August 24, 2014

A TALE OF TWO ROAD TRIPS PART I- THE AMUSEMENT PARKS

When it comes to exploring the United States, the time we live in is a sweet spot in the country's history. The information age has given us three game changers: the dashboard Global Positioning System, the digital camera, and the TripAdvisor.

TomToms and the like still seem too good to be true, and feel more futuristic than anything I ever expected I'd live to see. Two gig memory cards eliminate the financial dilemma I used to face when a single photograph could run over half a buck after you figure film and development. To further complicate things, my mom tried to impart in me that a photo without a person in it was wasteful. Now a camera is like a net that captures free pixels right out of the sky. And TripAdvisor is a light that shines justice on the corners of the tourism industry which have survived on ignorance. 

With this triad of tools one can practically say goodbye to curbside atlas study, motel horrors, and the hollow buyers' remorse upon exiting a worthless attraction (unless visiting a worthless attraction was the goal.) And though we are armed with the devices of tomorrow, there are remnants of America's golden age of road travel still to be found.

These are the perfect days for a road trip.

For two consecutive summers I've had reason to travel to western Pennsylvania by car. In an effort to avoid a repeat of last year's trip, I made a point to go different routes and visit different attractions. I viewed it as a chance to experience an alternate version of my journey, and the opportunity to compare the two for future generations.

Both routes were basically the same up until St. Louis. I then headed towards Kentucky last year, while this year I went towards northern Ohio. Both paths had their respective highs and lows, and now I will share my findings with you!


COZY DRIVE IN- SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS (2014)
This is one of those Route 66 staples that celebrates their history and makes a point of keeping things "classic," from the sign, to the decor, to the food itself. They've got a Route 66 reading table and tons of great souvenirs all bearing artwork from last century, free of digital drop shadows and other unnecessary Photoshop effects.


The front row is reserved for primary color parking only.





Cozy Dogs are batter-dipped hot dogs on a stick. I won't call them corn dogs because I think that's legally prohibited.

Their adorable mascots are everywhere, as they darn well should be. Anthropomorphic food characters are not uncommon, but rarely do they demonstrate unending love.


Centuries after the Earth has been reduced to space rubble, this rug will still smell like Cozy Dogs.


ROADSIDE BEHEMOTHS 2013 VS. 2014
Last year I found a well kept Big Boy statue and it served as a nice, mild trip enhancer.


But this year amid the miles of monotonous corn fields we encountered what first seemed to be some wonderful hallucination, but it turned out to be the The Pink Elephant Antique Mall in Livingston, Illinois.

The UFO and giant tricycle and pink elephant would have been enough, but ruling over this motley crew of subjects was a genuine Muffler Man!...

How does the age-old saying go again?

"If a Muffler Man ye see
within the first four hundred miles,
a splendid journey it shall be,
and the fun shall not be spiled"
(spile spīl/ n 1. a small wooden peg or spigot for stopping a cask.)


Free of his duties as a former Harley Davidson shill, this jolly giant stands empty handed in a spacious field of misfit attention-getters. The carefree muffler man provides a stark contrast to the shackled pink elephant who is nowhere near retirement.


And what could embody summer vacation magic better than an ice cream stand styled after a giant ice cream cone?! Folks, this isn't some old Kodachrome postcard, this is currently sitting there. That ol', humming freezer is ice cold— right now!

 
Somehow hidden around the corner is a two story shirtless ice cream eater! (That elephant is life-size!)

THE VERDICT: The Illinois route redefines the term "Big Boy." 


CLEVELAND, OH (2014) VS. CAVE CITY, KY (2013)
Whenever I face a full day of driving I like to plan for at least one solid fun stop, and often I plan the whole route around it. A few years ago a guy who sold leg lamps on ebay from A Christmas Story bought Ralphie's house and turned it into an attraction. Since then it's been on my wishlist, but Cleveland is always too out-of-the-way to justify a visit. However, this year I decided to make it on the way.

