Conneaut Lake Park was founded in 1892 and lies just off-shore of Conneaut Lake in Western Pennsylvania, about 45 miles south of Erie. Like many classic American amusement parks, the offering of a pleasant picnic and swimming area eventually led to the continual addition of more things to do as its popularity grew to satisfy the growing crowds. But unlike Lake Compounce or Cedar Point, it has been in rough financial state for many years. Though it still has a good bit of feel and character from it’s heyday, which appears to have been somewhere in between the 1930s to the 1980s, you can see that it’s a smaller but not tiny family park.
These days it is FAR from having the 250,000 visitors a day it reportedly saw at its pinnacle (a figure estimated by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2009). But it still has its large 1930s-built wooden roller coaster, plenty of flat rides, a kiddy area, a small but tidy water park, concessions (including tasty fresh-cut French fries and funnel cakes, and the usual amusement park fare of burgers, hot dogs, pizza, and fresh-squeezed lemonade), and a long though sparsely utilized games midway. There’s also a gift shop where they sell freshly made fudge and some decent merchandise (hoodies emblazoned with the park logo were $20). As you look around the park, many of the rides look worse for wear but it really still seemed to deliver the family fun it had long been known for. I really was pleasantly surprised to see the surviving bones of a classic American amusement park.
I’d wanted to visit Conneaut Lake Park for several years now, having learned about it in my research of classic parks in the Great Lakes area that have come and gone. Emerging successfully from a recent bankruptcy the park appears to be on track to continue to offer a very affordable thrill on the shores of Conneaut Lake, which itself is larger than I’d imagined and is, in fact, a natural lake complete with a public beach and a beautiful, large Victorian-era hotel. Vacation homes, docks & marinas, and other grand old houses surround the rest of the shores.
As I mentioned before, the park had been having financial problems and every year that I’d been wanting to visit but never ended up going, made me feel like time was running out. I needed to go now, otherwise the opportunity may never present itself again to visit anything quite like it. The park feels about the same size as Waldameer Park (which is a just 5 miles outside of Erie), but it’s instantly clear which park has been able to modernize and which has a considerable operations & maintenance budget (and the ability to expands its ride offerings). Hint: it’s not Conneaut Lake Park, but nevertheless it’s definitely hanging on.
My family makes a trek to Chautauqua Lake in Western NY every summer where my folks have had a summer house since the late 70s. Chautauqua is an area that has its own storied past including a few once-famous amusement parks, but I never realized there were a couple other surviving historical parks that were not that far away. In the past 5 years I’d made a couple trips to Waldameer, after I’d felt the draw to visit the enthusiast and industry renowned Ravine Flyer II, a Gravity Group designed wooden roller coaster that debuted in 2008. This year I was determined to branch out and recruited my cousin to accompany me for an afternoon at Conneaut Lake Park. The park opens at 12pm so we left a little after 11am and it was an easy drive, just a jaunt down I-79 south and a few country roads. As we arrived, Conneaut Lake Park’s website proved to be on point as the hours were indeed as advertised and all-day wristbands were available for $10 for dry rides or $10 for the water park, an excellent deal. If you have no desire to ride anything, there is no cost just to visit and stroll around the park (though I highly recommend at least getting some of the fresh-cut French fries).
There’s plenty of parking on a few different sides of the park and nearby, many ancient but charming picnic pavilions hint at the size of the crowds the park once managed. We parked under a tree near the water park entrance and purchased our wristbands and the first thing other than the refreshing looking water that caught my attention was their classic Tumble Bug ride.
This is the first time I’d ever seen one of these in person as they have become increasingly rare and the only other full size one of these left in existence that I’m aware of is the Turtle at West Mifflin, PA’s Kennywood. This ride made the most fantastic noises and was quite loud. The closer you got, the older you could tell it was. It’s not often that you see 5 or 6 different colors of paint peeking at you from a ride and it’s definitely not often that you see a flat ride which actually still incorporates any sort of wooden structure in the ride vehicles. The thing actually moved pretty well too, gaining some nice momentum and you could see why it was still popular.
I’d heard in the past couple years that the Tumble Bug had not been operating a lot, often waiting for hard-to-source parts, so I was honestly excited to hear its racket. The noise it makes seems to come from the friction of the wheels on the track it rides upon, the whir from the ancient electric motors powering each individual ride vehicle along, and rattling from those vehicles which appear to have large metal plates made of tin covering their mechanical bits (I’m sure they’re not actually tin, but they do sound like it).
I took the fact that this ride was open and operating non-stop as a good omen and after a fun lap on that we walked over to the nearby station for the park’s 1938-built roller coaster, Blue Streak, designed by Edward A. Vettel.
Blue Streak was, however, not yet open and there were maintenance workers visible up in the treetops (or rather on the top of the first lift hill which penetrates the upper canopy). There was one ride op that enthusiastically said the ride would definitely be opening a bit later that day, so we wondered on.
From the ancient midway, you could see lots of new wood on Blue Streak intermixed with the old and the fading painted bits. Again, I took the maintenance and appearance of plenty of new wood as a good omen and we decided to walk on.
Next up, we decided to brave the park’s classic Paratrooper ride. While it definitely needed some new paint (and most certainly some new plywood for the ride platform), the ride was fun and I had not been on one of these since I was a child. They ran the ride moderately fast and long enough that those with less of a tolerance for going in circles could start to get nauseous (hi Ben!), but we enjoyed it. Many modern parks with classic rides seemed to have tamed them with shorter and/or slower ride programs (note: all of this park’s rides do not have a program, rather they operate according to the judgment of their loan ride operators).
