Are We Having Fun Yet?

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Connecticut’s Amusement Parks:  New England treasures that celebrate the wonder years…

Connecticut’s Amusement Parks: 

New England treasures that celebrate the wonder years in all of us

By  Anna Zuckerman-Vdovenko

 

What is it about amusement parks that keep us coming back year after year? Well, it is likely that feeling of escapism and sheer fun that these parks provide to the entire family and visitors out to enjoy some recreation. We become immersed in the thrill of it all, from the kiddie parks and roller coasters to the splash-filled water rides. Truth to be told, New Englanders simply can’t get enough. Amusement parks are one thing that appeals to children as well as teens quite equally. Such fun activities enhance the feeling of joy only possible during those childhood “wonder years” but also give great pleasure to adults that relive the fun nostalgia of their youth when visiting parks reminiscent of days gone by. 

AMUSING AMUSEMENTSConnecticut’s Amusement Parks

Connecticut is so fortunate to have two large traditional amusement parks that have bridged from the past glory days of formal visits with peaceful picnics, dance halls with live bands, and penny arcades, to state of the art waterslides, heart stopping rides, wooden roller coasters, and great concessions at every turn. Yet these modernized venues still maintain a wistful cheer only found at amusement parks of this kind.  Whether young or old, we feel such a bittersweet longing for the past while enjoying the sheer happiness provided by the modern rides. Every weekend of the season, those rides still cause the same screams and squeals of fright and delight.

Amusement Park aficionados in Connecticut can look forward to the opening of Lake Compounce every spring. It is the oldest amusement park in the country, still going strong as ever in Bristol for the last 175 years. In 2021, the park underwent a massive transformation to make it even more appealing. They spruced it up with new landscaping and fresh color schemes. Palace Entertainment, the current owners, added a re-imagined Main Street just past the turnstiles. The entrance seems magical, especially at night with twinkling lights to delight the child in all of us. A brand new spin on a big water slide re-opened this summer promises to wow the devoted with new impressions during the wild ride.

LAKE COMPOUNCE COMPOUNDS THE FUN

Connecticut’s Amusement Parks

Lake Compounce is truly the Great American Amusement Park if there ever was one, thriving long before Disney was ever born. Created in 1846, it evolved from the time when scientist, Samuel Botsford, attempted to blow up a lake nestled within a scenic grove. Fortunately, the explosives didn’t work. The owner of the property, Gad Norton, realized the potential of the spot when he saw how many people crowded around the gleaming blue water to watch Botsford’s experiment. Not long after, Norton installed strolling paths, picnic tables where visitors could relax, and paddleboats for leisurely rides on the lake. Visitors were delighted. The area soon became one of the most popular amusement areas in the region. My, how time flies. Fast-forward nearly two centuries later and we see that Lake Compounce has become a timeless New England tradition featuring over 45 rides and attractions that include a rollicking water park called Crocodile Cove.

Most Connecticut residents have already been to Compounce but repeat their visits because it is just so much darn fun. One feature that keeps calling them back are the four impressive rollercoasters, including “Boulder Dash” (awarded #1 Wooden Roller Coaster in the world five times and counting.) For those who just adore the classics, Compounce boasts a traditional Carousel, Ferris Wheel, and Drop Tower that puts one’s heart in one’s stomach. 

Right as Memorial Day ushers in summer, Crocodile Cove opens. This section of the park is where bathing suit-clad guests can relax at shaded cabanas in groups as they enjoy the water park with its many rides n’ slides.  The “Venus Vortex” is one of the newest slides where riders travel through in their three-person raft before plummeting deep into the hungry mouth of a ravenous Venus Flytrap. All these rides give park goers a chance to beat the heat of the summer while sharing thrills and chills with family and friends. Cabanas are popular, so it is good to reserve those ahead of time.

 The new version of “Storm Surge” water slide levels up Lake Compounce’s iconic body slide experience by shocking riders’ senses with stunning sound and color. Guests will race down the tunnel slide, whizzing past color-changing lights while encountering new sounds and unexpected thrills all the way down. Fitted with iSlide technology, Storm Surge water slide has 30 changing colored lights, four speakers, and a surprise around every twist and turn. The various sights and sounds create an awe-inspiring experience,” said Lake Compounce General Manager, Jeffery Davis. “Every season, we look to put fresh twists on fan favorites, and as we continue to celebrate 175 years of family fun, this all-new experience will offer a wild ride guests won’t soon forget!”  While “Storm Surge” tackles sight and sound, visitors to Crocodile Cove will have tastebuds that tingle thanks to a new restaurant coming to Lake Compounce’s water park area. The Lakeside Café will offer popular park favorites like chicken tenders, fries, salads, hamburgers, and veggie burgers next door to the six-story “Venus Vortex.”

THE COMPOUNCE LINEUP

Lake Compounce rolls out loaded lineups this year that you may consider:  

June – Bites and Pints is a June smash-hit food and drink festival returning for a second season with an all-new, doubly delicious menu. 

