“I started working at Waldameer when I was 11 years old as a dishwasher. When I left at the end of the summer, I said, uncle Alex – that’s what I had started calling him as I had lived with him all summer – I said, ‘I want a promotion, I don’t want to be a dishwasher all next year.’ He said, ‘don’t worry Paul, I’ll give you a promotion.’ So when I came back next year he handed me a couple of keys and whistle and I thought, ‘oh boy, I’m important now.’ So, I asked him, ‘what’s my job?” He laughs. “Alex’s office was over the ladies room, so every hour on the hour I had to blow the whistle, go in and get the women out and clean the bathroom. Needless to say, I never asked for another promotion.”
This was the conversation Paul Nelson and I had not so long ago on a very dreary rainy early Friday morning during my tour of Waldameer Park - or what is lovingly known as Wally World. I went to interview Nelson, the owner, that typical dreary Erie day and while all I wanted to do was to get out of the rain, the first thing he did when I got there was take me back outside.
“You can’t write about what you can’t see,” he said.
True, I thought. I mean, I had the opportunity to see the upcoming addition to the park before the public saw it, and I got to tour the park with nobody around. But there I was in my little black patent leather heels trekking through mud and puddles. Of course, had I had any idea, I might have dressed differently. Might.
While we were walking and talking and exploring all the little nooks and crannies that would soon be the new addition—known as the North End—I asked him how he chose the new rides he brought in.
“I’ve done it all my life. I’m the designer, but I still get input of course,” Nelson said. “I belong to the state organization and our international association. We have 12 parks and meet once a year for a week. And it’s by invitation only. A lot of people want to get into it but we only keep it to 12. We show each other our books – talk about what’s successful and not successful. It’s very valuable information.”
At this point he took me to what looked like a warehouse of sorts towards the back of the park. Inside were several bronze sculptures of little children and pets that would accent the new addition and several workers were welding and building different parts of the park. I asked him if everything, outside of the rides, was created in house.
“This is a family run business. My wife, my daughter, my son-in-law, and many generations have been part of this family. We do everything here. My son-in-law, Steve Gorman, is now the general manager and president,” he said. “However, we make it a point to let the employees know they are the face of the park. Not us. We’ve had employees that have been here upwards of 40 years. If we contract we make it a point to use them year after year. We never steal anybody from another organization. We are a very loyal group”
Impact on the Economy
Year round, Waldameer operates with a skeleton crew of 20 people. At its peak, the park employs upwards of 400 people in a season.
So, how do local businesses, organizations, and patrons view this family fun park?
“Waldameer Park is one of Erie's oldest, if not the oldest attraction in Erie County. It is truly a treasure, holding a special place in the hearts of both our residents and visitors,” said Christine Pennsy, director of communications at VisitErie. The park is, she added, “an integral part of Erie's tourism industry, a major contributor to our overall tourism economy and is one of VisitErie's major selling points when we promote Erie summertime fun. Waldameer's multitude of rides, slides, midway games and entertainment, combined with free general admission, free parking and a consistent family-friendly environment make it one of Erie's greatest assets."
One tough fact us local Erieites might not realize is most of Waldameer’s patrons are from out of town. This is where they get most of their business – from the tourists. Statistically speaking – today two-thirds of family-owned amusement parks in the last 10-15 years have closed.
“It becomes harder and harder to run on a short season. There’s always competition, and it’s very expensive to run an amusement park,” Nelson said. “Plus, we are still at the mercy of the weather. Our busiest days are when it’s overcast but warm. We continue to have steady growth. I always have a projection though and compare to the economy. Let’s say inflation is now 3 percent—then I would say I want to grow 5 percent. This is why so many family parks have failed. These organizations are not putting money back into the park. They up the price, but show no reason for it. We in turn make sure if the costs are going up, we put money into new rides and attractions so people feel the increase is fair.”
One local patron doesn’t mind. Amanda Prischak, copywriter at Tungsten Creative Group and freelance writer, has great memories of the park. “Though I love Waldameer in its totality, the Whacky Shack has special significance for me. I remember the first time my dad took me on it when I was six--I was totally enthralled and scared. It has an inimitably dank musky smell and everyone always makes such a big deal about getting kissed in there...I've had a few of those during my rides.”
In fact, the Whacky Shack celebrated its 40th birthday last summer. Created by “Dark Ride Master” Bill Tracy, the ride is just one example of this individual’s macabre work, which has been featured at parks throughout the U.S. and Canada. Tracy is also responsible for creating the Pirate’s Cove, which incidentally will celebrate its 40th year in 2012.
