The first time I visited a major park outside of my home state of California was on a family trip in 2008. On that vacation, we stopped at Cedar Point for a day as we drove from Chicago to Niagara Falls. While I didn't know it at the time, that would be just the first in a string of theme park related adventures. Two years later, I joined a tour with a group called Theme Park Review that included stops at several notable parks in the South East USA. I started doing annual tours with them, covering a vast majority of the noteworthy parks in the North East, Midwest, East Coast, and Canada. Unfortunately, they ceased public tours in 2014, and life circumstances forced me to take a couple years off from theme park travel. In 2017, I resumed touring by adding the Deep South parks onto a family trip to the area, then did my long-awaited enthusiast pilgrimage to Florida in the fall of that year. 2018 was a return to the parks of Virginia, as well as the Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance tour I chronicled here last summer. In spring 2019, I made it to Texas after three previous failed attempts. That left only one region for this tour: Middle America...the flyover states.
What started as a simple long weekend excursion to Missouri to check out Silver Dollar City blossomed into a full ten day tour in the last week of June covering many rarely mentioned parks in the center of this country. We started in Minneapolis, traveled through Wisconsin to grab some interesting credits, made a return visit to Six Flags Great America just a couple weeks to early to catch Maxx Force, took a crazy detour to knock out the most remote Cedar Fair park, looped through Missouri to hit that state's three big parks, and then headed north through Iowa to finish off with the two parks of the twin cities. It was a very full adventure, but highly enjoyable and holding more surprises than any of us anticipated. For I was not alone on this excursion.
Joining me for the full tour this year was Rob, a friend I met on a tour in 2014 and have remained in touch with ever since. He's come out to California twice to visit me, and I paid him a visit in Virginia last year. You may remember that he joined up for a couple days on last year's tour. Also returning was Evan, a regular traveling companion who has now accompanied me on four of my trips. Due to financial restrictions, he was only able to join for the Missouri leg of the tour. Lastly, we have Andrew, a newcomer to my personal road trips but no stranger to travel as a flight attendant for Frontier. He met up in St. Louis and stayed through to the end. He appeared previously as my host when I visited Florida a couple years back.
Now, it's time to get started. Hop in and prepare for a bit of the ride, because it's time to
Show Me the Coasters
Part 1: Cheese Curds and Coasters in Dairyland
Wisconsin...land of cows, cheese, and indoor waterparks. When one thinks of places to go to on a theme park road trip, this is not a state that frequently comes up. In fact, I doubt anyone on this site who doesn't live in the region or who hasn't visited it could name a park there without looking. That said, they've got some coasters here, especially for those who like wood. As one of only two states with more wood coasters than steel (I'll leave the other for you to guess), it's clear that this isn't a land of cutting-edge B&Ms, insane RMCs, or other rides often found at the corporate thrill parks. Instead, Wisconsin's parks go for more of a raw or homegrown feel, making each of our three stops in the state feel completely different. All of them were small parks, but all offered surprises in one way or another.
The official start of the tour was at about 1 P.M. in Minneapolis on Friday, June 21st. I had flown overnight to meet Rob, but unfortunately complications resulted in his arrival being significantly later than planned. Therefore, I had some time to do a bit of exploring, so I headed over to nearby Minnehaha Park to hike around.
As soon as Rob arrived, we got on the road as we had a park planned that day. A four hour drive, complicated by lack of sleep and a difficult to find Culver's, took us from the heart of the twin cities to the vacation destination of the Wisconsin Dells. It was hear that we would find the first of fifteen parks on the tour: Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park.
