"What were you thinking?"
This time of year, the coaster schedule gets a little tricky. I carelessly spent the last two weekends going to Cedar Point, forgetting what happens to the schedule for my local parks. Not wanting to go to Cedar Point for a third consecutive week, I checked the schedules (I didn't want to pull a Clark W. Griswold, either!).
Then I noticed something unexpected. Coney Island is closed Saturday, but open on Sunday from 11-7. Now there's an idea. It barely qualifies as an amusement park, but I haven't been there yet this season, so...
Coney Island is located on Kellogg Ave. (US-52) along the Ohio river in California, OH. That's just outside the Eastern edge of Cincinnati's outerbelt highway, IR-275. Once there, entrance is through the apparently-original gatehouse, where they collect $6 per vehicle for parking. To put this into perspective, my after-4 P-O-P wristband cost me $5.95. If they offer discounted ride passes late in the day, why don't they discount the parking as well? I'll save my usual parking rant, though, as it doesn't really apply here. Coney Island rides are strictly POP now, but park admission is technically free for people (only cars have to pay, and they don't even get to go on the rides). The entrance road bisects the park. Well, it doesn't really bisect it, but it runs from the entrance, around the back of the Sunlite Pool to the parking lot, so it effectively separates the pool and the adjacent picnic area from the ride park.
I started by walking through the park and taking some photos. It was a little early to get that after-4 price, so I killed some time that way. I was disappointed to find that they have cordoned off the river-side portion of the park, indicating that access to the picnic grove is restricted to people with group wristbands. I can kind of understand that, as that's open food service down there at mealtime and it makes sense to restrict it to the people who paid for it. But what I don't like about that is that it also limits access to the river side of the park, and the giant flood thermometer. Well, I assume it is still there, anyway. Situated as it is on the bank of the Ohio river, Coney Island has suffered from devastating floods. Even as recently as 1997, the high water mark is up to the second floor of the administration building. Of course, it was the seasonal floods that led to the closure of Coney Island in 1971 and the concurrent construction of Kings Island. Coney Island wasn't sold, it was simply closed and mostly dismantled.
Well, obviously that situation changed a bit, as on this particular Sunday, the park was quite busy. The picnic grove was busy, the midway was busy, and the Sunlite Pool was absolutely packed with people. I bought my ride pass, and started with a ride on the Python.
The Python is a portable steel coaster, somewhat unusual in that its structure has been hot-dip galvanized. The layout is kind of like a Zyklon, but the ride looks more like a Galaxi, and the lift chain is the SDC-type with the engagement pins outboard of the links. It runs a 2-car train with very odd looking 4-passenger cars. It looks okay, but the very large pad on the back of the front seat is a disturbing clue to the nature of the ride. Equally disturbing is the fact that the pad is missing from the back of the third seat. The meaning of this omission quickly becomes obvious when the train pulls into the station and the operator deliberately fails to load the last seat. I sat in the third row, the front row of the second car, and the operator jammed the lap bar down way too tight just to get it to latch. That means I'm squeezed into an unpadded Fiberglas seat with a steel bar jammed into my stomach. Ugh. Okay. The train is dispatched and jerks hard onto the lift. The lift crosses over the center of the structure, and at the top there is a horseshoe-shaped turn ending in about 8' of very rough straight track. This is the set-up for a long, steep drop with a top rollover that is way too tight for this train. This is a rollover that makes the return track on Magnum XL-200 seem smooth by comparison. Unlike Magnum's return run with its extreme airtime, this drop is nothing but pure violence. It's hard to explain...but instead of being lifted or even thrown from the seat, the drop works by suddenly, violently pitching the seat forward. At the bottom of the drop, the pull-out is so sudden that it feels like the train crashes through a cinder-block wall before it goes up the second hill. I have to think that the eight feet of straight track at the top would have been better used to stretch out both the rollover and the pull-out on this ride. The remaining hills and curves were no better. Well, it took the curves okay, which is a good thing for a ride of this kind, but the pitch radii all felt like they were screwed up on this coaster. My guess is that the train isn't right, that the ride is engineered for cars with a slightly shorter wheelbase. The cars Coney Island is running can navigate the ride all right, but with a level of violence that is not customary for this kind of a coaster. Upon returning to the station, I exited to the left, thinking very evil thoughts about this surprisingly evil coaster. Coney Island clearly knows it has a mean ride with the Python since they won't let anybody ride in the back seat. I wonder if they have considered splitting the trains up and running the ride with four single cars instead of the two two-car trains. I don't know if it has all the block braking that would be needed to do that, but with the long station they could easily run three. In any case, without the second car, they would at least be able to put people in all the seats.
