Bristol, Conn. Tom Wages, a 25-year veteran of the amusement park industry, recalls the day when he first strolled through the grounds of America's oldest continually operating amusement park here.
"There were weeds growing up through the pavement and the paint was peeling off buildings," says Wages, who has been general manager of 157-year-old Lake Compounce since 1997.
On that particular day, Wages was an outsider looking in at what once was a thriving summer resort at the foot of Compounce Mountain in central Connecticut. Having struggled in previous years, every indicator in 1996 pointed to a park on its deathbed. Lake Compounce had run the gamut and was on the brink of collapse, a fate hundreds of the nation's older traditional amusement parks had already met.
The park didn't open for the season in 1992, but the property maintained its title as "America's Oldest (Continually) Operating Amusement Park" only because a group of volunteers managed to operate the facility for one day that summer. But saving this national treasure would take an entirely different approach, one that only a handful of individuals in this unique industry were probably qualified to tackle.
"The park had been family owned for 140 years," Wages points out.
A transition started in the mid-1980s when a corporation took over the property and started to update the infrastructure. But that fell short of bringing the park back and that company soon put Lake Compounce back up for sale.
The latest formula for saving Lake Compounce was not a simple one. There were concerned citizens and groups, including the National Amusement Park Historical Assn., who sought to rescue the park, but didn't have the financial backing.
The state also wanted to see a rebirth of the facility, which has had its carousel listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, and offered to put up money if a qualified managing partner could be found for the property.
But the venture would take a lot more money than the state was posting, plus a management team that could change the public's perception of a park gone bad. Not only was the property in disrepair, but it also had a tarnished image as a major concert venue.
"There was a huge outdoor amphitheater at this end of the park," Wages says, pointing to the area now occupied by the "Zoomerang" looping steel coaster. For one concert, 20,000 tickets were sold. All the fans showed up, but the band didn't. The promoter skipped town with the money.
In April 1996, Kennywood Entertainment, which operates historic Kennywood Park (1898) near Pittsburgh, became the new managing partner of Lake Compounce. Wages, who had managed successful park operations for years in western and upstate New York, was named general manager.
Old and new
Around $50 million in new rides, attractions and physical improvements were immediately put into the park to lure guests back. But with all the modern improvements, park officials were careful to maintain the identity of the old traditional park.
The landmark 1927 "Wildcat" wooden roller-coaster still towers 85 feet above the midway area where guests enter the park. In front of the mammoth structure is a new "Main Street" building complex.
The 1911 carousel, located in a roundhouse near the lake, features 49 hand-carved horses with music from an original Wurlitzer (circa 1923) band organ built in North Tonawanda, N.Y.
Overlooking the lake is the Starlite Ballroom, erected in the late 1920s. It hosted the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra (Jimmy and Tommy) in 1935 with an aspiring, unknown trombone player named Glenn Miller filling one of the chairs.
According to New England parks historian Bob Goldsack, a record crowd of 5,000 jammed the ballroom in 1941 when Tommy Dorsey returned for a performance with his own orchestra. Singer Frank Sinatra, acclaimed magician Harry Houdini and a juggler named Orson Welles also entertained at the park.
This season the ballroom features daily performances by Chinese acrobats. Ballroom dancing to the sounds of regional big bands remains popular during selected dates.
The park also operates a 1911 Osgood-Bradley Car Co. electric trolley which takes guests on a scenic ride along one side of 28-acre lake.
At the other side of the lake is a modern yet miniature version of an steam engine railroad line, which chugs along more than a half-mile of track with open-air passenger coaches in tow.
The park still features its ever-popular bumper cars, and the kiddyland section has a pony kart ride that has delighted tots for half a century.
Thrill-seekers won't be disappointed as the park's new profile includes some of the biggest and best thrill rides available from throughout the United States and Europe. They include the topsy-turvy "Top Spin," built in Germany, a 100-foot Ferris wheel and a state-of-the-art dark ride called "Ghost Hunt."
In 1998, Lake Compounce added a water park at the lake's shore called "Splash Harbor." It has the latest in water slides, water cannons and a wave pool.
Today, Lake Compounce has an attendance of around 500,000 in a season that runs from mid-May through late September. The rescue of America's Oldest Amusement Park seems complete.