If ever there was a park I was apprehensive about visiting, it would be this place. I have heard nothing but stories about an oversized family entertainment center run with complete disregard for safety, complete lack of motivation from employees, and complete apathy toward customers paying an exorbitant admission fee. According to friends who had visited, two hour queues were the norm, and you'd be lucky to get one ride on each of the four wood coasters in a single day. In an effort to buffer against this as effectively as possible, I opted to book at night at the Mt. Olympus Village, an enormous collection of hotels scattered along the main tourist strip of the Dells. While the rooms were Spartan, the rate included two days of park admission (with parking), as well as three hours of ERT that night and unlimited food and drink during the ERT session. This would not only give us more time in the park, it allowed us to split the visit over an evening and the next morning. It was quite a deal, and ended up saving our time there in more ways than one.
We pulled into the parking lot for our building at approximately 5 P.M. Rob, tired from the ordeal of getting to Minneapolis, opted to take a nap and decided he'd join me at the park that evening (we were only about a half mile away).
I, on the other hand, knew that the park's regular hours ended at 7 P.M. and that limited attractions would be available for hotel ERT, so despite being half asleep from an overnight flight I immediately set off for the park. Once inside, I had only one destination in mind...a voyage through hell and back.
Hades 360 is the largest coaster in the state of Wisconsin and was also the first ride built by Gravity Group, the designers best known for building Holiday World's Voyage the following year. A 136 ft. tall, 4,746 ft. long coaster, this ride features an initial plunge into an 800 ft. long tunnel under the parking lot that is traversed twice.
Furthermore, in 2013 Hades underwent a major refurbishment and became the first traditional woodie to go upside down when a corkscrew and overbanked curve were added to the layout, along with a new Timberliner train.
Unfortunately, many reports stated that the park had not taken care of this ride, and it has often been called one of the most brutal wood coasters ever to exist. Thus, after a pleasantly surprising one-train wait, I climbed aboard the ride, locked myself in, and prepared for the worst. Two and a half minutes later, I returned to the station with a new wood coaster in my top ten list.
Now, I'm not going to lie...Hades 360 is rough. It is very, very rough. However, the roughness on this ride is the organic shuffling and vibrating of the train as it navigates the track rather than the painful jerkiness that some wooden coasters are known for. As a result, when the train flies through that pitch-black tunnel, it is impossible to tell exactly what is going on. You get thrown in one direction, only for the train to turn in another. At points, you feel like you're sideways. Then, as soon as you emerge the world is upside down, a very unique experience on a wood coaster. The ride is aggressive and only has a couple airtime moments, but it is a serious thrill from start to finish. I expected to ride once and get something to cure a raging headache. Instead, I rode three times that night, including a front seat ride under the cover of darkness.
Beyond Hades 360, Mt. Olympus features three other wood coasters, all products of Custom Coasters International. The best of these is Cyclops, a super short wood coaster that provides a much more intense ride than appearance would suggest.
Despite a ride time of just a minute station to station and a height of just 70 ft., this ride uses the terrain to its advantage to create several moments of intense airtime and a swooping dive into a helix to finish things off. While reprofiling and train modifications have tamed this beast somewhat (at one point, it was so intense riders had to be 18 or older to ride in the back car), it is still a very thrilling, albeit brief, wood coaster.
Zeus, though larger than Cyclops, doesn't match the former for thrills. This is a standard out and back with some decent floater airtime but nothing spectacular. It too is a short ride (less than 90 seconds), but is by far the smoothest of the four wood coasters at Mt. Olympus.
Lastly is the park's junior woodie, Pegasus. At 60 ft. tall, this ride is quite large for a junior coaster, and is thrilling enough to be fun for even adults. Unfortunately, this ride does not ride well...a combination of roughness and a lateral-heavy layout results in an unpleasant ride.
Beyond the coasters, Mt. Olympus is primarily known for their go-kart tracks and their waterpark. I sampled three of the former and found them enjoyable, but to keep the lines moving riders generally only get 2-4 laps depending on the length of the track.
Due to time, I was unable to check out the waterpark, but it looked quite good.
Beyond these, the park's other attractions are a handful of standard flat rides. Since I had time to spare, I rode Manticore, the park's swing-on-a-stick ride, which was a fairly standard affair.
