June 22nd, 2008


things never were normal at geauga lake

I went to the amusement park known off and on as Geagua Lake just once in 2000. It was in Aurora, Ohio, less than an hour east of Cleveland, and shared lakefront space with a Sea World franchise. By the time I visited, however, the ironic novelty of a Sea World in Ohio had faded (c'mon, they've got Lake Erie, people, we're not talking landlocked here) and I wasn't in much of a mood to go see Shamu. I just wanted to ride roller coasters.

That particular Ohio trip has passed into legend as the Jellybean Trip. I'd planned a full weekend in Ohio and Pennsylvania. I would fly in to Cleveland on Friday night, pick up my rental car, visit Geagua Lake (then newly purchased by Six Flags and renamed "Worlds of Adventure") on Saturday, drive to Pittsburgh on Saturday night and finally visit Kennywood (glorious Kennywood!) on Sunday, driving back to Cleveland in time to catch a night flight home. There were times, better times than these, when I could afford to make such trips at least once a month. But then again, it was the dot com boom, we were all taking home sacksful of newly-printed hundred dollar bills on a daily basis and having fun finding unique uses for them. Y'know, stuffing mattresses, lighting cigars, mop heads, origami, all the fun things.

Yet I can't say I was exactly flush to the gills or else what happened in Ohio wouldn't have happened. Due to a deposited paycheck not posting before the weekend and several facts about rental car companies that Young Spatchel was not aware of at the time (the first being that some companies put a Very Large Hold on your credit card at the time you pick up the rental, and the second being that if you use a debit card, this hold equals a Very Large Temporary Withdrawal) I found myself nigh-stranded in Ohio on Saturday mornining with the following assets to my name:
  1. Use of a rental car until Sunday night
  2. A flight home on Sunday night (but not before then)
  3. Not enough money in the bank account for even one withdrawal
  4. A two-pound bag of assorted jellybeans (yes, two pounds. It was to be my road trip nosh. I really liked jellybeans.)
Realizing I was pretty much destined to be stuck in Cleveland for two days, I decided to just enjoy my predicament however I could. Jendave wired me some money from afar; she was amazingly generous in a tight spot and provided me with enough for me to keep the car in gas and me in food. And maybe I could buy a ticket to the park, if I was careful.

As it turned out I was more than careful. I was lucky. Upon arriving at the park's main gate, I ran into a family who had an extra ticket to sell. Having no takers for even half price, they eventually gave it to me for my copious collection of jellybeans. I probably could have also gotten the cow, but felt that would be asking too much. And that is how I enjoyed a day at the amusement park for a bag of beans.

It turned out that Six Flags had put quite a lot of beans into their latest acquisition. They bought the Sea World property and merged the two together, they redecorated the park, adding their Looney Tunes and DC Comics properties wherever they could, and put in a metric boatload of roller coasters while they were at it. I enjoyed my first rides on an inverted Intamin Impulse coaster ("Superman: Ultimate Escape"), absolutely adored the Bolliger & Mabillard floorless ("Batman Knight Flight") and had a decent enough time on the Villain, CCI's latest wooden coaster. As much fun as the new rides were, however, the clear standout of the day was Geauga Lake's prize possession, a 1925 wooden coaster called the Big Dipper.

The ride was designed and built by John Miller, who was without a doubt the granddaddy of modern roller coasters. None of the rides we enjoy today would exist if it had not been for Miller's inventions (well, maybe they'd exist if someone else eventually thought of 'em, but Miller did it first and he did a lot.) He contributed two very important innovations: first, the chain dog, which is the device which keeps the train from rolling back down the lift hill if the lift chain breaks. The chain dogs are what gives the lift that clanking ratchety sound, the sound that has become just as iconic as the first drop.

Miller's other important invention was the under friction wheel, also known as the upstop. These train wheels are situated underneath the track and keep your little car from flying off when going over a crest or taking a sharp turn. Thanks to this innovation, designers were able to exploit G-forces like never before, making rides more exciting and generally having lots of fun with physics. The Big Dipper was a perfect example of this, as Miller took great care to make sure each hill threw you up and out of your seat.

