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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Queasy Rider

Summer is officially here, at least that’s what those pesky Gregorians say. That means I can get to work earlier because there are no busses stopping every ten feet in front of me. It also means parents are going nuts because their kids are home for three months. For some of those parents it inevitably means trips to the amusement park. I am a big amusement park enthusiast and have even worked for two different parks during my college days. Of course, over the past ten years my enthusiasm has waned, probably because of my approach towards curmudgeon years. Yeah, I skipped midlife crisis and straight to UP in terms of “get of my lawn” mentality. But in my youth, oh my youth, I was a diehard park denizen.

It seems rather odd that I fondly remember my youth and recall a time when I was deadly afraid of even stepping near a roller coaster. My first memory of actually riding a coaster was The Big Bad Wolf at Busch Gardens. After that, I went straight to the Loch Ness Monster. After that trip, I was fully prepared to take on the sum of all fears back home, The Laser Loop.

Yes, The Laser Loop scared the pants off of me as a small child. The damn thing was a straight track that one way, and then back. But it had a loop in the middle that you rode through twice, once forward and then in reverse. I figured I needed to build up courage a bit so I tackled the rest of the coasters at Kennywood in preparation. That meant I had to survive the double dip popping out of your seat terror that was the Jackrabbit and the equally tension filled race to the finish that was the Racer. These were mere child’s play against the heart stopping Thunderbolt. I am of course adding a dose of exaggerated sarcasm to this posts. I had already passed the test by riding the Loch Ness Monster. These other coasters were pretty tame, but still exciting.

But that’s what Kennywood was to me as a kid. Each May we’d anticipate the joy of going to school to buy ticket books for the school’s picnic. Yes, I said tickets. In fact, I am totally piggy backing this post from another local blogger who just waxed on / waxed off nostalgic by mentioning the ride tickets in Pittsburgh Magazine.

In another, “get of my lawn” moment, a bunch of kids out there are probably saying, ”tickets?” Yes, you whipper snappers, now show me your damn ride ticket or I’m tossing you over the railing, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade style. For most of my life, going to Kennywood meant buying tickets to ride the rides. There was no “all day pass.” There was no wrist band and black light stamp at the gate. There was no metal detector, restrictions or Spanish ownership then either. Nope, just a pavilion, a goofy sailor hat with your name on it, and a quest for Potato Patch Fries or funnel cake.

Oh, yes, the sights, sounds, and smells of Kennywood, growing up.  I know it's a tad outdated but everytime Rick Sebak's Kennywood Memories comes on television, I have to watch it.  Even though it's from 1988 it still holds a lot of great history about the park pre 1990s. And to me, that's when the park was most fun.  The day I would go to school, armed with my parents' money to buy tickets was like going opening up that Wonka bar and finding the golden ticket.  I received my booklet and some older gentleman would usher me away from the hordes saying, "Run home, and don't stop till you get there!!!!"

After we got our ticket books and a day off from school, we would descend on the park in yellow busses. College students bemoaned the sight of that sea of busses pulling into the lots and soon the check-your-brain-at-the-gate-ask-any-and-all-stupid-questions mentality took over. First up, the Thunderbolt. The pre-coaster me would have needed a change of shorts but the new and improved thrill seeker wanted front car, hands up, loosened seat belt adrenaline. As we’d come around that first hill and get ready to plunge into the circular curves in the front, I could see that damned Laser Loop in the distance taunting me.

Next up, the Racer. Everyone would split up into factions, choosing opposite cars in an attempt for bragging rights. Only those who knew the secret could easily predict the winner, and it had nothing to do with color of car. Lastly, we’d hit the Jack Rabbit and nearly lose our stomach and seat on that double dip hill. By then, it was time to get some Potato Patch Fries, drowned in cheese and salt. The eleven year old body could handle two or three baskets whereas my more stout frame now needs to consider the seat belts on rides after eating. Still, that Laser Loop dogged me from behind. I could hear it laughing as it screamed past my head in the background.

In fact, I didn’t ride the Laser Loop at all that year. More to the point, I was still afraid to ride the Gold Rusher. Ok, I admit it, I was a wuss. The Gold Rusher was one of those in the dark, turn the corner and there’s the monster with loud blaring sounds and bright lights. The spider and the train really made me lose my bowels. Eventually, I laughed at the notion of being so scared of such a cheese ball ride. But that Laser Loop was still scaring me silly. Now, to be totally honest, the ride stopped scaring me about a year after I started riding coasters. However, even when I was ready to ride the coaster it would always be broke down. I never did ride it and I wasn’t about to travel to Mexico to ride it after they moved it in 1991. But the replacement was an upgrade. The Steel Phantom boasted, at the time, one of the steepest drops at 232 feet. Of course, this was going downhill along the landscape through the Thunderbolt. But even that ride was changed almost a decade later to The Phantom’s Revenge. No loops and no headaches. Those came from being in the park as an adult.

But as an adult, there are still reasons to go to the park. Unfortunately, for my cholesterol level, the main reason is food. Nothing beats good amusement park food and you cannot go wrong with Potato Patch fries, a funnel cake, or a Cyclone Cone from nearby Idlewild. Who can resist a waffle cone with vanilla ice cream, fresh cut strawberries and whipped cream? Now that I’m a parent I can safely say that I am not there for the rides as I will probably be in Kiddie Land all day long smelling the pizza stand just outside the archway. I also like to play the games. Not because I like to collect stuffed animals but because as a former games attendant in my youth, I feel the need to show that I can still take the Bowler Roller game for a huge prize without spending more than two dollars. However, I am out of practice these past few years. As an adult, I’ve traded in school picnics for company picnics. I’ve traded in trying to look cool for actually being cool as in temperature. It was always a fashion show, growing up, as we wanted to look good for that special girl or guy that we’d hope would ask us to ride the Haunted Hideaway. But now, I was just hoping to make it through the day without heat stroke or a pizza stain on my shirt.

Another year would go by and the park seemed smaller. The summers got hotter and the lines longer. My tolerance for crowds was lessening Also, my Eustachian tubes’ tolerance for going in circles or backwards was diminishing. There was a time, at the age of 15, that I could ride the Rotor five times in a row. No more. I can’t even ride the Pirate Ship without wanting to vomit.The park also seems a little less sparkly every year. You get that overwhelming smell of wet and sweat from people who come off of water rides onto the hot pavement. The proximity to the water and trees raises the humidity a good deal. Soon, I find myself trading in the thrill rides for the quiet and gentle ride on the train with the ever present Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” capping off the regional history lesson. As I hit the back nine of my 30s I feel as if the greatest ride in the park is the ride home.

It’s not that I have stopped loving amusement parks, it’s just I hate dealing with everything else at a amusement park besides the rides and attractions. I will ultimately be forced to make a trip to Disney World one day because my daughter will be old enough to enjoy it. It upsets me that I should be wanting to go there and have a good time. It upsets me that I know I will be my old curmudgeonly self yelling at the kids to pull up their damn pants and get out of my way. In a weird sort of way, I will become the Laser Loop, scaring kids who come near me. I can only hope I don’t end up being sold to a park in Mexico City. I don’t think they will have as good of French fries as we have here.

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