As for the promise of free food and drink, this was in the form of Pizza and Hot Dogs, with a limit of two items (two dogs, two slices, or one of each), plus an all you can drink soda fountain. The food was very average by theme park standards, but you can't beat the price.
While exploring the park, I found many of the negatives I had heard to be greatly exaggerated. Yes, operations were slow, but this is primarily due to the nature of one train coasters, and the operators were consistently sending the train around about every four minutes. Staff members were at least up to the standards of Six Flags parks, and while procedures weren't as smooth as those seen at corporate parks, I did not see anything I would consider particularly unsafe. Lines moved slowly, but I never had to wait more than 30 minutes for any of the rides, and during the latter half of ERT the coasters were all walk-ons.
Now, I'm not going to say the park was spectacular. It is wholly unthemed and very lightly landscaped, making it very hot during the daytime. There isn't a whole lot to do...in four hours, I was able to experience every attraction of interest in the entire park, plus get re-rides on the coasters. Food is mediocre, and the prices for everything are quite high for the size of the park. However, I didn't leave unsatisfied or despising the park like I expected to. The best way to put it is that I'm glad I went, but I don't really have any desire to go back unless they add another major coaster.
As for Rob, he ended up oversleeping and arrived at the park just as I was about to head back to the hotel. With only about a half-hour left, we managed to ride two of the coasters before they shut them down for the night. The next morning, Rob and I grabbed breakfast at Mr. Pancake (excellent food, super slow service), then returned to the park so that Rob could grab the remaining two credits. We had no desire to stay longer, and even if we had there was no time, as Saturday was to be a four park day.
Departing the Wisconsin Dells, we made our way to the small town of Marshall, where our second park of the day awaited. Here, along a small local road just outside of town, can be found a place called Little Amerricka. Seemingly consisting of a collection of used carnival rides assembled on an unused portion of a farm, this place caters to families with small children but was quite a trip to visit. Like many small parks, guests can purchase an all-day wristband or opt for individual ride tickets...with only two hours allotted for the park, we went for the latter, purchasing $30 of tickets to share (most rides are $2-3 here).
Naturally, our primary targets were the four coasters, so we headed for the most unique of the bunch first...the Wild & Wooly Toboggan. Of 32 Chance Toboggans manufactured, just two exist to this day, and Little Amerricka's is the only one currently in operation. It is a very bizarre ride, as riders are locked in a cage that is dragged to the top of a four story vertical lift before negotiating an extended helix and several small dips. Due to the design of the cars, Rob was unable to fit (he is a bit on the larger side), and even for me (who is slightly overweight but by no means huge) it was a tight squeeze. To be honest, Rob's bench was probably the better ride...this thing was brutal, slamming me all around the interior of the cage while halfway cutting off circulation in my legs.
Once I could walk again, we made our way across the dirt to the kiddie area for Little Dipper, a Herschell Little Dipper. Ordinarily, I would have passed on this, but Rob is more into credits than I am so I rode with him. It was pretty much what you'd expect from an outdated kiddie coaster in poor condition.
Finished with the junk, we headed over to the park's Herschell Wild Mouse, appropriately dubbed Mad Mouse. Much like the Toboggan, 34 of these were manufactured but only two still exist, and this is the only operating one (until Arnolds Park can get theirs running...more on that later). The early predecessor to modern wild mice, this coaster features small cars seating one adult or two children with no restraints whatsoever (the safety instructions from the operator were (word for word) "Sit down, shut up, and hold on!"). Surprisingly, beyond the jerkiness expected of a 1960s coaster, the ride is reasonably enjoyable until the last couple dips, at which point an imperfect radius of curvature causes floater airtime leading directly into crushing positives. I'm really glad I got the chance to experience one of these rare rides, but it's not one I'd particularly care to do again.
