May 26, 2013

Amuse Me


Most people by simple tradition point to Memorial Day as the official beginning of the summer season. It keeps things simple and predictable and makes arranging vacation travel plans much easier. For my money, though, summer hasn’t really, truly begun until we have our first amusement park fatality. Once some drunk stands up at the wrong time on a roller coaster, some mother of two gets dragged to death by a carousel, some intrepid kid decides he doesn’t need to stay in that darn boat anymore, or some park worker trying to retrieve a dropped cell phone gets thwapped by a Tilt-A-Whirl car, that’s when the summer is officially underway

            Although I’ll take a low-rent carnival over an amusement park any day, still, I’ve been to more than my share of amusement parks over the years, from the shabby to the not quite so shabby, and I’ve always left, well, amused

            As amusement parks in the modern sense go, Bay Beach wasn’t much to talk about back in the early seventies, but when I was a kid it was the ultimate destination for a summer afternoon. It was on the far east side of town, hidden behind what Green Bay considered the slum district and nestled around the rocky shores of the actual Green Bay. Bay Beach was more picnic area and nature preserve than amusement park (I never even recall ever seeing an actual beach there), but they did have a few rides, and that was enough. There was no roller coaster, no big fancy jobs like The Spider, The Zipper or The Pirate Ship, but they did have a Merry-Go-Round, a little mechanical boat ride, bumper cars, a big slide, and one of those miniature kiddie trains that followed a track all around the park. Most of them weren’t kept up very well, and most seemed pretty dangerous. I found a way to get hurt on most of them, anyway. Fell off the Merry-Go-Round a couple of times, always ended up with terrible Indian burns after losing my gunny sack on the way down the big slide, and I don’t even like thinking about my first time on the bumper cars. Those scars will never go away. But every ride cost a dime, so how could you beat it? I still like going back there every time I’m home, even though they’ve fancied the place up quite a bit. They even have a Go-Kart track now, and a small roller coaster that was reportedly Elvis’s favorite. The big excitement at Bay Beach these days, though, comes from watching the brawls that break out between drunken families who’ve somehow reserved the same picnic gazebo for the same day.

            When I was five my family took a road trip out to L.A. to see relatives. That particular trip I made my one and only visit to Disneyland. This was a few years before Disney World opened in Tampa, so as run-down as Disneyland was at that point, it was still considered the nation’s ultimate family destination. It was The Happiest Place on Earth, after all

            I don’t remember having a particularly good time. The guys in the character suits with the big heads scared the hell out of me and I wouldn’t go near them. So much for those snapshots to last a lifetime. With the exception of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (which I made my dad go on with me four times), the animatronics freaked me out. I was on a tram ride of some kind that passed by two park workers who were repainting the snow on the top of the Matterhorn, which kinda squashed the fantasy a bit. And the first ride I went on after getting into the park was a little car that took me through a dark tunnel as an ominous voiceover told me I was being shrunk to the size of a molecule. I didn’t care much for that idea at all.

            When I think back to Disneyland, though, I mostly remember one thing. I was walking around the park with my folks. It was hot and humid. Suddenly I heard a woman yelling behind us and I turned.

            “Spit it out!” she was shouting at a young boy about my age. A guy in a Donald Duck suit was next to them, his white gloved hands on his head. “Give it to me! Don’t swallow it! Just spit it out!”

            With that, the kid bent his head down, opened his mouth, and vomited all over Donald Duck’s feet

            When I was thirteen or fourteen, a massive, shiny, slick amusement park called Great America opened in northern Illinois just south of the Wisconsin border. In an instant the entire Midwest had an easy new summer destination that didn’t involve a drive to California or Florida. Hell, you could get there in a couple of hours from most anywhere. Before it was subsumed by the Six Flags chain a few years later, the park’s mascots were Warner Brothers cartoon characters—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn—which I appreciated. I never liked Disney characters. I never understood Disney characters. But that’s another story.

            I only went down to Great America two or three times, once with a church group (now there’s fun personified) and twice with the white trashy family of a friend.

            The first time I went, and this was a few weeks after the park opened, I went with the friend’s family. The big ride at the time was The Great American Eagle, billed as “the world’s largest wooden roller coaster.” I’ve always liked roller coasters, so we got in a line that snaked back a half-mile or more from the ticket booth. What choice did we have? We were there, so we had to ride it. But as we were waiting, and watching all those other people who also waited in line for five hours have two minutes of fun, a group of cars got stuck, teetering over that very first massive drop. That’s when I started to have second thoughts. Those poor bastards were left hanging there over the precipice, staring down into the maw of certain doom for two hours before a crane finally arrived to pull them back to safety. By that time my friend and I had already split and got tickets for the log flume instead.

            Apart from that one glitch, though, the whole operation struck me as a little too clean and neat and safe. Not that I didn’t leave amused—instead of focusing on the rides, I spent most of my visits there watching all the disappointed, angry, fat families trying to pretend they were having a wonderful time

            Speaking of which, in the late eighties I paid a visit to Hershey Park in Hershey, PA. The fact that I had to drive down the Hershey Highway to get there told me I was in for something special.

            Yeah, it’s all pretty nuts. Now, a chocolate-themed amusement park is not necessarily a bad idea, should the park be centered around, say, Willy Wonka. I mean, he was a guy who knew how to have some wicked fun, often at the expense of others. This one wasn’t like that though. This one wasn’t a Willy Wonka-type amusement park. This was an amusement park centered around a plain old dirty industrial factory. And since they no longer offered tours of the factory (too many people spitting in the chocolate) they offered a ride that took you through a fake chocolate factory filled with animatronic robot workers. Somehow I got the impression they didn’t have happy singing robots working in the real factory. As amusement parks go, it was all surprisingly grim.

            Later that day I left the park after a visit to the gift shop, where I bought (and I’m not making this up) a chocolate handgun on a stick. Wish I still had that.

            Ah, then there was Coney. Twenty-five years ago it was my nirvana. No place on earth made me happier—certainly not The Happiest Place on Earth—and there was no place I felt more comfortable. It was desolate, it was empty, it was in a serious state of collapse and it was perfect. Then the city and some investment firms decided to “revitalize it,” “refurbish it,” make it “nice” and “a family destination” again. They succeeded. Now Coney only makes me itch.

            So as I wait for that first amusement park fatality to kick off the summer season, I’m going to start planning my next visit to Bay Beach.


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