I recovered by taking a spin on the Flying Bobs. Their Flying Bobs is unusual in that the interior scenery panels are missing, replaced with a fabric tarp of the sort that shade screens are made with. So you can see right through to the center of the ride without much difficulty. The Flying Bobs has eighteen cars on it, and this particular Flying Bobs has four electric motors, arranged in groups of two, each group driving the road wheels on two adjacent sweeps. Oh, perhaps I should explain...if you aren't familiar with the Flying Bobs, the cars are suspended from the ends of adjacent sweeps, which are attached to the center hub of the ride, but just inboard of the tubs the sweeps have wheels which ride on a track to give the ride its obligatory up and down motion. The interesting thing about this ride is that the two drive segments are not evenly spaced around the perimeter of the ride, which makes me wonder if there are supposed to be six motors and two of them are missing. It's also worth noting that Coney Island runs this ride in an odd fashion. Every other cycle, the ride runs backwards.
Behind the Flying Bobs are a Chance Trabant, which also runs backwards on every other cycle, and a Hrubetz Super Round-Up. This is the gigantic 42-passenger model similar to the one at Lake Winnepesaukah, with the complete lighting package, but without the painted backstop. Nearby is the Tilt-A-Whirl, which is a little unusual. Most obviously, the car tops are made out of expanded metal rather than the usual Fiberglas. But it gets weirder. As is customary on a cable-drive Tilt, the operator has an open booth on a platform just above the drive assembly. From there, the operator can operate the ride by manipulating a rod connected directly to the drive clutch. Except that on this ride, the control rod is MISSING. I took a peek under the platform, thinking perhaps this Tilt had been converted to electric drive, but I could clearly see the drive cable running around the two bullwheels. I'm not sure exactly what they did; I think they just leave the clutch permanently engaged and use the motor to start and stop the ride. I wonder if they at least added a soft-start controller to the motor.
The Tilt-A-Whirl backs up to the park's interesting miniature golf course, Famous Fairways, which supposedly has holes based on famous holes from major golf courses around the world. As a single rider, I didn't see much point in working on my miniature golf game, so instead I opted for the bumper cars. There is almost nothing at all remarkable about the bumper cars, but it is worth noting that they operate in a portable bumper car building. Not the Majestic buildings that we are all familiar with these days, but in this case an older structure. I want to say it's a Floyd and Baxter building, but I don't know that for certain. The building has a translucent canvas roof, and the overhead electrical screen looks to be a piece of tensioned chicken-wire, so the attraction has a nice open feel to it. Coney Island has made some minor modifications to bring the fence up to code. I waited a couple of cycles, then boarded the ride. Although signs around the ride indicated that everyone should go "ONE WAY" around the center island, I quickly abandoned all hope of doing so when I noticed that this particular load was made up mostly of bumper car drivers who are less competent than the ones at Indiana Beach. Yes, Wolf, I said LESS COMPETENT than the ones at INDIANA BEACH. Within seconds, my car was the only one on the floor that was actually moving, as I drove it in circles around the two-thirds of the floor that was otherwise empty. When the opportunities presented themselves, I took full advantage of my superior speed and mass in an attempt to knock the other vehicles loose. The mass of stuck cars would break up, then jam up again as it rounded the next corner even as the operator kept hollering, "PRESS YOUR PEDAL! TURN YOUR WHEEL!". It was obvious that much of the chaos was being caused by a particularly inept driver, and before I noticed what was happening, I came around the corner to see the inept driver's car cruising towards the wall with the ride operator standing on its left bumper. I veered to the left, completely missing the vehicle, and threw my car into reverse, but I wasn't fast enough to deflect the vehicle to my right. It crunched at full force into the inept driver's car just as the operator fell off and landed sprawling on the graphited floor. He didn't seem to be hurt, but he was nearly creamed by three additional cars before he had a chance to get up. This would have been an ideal opportunity for a 'Hall of Shame' photograph, but I never had a chance to take it because I was on the ride when it happened! It's bad enough that the operator was wandering around on the electric floor, let alone climbing onto one of the cars and trying to give a driving lesson. But he was the ONLY operator on the ride, meaning that while he was out on the floor, there was nobody anywhere near the controls. That means that in the normally-unlikely event that someone should end up sprawled out on the floor, there was nobody around who could notice the problem, hit the Big Red Switch [Footnote 1] and SCRAM [Footnote 2] the ride. Lucky for the hapless operator, the ride is on a timer, and time ran out shortly after he returned to an upright position.
