Conneaut Lake Park's smile-making rides come back to life


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As a child, Katie Morabito stuffed her tennies and her ball cap with tissue paper to get that extra inch or so she needed to measure up for Conneaut Lake Park's Blue Streak.

The signature roller coaster wasn't running this weekend, but that didn't lessen Ms. Morabito's enthusiasm for the reopening of the Crawford County amusement park that has been shut down the last two summers.

Descending from the Tumblebug with her 4-year-old nephew, Ian, and her 3-year-old niece, Lily, the Slippery Rock University student, now 24, declared herself "thrilled" to see the park back in action, even if it was limping along with fewer rides and a minimal midway, the latter due to a fire in February 2008.

Ms. Morabito was among thousands who thronged this holiday weekend to the 117-year-old theme park that has staked its claim to fame on its proximity to its namesake, Conneaut Lake, as well as to its family oriented rides that emphasize fun over thrill.

"This place has never been about thrill rides for the teenagers. It's about young children and families and tradition," said Cindy Morabito of Ellwood City, Ian's and Lily's grandmother. Her family has had a cabin along the lake shore since she was a child and two years without the park was plenty. She's already bought a season pass for her grandchildren and intends to visit weekly through Labor Day.

It's easy to think all blue skies and sunshine with the Tilt-A-Whirl gleaming and the carousel ponies galloping their happy circuit, but even one of the principals in the partnership that is working on the park's resurrection acknowledges he's operating under a cloud of fiscal uncertainty.

"I'm just hoping to break even this summer,'' said Tim Lisko of Lisko Entertainment of Lowellville, Ohio. The partnership -- a family one that's been in the carnival business for decades -- has a seven-year contract with the trust that owns the park to lease and operate its amusement rides. Revenue from the lease will be used to help pay down the debt that has accumulated.

"I think we've got a lot of [community] support behind us and there are a lot of people who want to see this work, but let's see what happens in three years," Mr. Lisko said yesterday on the third day of operations. Friday, the first day, was a rough one. "We had [electric] power problems," he said with a shake of his head. "But people were real understanding."

Lewis Fleeger, 60, lives just a few miles from the park, where he works as the carousel operator. "Everybody wants this to work. When this place was shut down, it just took life out of the whole town, the whole community. Things were real bad," he said. Having the park open again adds an economic spark to the region and more bright spots than he can count in his day. "I just love this place. It's the kids and seeing them so happy," he said.

In its heyday, Conneaut Lake Park was said to have lured 150,000 visitors each summer season and employed upwards of 200 people.

Ken Jones, 21, of Sharon, who is running the Tumblebug this summer, said he worked at the park the two seasons before it closed and was happy to be employed there again this season.

"There are a lot of high spirits right now. Everybody wants this place to survive. The economy needs it," he said. He likened his coworkers to "family."

"A lot of us came here for years when we were kids and we've worked here in the summer and we know each other. We want to make it work."

Nicole Rigby of Saegertown, who is studying nursing at the University of Pittsburgh and working this summer at the Beach Club restaurant and bar behind the amusement park, said the closing of the park the past two seasons left the region "like a ghost town. It was really sad."

She said the excitement of the patrons who jammed the restaurant this weekend was contagious. "I think everyone is happy that people are taking it on and trying to make it work again. It's an exciting time," she said.

Brooke Haynes, 28, of Chester, W.Va., agreed. She and her mom and sister made the two-hour drive with seven children yesterday just to be a part of the excitement of the first weekend back in operation. "We wanted to come. We've been monitoring what was happening, hoping it would reopen. This is such a wonderful place. It's small enough to feel safe but there's plenty to do to keep the kids happy. We love it. It's become a wonderful family tradition," she said.

Mr. Lisko hopes to have the waterslide area of the park open by July 4 and is crossing his fingers that the Blue Streak will be back in operation next season. Things aren't quite where he'd like them to be, but he sees a "lot of potential" and says he is driven to make it work.

Though patrons may have to make due without a few of the park's standard attractions this summer, many favorites remain: the shady, tree-lined streets; the Beach Club restaurant with its wood floors and painted furniture overlooking the lake and a corner of sandy beach; the Kiddieland roller coaster; the historic Hotel Conneaut; and the tasty park fries.


Karen Kane can be reached at kkane@post-gazette.com or at 724-772-9180.


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