There it is. You can faintly see the leg lamp in the window. This house was actually only used for exterior shots and a few interior shots where you can see out the windows, but they did up the inside to match the movie sets as best they could. Once you get your ticket and listen to a brief spiel about the history of the film the group is turned loose for a hands on tour of the place. You can even use household items as props for your photos. People were pointing the BB gun, caressing the leg lamp, and even dropping the blue bowling ball into their husbands' laps.

They had the bathroom set up like the decoder ring scene...

You can't see it here, but you could climb into the little cupboard where Randy hid and sulked. Some people from our group had the foresight to bring Christmas sweaters so that they could use their photos for their annual Christmas card. This was a cruel reminder that I don't live life to its fullest potential.

 
And there it is, the actual leg lamp. (Note: this is not the actual leg lamp, rather it's a reproduction from the gift shop.) This vast gift shop was located across the street in a building twice the size of the main house. (There was also a museum with some costumes, props and such located in a third building.)


They had an entire wing dedicated to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation which was about half the size of the Christmas Story retail space. Then another area about half the size of that was reserved for the Elf product line. This layout seemed to reveal the proportionate cultural impact of each film.

Department 56 finally got off its high horse and produced a glass figurine of Cousin Eddie emptying his septic tank.

They left no merchandising stone unturned, offering replicas of most any Christmas Story prop you can think of. From the obvious bunny suit to the goggled hat worn by the kid who talked to Ralphie in the department store line for thirty seconds. And of course, Lifebuoy soap...


The attraction itself gave us a lot to talk about for many miles of road. The house is positioned squarely in a dense, functioning neighborhood full of narrow, 25mph streets and people going about their lives. Many of the surrounding homes are in really rough shape. A handful of TripAdvisor reviewers say they were too afraid to even stop. So there's an interesting contrast between unvarnished Cleveland and the hordes of snap-happy sightseers. I don't imagine the locals were too pleased when their home transformed into a tourist destination. Although at least two of the neighbors seem okay with it because they turned their yards into paid parking. This only brings up more questions. Who started charging first? How miffed were they when the other one started?  What happens when one decides to charge a dollar less? There's the Christmas Story house, but more intriguing is the Christmas Story house story.

CAVE CITY, KY (2013)
I've wanted to visit Cave City, Kentucky ever since I discovered this old postcard. I knew that the novelty shop from the postcard was gone, and the combination wax museum/soda fountain/mini golf course had finally shut down, but the Mammoth Cave National Forest isn't going anywhere, so the town will always draw a steady stream of tourists. And though it may be past its prime in some sense, they've managed to hang on to some unadulterated, American vacationland magic. Case in point...

The Wigwam Village Motel! There used to be a number of these scattered around the states, and a couple still remain out west, but this is among the last of its kind. This place was among the very first "roadside attractions" designed to entice the earliest cross-country auto travelers in history. Past or present, this is the type of place that can turn a days-long car ride into a fantasy.


Each teepee is a small, yet comfortable motel room. The place was well maintained and well appreciated. There wasn't a vacant room in the bunch, and I don't jest when I say that a week prior to our visit Garth Brooks and his road crew rented the entire facility for an overnight stay.





Naturally, the biggest wigwam houses the office and gift shop. It included a restaurant once upon a time.

The inside is a cornucopia of wood paneling and pegboard. It smelled pleasantly musty. I got tingly thinking about the fact that this structure has served as a dark, cool retreat for vacationers since the 1930s. I imagined kids from all of my favorite decades walking through that door, from the coonskin cap-wearing boys of the '50s, to the bellbottom-wearing girls of the late '60s, to the '80s kids with their Ronald Reagan wallets, a Rubik's cube in each pocket, and their constant Mr. T. impressions.

This. This stack of toy Indian drum souvenirs is what you want to see while on vacation. It's close to what my dad saw when he was little, and now my own son got to experience it. God bless America.


Novelty mannequins, effigies, and wax figures are another sign that you're vacationing in the right spot.

