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Cedar Fair pickers scour Europe for vintage amusement park rides

Inspired by the “American Pickers” reality television show, a pair of collectors is scouring Europe for classic rides to bring back to Cedar Fair amusement parks in the United States and Canada.

The duo was sent on the continent-spanning scavenger hunt by Cedar Fair Chief Executive Matt Ouimet, a former Disneyland president who is hoping the refurbished family rides will add a nostalgic atmosphere to the chain’s 11 amusement parks.

“We believe that we can bring some classic rides back to the parks, maybe that were there years before,” Ouimet said.

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Ouimet is hoping parents will remember the rides from their youth and want to introduce their children to the vintage attractions.

“They will be very recognizable rides,” Ouimet said. “It’s playing to nostalgia and just having fun.”

The continental fun hunters will be primarily looking for what’s known in the industry as flat rides - typically spinning rides that travel near the ground and/or rise up into the air.

Flat rides are the connective tissue that hold amusement parks together, like the glue  between the mega coasters and big thrill machines. Their whirring sounds and kaleidoscopic visuals add a kinetic energy to any park, bringing static scenes to life and animating the memories of both first-time and longtime visitors.

But by their nature, the workhorse flat rides will never be the most popular or beloved rides at any park. They are notoriously hard to market as the park's big, new attraction and are often overlooked by visitors racing to summer's latest thrill.

Some newer flat rides can be complex to build and maintain, but Ouimet said having fun doesn't have to be complicated and rides don't have to be either.

“Sometimes we get so complicated in this business," he said. "It isn’t complicated.”

Of course, not every park may want their old rides back. The aging attractions might have been jettisoned because they were no longer popular or fell out of fashion. Or the parks may wish the classic rides had never left, having reluctantly removed them to make room for newer rides or because spare parts became scarce. In some cases, the skeletons of the retired rides may still be sitting in a back lot behind a park, only in need of a key component.

Ouimet was reticent to reveal the specific rides his pickers are searching for in Europe or disclose which Cedar Fair parks would get the refurbished rides, but he did say he hoped to bring back rides that had been in the individual parks in the past.

My own detective work

Inspired by the treasure hunt nature of the ride-picking adventure, I decided to make a detailed inventory of the vintage rides - past and present - at Cedar Fair’s parks to see if I could figure out what the scavengers might be looking for and speculate where the refurbished rides might end up.

My working premise: The Cedar Fair pickers will be looking for rides the chain already has at its other parks and the refurbished rides will be placed at parks that used to have similar rides. Naturally, the pickers may stumble upon some rare discoveries. We won't know what they found or where the rides will end up until they start appearing at Cedar Fair parks.

To get my head around the mammoth task of assembling an inventory of Cedar Fair's vintage rides, I broke the catalog into three categories: The basics, pre-World War II rides and post-World War II rides.

The basics

There are a few rides that are so ubiquitous that you just expect to find them at every amusement park - until you don’t. That’s what we’re focusing on here - the missing essentials.

Cedar Fair parks have dabbled in bringing back some classic rides recently with the introduction of the throwback flying scooters that originally debuted in the 1930s and have made a resurgence at parks around the world.

With rudders that allow riders to control the flight of the vehicle, the flying scooters have been installed at eight Cedar Fair parks so far - including older models made by Bisch-Rocco and newer models by Larson International. Using the process of elimination, it’s a good bet that flying scooters will soon be landing at Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto, Valleyfair in Minnesota and Worlds of Fun in Missouri.

The Eli Bridge Scrambler is a familiar ride at many amusement parks, with centrifugal force causing couples to get cozy as the ride spins on two axes. With Scramblers at nine Cedar Fair parks, Canada’s Wonderland and California’s Great America in Santa Clara would be good candidates to get the classic flat rides.

Every Cedar Fair park except for Worlds of Fun has a full-size wave swinger, the familiar spinning ride with seats suspended from chains. Likewise, Pennsylvania’s Dorney Park is the only Cedar Fair park without bumper cars (removed in 2010). Both situations could be remedied if the ride pickers find vintage versions of those classics in Europe.

Pre-World War II rides

Of all the potential finds in Europe, I’m hoping the Cedar Fair pickers come back with a few of these rare rides from the 1920s and '30s.

First on my shopping list would be the classic Whip, a simple ride built by W.F. Mangels that consists of two opposing turntables with a cable loop that pulls cars around a laminated wooden track. Dorney Park has a Whip dating to 1920, and Cedar Point and Kings Island (both in Ohio) have kiddie versions of the ride. Knott’s Berry Farm used to have a Whip, and I would vote for bringing one back to the Buena Park theme park (which is just a few miles from my home).