That was what made the Big Dipper such a fun ride. It wasn't very tall but each and every hill was well-designed. The trains, grandfathered as they were into the current safety guidelines, had big cushy seats and a single-position lap bar across each car, which turned every jolt of airtime was a great flight. The turnaround was rougher than expected, but each little bunny hop of the return run was amazing. Absolutely amazing. I rode that coaster over and over and loved every ride.

The overall impression of the park, though, was that it'd grown too big for its space. It was tight and crowded with tired families plopped down wherever they could find flattish spots for sitting, be it grass, brick or wooden railing. The densely crowded park almost grew hostile near the end of the night, as nobody had nearly enough personal space and the hip-hop music seemingly grew louder and the temperature wasn't cooling off one bit. I was glad to have gone, but much happier to have left.

The rest of the weekend was interesting. I spent Saturday night sleeping at a rest area somewhere on I-77 and woke up to find a traveler's aid group handing out free coffee and donuts two parking spaces over. I spent the day at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park because I saw the "Happy Days Visitor Center" on my trusty road atlas and realized if ever I needed to have a happy day, this was it, and besides, parking and admission were free. I arrived at the airport early for my flight and spent the time watching the runways from an outside observation deck, which I am sure has now been closed off in this <big><red><flashing><honk>POST 9-11 WORLD</honk></flashing></red></big>. All in all, for spending almost no money, I had a darn adventurous weekend.

Now I'm not writing this just because it might make for interesting lunchtime reading to maybe eight or nine people. Geauga Lake is no more, and as of this week, it's even more No More. It's been auctioned off. Honestly, the park didn't have a very good time of it after my visit. I claim no responsibilty for any of this misfortune. After a few years and a bad economy, Six Flags sold the park off and Cedar Fair picked it up, changed the name back to Geauga Lake, and re-themed all the Looney Tunes and comic book bits. "Superman: Ultimate Escape" became "Steel Venom". "Batman Knight Flight" became "The Dominator", which is a rather weak name, and "The Villain", well, it remained "The Villain".

Then, deciding that Geauga Lake was too close to their flagship park Cedar Point in Sandusky, Cedar Fair finally closed the place altogether at the end of the 2007 season. A rather ignoble end to a park which had, unfortunately, grown too large for its place. As a lakeside suburban amusement park it was apparently wonderful, but as a mega-large destination theme park, unfortunately, it just didn't have the infrastructure.

So now, after a winter of standing dormant, Geauga Lake is Officially Disappearing. Some of the rides have been relocated to other Cedar Fair parks; the Dominator went to Kings Dominion in Virginia, for example. But most rides were auctioned off last week. The Villain and the Arrow Dynamics-designed Double Loop (which was closed when I visited, so I didn't ride) were sold for scrap, their sale prices in the five-digits. The Raging Wolf Bobs, a mediocre wooden coaster which had been out of commission after a structural failure, sold for $2500. The Big Dipper was sold for $5000. Imagine that. $5000.00 got someone a full-sized roller coaster (well, minus the removal, hauling and re-building costs, of course.) But still. That seems low enough that any number of interested folks could've pooled their money to get it (but then again, there are those other costs to figure in to it all.)

The two wooden coasters were purchased through a proxy, in the form of the moving company hired to take the rides down. While the company said it could not yet reveal the name of the buyer, they did say the rides would be kept intact as "nostalgia pieces". On the bright side, it is relieving to know that the Big Dipper isn't destined for the scrap heap, but on the sad side, it doesn't appear that "nostalgia pieces" aren't meant to run. Will it receive the maintenance and upkeep that running coasters require, or is a nostalgia piece left to sit and age? I have no idea. It is a mystery.

Another mystery involved the auctioneer announcing that Cedar Fair had offered to give the Big Dipper to the American Coaster Enthusiasts, the fan club who's had a hand in the preservation of other rides, such as the Leap-The-Dips in Altoona, Pennsylvania (the oldest operating roller coaster in America.) The auctioneer didn't mention why ACE declined to take the ride, and that's when someone in attendance, a former president of ACE, even, loudly began to shout that the announcement was all lies.

Things just get weird sometimes, don't they? I guess nothing ever went as planned at Geauga Lake.