Lake Compounce is the oldest continuously operating amusement park in North America, having operated every year since 1846.
The park's roots trace back to 1846, when a descendant of John Norton, Gad Norton, hired a scientist to perform an experiment using explosives. Though the experiment failed, Norton noted that thousands of people had shown up for the event and was inspired to open a park. He put a path around the lake, set up picnic tables, allowed public swimming and rowing on the lake, built a gazebo for lakeside band concerts and built a few rides. Lake Compounce had officially opened to the public as a picturesque picnic park. The park prospered as a picnic park through the post-Civil War era.
In 1851 Isaac Pierce, a successful "California Gold Rush 49er," joined forces with Norton; the two established the firm of Pierce and Norton. In 1875 Norton and Pierce petitioned local legislators that their residences be "set off" from the town of Southington to the town of Bristol. A sheep roast was held in appreciation of those legislators and friends who helped secure the granting of that petition. In this quiet manner, the famed "Crocodile Club" was established and, in 2000, celebrated its 126th reunion.
After coming to The United States, Norton named the lake after a
fellow trader, Chief Compound, who lived in the area. As legend states,
Compound died in the lake, a possible reason for Norton naming the lake
"Lake Compounce". The casino, the first permanent building on the
property, was built in 1895 with a restaurant downstairs and a ballroom
upstairs. A full-course dinner cost fifty cents. Public transportation
also began that year as the Bristol and Plainville Tramway Company;
later, the Southington and Compounce Line brought thousands of
park-goers to Lake Compounce by trolley.
Around that time, Timothy Murphy of Savin Rock, Connecticut, began to assemble the carousel. Combining the works of four master carvers, Looff, Carmel, Stein and Goldstein, Lake Compounce purchased it for $10,000 and it opened to the public on Memorial Day, 1911. This carousel is now included in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1914 the Green Dragon, Lake Compounce's first electric-powered roller coaster, opened to the public. It was torn down in 1926, and in 1927 was replaced by the Wildcat, a wooden classic designed by Schmeck and built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, which is still running to this day.
The 1930s brought more growth. The casino ballroom was expanded to include an enormous dance floor without walls, so that people could dance under the stars. Huge windowed walls and a high arched ceiling were added in 1937. On Easter Sunday, Glenn Gray and the Casa Loma Band opened the Starlight Ballroom to a full house of big-band enthusiasts. From Dorsey to Calloway, Basie to Kenton, James to Goodman, the ballroom was packed for each performance. The all-time attendance record of 5,000 was set in the spring of 1941, when Tommy Dorsey's reorganized band featured a young up and coming vocalist, Frank Sinatra.
In 1933, citing the effects of the Depression and the automobile, trolley service was discontinued to the park, which dealt it a difficult blow. Lake Compounce purchased a miniature steam railroad designed and built by Connecticut actor William Gillette, the original portrayer of Sherlock Holmes in silent films. The train made its inaugural run in 1944 when more than 100,000 passengers rode on more than 35 tons of 17 gauge steel track which completely encircled the lake.
Lake Compounce prospered during the 1940s and 50s as a unique
picnic/amusement park. Local entertainers appeared as a weekly
attraction on the Lake Front Stage and featured such talent as Tex Pavel,
Colonel Clown, and Slim Cox and the Cowboy Caravan. In 1959, an 18-hole
miniature golf course was added (later removed in 2004).
Through the next several decades, little changed until the late 1960s and 70s when the park's attendance numbers were dropping. Lake Compounce remained under the ownership of the Pierce and Norton Corporation until 1966, when Edward G. Pierce, Isaac's grandson, sold his interests to the Norton family. The Nortons continued to own and operate the park through 1985. During these years, the park made a modest profit and held its own. No major attractions had ever been added since the 1960s but some of the flat rides came and went over the years. The Nortons decided to retire and put their park up for sale in 1984. But they wanted to sell it to someone who would continue to keep it open and not to a real estate developer that would tear the park down and build either a shopping center, apartments, condos, or offices in its place. This had happened with many classic amusement parks over the decades and still happens today from time to time. In 1985, Lake Compounce was sold to Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Company (HERCO), which owned and still owns the very successful Hersheypark in the Harrisburg, PA area. Initially, the park's future seemed promising.
