BRISTOL — Buoyed by a warm, dry summer and the introduction of a heavy-on-the-thrills roller coaster, Lake Compounce is reporting a strong season for 2016.
The park doesn't release attendance or financial figures, but General Manager Jerry Brick said the long string of sunny weekdays from spring through mid-summer helped business significantly.
"We're having a good year. We had really strong weekdays. There were some rainstorms on weekends, but not a lot," he said.
The introduction of Phobia Phear, the most intense thrill coaster at Compounce, also helped, he said.
The multimillion-dollar ride features a heartline roll — a 360-degree roll — at 150 feet in the air, the highest inversion of any coaster in the Northeast. It opened in May, and is helping Lake Compounce draw teenagers and young couples to supplement its bread-and-butter market of families with young children.
"We're always going to be a family park, but this is extending the age up a bit. It used to be mostly for kids up to 14 or 15, but now there are more 16 and up — and more 20-something couples," Brick said.
Lake Compounce, which bills itself as the country's oldest amusement park, is celebrating its 170th season this year. Over the past 20 years, the park has mostly been on a steady climb, expanding its borders, adding rides, extending its operating hours and season, and even building a campground — with campsites, RV sites and cabins — to keep guests on the property.
In 1995, Lake Compounce's situation wasn't nearly as good. A string of failed owners and management teams had left it with too many old rides, little capital and one or two brushes with a complete shutdown.
After Kennywood Entertainment acquired the park with state financing incentives the next year, though, the operation began a turnaround. The company cleared out a few worn rides, brought in fresh ones, established the Haunted Graveyard theme that stretched the season into October, and pumped significant money into refurbishing the grounds.
Some park fans believe the biggest improvement came in 2000 with the opening of Boulder Dash, a unique wooden roller coaster built into the heavily wooded hillside. It's neither the country's tallest nor fastest wooden coaster, but it consistently wins awards from amusement park trade magazines and enthusiast groups because of an exhilarating ride on a one-of-a-kind track.
By 2005, Kennywood's executives were so bullish on the park that they provided a rare glimpse at their attendance numbers: The 2004 season had drawn 595,000 visitors, a new record despite many rained-out weekends.
"And I see us going up 10, maybe 12 percent a year for at least the next three years," Peter McAneny, then president of Kennywood, said in March of 2005.
Brick was the recently hired general manager at the time, and was bringing in about 1,000 seasonal workers every summer. This year, he took on about 1,300.
Since 2005, Lake Compounce added a water park with wave pools and a lazy river, a larger set of kiddie rides, and new restaurants and shops. It stretched its operating season into December with a Christmas-themed holiday light show and — weather permitting — some rides running.
It also changed owners: Parques Reunidos, a Spanish entertainment company, bought Kennywood in 2007. Parques operates 55 parks in 12 countries; its U.S. subsidiary, Palace Entertainment, runs Lake Compounce and more than two dozen others.
Even though the park describes Phobia Phear as its single costliest ride, the most important investment by Parques Reunidos shapes up as something far less glamorous: The enlargement of Lake Compounce's footprint. The park relocated Lake Road several years ago, and work crews are still moving dirt and rock to clear future expansion space on the freed-up land.
"Hopefully they'll be done by the end of the year. That will allow years worth of building — maybe 15 to 20 attractions," Brick said. "There will be a lot of time for that."