July – Summer’s On! Fireworks flash above the lake every Saturday night, plus an extra evening of celebration on Sunday, July 3. Bring the whole family for longer days and later rides on Boulder Dash, Rev-O-Lution, and more. 

September – Ales & Tails – Lake Compounce goes to the dogs this September. Four-legged friends can join their humans as they enjoy the first days of fall and sip on a cold one during this brand-new special Ales & Tails event. 

October – Halloween kicks off at Lake Compounce on September 30 and runs weekends through October 30. Stay tuned for more spooky and silly fall fun – more    to come!

November – Holiday Lights returns to Lake Compounce with more than one million lights and extended days of operation from November 18 – December 31.  

Quintessential Quassy

Still another classic fun spot we treasure here is Quassy Amusement Park, still going strong after 114 years of operating in Middlebury. Quassy stands alone as a special place with a feeling of history because it has been a family-run business for the last 60 years, now run by the Frantz family. Initially, the park when founded was based around the wooded groves surrounding sparkling Lake Quassapaug, a Native American term name that means “big pond”. 

The new state-of-the-art water coaster, “Rocket Rapids,” is newly launched, promising to be Quassey’s “jewel in the crown.” The park calls it a unique water slide with a roller coaster feel involving going up steeper portions with water jets adding to thrills for young and old. Quassy is a great family fun place especially because there is no admission fee for the Amusement Park area. This means grandparents and family members that don’t want to take on the wide variety of rides can come to watch and enjoy, purchase food at the concessions and vicariously watch others taking the thrill rides. There are wristbands for admission to the riders at the water park portion and amusement park section or a band reasonably priced to access both. 

HISTORICAL CONNECTIONS

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Trolley services often owned amusement parks in Connecticut as well as in other states. This was because trolley companies built amusement parks that they owned and used their trolleys to take people during the weekend to these venues in order to increase financial solvency. Quassy is very special because it is the only remaining original Trolley Park in our state that has survived all the pandemics, the Great Depression, and corporate buy-outs of theme parks. Trolley companies stopped their electric rail operations to amusement parks eventually in the 1930s after people realized that once roads had improved, buses could get them to the parks faster. 

Lake Quassapaug Amusement Park, as it was first called, was at the end of the trolley line from nearby Waterbury. The electrified rail line once wove in and out of the wooded hills in this peaceful borough of northwestern Connecticut, but now, of course, this form of transport has been gone for more than 90 years. Even though 1930 spelled the end of the line for the Connecticut Trolley Company, its most popular summer stop that once filled the rail cars to full capacity still thrives. Quassy is the only remaining amusement park in Connecticut that was one of the original Trolley Parks owned and operated by the Trolley service at the time. The weekend trolley rides and park fees generated a lot of capital for these companies when folks weren’t riding in and out to work. Locals came to picnic at the park on weekends and everntually started calling the park simply “Quassy.” In the early 1900s, the park hosted an open-air dance hall for live bands to play seven nights a week during the summer months. The old dance hall from 1915 is well-preserved and now hosts a redemption arcade. Picnic tables and later on a Grand Carousel were other featured attractions at that time.  

Are We Having Fun Yet?

In 1937, a change of ownership took place when the park’s concessionaires purchased the property. The current owner, George Frantzis II, was the grandson of one of those concessionaires and has captained the ship into the new century with foresight. Right around the time of that purchase, the classic Morris Carousel almost went up in flames due to some stalled negotiations. “So the story goes, there was a dispute over the carousel being part of the purchase, and the previous owner had the animals stacked up and ready to torch them when a deal was finally struck,” George Frantzis II said of the negotiations involving his late grandfather. A new and updated classic carousel was created for the park by auctioning off the old structure piece by piece bringing national attention to the Park in the late 1980s. Menagerie figures fetched more than $40,000 each, and when the gavel struck for the final time, the carousel auction had raised more than $630,000. These proceeds led to a new 50-foot grand carousel for the coming year. The new ride was installed in March of 1999. The inner three rows of resin-molded horses are replicas from the famous Allan Herschell line.  

Initially, Quassy was limited to being a pure amusement park with rides. The popular water park built later on became an even bigger draw. Splash Away Bay features 15 waterslides, a splash pad for children as well as an interactive water play area called “Saturation Station” for all ages. 

IMPROVING UPON PERFECTION

“Our beach used to be packed, and it got to the point where fewer and fewer people were coming to the lake to swim,” John Frantzis noted of how things were two decades ago. With younger members of the family stepping into key management positions, the owners decided in 2003 that it was time to take a plunge by building a new water attraction. That spring Quassy introduced “Saturation Station,” the first interactive family water play area of its type in the world. With cascading fountains, water cannons, waterslides, and a huge tipping bucket as a centerpiece, the multi-tiered attraction was an overnight success. “I believe it saved the park,” John Frantzis said. He attributes the project’s inception and success to his son-in-law, Eric Anderson, who also heads up the park’s operations. Building off the success of “Saturation Station,” Quassy added two gigantic “Tunnel Twister” waterslides to the attraction in 2006. In 2013, the waterpark virtually doubled in size with the addition of three new slides, plus a children’s splash pad. The attraction was also renamed “Splash Away Bay.” Now, as the temperatures soar in July and August, so does the attendance at Quassy’s re-born lakefront attractions, proving that the largest investment in the park’s history has paid dividends. The park also rebranded itself as Quassy Amusement & Waterpark.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

