Nightmare at Great Adventure

High on disappointment, low on amusement

We knew that Great Adventure was a crowded and overly expensive amusement park. But it hardly seems like summer without a coaster ride, and we didn’t make our usual trip to Pittsburgh to visit my brother and his family and go to Kennywood, where I worked one summer as a teenager. (See the movie Adventureland, and you will have a clear picture of my life then, except of course for the drugs and the sex and the affairs and the stabbing. )

I love amusement parks, though I have a weird relationship with roller coasters. I am TERRIFIED—but I want to ride, I truly do. On this trip I carried a Xanax in my pocket and occasionally licked it, which was very helpful, but ended after we rode the Congo River Ride and I was left with damp crumbles.

We started off on Skull Mountain, fake screamed, and had a great time. Next, we stood in line for about half an hour, and then rode on Congo Rapids, which was a few little bumps at about two miles per hour, no waterfall, no squirting guns from other patrons. We kept waiting for the big drop or the spin into a waterfall and it just never happened.

What did happen was this: The power went out. Black out over the entire park. Most of our group had been waiting in line for Batman for an hour and were about 30 people from the front when it happened. They were close enough to have that excited “I’m next” sensation. Instead, they watched the folks who were stuck upside down on the ride get rescued, one by one.

I had been killing time with my youngest, Christopher, who was intimidated by the fiercer rides. We had sat on a bench, people-watched, and sucked down many ounces from the $45 (well, maybe not that much) “souvenir” plastic cup that came with “free” refills. Anyway, I had stood in a line for fried chicken, hoping only to get my cup refilled. Even though the line was interminable and the menu gigantic, when people finally got to place their order they craned their necks up at the big board as if they had never seen it, as if they had no idea whether they wanted white meat or dark, two piece or four, mac and cheese or fries.

When the power went out I was literally next. I was having that “I’m next” sensation all up and down my spine and then, boom. I smiled sweetly at the girl who now held my cup and said, “Could you just refill me? Since I don’t have to pay anyway?” And I held up my refill bracelet as Wonder Woman might. She stared straight ahead and shook her head “no,” ever so slightly.

When we regrouped we decided to leave the park for lunch. We made it to the main gate only to see that the great managers of Great Adventure had one man stamping hands for re-entry. One 80-year-old man. He was doing his best, in fact, a really good job of equitably turning from the left to the right and managing the two lines that had formed for the mass exodus.

Coming back in was worse. I cannot even describe to you the scene, the numbers, the humanity, trying to get their amusement on, nor can I tell you how/why management had four gates open to check hand stamps. I can tell you that it took an hour to get back into that park.

We decided to head straight for El Toro, a family favorite. We waited in line for about 45 minutes, then an attendant came out to tell us that the ride had broken down. We were told we were allowed to stay in line and wait, but that there was no guarantee of it operating the rest of the day.

I’ll spare you any more details and give you the “spoiler” now: By 8 p.m., we had ridden three rides. Three rides. Collectively, our group had paid $320 plus $40 for parking, and God knows what for “souvenir” cups. We had about 120 seconds of excitement.

Most of us tried to be optimistic, still trying to put a spin on things, crack each other up, talk about how nice it was to be together, but as the day wore on, that got rougher and rougher. In fact, by the time that we were standing in a light drizzle, waiting for Superman, (the ride, not the movie), I saw that we were all preternaturally quiet, and that made me saddest of all.

The park closed at 10 p.m. At 9:45 we ran to Nitro, as many of my group had cajoled and bribed Chris to ride it. The park now emptying, we ran right through the waiting lanes and directly up the platform and onto the ride. I did my own deep breathing sans Xanax.

When we got back to the station everyone was ramped up and yelled, “Let’s do it again!” and took off full tilt to run back through the waiting maze and onto the ride. Christopher was grinning ear to ear and took off right with them, thrilled by the ride and by the fact that he rode it, thrilled to be able to ride it again. His reaction almost made our Great MisAdventure worth it.

Kathleen Volk Miller is co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly and an associate teaching professor at Drexel University. Don’t follow her on Twitter @kvm1303 because she hardly ever tweets. She hopes to have her own website one day, and also, no war.