But from 1986 through 1996, Lake Compounce experienced the "decade of the roller coaster." Financial troubles and empty promises from a string of four owners had severely tarnished the park's image. During this decade, Lake Compounce had a checkered history, including mountains of unpaid bills, a barrage of lawsuits and a string of unsuccessful turnaround attempts.
Back in 1985, HERCO had huge plans and immediately invested millions to renovate the park and unfortunately ran into trouble and delays. They did not manage to even open the park for the 1986 season until the first week of July, and even then it was nowhere near complete. The park then became known as "Hershey Lake Compounce." The formerly free admission park instituted admission fees and the park was still only partially renovated. Half the rides did not operate and the Wildcat roller coaster was nonfunctional more often than not. This led to disappointing attendance numbers. Before even completing further renovations, Hershey Corporation abruptly backed out in the winter of 1987 and put the park up for sale for next to nothing.
In the spring 1987, Joseph Entertainment Group (JEG) bought the park at a very low price and renamed it "Lake Compounce Festival Park". That season the rides were all repaired and ran and at the same time JEG constructed a 20,000 seat outdoor amphitheater. This was completed by the 1988 season and it hosted large acts, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Cher, former Beatle Ringo Starr, UB40, The Allman Brothers, Funkmaster Flex, and Phil Collins . The park broke even for a couple years but was again operating in the red by 1990. An infamous moment occurred here during a 1989 MTV tour stop, in which the group Milli Vanilli was caught in the act of lip syncing.
It became apparent that JEG's focus was on concert promotion and the amusement park was neglected. By 1990, the Wildcat roller coaster was again nonoperational and only a few rides operated and the park focused mostly on concerts. In 1991, exposing the financial troubles of JEG, the company bounced a check to would be performers Guns N' Roses, who then refused to play. Later JEG was found to have been almost $1 million behind in taxes and had not refunded ticket-holders for 15 canceled concerts. JEG eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The park closed for the season that Labor Day.
It seemed that the park might close forever, but in hopes of saving it, a group led by Steven Barbarino wanted the park to be able to continue its status as the oldest continuously operating amusement park in the United States. So it did not open in 1992 except for a few days over the Labor Day weekend minus most of the rides but with modest low budget entertainment. This also occurred in 1993 and 1994, while Mr. Barbarino continued to seek a buyer for the nearly defunct park. In 1994, the park opened for the July 4th weekend with no rides but a concert with a few regional bands as well as opening the beach for a couple days. After failing to find a buyer willing to keep the land as an amusement park, Mr. Barbarino's group eventually repurchased the park in the summer of 1994, and immediately sought a new group to manage the park. Several expressed interest, including Anheuser Busch, Lego, and Funtime Inc. In 1994, Funtime agreed to manage the park and began full-time operations again on Memorial Day weekend of 1995. By opening, it was able to get nearly all the rides back in operation, add a few waterslides, and reopen the beach and swimming area. The park turned a very modest profit by Labor Day, when it would close for the season.
Funtime, however, was bought out by Premier Parks, which had earlier
purchased a competitor 50 miles (80 km) away called Riverside Park (now
Six Flags New England). Premier Parks opted out of its contract with
Lake Compounce to focus on Riverside Park, leaving Lake Compounce in
peril once again. Shortly after, however, companies like Anheuser Busch,
Cedar Fair, and Kennywood Entertainment approached Mr. Barbarino's group
about an outright purchase.