The star attraction of the park (and our last coaster) was Meteor, a junior woodie built by Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters. Six identical junior woodies were built by the company, and Meteor is one of two that still exists. It began life as the Little Dipper at Kiddytown in the Chicago area in 1953, before moving to Hillcrest Park and finally Little Amerricka, who purchased it at auction for $9,000. The ride still operates as it always has, with full manual controls and buzz bars. Despite being a junior coaster less than 30 ft. tall, this one was actually quite fun, and the train completed three or four laps depending on line length. With tickets to spare, we actually rode this one twice.
Beyond the coasters, Little Amerricka consists mostly of old-school flat rides rarely seen today. I rode the Roll-O-Plane, an intense spinning ride that never inverts but still provides plenty of force.
We also walked through the park's homemade haunted house, which consisted of claustrophobic walkways and mechanical effects triggered by pressure plates.
I thought about doing the go-kart track, but it was the most expensive ride at the park ($5) and I didn't feel the need after doing the ones at Mt. Olympus. As a result, we ended up leaving about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, after gifting the last $6 of tickets to a random mom and her child.
On the whole, Little Amerricka was a fun diversion, but it falls into the class of parks I don't really recommend to those not seeking to pad their credit counts. It is a very different experience from most permanent parks, with a feel far closer to a carnival, but everything is aimed at families and those looking for thrills will quickly run out of things to do. Don't get me wrong, I had a fun time and am really glad I got to ride a couple rare coasters, but of all the parks on this tour...Little Amerricka lands last.
As mentioned above, Rob is a bit of a credit seeker, so once it became confirmed only he and I would be on this portion of the tour I let him talk me into a three hour detour for one more. The destination? Green Bay, Wisconsin, a place well known to any who follow American Football. For us, however, it was not Lambeau Field that drew us there, but Bay Beach Amusement Park, a city park with amusement park rides operated by the local government. Yes, you read that right...this park is funded and run by the municipal government. They've got a handful of flat rides, a train, a big sack slide...oh, and the Zippin Pippin.
The Zippin Pippin originated in the 1920s at a park in Memphis, Tennessee known as Libertyland. Over time, the coaster gained attention among the public, especially as Elvis Presley rose to stardom. Often cited as the singer's favorite thrill ride, Presley would occasionally rent out the park to ride with only a select group of fans. This was the location of his last public appearance less than a week prior to his death, during which he rode the coaster nonstop for hours. Unfortunately, time was not kind to Libertyland, and the park closed for good in October 2005. For five years, the coaster stood still until in January 2010 the ride was dismantled.
However, the ride was not lost. Less than a month later, Bay Beach purchased the blueprints for the ride and commissioned Martin & Vleminckx to build them a replica, with minor redesign work by the Gravity Group. In May 2011, the coaster ran again for a new generation of riders, and it has proven to be extremely popular. Despite operating in a city park, this was one of the longer lines of the trip, in excess of 30 minutes for both of our rides. It was also the cheapest...rides on the coaster are just $1.
So how was the Zippin Pippin? The best way to describe it is a top notch family woodie. It isn't an extreme thrill ride by any means, but it does feature some decent drops and several good airtime moments. The ride is smooth and well maintained, with classic PTC three bench trains that track well on the simple out-and-back layout. It's not a long ride, but it is long enough, and while I'm not sure the three hour detour was quite justified, a side trip for those visiting Green Bay is well worth the time.
So there you have it...three parks in Wisconsin, all very different. If I were to give an award to each, Mt. Olympus wins the award of "Most overhated by enthusiasts," Little Amerricka gets the award for "Quirkiest park of the tour," and Bay Beach gets "Strangest location for a quality coaster." None were places I'd go out of the way to return to, but all were fun excursions and a great way to fill up the first day of the trip.
And that fourth park I mentioned above? Well, that was Six Flags Great America, as we arrived in Gurnee early enough for a night ride on Goliath. But I think I'll save that for part 2.
Wisconsin Coaster Rankings:
1. Hades 360
2. Zippin Pippin
6. Mad Mouse
Never Again Tier:
8. Little Dipper
9. Wild & Wooly Toboggan
Walt Disney World