Bring back these two wonderfully corny attractions, and I’ll make a beeline for Sandusky.
Amusement park season is arriving soon in Ohio, and I am less than excited. The perennial allure of Cedar Point and Kings Island, which bookend our stoically Midwestern state to the north and south like a pair of Mad magazines bracketing a law library, will surely attract the usual stream of thrill seekers and families in search of a summer diversion. Local media will carry the customary publicity puffery touting the heights and speeds of each park’s marquee roller coasters, and we shall be further enticed by breathless promises of all that is NEW for 2010! I don’t begrudge anyone the pleasure of giddy anticipation, but I cannot muster much enthusiasm.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when I looked forward to a day at either of our big amusement parks with the same measure of excitement that was provoked by the imminence of my birthday or the arrival of Christmas. Actually, now that I think about it, that remains the case today, as I no longer get worked up about my birthday or Christmas. But there was a time – and I’m sure you can accurately identify it – when all three of these events represented the pinnacle of fun and enjoyment.
Much of my youth is a forgotten blur, but I still recall the sleepless night that preceded my first visit to Cedar Point. I was perhaps six years old, the neurotic occupant of the lower bunk bed in a tiny room I shared with my teenage brother Brian. It was getting late, and we were due to leave early the next morning, but I was absolutely wired with wide-eyed anticipation. Due to our age difference and our cramped quarters, Brian and I were mutual antagonists in those days. It is to my brother’s credit, therefore, that he endured my persistent inquiries that night and responded to them patiently. He had been to Cedar Point before, and I wanted to know everything he was willing to tell me.
“What else is it like?” was my repeated refrain. As I lay in the dark staring at the bedsprings above me, I heard Brian’s disembodied voice describing strange and wondrous things that baffled and intrigued me. There was a train ride that went through the woods, and it passed by a village inhabited by skeletons. There was a funhouse that had an upside down room where you walked on the ceiling. There was an earthquake ride in which buildings toppled around you. My mind was stretched and contorted trying to envision these impossible scenarios. Was he telling me the truth?
Indeed he was, I was delighted to discover the next day. And there was even more that he hadn’t told me. After a car ride that seemed to take forever, we finally arrived in Sandusky. I was already plenty excited. It only added to my thrill to experience the Cedar Point causeway, the long, wide avenue that cuts through the churning waters of Lake Erie to lead visitors out onto the peninsula that saw its first thrill ride (the Switchback Railway, with a height of 25 feet and top speed of 10 mph) in 1897. For a kid growing up in a landlocked Ohio town, it was like the exotic passageway to another world.
So enchanted was I by the park and its setting that within a few years I developed a contemptuous snobbery toward the competition to the south. A neighborhood friend and her family made annual pilgrimages to Kings Island, which I deemed inferior before I had ever visited it. Even after I had thoroughly enjoyed several trips to Kings Island, I steadfastly touted the superiority of Cedar Point. Part of my loyalty was rooted in a romantic nostalgia for my first amusement park experience, but I had more substantial reasons, too.
There was no charm to Kings Island’s location, a nondescript plot of land adjacent to bustling I-71. The major rides were fun, but they were no more fun than those of Cedar Point. Where I felt that Kings Island was particularly lacking was in the department of quirky, minor attractions. Cedar Point had an exemplary pair of these that I cherished.
The Earthquake Ride was housed within a small building nestled between the arcade and a gift shop. It was of the classic automated-cars-on-a-track-through-the-dark ilk, with visitors carried past a series of crudely animated tableaux representing San Francisco before and after its infamously devastating quake of 1906. How wonderfully hokey it all was. Black light illuminated a garishly decorated Chinatown while a barely decipherable mix of voices, music, and rumbling blared through tinny speakers. Halfway through the ride, buildings shook and split in half. The highlight was a structure that looked as though it was going to topple right onto the track, only to separate in such a way that it formed an arch through which one sailed toward the exit. I made a point to go through the Earthquake Ride at least once during every visit.
Then there was the Fun House, which was also on my can’t-miss list. It included the aforementioned upside-down room, in which a chandelier dangled upward from the floor and an old woman in a rocking chair creaked back and forth along the ceiling. A crooked room contained what I remember as a perilously sloped floor, its skewed plane navigable only with the aid of a series of sturdy railings. Best of all was the upper-story exit: your choice of one of three spiral slides that spat you back out into the blinding daylight. A flight of stairs was available for spoilsports.
I suppose quaint attractions like the Earthquake Ride and the Fun House would stick out as gaudy relics from the past at a modern amusement park, and it’s no surprise that neither of them exist today. Cedar Point prides itself on being a worldwide destination for roller coaster enthusiasts, and hence the big thrills inevitably take precedence over the cheap thrills, especially on a narrow peninsula where every acre must be utilized to its most profitable potential.
Yes, there was a time – back when birthdays mattered, Christmas was a present extravaganza, and the arrival of the amusement park season was a cause for rejoicing – when the chance to ride a new coaster was a clarion call to either the shores of Lake Erie or the outskirts of Cincinnati. Now, in my forties, it doesn’t matter to me if I never ride a roller coaster again. But if only I could stagger across a crooked room and feel the madness of a crumbling, faux Chinatown once more…