I am not big on reunions, family, class or any kind. For one, they are usually expensive. Another reason, they often end up being about a “who’s who” or “success stories” since the good old days. But an invitation came across my Facebook newsfeed, inviting me to special reunion which honestly has me quite intrigued.
Dorney Park was the first amusement park I can remember ever hearing about. There was no Disneyworld for me. Dorney Park was just a short drive away, and because of the unique access to the park itself, and the rides, it was quite the bargain.
Dorney Park had no admission. You could actually drive through the middle of Dorney Park. At one time, the road going through the park was a state road going from Allentown, Pa to Reading. So, grandparents could simply park in the parking lot, buy a book of tickets (pictured above), and sit on a park bench while watching the grandchildren have a great time.
Of course, Dorney Park was notorious for other things besides amusement rides. They had stock car races that I remember my father taking me to when I was younger. At the bottom of the park, on their “lake” was Castle Gardens, a former roller skating rink/dance hall. You might describe it as the ultimate entertainment center, especially during the 1960’s and 1970’s and 1980’s. And anyone who lived nearby got a great view of seasonal fireworks.
Most of us who grew up in the area would eventually look to Dorney Park as a great opportunity at a first official job as the area’s leading employer of Summer help. There were many levels of jobs there based upon your age qualifications from someone sweeping the pavement to food services to games, and the ultimate and coolest job, ride operator. This was even better than being a supervisor at the park.
I would actually do two stints at Dorney Park, the first was in the Summer of 1981. I was only 15 years old at that point, so I had the choice of working in the food stands or game stands. Either way, because of work laws, I was only going to be able to work five hours per day. Along the way, I actually learned quite a bit of secrets of carnival games as a result. But it was two years later, as I turned 17 and graduated from high school, I REALLY enjoyed working at Dorney Park.
The first ride I got to operate, was one of the most popular rides in the park to run. It was cool because not only was it a fun ride, but I got to listen to an 8-track of awesome music (as awesome as 1983 music could be) all day long. As a ride operator, we generally worked full days from open to close. Throughout the Summer, I would get to operate most of the rides in the park from the roller coaster that I rode as a young boy to the log flume and more.
I got to make a lot of friends, who worked at the park, and some who visited the park. After our shift ended, we would turn our uniform short inside out (a weird rule, but we were not allowed to appear as a working employee riding the rides). After hours, things really got turned up a notch as we often got to have some special fun on rides once the park had closed. On the Iceberg, like a “teacup” ride, we would actually bring a football inside and play “rugby” tossing the football from car to car. Or as one challenge we had, riding the “Monster” with the challenge to make the rider vomit. This ride resembled an octopus with its arms going up and down while spinning around and there was a mechanical trick you could do, which would cause extra force as the arms lifted up or dropped down. Ah, good times.
At the end of the season, a reward for those employees who stayed until the end of the park season, we got to pick up a bonus paycheck. The day that I went to pick up my bonus check, I got more than I wanted.
A fire had started in the afternoon in a food concession stand, supposedly during some end of year maintenance. The stand was located next to a wooden carousel, and nearly half the park went up in flames. There were others who had come to the park that day to pick up that check. Many, like me, had not only been employees, but grew up in that park. And now, it was gone. Nearly everything.
The above photo after the fire was taken by local newspaper, The Morning Call.
Of course, the park rebuilt, bigger, fancier. They closed the road that went through the park, and put a fence all around the park. Gone were the $.10 tickets to ride rides, the park went “pay one price”. A few years later, a huge water park was added. Along with both of these moves, came much higher prices. Soon, the park I had grown up with, had become like all the other amusement parks nearby, Hershey Park, Great Adventure. But it was no longer like the park that I wanted to remember.
As a parent, I took my daughters there on a couple of occasions. And that was the first time that I had been back to the park since the big fire. And though I enjoyed the day of hearing my daughters laugh, deep down inside, it hurt. And I definitely did not enjoy Dorney Park anymore.
But this invitation has sparked a memory for me. And I am intrigued. The reunion is geared to employees who worked at the park from 1980-1985, which I worked two of those years, and made a lot of friends. As much as it hurt to visit the park in its current operations, I can actually imagine conversations about the park in the good old days. Sneaking into Castle Gardens after the park was closed (it was age restricted – over 21 for men, 18 for women) or heading out to a midnight movie with a group of other park employees.
But I also think it might actually be a bit healing for some of us, who were there on that sad day in 1983, to share stories and thoughts about that day. And to definitely think about the days when the park was actually a family park. And we should know… we grew up there.