After our blissful night in our cone-shaped room we drove into town to locate an attraction called Guntown Mountain. It's a mini western themed amusement park that's only accessible by way of a sky ride. It's closed during the week, but I was still able to get some snapshots of the pre-skyride area. Here are three, out of the oodles that I took...

It sounds like it's one of those places that teeters between greatness and disrepair. Like all great amusement parks it was ravaged by a fire a while back, however, my sources tell me that it's currently operational and seems to be improving. (My sources=the internet) Next time, old friend.

I knew that Guntown Mountain was not going to fit into our schedule, but I was hoping to patronize their souvenir shop, and I was halfway successful. Sharing a parking lot with Guntown is Smith's Country Store, an establishment that was once officially linked to the theme park. Now it's independent though symbiotic, and they do sell an array of official Guntown merch.

I pulled in moments after the store had opened. The coin operated horse and the RC Cola vending machine tipped me off that this place just might be something special. 


Upon entering, the clerk seemed perplexed and asked me if there was something he could do for me. Not a standard "can I help you?" but a statement suggesting that I looked as though I had something big on my mind, like a business deal or an auto accident. I offered an "I'm just looking." but his confusion returned moments later as I gleefully darted through the aisles taking pictures and capturing video. Because ladies and gentlemen, on that day I found the perfect souvenir shop.

The product was aged yet orderly, and every genus of souvenir was represented, from Thimbles to Fool's Gold to Bumper Stickers to Hillbilly. There were checkerboard tiled floors, wood paneled walls, and teal shelves all around!

As if my senses weren't being pleasured enough, the entire experience was accompanied by the powerful aroma of smoked country ham.



The only thing that could have made it better would've been an old section of pranks and magic tricks, though it did have a selection of rack toys, most of the "Cowboys and Indians" variety. Yet among them I found a Star Wars knock-off cap gun that had been hanging on a peg since 1978 (see photo at the end of Part II), and it was 50% off of its 1970s price! This was a joy until I considered the possible implications of such a sale. Most of the souvenir items were half price and this terrifies me. Was Smith's Country Store on the brink of a transformation, or... a closure, after decades of beautiful stagnation? Just as I first discovered it? I know, I should be thankful that I experienced it this way, just in time. What bittersweet fate is this that I must endure?! In truth, I don't know if it's changed at all since then. Either way it shall always remain just as I first saw it, in my heart.


But wait, what is that over there to the left of the store? Good...heavens.


No way! It's a freestanding, self-guided haunted funhouse that's immaculately maintained though it's been there since the 70s!!!

The attraction was not operational that morning. This saddened me until a video on youtube revealed that the haunts inside have been modernized, though I am impressed that the place is still so functional. The Haunted Hotel used to be called the Haunted House, and it housed scares from the golden age of dark rides that were produced by Funni-Frite, one of the industry pioneers. (A pre-update tour can be seen here.) One of the few original fixtures is this piano playing "Charmin' Charles" that's visible from the outside...




THE VERDICT: There's no contest, the Christmas Story house is a fine example of modern tourism, but Cave City offers a gateway to the heyday of the American road trip.

Back to 2014, there's a town called Tionesta, PA that has a tiny town within a town made up of retail shops.

They also have a landlocked mini lighthouse...


There was a hardware store selling a cool rubber coyote that's intended to scare away geese. (Travelers' tip: don't call it a wolf; the clerk was appalled.)






VILLA ITALIA, OIL CITY, PA (2014)
We were hungry for lunch whilst passing through Oil City and happened upon this place, Villa Italia...


Normally, I wouldn't consider a random pizza joint blogworthy, but this place was just so great. It's been around since the 1950s, as indicated by its A-Frame architecture.

Look at the length of those center booths! Something about it reminded me of the type of restaurant that the Family Circus would have eaten at during their comics from the 60s. Am I right? That's a normal thought that anyone might think, right?...

I loved the lived-in look, and the view, and the pizza, and the fact that it's open 24 hours. I can't even think of quips to make about this place because it's so right, and sincere.





CARNEGIE SCIENCE CENTER (2014) VS. DUQUESNE INCLINE (2013) PITTSBURGH, PA
It's a silly contest because last year we had only an hour to kill in Pittsburgh so we went to the incline, as opposed to this year when we had a couple of days.



The incline was really cool and the top of it looks sort of like a haunted house. (In this post you will see heavy use of the word 'haunted.')


This year The Carnegie Science Center was super-great, and there was so much to see. We'd never taken our eight-year-old to any sort of kids' museum, so this was a major event. We started our day in the USS Requin submarine...



 I was delighted to find that it was full of relics from the 1940s.


Then we waltzed into RoboWorld, a massive floor of interactive robot-related exhibits. I was most interested in the the wall of famous 'bot replicas which included...

Dewey from Silent Running (which, by the way, was a big inspiration for the robots in Mystery Science Theater 2000.)

Robby! Note my perfect timing, as I captured his lit-up neon mouth the moment he spoke. (Confession: I had to delete many photos of the darkened mouth.)


And Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still!

They also had an enormous huge train set based on Western Pennsylvania where the lighting gradually turned from day to night. This was my favorite thing in it, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater...







THE VERDICT: Visit both the incline and the science center!

CRANBERRY MALL VS. MONROEVILLE MALL

Lately I've been in the mood to visit a mall. They were once a summertime haven for me, but then Camelot Music, SunCoast Movies, Kay-Bee Toys, B. Dalton Books, Woolworths and the cool novelty shops all disappeared. My quest to revisit this institution lead me to the town of Cranberry, PA to a mall that my wife sometimes visited as a kid...


It doesn't look to have changed much considering the comforting globe light fixtures and diagonal wood planks.

I was glad to see that one of the store spaces was being turned into a temporary haunted house for the upcoming season.

But in the Harsh Reality department I must report that maybe a fifth of the stores were closed.



I'm not some big advocate for malls, but in a sociological sense I find it strange that the American Mall is now understood as a mere passing trend in retail. A costly one that has left hundreds of square miles of wasteland in our towns and cities. I would not have guessed that the populous would start flocking to the newer, non-climate controlled outdoor malls, or prefer driving from giant store to giant store. Thus, my stock portfolio is a disaster.

Anyway, the very next day I visited a mall that seems to be thriving, the Monroeville Mall of Monroeville, PA. Truth be told the main attraction for me was it's role in the film Dawn of the Dead (1978). Somehow I completely missed their zombie themed store, but I took some shots of a few spots that look like they may not have seen much change since George Romero turned loose his undead.



The interior looks nothing like it did in the film, but there is a car inside which sure came in handy in the movie. It also still has a music shop and a toy store, plus some old staples like Orange Julius, Spencers, and Vitamin World.





THE VERDICT: Cranberry was a nostalgic yet depressing history lesson. Monroeville was healthy, but like so many malls that got facelifts in the 90s it now resembles a polished, opulent palace with its marble columns and such. I like my malls casual, a bit dim, and smelling of water fountains. I say visit Cranberry because I know Monroeville will be around for a while.

STEEL CITY CON, MONROEVILLE, PA


In a moment of beautiful serendipity I realized that the Steel City Con was taking place on one of my Pittsburgh days. I'm often jealous of east coast collectors and their host of convention choices. A year ago I read this write up of the Steel City Con on Cool and Collected with a heart full of envy, thinking such an event was nowhere near my life's destiny. Then somehow I found myself standing in front of the same astonishing assortment of non-sports trading cards I'd fawned over in the write-up.

It's always fun to see stuff like this in real life...







Celebrity-wise the big draw looked to be Billy Dee Williams, but he had yet to emerge when I walked through. I was happy to see Penny Marshall though. Just think, she may have used this same hand gesture while directing Tom Hanks in Big.

Upon my return I discovered that one of my fellow bloggers, Erick of Wonderful Wonderblog, had been there too. 

Okay, here is the crux of this entire, bloated post...
KENNYWOOD OF WEST MIFFLIN, PA VS. WALDAMERE OF ERIE, PA

I learned about Kennywood soon after I first "got serious" about haunted rides. It has a long history with dark attractions and they currently have three of them. More recently it's known as the park where Adventureland was filmed. I knew this and then somehow forgot about it while visiting the park, and then remembered back home. What a ridiculous brain I have.

Here are some highlights...

Their logo has wacky, off-kilter lettering. Big thumbs up for that.


They've got a roller coaster named after a vengeful ghost that boasts the best roller coaster sign I've ever witnessed.




They've got a stuffed grim reaper nonchalantly tossed in among their prizes.

This sign is really good. One of the riders is Noah from their Noah's Ark funhouse and another is Laughing Sal, which I'll get to in a moment.


This is Laughing Sal. It's a constantly laughing animatronic character. These were once very popular in carnivals, and were usually associated with funhouses and dark rides. Now there are only several dozen that are accessible to the public, and this one is fully restored and fully functional, exuding all of its original creepy-and-annoying-ness.

Their refreshment stand is a masterwork of neon typography.

And the three dark attractions...

Ghostwood Estate, an interactive shoot 'em up ride that retains classical spook house styling inside and out. No, I'm not posting a video. I'm done doing that.



Garfield's Nightmare, the latest iteration of a longstanding Kennywood dark ride. It's a kid friendly boat-through by blacklight.




This was the heart of the visit for me, the Noah's Ark walk-through funhouse. It was built in 1936 and though it's seen many changes and updates, it still oozes with charm.

Noah looks different than I always imagined...

Kennywood was all I had hoped for, but we were there on a Friday night so long lines limited our experience.  Now let us go back one year to my time at...



WALDAMERE PARK- ERIE, PA

Waldamere is smaller than Kennywood and has fewer major rides, but the moment I walked in I was reminded of the theme park I frequented in my youth, Bell's Amusement Park of Tulsa, so I was instantly on a higher plane of enjoyment.

I took the sky ride (something I wish Kennywood had) for an overview of their many time-honored amusements.

Hand painted signs like these are so ideal that they belong in Plato's Realm of Forms...



The Ferris Wheel  is newfangled by comparison with its marvelous '70s Tomorrowland styling.
Their Skee Ball banks are perfection.


I thought it would be fun to take a photo of this haunted ticket-giving game. Turns out I was correct.


But all of these are mere appetizers leading up to the main course of dark attractions...

Pirate's Cove is a semi-spooky walk-through funhouse with shaking floors and singing skeletons and everything else that makes a house fun. (Oh, alright. Video available here.)

Just a few yards away is The Whacky Shack!! Both rides were created by master dark ride designer, Bill Tracey.

 

You see, the Whacky Shack is an identical cousin to the now dead Phantasmagoria ride which was a touchstone of my childhood and influenced my entire aesthetic. (I've written thousands of words about it, and made a dedicated site for it.)

I will spare you the fifty something pictures I took of Whacky Shack. I could not walk past the ride without getting out my camera. "I know, I already immortalized it at two o'clock, but now it's three and the subtleties of the lighting are all different." Unlike the Phantas, the Shack is exquisitely maintained.

Riding it was simply amazing. For me it was like getting to spend time with someone you never thought you'd see again. Oddly enough, the thing that struck me most was the smell. It's a cool, musty, oily aroma, the one element of the experience that I can't reproduce when I reminisce. (Here's a ride-through video, sans smell.)


VERDICT: Both parks are proud of their their heritage, and both are well loved by management and patrons alike. Kennywood is bigger and has more thrill rides (which are wasted on me), while Waldamere is cozier and features smaller amusement park classics. Kennywood has great dark rides, but Waldamere has the Whacky Shack which pretty much trumps everything for me. So my personal pick is Waldamere, but thrill-seekers may want to head down to Kennywood.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II!...