If they can find one, I hope the pickers bring back a Tumble Bug by Traver Engineering Co. Debuting in the mid-1920s, the simple yet fun ride features six cars traveling around a circular undulating track. A similar ride by Traver Engineering called the Caterpillar features a canopy that completely covers the cars during the middle of the ride. Cedar Point and Kings Island were once home to Tumble Bugs. Let’s hope they are again soon.

The rarest ride at any Cedar Fair park has to be Cedar Downs Racing Derby at Cedar Point with its carousel horses that appear to gallop at full sprint. Originally built in 1920 by Prior and Church at Cleveland’s Euclid Beach Park, the relocated galloping carousel is on the National Registry of Historic Places. I’m sure any park in the chain would be glad to have one if any versions of the ride still exist.

The most common ride at any amusement park could well be the Tilt-a-Whirl by Sellner Manufacturing, which first debuted in the mid-1920s. As any rider can tell you, the stomach churning ride features freely pivoting cars on a revolving platform of hills and valleys. Tilt-A-Whirls can be found at Cedar Point, Dorney Park, Michigan’s Adventure and Valleyfair, but it remains to be seen if the omnipresent ride will pop up at any other Cedar Fair parks.

Post-World War II rides

The 1950s, '60s and '70s saw the birth of many classic flat rides before amusement parks turned their attention to an emerging new attraction: the looping coaster. Much like older automobiles, the flat rides from the post-World War II era tend to have fewer bells and whistles, are easier to fix and last longer.

The Chance Trabant, a spinning ride with a tilting base, first debuted in the mid-1960s and can be found on many carnival midways. The Trabant and the similar Wipeout are still in operation at several Cedar Fair parks, but for nostalgia reasons we’re more interested in where they used to be: Cedar Point, Kings Island and California’s Great America.

Made by many manufacturers and known by many names, the Music Express, Bayern Curve and Himalaya rides each feature a similar snake-like train traversing an undulating track that harkens back to the 1920s Caterpillar ride. Variations of the rides used to be found at Kings Dominion in Virginia, California’s Great America, Kings Island and Canada’s Wonderland (and can still be found at several Cedar Fair parks).

Probably the most popular flat ride at Cedar Fair parks is the Enterprise, first made by both Schwarzkopf and Huss in the 1970s. Variations of the spinning ride attached to a tilting arm with swinging gondola seats can be found at more than half of Cedar Fair’s parks and was formerly at three more: Kings Dominion, Kings Island and Knott’s. The older and more sedate Paratrooper ride with umbrella-covered ski lift-style seats is similar to the Enterprise and would make a suitable substitute.

Two of the amusement industry's most nauseating rides reside at Worlds of Fun: the Hubretz Round-Up and the Chance Rotor. Both operate on the same principle: the centrifugal force of the spinning stand-up rides cause your back to stick to the wall. The 1950s Round-Up has a tilting base while the 1960s Rotor has a drop-away floor. Kings Island and Canada’s Wonderland each had Round-Ups at one time in their histories. I can't say I'd be excited to see either ride show up at my local park.

A series of similar spinning rides by Eyerly Aircraft Co. that first appeared in the 1950s and '60s go by the names Monster, Octopus and Spider. With seats dangling from arms that raise and lower, the rides are staples at state fairs and can be found at several Cedar Fair parks. Canada’s Wonderland used to have one and Worlds of Fun just put another out to pasture, reportedly due to a lack of spare parts.

The 1970s Huss Troika is similar to the aforementioned Scrambler except suspended from overhead arms that tilt during the ride. California’s Great America used to have one and three other Cedar Fair parks still do.

Popular in the 1970s, the Huss Swing Around spinning rocket ride is similar to the Astro Orbitors found at many Disney parks. The retro ride can be found at three Cedar Fair parks - Dorney, Canada's Wonderland and Worlds of Fun - but would fit perfectly at any location in the chain.

Needless to say, I could go on and on. Many more examples of classic rides can be found at parks like Knoebels and Kennywood - including the Traver Engineering Auto Race, Bartlett Flying Coaster, Herschell Looper and Eyerly Roll-O-Plane.

It's also feasiblethat  the Cedar Fair pickers could bring home some vintage kiddie rides, thrill rides and maybe even a coaster if we're lucky, but I won't go into all those possibilities.

Which leaves us with a lot of tantalizing questions: What rides will the pickers find? How many rides will they ship back to the States? Which parks will get what and when? Where will the refurbished rides go in each park? And most important, will anyone remember the classic rides or even care that they've returned?

For now we’ll have to make do with Cedar Point, Dorney Park and Valleyfair, which already have nice classic ride collections. And hopefully before too long the other Cedar Fair parks will start adding the refurbished rides collected during the European picker trip. I only ask that Ouimet include me in the search party the next time he sends out a crew to scour the old country for vintage rides.

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