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» Park of the past

Commentary 23 Jun 2011 08:24 am

Park of the past

Here is today’s column from The Alliance Review:

Anybody who grew up in and around Stark and Mahoning counties 30 or more years ago likely has memories of Idora Park.

As a kid, I went to this little-amusement-park-that-could almost every summer because I had relatives working for businesses that held shop picnics there. My recollection of Idora, located on the south side of Youngstown, is an idealized mixture of these visits, when cousins and whatever friends I begged my parents to allow me to invite lugged coolers and picnic baskets through the front gates.

We stored all our foodstuffs in pavilions while we rode what passed for thrill rides in an era before people flipped upside down and shot into the sky at speeds of more than 100 mph in the name of entertainment.

The Jack Rabbit, just inside the front entrance, was my first-ever roller coaster, a traditional wooden structure painted white. Riders were seat-belted into cars, with only a flimsy metal bar that lowered onto their laps for protection.

Up, up, up we climbed that first hill, courtesy of a creaky chain that sounded as though it could snap at any moment. Then came the joy of free fall on the first major drop, building just enough momentum to carry us to the top of a second, smaller hill. The rest of the ride, true to the coaster’s name, was a series of small jumps and hops until we breathlessly disembarked.

Falling out of the Jack Rabbit was a very real concern, especially when you were rattled around hairpin turns like marbles in a jar. Today, safety-minded groups or state/county inspectors likely would put the kibosh on such minimal protections, but these were the ’70s, baby, a simpler and more freewheeling time.

Located closer to the center of the park, the Wild Cat, painted a lurid yellow, was the Jack Rabbit’s big brother in every way — its higher hills and faster cars created louder screams among guests. I must confess, my first few years at Idora, I didn’t have the guts to ride it, and would often be left sitting on a nearby bench while everybody else waited in line.

After I manned up and gave it a go, I was as zealous as a new convert at an old-fashioned tent revival. The Wild Cat made the Jack Rabbit, my former greatest coaster, nothing more than a warm-up act.

When we tired of coasters, we migrated to the bumper cars, the not-so-scary Kooky Kastle, the carousel, and other attractions along a midway that today would be right at home at a county fair.

In retrospect, perhaps the greatest thing about Idora was that it was big enough to provide genuine thrills, especially to 10-, 11- and 12-year-old guests, but small enough that Moms and Dads felt comfortable turning kids loose at the front gates and letting them fly solo with minimal supervision. Cell phones didn’t exist, so free reign of the park meant no parental interference for hours, especially if you were savvy enough to duck into the crowd or behind a wastebasket when you saw a familiar adult face ahead of you on the concourse.

On our last few visits, it was obvious — even to clueless kids — that something was happening, or not happening, at Idora Park. The paint on the Wild Cat started to chip and peel; the Powers That Be turned the cars on the Jack Rabbit backwards, rechristened it the Back Wabbit and desperately, so it seemed to us, promoted it as a new ride; and crowds started to thin. Maybe this was because the shops and factories on which the park depended for summer revenue eliminated picnics or closed for good, or because larger amusement parks offered bigger, newer thrills.

Whatever the reason, on my last visit to Idora, we were able to step off the Back Wabbit and immediately get back on, dozens of times, with no waiting in line. It was a great, if nauseating, way to spend the day, but it didn’t bode well for the park.

Idora closed for good in 1984 after a fire damaged the Wild Cat and other rides. Two more fires in subsequent years eliminated any chance of it reopening. The Jack Rabbit and the Wild Cat eventually were bulldozed, and just like the destruction of the dance hall in that song by the Kinks, “part of my childhood died — just died.”

Now Idora Park exists only on websites maintained by former kids who remember the park’s glory years, a piece of northeast Ohio nostalgia for the days of our shag-headed youth. No matter how high I might climb at Cedar Point or Six Flags, those rides will never measure up to the first mountains of childhood, accessible now only in my dreams.

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One Response to “Park of the past”

  1. on 29 Jun 2011 at 1.Shushu said …

    Idora will always be in my heart; my childhood home was next to the ball field, and I was lullabyed to sleep by the Jack Rabbit cars filled full of laughter across my backyard! My Grandmother, Myrtle Zubal was Idora’s nurse for decades, and I would work with her every spring season to ready her station for summer’s woes…sweet times always will be missed; but that little girl within shall hold memories of her playground; Idora…forever!

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