Early in 1996, an agreement was signed with current owner, Kennywood Entertainment, owners of Pittsburgh's historic Kennywood amusement park to purchase Lake Compounce. After many years of financial troubles and management issues, Kennywood devoted itself to creating a clean, family-oriented and family-themed amusement park. All the remaining rides were then either repaired or removed. The Wildcat roller coaster also was renovated and reopened. The park opened that Memorial Day weekend in 1996 with real success. Every year since, the park has enjoyed much success and many millions of dollars in renovations and improvements including more waterslides, a couple high capacity water rides, a looping roller coaster, and in 2000, the Boulder Dash, which received the 2004 Golden Ticket Award for the #1 rated Wooden Roller Coaster by "Amusement Today." In 2005, Boulder Dash took the #2 spot and in 2006 tied for 3rd in the Golden Ticket Awards for the best wooden roller coaster. Boulder Dash also was voted #1 Wooden Roller Coaster in the World by the National Amusement Park Historical Association. Over the last 10 years, Kennywood has invested nearly $70 million in rides and attractions.
Between 2001-2004, the park suffered from some bad publicity due to a series of accidents at the park. In 2001, a 5-year-old boy drowned after going down the "Lake Plunge Slide" In 2004, a 5-year-old boy was killed after a limb from a dead tree fell on his head near the former mini-golf area. Two park employees have also died in accidents since 2001. A groundskeeper was trimming weeds under the Boulder Dash track during the park's regular morning ride testing. The coaster was on a test run, and due to the loudness of the weed trimmer, the man never heard the train coming, was partially decapitated, and died. In another incident, an employee jumped onto the Tornado ride as it was still moving after the ride cycle, and was dragged under the ride when his clothing got stuck . The ride was closed indefinitely at the request of the victim's family and was later replaced by Twister in 2000.
Beginning in 2002, Lake Compounce, began opening earlier in May on weekends. Until 2001, the park ended all operations on Labor Day. Also beginning in 2002, Lake Compounce began opening weekends between Labor Day and Halloween for holiday festivities. They also keep all their non-water rides open during this time.
For the 2004 season, Lake Compounce added the 185 ft (56.4 m) drop tower, Downtime. For the 2006 season, Lake Compounce added a brand new S&S Screamin' Swing ride called "Thunder 'N' Lightning." The multi-million dollar attraction, featuring two giant swing arms, holds 32 passengers who are catapulted to heights of almost 100 feet (30 m) at 60 miles per hour with four Gs of force.
Also in early 2006, there was a dispute between Lake Compounce and preservationists about the fate of Gad Norton's original 200-year-old farmhouse. The park knocked it down to make way for a maintenance and office building.
On November 1, 2006, the shooting of a portion of the film "Reservation
Road" took place at Lake Compounce. The film was directed by Terry
George and starred Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly,
Mira Sorvino and Elle Fanning.
The park opened for the 2007 season on May 12, 2007, with several new rides, including a 1956 Corvette car ride, Zoomer's Gas N' Go. Children as young as two are able to ride this '50s themed attraction. Small-scale Corvette cars travel along the 1,000 ft (300 m) roadway. The cars are powered electrically by low voltage via an undercarriage roller system and brushes connected to a copper hot rail on the track. The driver or occupant of the ride is not able to alter the car's speed, but is be able to steer it slightly as the wheels straddle the track. The loading area is themed as a gas station, and along the track are nostalgic billboards, a drive-in, and other landmarks built to match the scale of the cars. A replica of a repair shop houses the cars that are off the track and in for repairs. The attraction also features an on-ride photo system.
A new balloon ride called "Rainbow Riders" was also added in the
Garfield's Circus World section. Rainbow-colored balloons carry
passengers 25 feet (7.6 m) in the air and slowly spin around. Rainbow
Riders was installed where the Caterpillar Train was originally located.
The Caterpillar Train has been moved to a nearby covered pavilion and
was surrounded by new theming. Additionally, there is a new cabana boat
that transports guests across the lake to the catering pavilions, the
Compounce Mountain Sky Ride, and Thunder Rapids Raft Ride. The cabana
boat replaced the Mark Twain Sternwheeler, which used to fulfill the