantly thought to myself that Jeremy of RollerCoasterPhilosophy.com would be a fan of this place. It’s that lack of bright tacky colours, stalls, sounds and smells, feeling a little too relaxing... And with such low visitor numbers there the feeling is amplified. Unlike the two British parks however, Lakemont also feels tiny in ground space.

 
Photos by author.

We made our way over to Skyliner, wondering how old it was. It looks in pretty terrible shape. As an enthusiast, I kinda like that, but it really just conveys a lack of care and safety to the masses (ha…) who visit a park. We noticed the trains were 3 rows per car and chose to strategically seat ourselves in the middle of the back car to avoid too much of a beating. Skyliner was actually a lot of fun to ride, not painful, but it didn’t feel structurally sound in the slightest. In fact, I think it’s the least safe feeling large coaster I’ve been on… It was awesome! It runs alongside a baseball stadium, and I thought to myself how awesome seeing the coaster run as a backdrop to a game would be. When I got back and checked RCDB.com, I find out this thing was only built in 1987, I was thinking more like the 50s! And putting it into age perspective, it’s a little worrisome how it has deteriorated to that degree. This ride, and the park in general, is in desperate need of TLC. All of their attractions, and even the space around them, looked unkept.

 
Photos by author.

Next we tried to go on the kiddy coaster, but no one over 12 is allowed to ride. Oh well, fair enough, onto the Toboggan then… I was a little worried about my first ever experience of one. We queued quite a while for this, which is both a show of terrible capacity but also of perception. It is the park’s only ride that looks like a modern thrill contraption. It is of course neither of those things and actually opened here in the 70s, before that travelling with a fair, so it’s probably a good 50 years old. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but the fun value was absolutely zero. The best part of the ride is the waiting and assent of the vertical lift, which feels rather like you’re about to enter a furnace. The rusty, flaking walls of the chimney are nice in that grotesque kinda way. Several kids coming off the ride said how “awesome!” it was and so further my hope for humanity and the requirement for parks to build quality attractions tumbles into oblivion.

Photo by author.

We made our way over to Leap the Dips, the parks best maintained ride. At 111 years old, Leap the Dips is the world’s oldest roller coaster still in operation. It opened in 1902, fell into disrepair in the 1980s and closed. In 1997, work began to restore the ride with money from a fund raising campaign, and it reopened in 1999. The structure has been protected as a National Historic Landmark since 1996. I can only assume that the park now receives some kind of fund to keep the ride in decent conditional and operational, because it is clear they lack the money (or care) to maintain the rest of the park. As we approach Leap the Dips, 3 staff members are sat staring towards us, an older man asks what he can do for us. “We’d like to ride Leap the Dips…” I said, awkwardly wondering what on earth else we’d approach for. He informed us that all we’d need is $2.50 each and to hand our newly purchased ticket to the younger staff member. The station platform area of Leap the Dips is well presented. All minimal care this park has is clearly pushed at this landmark ride. We sat in the car and a staff member pushed it all the way round the corner to the lift. The thing has awesome, wooden paddle anti-rollbacks along it’s lift. We thought Leap the Dips was really good fun. Every time it went down a drop and back up the other side, you felt the wheels momentarily lift off the track and slam back down, but ironically it felt infinitely more stable than Skyliner. It was a truly unique coaster experience and I’d say much more fun than the two Scenic Railway side friction coasters I’ve ridden in the UK.

Photo by author.

The weirdest thing about Lakemont in general was how awful staff were. The woman operating the Toboggan in particular was just the most sour-faced person I’ve ever seen in a customer-facing role (actually, I lie, there was one absolutely vile lady at Six Flags America this one time…) She spoke to not a single person entire time we queued and rode. The woman who served us a slushy was also pretty awful and everyone else was just not as friendly as they should be for an amusement park. Even the old guy at Leap the Dips had a better-than-thou air about the way he spoke to us. There was also an older woman in the shop near the park entrance who was weirdly off with a family just asking her how to get out of the park “well, if we had this door open everyone would just walk in” in that “duh” attitude with a grumpy tone. Exiting through a gift shop is pretty normal and we had only entered assuming the same. It was just all rather odd, especially for such a small park like this. Having exceptional staff is the one thing a small park can do which costs absolutely nothing other than encouragement. The fact that not a single person was actively nice to us all day would make you assume the park purposely hires and encourages staff to be less than pleasant to guests. The second weirdest thing was the lack of supporting rides. The ones that did exist looked just as old as their coasters. No new attractions, even small ones, have been added in a very long time.

Visiting Lakemont was a saddening experience. Is this park stuck? Making little to no money, but unable to sell due to the burden of maintaining Leap the Dips?

