The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

June 17, 2013

Upstate theme parks offered affordable thrills

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The Daily Star

---- — I saw in the news last week that Disney theme parks are raising admission prices to almost $100 a person. Children (who Uncle Walt considers 10 and under) are now $86 a day.

But $100 a person? Really?

We had 10 in my family. If my parents today had decided in some crazy dream to take us all to Florida to see Mickey and Goofy, it would have set them back a grand at the door. And then you have to pay for everything else inside.

Oh, and Disney also just raised the price to park at the park. It would now cost my old man $16 to dock our block-long 1965 royal blue Ford Country Squire boat on wheels in the Disney World parking lot.

Not going to happen.

In my day, upstate New York was known as “Vacationland.” Little theme parks dotted the Catskill and Adirondack regions. Fantasyland, Storytown U.S.A., Frontier Town, Santa’s Workshop and all the rest were the Disneylands of my youth.

Two of my favorites were the Catskill Game Farm and Gaslight Village.

I probably went to the Game Farm a dozen times over my youth. It was one of the only places that kids could get up close and personal with birds, deer, llamas and snakes. It was a rustic place tucked into 200 acres of Catskill Mountain lushness.

One of my favorite memories, captured in glorious Super 8 color film by my dad, was feeding the bear. A large black bear sat way up atop a platform and a long wire ran from the platform down to the ground. One at a time, you would pay the attendant a nickel and he’d give you a handful of bear treats. You would place them into a tin can that was attached to the wire. At the signal, you would rattle the tin can and the bear would sense it was getting close to dinner time.

Ever so slowly the bear would take one of his paws and pull the wire up close to him. With his other paw, he would trap the wire. Then he’d repeat the motion, pulling and trapping. Finally the bear would pull the tin can all the way to the top where he’d devour the treats and send the can back down the wire for another kid to step up and “feed the giant beast of the forest.”

This childhood favorite was in existence for 73 years, closing in 2006. At its peak it was drawing a half million visitors a year. Admission to Catskill Game Farm in the early 1960s was $2 for adults and $1 for children.

And parking was free.

Gaslight Village in Lake George was another favorite. This was a different kind of theme park, one with an eye on the adults as well as the children.

The theme of Gaslight Village was the “Gay Nineties,” a decidedly adult era. Beer was sold. There was an old Opera House where follies and vaudeville reviews aimed at adults were held (“OK, everybody, join in: Heart of my heart, brings back old memories …”). The park also stayed open longer than any of the others throughout the Adirondacks. It closed at 10:30 p.m.

My greatest memory here was that it was the first place where I ever drove a car. Sure, it was a gas engine-powered Tin Lizzy riding along a walled-in half-mile track, but you didn’t need a parent in the car with you. I remember the first time I did this. I felt that great rush of freedom on the road!

I was 10 years old.

I actually have an old pamphlet from Gaslight Village. It had odd admission prices — adults were $5.95, and children (younger than 16) were $4.77!

And parking was free.

I remember piling into the car at the end of our vacations and heading for home with that Country Squire station wagon proudly declaring to the world (via those impossible-to-get-off bumper stickers): “This Family Has Been To Catskill Game Farm” or “Happiness is Gaslight Village.”

Some folks will tell you that $1,000 a family to get into Disney World is worth it because you get to go on the newest ride, which describes itself as the “Rock and Roller Coaster where you can ride in an upside down stretch limousine through the darkened freeways of Los Angeles accompanied by the rockin’ tunes of Aerosmith.”

Gee, I don’t know. I thought the bear pulling a tin can of food up a wire was pretty thrilling!

I’ll catch you in two ...

“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck