Despite our Puritan past, New England has a long history of summer fun. Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn., the self-proclaimed oldest continuously operating amusement park in North America, traces its roots to an 1846 “picnic” park. Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H., was founded in 1902. It had to close for a few years during the Great Depression, but it came back better than ever. Truth is, carnival rides and arcade games never get old. For this Smackdown, Lake Compounce was put to the ultimate test: a visit in the pouring rain. Undaunted by the deluge, busloads of kids on school outings exhibited a level of enthusiasm that far exceeded simply getting out of math class. Here’s how the two parks stack up on some essentials:
LAKE COMPOUNCE: Operating at the park since 1911, the carousel features horses created by four master carvers. A mechanism from the famed Looff company of East Providence keeps them whirling and jumping as the military-style band organ pumps out rousing marches from the Sousa era.
CANOBIE LAKE PARK: Canobie’s carousel has been delighting families since 1903, though its Wurlitzer Duplex Orchestral Organ dates only to 1922. The soundtrack tends to favor old classics like “Jeepers Creepers,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and “Sentimental Journey.”
ADVANTAGE: Lake Compounce. Not that the kids care, but the carousel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
FAIR FOOD INDULGENCE
COMPOUNCE: In its early years, Lake Compounce was known for its summer barbecues and its specialty of lamb cooked by the “Southern method.” You can still find concessions selling barbecued chicken and ribs or pulled pork sandwiches, but many spots cater to the all-American sweet tooth. Most popular are the fried Oreos from the Fried Bats stand.
CANOBIE: The thin young servers at the Fried Dough stand elevate the greasy treat by dousing it with caramel, chocolate, or strawberry topping and smothering it with whipped cream.
ADVANTAGE: Canobie Lake. The counter staff take an artistic pride in creating the sloppy treat that will almost certainly end up on your shirt.
WAY TO GET WET
COMPOUNCE: The Bayou Bay wave pool opened this year, but we’re suckers for the simpler shoot-the-chute and log-flume rides. The Saw Mill Plunge mimics historic lumber days as folks hurtle down a spillway aboard a log-shaped flat boat. It looks pretty tame, but riders say they feel like they’ve taken a shower by the time they are done.
CANOBIE:The historic theme is even more explicit with the Boston Tea Party water ride, which promises that riders will feel like “a tea bag during the Boston Tea Party” as their boat shoots down 50 feet into a giant pool of water, creating a wave guaranteed to drench every camera-toting parent waiting at the end.
ADVANTAGE: Lake Compounce. The park has thoughtfully installed a drying booth at the Saw Mill exit.
WOODEN ROLLER COASTERS
COMPOUNCE: Compounce installed Wildcat in 1927. With the scariest drop at 68 feet, the classic still manages to reach more than 44 miles per hour. Opened in 2000, Boulder Dash was built into the mountain at the rear of the park and passengers can watch trees and other greenery reduced to a blur as they speed downhill at more than 60 miles per hour.
CANOBIE:Built in the 1930s, Yankee Cannonball hardly gives riders a chance to get nervous before they experience the first — and longest — drop of 63 feet. The coaster reaches maximum speeds of 35 miles per hour, but steeply banked turns and moments of air time enhance the thrill factor.
ADVANTAGE: Lake Compounce. The clacking suspense of wooden roller coasters can’t be beat, so two are better than one.
COMPOUNCE: No trip to an amusement park is complete without spending more money than it’s worth to try to win a tacky prize. Lake Compounce has some of the classic old games that you don’t see much these days, including Whac-A-Mole, and a giant slingshot that really means business.
CANOBIE:It’s much harder than you would expect to toss a ring over the neck of a bottle, knock over a stack of blocks with a bean bag, or roll a ball up a ramp into the high-score hole. You might have better luck just trying to pick up a lucky duckie.
ADVANTAGE:Canobie Lake. They give little kids consolation prizes just for trying.
RIDE WITH A VIEW
COMPOUNCE: Secured to a cable tether, intrepid riders on the Sky Coaster enjoy a great view of the park from the launch platform before they literally coast through the air. Aficionados liken the experience to a cross between parachuting out of an airplane and taking a bungee jump.
CANOBIE: DaVinci’s Dream is the most graceful of rides. Safely ensconced in swing-like seats, riders seem to float on the air currents, with views of the lake, the cross-park gondola, and the scary Untamed coaster.
ADVANTAGE: Canobie Lake. Since there are no fast or jerky movements on DaVinci’s Dream, even the timid can keep their eyes open and enjoy the view.
COMPOUNCE: Lake Compounce seems to have a “Big Easy” theme going, what with the new Bayou Bay wave pool in the Crocodile Cove Water Park, and the adjacent Croc Pot Cafeteria. The water park is billed as the largest in New England and has its signature souvenir: a Gatorball.
CANOBIE: The park’s newest steel roller coaster, ominously named Untamed, features grizzly bear cars that carry passengers up more than 72 feet before they plunge into a vertical drop. Much more tame, grizzly bobbleheads simply offer a bemused nod.
ADVANTAGE: Canobie Lake. The bear will remind you to never do that again.
COMPOUNCE: A wide-eyed caterpillar is the lead car on the aptly named Caterpillar Train that takes little kids on a gentle ride past giant plastic pies, bugs, and flowers. It’s almost like setting them down in a board game.
CANOBIE: Fred Flintstone never had it so good. Kids climb into Mini Dinos to rise and circle in the air while parents snap pictures at this favorite photo op.
ADVANTAGE: Canobie Lake. Push a button and the dino will let out a roar.
COMPOUNCE: Instead of imitation autos, the kiddie bumper cars are shaped like colorful animals and billed as “tiny bumps for tiny tots.” The height limitation for riders means kids can let out their aggressions without parental backseat drivers.
CANOBIE:This year’s new ride, Equinox, promises to give riders the “sensation of spinning every which way all at once” — and at 75 feet up in the air. With all due respect to innovation, we’ll take our spinning sitting down and holding on tight in a classic tea cup ride, in this case called Crazy Cups.
ADVANTAGE: Lake Compounce. Bumper animals seem so gently benign.
COMPOUNCE:A beverage station lets visitors help themselves to all the free soda they can drink.
CANOBIE: There is no additional charge for parking.
ADVANTAGE: Draw. If you don’t mind walking, parking in the more distant, unpaved lots at Lake Compounce is $8 (preferred parking is $15). On a hot day, cold drinks could run you more. Check out the parks at www.lakecompounce.com and www.canobie.com.