If you’ve never been on the Whacky Shack—and you grew up in Erie—you must have been living under a rock this entire time. Just to provide you with a small experience – the ride works like this: A cable car slowly takes you through a dark but mystical tunnel with scatterings of fluorescent paint designs. The ride zigzags through 1970s-style horror scenes – you encounter a giant rat, ghosts, skeletons, and more all the while traveling through shrinking hallways. It is one of Tracy’s classic designs and yet was only created four years before his death in 1974.
“They get it right--old-school favorites like the iconic Whacky Shack mixed with new, world-class rides all the time,” Prischak notes of Waldameer. “ It's an Erie tradition, and I can't wait to take my future children there someday.”
Erie’s largest tourist attraction, Presque Isle State Park, appreciates having Waldameer as their neighbor. According to Harry Leslie, Presque Isle State Park Operations Manager, “We respect their vision and applaud their recognition status as one of the few remaining family-owned and operated amusement parks in the country. We communicate as neighboring recreation attractions and work together to enhance the visitor experience for both Waldameer and the Tom Ridge Environmental Center the gateway to Presque Isle State Park."
The park began as a picnic area called Hoffman's Grove. The Erie Electric Motor Company leased the park in 1896 and renamed it "Waldameer.”
Fun fact: The name "Waldameer" can be translated literally as "Woods by the Sea" in German, which is most likely the reason behind this name.
When asked if any of the original structures still stood, Nelson replied, “The merry-go-round building is the original building. We used to have one of the most valuable carousels in the world. However, there was nothing around it to protect it and we had started hearing about other parks where the menagerie of carved animals and horses were getting stolen. So, we decided to auction them off. Because of this, we made enough money to build the Waterpark and put a new carousel in the building.”
Waldameer is the fourth oldest amusement park in Pennsylvania, the tenth oldest in the United States and now in its 115th year of operation.
Nelson likes looking back on their 100th anniversary. “During an interview in 1996, a woman reporter actually asked me if I was one of the founders.” He starts laughing. “Now, I’m 77, I would have been 62 back then. And I still think for my age I’m fairly well-preserved.”
New Addition – The North End
As you enter the North End, beautiful gardens, a flowing water fountain, and a giant archway greet you. The expansion features three new rides. The largest is the Flying Swings. The swings carry 64 people in 48 swings—some are meant to ride solo while others fit two people—and rise about 45 feet off the ground while spinning. The ride was made in Vicenza, Italy. It will fly over the L. Ruth Express train and participants will enjoy views of Lake Erie and the Ravine Flyer II bridge, which spans Peninsula Drive.
Wendy's Tea Party features a decorative and ornate teapot surrounded by six colorful teacups on a rotating platform. Each teacup is equipped with a manual steering wheel that allows riders to control the speed and direction of their teacup's individual rotation.
The third ride is the SS Wally. This ride is a brightly colored tug boat-looking ride that combines unique rocking and whirling motions. All the rides overlook Peninsula Drive and Lake Erie. The project, in its totality, cost about $1.5 million.
In addition to the rides, a memorial spot was created near the Ravine Flyer II Coaster. It was built in honor of a woman from New York who passed away from Cancer. She was part of one of the ACE groups, which stands for American Coaster Enthusiasts. Their mission is to promote and enjoy roller coasters everywhere, regardless of type or size. According to Nelson, “Many of these enthusiasts have traveled from all over the world to come and ride the Coaster. They just felt it was a fitting place for her memorial.”
He added, “Our coaster is currently ranked 6th in the world as the best riding wooden coaster. What makes ours even more unique is that generally when you ride, you go like a pinball back and forth. What happens with ours is that we have you go at high speeds and we keep you on the upper edge so you don’t get that pinball motion.”
As we toured back through the picnic grove, Nelson pointed out, “The park has plans for a food court in the coming years.” It seems like he’s always thinking of additions to the park, and food would come as a welcomed addition too since at this point the park doesn’t serve an actual dinner.“We have so many people coming from out of town. We know we need to be able to offer them this. It will be a food line of sorts and individuals and families will be able to enjoy a nice chicken or pasta dinner.”
At that point I sensed he knew I was getting a little cold. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Nonetheless, we worked our way back to the office where he afforded me an opportunity for a formal question and answer session. I recalled everything we talked about through the tour just to make sure I had all my information correct. But I had one last question for him.
This is a man who has literally grown up with this park. He started as a dishwasher and he now owns the place. And although he never again asked for a promotion, he clearly received them. But I was still curious – since he is the designer and he’s seen and done everything associated with amusement parks – I wanted to know – well - what his favorite ride was.
“I love the train. I just love to look around, and see what’s going on – the people, the families, everything. And there’s no better ride for that purpose.”
I should have known this. The train is classic and iconic. And, incidentally, much like the man I sat across from that morning.
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