We left Lakemont to make a last minute trip to the nearby DelGrosso’s. I’d never even heard of this park, but they had a spinning mouse, a handful of other attractions and we’d not spent as much time at Lakemont as we’d imagined. We drove past a huge queue for a water slide and pulled into to a busy car park. Confused about the contrast to Lakemont, we got out the car and made our way over the bridge crossing the road to the main amusement park. The park looks brand new and we guessed that due to the presentation and lack of destination ride, it must be only a few years old. But there’s been an amusement park here since 1907! The park charges around $19 for a wristband, which is more than I was willing to pay for the few rides I wanted to go on and the time we were willing to spent there, so we just paid per ride. There are no rides of note here, at all, but it is a lovely park with massive potential. And what’s more, staff were lovely.

 
Photos by author.

The weird thing about DelGrosso’s is that it has had rides of note in the past. Of course, to fellow enthusiasts, DelGrosso’s isn’t worth a visit other than for the +2 you can add to your coaster count, but the crowds and quality of experience is ideal for locals and explains why Lakemont is dead. If DelGrosso’s can find the space and money to build a signature and unique attraction (a road-hopping wooden coaster perhaps?), it would easily attract a wider crowd and receive incredible praise.

DelGrosso's is actually a brand of italian food who happen to own an amusement park on the side.
Photo by author.

It’s sad that the two worthwhile reasons to visit Lakemont aren’t enough to attract decent visitor numbers, that the guests who do turn up would apparently rather ride the Toboggan than Skyliner, and that the park itself cannot be bothered to make small improvements that would raise the standard to a point where I could praise them. Customer service matters, that’s for sure, but I’m still not sure if whether having critically good, unique attractions matters in the bigger picture, and these two parks have further confused matters. 

Been to either parks? What were your thoughts? Ever seen Lakemont busy? Please leave a thought below or join in the discussion on the Theme Park Thoughts Facebook Page!

3 comments:

  1. I can't say a lot for the current state of Lakemont because it has been several years since I've been, but I have fond memories of the place. Skyliner's always looked marginal but runs well. Chance Toboggans are rides I don't enjoy, but I've never seen one be openly rejected by the public. Leap The Dips is interesting in that its the last of its kind, but looking at old photos, I imagine the enthusiasts of their time sending letters to each other (not that this actually happened, it is pure fantasy in my mind) about how generic all the figure 8 side frictions are and man, can't someone build something original? There's some statement to make about how they're the evolutionary predecessor to the Zyklon but I'm probably not the person to make that statement. Also I think they have a pretty reasonable collection of flats. Skydivers are intrinsically insane, and most everything else there while "generic" is perfectly acceptable stuff. For me personally, I wouldn't make a special trip solely for Lakemont, but I wouldn't make a special trip to most theme parks and I also have the benefit of having already been there and having been on all the significant rides.

    Put Delgrosso's in Orlando and call it Fun Spot and people would be like "bah, it sucks." What I mean by that it's a park which caters entirely to a small local base and has nothing significant, but manages to be "clean" (i.e. doesn't have any rides requiring significant upkeep to look good like wood coasters) and because of where it happens to be located in the world, it becomes commonplace to simply parrot the "it's a good family park, people like it and it is profitable" talking points in discussing it. People have been repeating that for so long that mentioning the absolute blandness (pun!) of the place is verboten. It looks like an overgrown FEC; Adventure City on steroids. Yes, people like it and what have you, and maybe in 40-50 years amusement park nerds of the future will get misty eyed at pictures Wisdom Tornado rides in the way they do now of classic post war Kiddielands/Storybook Lands. I just don't think the place has a lot of charm. It is just so...there. It just happens to be that "there" is Central PA, and so there's a weird sliding scale there.

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    1. Hi Alan! Thanks for stopping by!

      I'd say you are definitely right about location contributing to perceived quality. I personally think the Fun Spot parks are pretty nice, especially with their recent investments. The issue there is that they are surrounded by high quality (not necessarily better) experiences and get forgotten about, though you could argue that their ability to survive despite this shows that there is clearly a market for them and they are indeed "a good family park, people like it and it is profitable".

      With DelGrosso's, my observation is quite simply that, where the public are concerned, having a well kept park full of bland attractions seems to be more successful than having a poorly kept park with unique attractions. The public aren't aware that a crazy mouse is lesser an experience than Skyliner, nor do they care, they just want to have some fun. And despite DelGrosso's costing almost 4 times that of Lakemont, the locals would rather visit DelGrosso's.

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    2. I guess where I'm going with this is that Delgrosso's (it used to be named Bland's, ergo the pun) is clean and new-ish in comparison to Lakemont, and that certainly explains a good deal of the popularity of that park over the older, cheaper place it is in competition with. I just don't personally find any great positives in it. It is just there as a living monument to mediocrity in the world of overgrown FECs. Some of Lakemont's rides probably haven't gotten a fresh coat of paint in a decade, but at least they're interesting to me. If I had to summarily execute one of these two amusement parks to save my family, I know which one I'd pick.

      Also, we probably have different scales as to what would scare us as far as maintenance on coasters go. I'm not some fogey, but I've been on plenty of very shady rides over the years domestically and internationally. It's been awhile since I've stepped foot into Lakemont, but I have a hard time believing it looks any rougher than Conneaut Lake did during my visit there last October.

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