Leaving the wizened Paratrooper, we took a trip on their junior train, called the Bessemer Railway System, which actually has a nice long track that even crosses over itself at one point. While the train itself is comfortable and includes canopies (a nice feature when the sun is as hot as it was in the early afternoon), a lack of available capital investment funds for things to look at while you rode became quite apparent.
A few stuffed animals set on a chair (or bike) here & there was not sad though, but rather kitschy. The train ride does give you excellent views of the Blue Streak and I took dozens of photos as we cruised around the entirety of the coaster’s structure. Upon viewing my photos of the trip with my family, several commented on how many pictures I’d chosen to take of the superstructure. Let’s just say I couldn’t help myself.
At this point, we already needed some water and to continue our break from the sun, so we walked along the shaded midway, checked out the park’s classic front entrance which had a pretty fountain. Heading the opposite direction, we eventually made our way to what turned out to be the surprise ride of the day on the Devil’s Den. I hadn’t realized that this classic dark ride, manufactured by the Pretzel Amusement Park Ride Company, was actually quite like an old fun house ride crossed with a wild mouse and is actually gravity driven (and hence, in my mind an actual roller coaster). It even incorporates a nice little drop where you briefly fly by the ride entrance in the tiny ride vehicles and those waiting in line can get a laugh at the shocked look on your face. I laughed myself silly as it whizzed through its course. The ride very clearly states as you approach that you should “Stick it to the Devil before he sticks it to you”, which is excellent advice.
Around that time, we had gotten hungry and went to check out one of the food stands. I succumbed to the smell of the fryer and ordered a corn dog and fries with a side of (nacho) cheese. My cousin opted for sausage and peppers. The fries were clearly their best offering but we couldn’t finish them all.
After lunch, we’d seen Blue Streak was operating and we got right in line. There may have been about 30 people in line and we waited maybe 10 minutes for our first lap. The one active train, which the lone operator stated ran faster some days and slower others, was taking about 1 minute, 47 seconds to complete its course, and he was very happy to say today it was running fast. Considering the low cost of a visit to the park, it’s worth coming here just to get a lap on that 1930s beaut.
Next up we decided to take on the park’s Flying Scooters which, as with the other flat rides, appeared to be ancient. It took quite a while to get a good rhythm going but I finally was able to get some height, though I didn’t feel it appropriate to get a good snap (where you build up some slack in the cables suspending the little ride cabin as you head skyward, then suddenly catch the tension again as you loose momentum).
Given a better start, I’m certain you can snap these scooters, but being a big guy and the ride looking to be at least 30 years older than myself, I didn’t think it was prudent. My cousin found that the ride was run just a bit too long for his liking. At that point, I suggested we investigate beer options and it seemed the perfect moment for a couple cold ones. The park does have a couple areas where they sell beer, though I saw only one near the lakeside exit. That was closed but we wanted to see more around the lake anyways as we saw the surrounding area.
Heading out that way you come to a good-sized deck tiered like an amphitheater that faces the lake and immediately to your right, a large green lawn and the Hotel Conneaut endures.
It is actually a very pretty and wonderfully peaceful setting. Directly in front of the amphitheater, separated by a short boardwalk that heads along towards the front of the hotel, is a swimming beach.
As you head towards the hotel, there’s a small marina and an outdoor (full) bar called Sharkey’s. I spotted its large great white shark figure from far off, which appears to be on the roof of a small stage. There, we cooled off and listened to the bar’s music and I noted that there was plenty of outdoor seating, some of which was shaded, and some situated around a couple fire pits.
They had a large grill that was not currently being used, but the whole area of the bar was on groomed sand. A few others were having drinks but I imagined it would probably be a couple hours before there would be much of a crowd as it was not very late in the afternoon yet.
After we’d had our fill we headed back into the park, again observing the beautiful hotel and admiring the bathers at the beach who were no doubt enjoying the lake’s cooling waters.
I suggested heading back to Blue Streak and after about a 10-15 minutes wait we opted to go for a front row ride. This provided more airtime but definitely a bit more shuffling, and just a bit of skull-rattling. Fortunately, the largest drops have clearly been completely re-tracked and were not punishing at all. Afterwards though, we were once again feeling the heat and did not feel particularly like getting in line for a 3rd ride. I briefly considered getting another go on the Flying Scooters but opted against it. I did not even consider riding, however, two woebegone flat rides which were a Trabant and an achingly slow-looking Music Express. Nor did we opt to ride the carousel or bumper cars, and the Tilt-A-Whirl was closed. We’d already had a great time and had spent several hours at the park, and we agreed it was time to call it a day and get back to the family.
My overall thoughts are that this is a great park, one that needs people to check it out and discover its charms. If you are passing through or looking for a very inexpensive day trip, you’d be wrong to dismiss it if it’s not too far out of your way. I’ve looked at the hotel’s website too and accommodations though basic seem to be very affordable and certainly quaint.
The long but half-abandoned looking midways and ageing rides might give you some pause, but you should have an open mind. Try to imagine what it might have been like to see a couple hundred thousand other visitors having the times of their lives at Conneaut Lake Park with their families in years past. There are plenty signs of life, a sprinkling of updated signs and placards, and cheerful employees certainly help the cause. Check out the park’s website for some excellent tips, pricing, and park hours here.
So what do you think? Have you ever ridden a classic like the Blue Streak or visited a similarly trapped-in-time park?