Well, I didn't exactly "run like hell" from the bumper cars. But I did continue around the Moonlite Gardens pavilion (or at least what is left of it...back in '97 I learned that half of the building got demolished when the park closed, but the demolition was halted when the Caterpillar D-9 found the terrazzo dance floor to be a little upsetting) to the next ride area. Here was an unremarkable Chance Carousel, and a plaza where the San Antonio Roller Works Spin-A-Ree used to be. In its place is a brand-new Moser family Spring Ride. It's perhaps a 30' tower, an adult-scale Frog Hopper. But instead of a hopping motion, this hydraulic ride features a half-dozen drop cycles of nearly the full stroke of the lifting cylinder. That's very nice, and it did a nice job of frightening the kid who sat next to me. I thought it was quite a nice addition to the park's line-up, but I wondered where the Spin-A-Ree went.
I soon found out. The park's final adult ride section features pedal boats and bumper boats on Lake Como, an Eli Scrambler that ran without any worn-bearing bumping, an Eli Ferris wheel, the Spin-A-Ree, and a Watkins Tempest. The Spin-A-Ree has some problems. The ride has eight (I think) free-spinning tubs mounted on the outboard ends of the sweeps. The idea is that as the ride starts up, the sweeps are lifted hydraulically and the riders spin them. At the end of the ride, the sweeps are lowered, and as the sweeps bottom out, a brake is mechanically applied to the tubs to bring them to a stop. It's all rather clever, except that it doesn't work. The tub brakes have been disabled, and the hydraulics do not work at all, so the ride runs more like a King Frolic only without the swinging action as the center goes 'round and 'round.
The Tempest, on the other hand, is in fine form. To the delight of larger riders all over Southwest Ohio, no doubt, Coney Island has removed the too-short seat belts and installed retractable ones instead. The ride consists of a trailer frame set at a non-trivial angle with the low end towards the loading area. A long boom rotates on the trailer frame. At each end of the boom is a shorter boom which is geared to rotate at the same rate as the main boom and in the opposite direction. On each end of the shorter booms are mounted the passenger tubs, which are free to rotate inertially. Which they will do: the tubs are octagonal, each with seven seats, each seat can hold one large person or two small people. Putting seven people around the perimeter of an 8-passenger car virtually guarantees that it will be slightly out of balance. Putting me in the car with six small people virtually guarantees that it will be decidedly out of balance. Initially, our tub just wanted to swing around and put me on the outboard side, but eventually gravity took over from centripetal force, and our tub was spinning like crazy. Wheee! Why don't they build more rides like this anymore? It's simple, and it can actually be fun.
Ultimately, Coney Island has a nice ride collection, and with the swimming pool and the picnic business, they do very well with the corporate outing crowd. I can't help feeling, though, that the park is missing something critical. It has a few adult rides, a few flat rides, and a Galaxi-type coaster. But what it is missing is any kind of a signature attraction. There is nothing at the park (other than perhaps the pool) which serves as an iconic attraction, something that screams, "This is Coney Island." Considering that this was once America's premier amusement park, it is not very well rounded, and it is seriously lacking a major attraction.
As long as Coney Island exists in the shadow of Kings Island, it isn't going to be a major park unless there is something there besides a company picnic to draw people in. Obviously, I think the park needs a midsize, high-quality wood coaster (and there are at least two companies with a local presence that could do it!). That would be especially good at Coney Island, particularly a mid-size wood coaster, perhaps something like the park's old Shooting Star, a truly great ride that would compare favorably with the ill-kept, over-rated stuff on the other side of town [Footnote 3]. With the indefinite closure of LeSourdsville Lake, Cincinnati could use a truly good wood coaster. But while that makes the most sense to a coaster nut like me, a signature ride for Coney wouldn't have to be a coaster. It just needs to be good, and (locally, at least) unique to Coney Island. How about a flume ride, or perhaps an old-fashioned dark ride/boat chute like the one at Lake Winnie (Lost River, anyone?)? A gondola Ferris wheel would be visually spectacular, although I doubt that would sell very well. Put simply, the park could use some kind of an identity beyond the picnic grove and the swimming pool. There are a lot of things that might work, just so long as they pick something with a broad appeal, and make it better than any of the local alternatives.
Well, it could happen. Ten years ago, Coney Island was all but dead, and this summer it was packed full of people a full week after the traditional end of summer. That kind of growth is nothing to be sneezed at. I think eventually they might come around.
--Dave Althoff, Jr.
Footnote 1: [Jargon File entry for "Big Red Switch"] [Return to text]
Footnote 2: [Wikipedia entry for "SCRAM"] [Return to text]
Footnote 3: For the record, I am NOT talking about the Stricker's Grove Tornado or the LeSourdsville Lake Screechin' Eagle. [Return to text]
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