The Amusement portion of the park has been updated through the years, having many attractions appealing to all ages from little tikes to young adults and beyond.  With the advent of large theme parks over the past few decades – numerous ones within driving distance from western Connecticut – Quassy has managed to maintain its identity as the alternative to the mega-facilities. Rarely are there long lines for any of the rides, nor a crush of humanity streaming down the walkways at this quaint lakeside venue. Parents and grandparents love to be spectators while the children ride classics like the  “Tilt-A-Whirl” and “Paratrooper.” Yet Quassy, while preserving its treasured past, has kept up with the times by mixing the old with the new. A portion of the lower parking lot near the lake has been transformed into a new development for the venue in recent years with the addition of larger rides like the “Music Fest,” and “Yo-Yo,” along with “Bumper Cars.” The highly anticipated new “Rocket Rapids” “water coaster” marks the single largest investment in Quassy’s 114-year history and is the sixth major expansion in the water park since it was introduced in 2003. “We’re excited about the June unveiling of this new attraction which incorporates some of the latest technology in waterslides,” says Quassy President Eric Anderson. “Water jets will actually push the two-person rafts uphill and riders will experience some exhilarating drops and high-banked turns.” The attraction is more than 600 feet in length and has a capacity of 340 persons per hour. The installation increases the number of waterslides to sixteen in Splash Away Bay. 

QUASSY SWEETHEARTS

Quassy prides itself upon one other unusual trait. You often see loving couples of all ages strolling about the park with a glow in their eyes. This is because so many young people have initially met at the park in their youth while working there for the summer. That ambiance seems to be a secret love potion that lasts a lifetime. There is something magical about Quassy. It is modern of course but also a pleasingly old-fashioned, family-owned business that shows personal care for its employees. Generations of college kids working there for the summer have had a chance to experience the old days of summertime innocence, “those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer” as Nat King Cole once intoned in his famous song.

Ocean Beach Park

Are We Having Fun Yet?

New London boasts an amusement park perched on a lovely half mile of wide “sugar sand” beach that gives you a chance to enjoy your day in the sunshine alongside the boardwalk.  Opposite the beach, nearby the boardwalk, the park has amusement park essentials from a kiddy sprayground to a triple waterslide. The kiddy rides are old- fashioned with the classic Carousel, a little Train Ride, bumble-bee painted Flyers, kid-sized Spinners, and tiny cars for a that first “driving” experience. A nostalgic-styled arcade with games like Skee-Ball looks like something your grandparents knew and loved from their childhood. A wide variety of prizes are available with ticket redemption from winning at games. Nature trails, mini and Olympic-sized pools are extra credit beyond the typical amusement park checklist. For a great afternoon, check out their Sandbar Café located on the “upper deck”, overlooking the Boardwalk and Ocean. During the summer season, enjoy your favorite adult or non-alcoholic beverage and a savory snack prepared by the chef. The view is spectacular, plus, there’s always a showcase of oceanic scenes including passing ferries or even    the possibility of seeing a submarine.  At night there is no better place to enjoy all nightly entertainment, including great  bands and fireworks.

Suburban Park – Unionville

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Lastly, if you want to take a blast into the past, there is a place you can go to time travel and get a brief glimpse of a very old amusement park site that is now returned back to nature for the most part. There are few remnants from the days when the Hartford Trolley took people to Unionville, a portion of Farmington where Suburban Amusement Park once thrived. The Amusement Park operated from 1895 to 1905 and was home to a carousel, the first electrified water fountain, an ice cream parlor, café, and dance hall.  The beautiful electrified fountain drew visitors by the hundreds and often it held fish that were taken from the Suburban Park Pond each spring and returned back to the natural waters in the fall. Colored lights hung from discs that reflected into the water. Electricity was generated from the Park Canals and the Farmington River. 

Now, you can freely walk through the aging original Suburban Park gates and take a peek at what remains while enjoying the forest that closely surrounds the site. It may be a little eerie, but how often can one take a hike into the past and imagine how things once were over 100 years ago? If you go, you are bound to run into locals that have great memories of playing in the woods nearby since childhood. Dog owners sometimes bring their fur-babies there, as we saw quite a few off leashes but all very friendly. The Unionville Historical Society has some information about Suburban Park and many photos exhibiting how things once were there in the truly olden days.

Oh, and by the way…Are we having fun yet? If not, drive over to any of these venues and take a ride into the fun zone. Whether it’s Compounce, Quassy, Ocean Beach Park, or Suburban Park, rest assured our state has plenty of recreation and fun to keep you and your family amused all summer.  The best moments we’ll always take with us wherever we go are when fun is shared with loved ones. So, bring on the Wonder Years for the child in all of us from 9 months to 99!  

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