Everyone knows about the big parks. Disney, Cedar Point, Six Flags, Kings Island, Universal Studios, the list goes on and on. That’s great. They entertain millions of people every day, they have the budgets to spend on the next big thing in the amusement world, their coasters push the limits of the imagination and of physics, always going bigger, taller, faster, wilder…
but just as small mom-n-pop stores struggle to stay in business when the giant discount market chain builds a superstore in their town, so too do the small local amusement parks struggle to stay afloat when the big park a couple hours’ drive from them has all the latest attention-getting rides.
The little guys are becoming more and more scarce and that’s a real shame. Giant mega-parks and such are fantastic, but it’s important to preserve and support the small ones, too. Many of them are filled with historic rides that can’t be replaced and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
Camden Park in Huntington, West Virginia is one such park.
I visited the park for the first time in 2016 as part of a coaster tour with the European Coaster Club. One nice thing about many of the enthusiast clubs, including the ECC, is the leaders and membership of the club understand the importance of preservation and of supporting the smaller parks. There is genuine fun to be had at these places and it is a different flavour than what you get at the big parks. Customer service is usually better, too.
The bus dropped us off at the front gate of Camden Park and the first thing we noticed was an absolutely glorious neon entrance sign.
The ticket booth, freshly painted, had another sign:
Holy cow, this place survived the Great Depression.
We’d just come from Kings Island the day before, a massive and wonderful park with a world-class collection of rides. It was easy, then, to focus on the things that Camden Park didn’t have when we first got a look around.
For example, Big Dipper doesn’t have a “B” on the sign…
…or a back seat in the train.
Haunted House didn’t have a spellcheck for its sign painter
This height check sign is missing a digit, unless you really only need to be 8 inches tall to ride.
But if you focus on what the park doesn’t have, you miss what it does have… and that’s charm by the bucketful.
This is the kind of place that has been around in America since the turn of the century, when trolley companies built small parks or picnic groves at the end of the trolley line in an effort to get people to pay the fare all the way to the end of the trolley line. Camden absolutely has that flavour about it and once it soaks in, you get a big grin on your face, life slows down a bit, you relax, and suddenly all your cares have melted away. Take a big deep breath of country air and enjoy yourself. Unwind. Have a ride on the antique carousel, which marked 100 years of operation in 2007.
Or how about a spin on some properly-run Flying Scooters? It’s a bit tricky to get a good cable snap, but it can be accomplished and they won’t yell at you for it.
Next to the Flying Scooters is a fantastic Whip - the cars are slug out around the corners with gusto and it properly noisy and rattly and all of that is drowned out by the whoops of the riders as they whip around the ends.
How about a lazy sky ride over the park’s mini golf course?
Or a spin on the Paratroopers?
Take a swing on Rattler...
and afterward you can have a relaxing trip around the park on the narrow-gauge railroad...
or cool off on the log flume. This flume isn’t a trough on stilts like most, but a cement channel built into the ground. There’s the obligatory big plunge at the end of the ride...
and a tiny little drop near the beginning of the ride.
You’d think that the big drop is the place you’ll get wet and that you don’t need to worry so much about getting wet on the little drop…
and you’d be wrong.
Next to the log flume is one of the park’s three wood coasters (yes, I said THREE wood coasters). It’s the Little Dipper and it’s wonderful.
Firstly, how about these trains? Nicely painted, classic, roomy, and they have buzz bars. No seat belts to worry about or hold up loading times. Sit down and go.
The layout is a double out and back with a few mild hills. It’s perfect training ground for future enthusiasts and any kid for whom Camden’s Little Dipper is their first coaster is lucky indeed. What a treasure.
The Haunted House (which is the spelling listed on their maps and website, but the sign on the ride clearly says Hawnted House) is also a coaster.
It’s basically a wooden wild mouse coaster enclosed in a haunted house. The cars run on thin rails in the centre of the track with a guide wheel in between to steer. The casters on the corners of the cars are only there to keep the cars from tilting too far to the side. And tilt they do!
There’s a lift hill, a couple of quick turns, then a drop next to the lift to get things started.
After that it goes into full wild mouse mode, with incredibly tight corners that toss you this way and that in the padded car, throwing the occasional hand-made scene of horror at you with a flash of light or loud noise. The scenes are as low-tech as they come, which adds to the fun. The park refurbished it recently and intentionally went with a 1970’s era homemade vibe. (We got a lights-on walking tour of the ride, which is where these photos come from. It’s really dark in there when the ride is operating).
And speaking of low-tech: the ride has hand brakes. No, not the manual kind with the big handles… the kind where a park employee stands in front of the moving car and stops it with his hands.
It’s all giddy fun and a very rare credit (Conneaut Lake Park is the only other park in North America with one of these).
The park has more to offer, with food and games, picnic grounds, even live music in a small bandstand.
There’s a great collection of antique kiddie rides, including an ultra-rare hand-cranked train ride where the kids have to propel the train around themselves by turning a crank handle on their seats.
There’s even a kiddie-whip. A KIDDIE-WHIP! You almost never see these any more!
They even have a new spinning kiddie coaster, although it wasn’t quite ready for prime time when we arrived.
All the rides are run by friendly folks who seem to care about their park. I think they all know what a treasure they have and they’re proud of it. One of those employees was Kenny, who bounced around from ride to ride relieving the regular operators so they could have a break. He always had a smile and a friendly word to the folks getting on and off the rides. We first met him at the Big Dipper, then again at Little Dipper, Flying Scooters and all over the park. Camden's employees were all very friendly and seemed excited that we'd come to visit their park.
Speaking of the Big Dipper, it's a 1958 National Amusement Devices (NAD) design - there are only a very few of their coasters left and Camden has two of them (Little Dipper is also NAD). It runs NAD Century Flyer trains, always a treat to find.
The Big Dipper is showing her age and the weathered wood gives a bit of a rough-n-tumble ride.
The nicely-padded trains soak up the bumps, though, so even the portions of track with the most warped lumber are still entirely rideable without discomfort.
The midcourse tunnel adds a nice effect and some welcome shade from the hot sun.
When you arrive back at the station, the train is stopped by the ride operator using three giant wooden handles that activate the brakes.
Big Dipper isn’t a white-knuckler by any means but it’s genuinely wonderful and I’m glad it exists. Keeping up a wood coaster is expensive and the park seems to be giving the Big Dipper some TLC wherever they can, from a fresh coat of paint on the lower sections...
to some fresh new wood on the turn above the loading station.
It’s great to see that the old girl is being taken care of. There are some much larger parks that could learn from Camden in that regard.
So the next time you’re near a small town with a local mom-n-pop park, stop in for a while and let the world slow down around you. Have some lemonade, listen to the carousel calliope, watch the train go by, or have a ride on a classic piece of history. Treasure your time there and repeat it as often as you can, because these parks are already too rare and if we continue to lose them, they’ll be gone forever.
Let's take a ride on the Big Dipper!