Where Americana is alive and well!
Quassy Amusement Park is nothing short of a New England, if not American, treasure. Located at the end of an electrified rail (“trolley”) line that has been gone for more than 70 years, it has beaten the odds on many occasion to proudly proclaim the title of “survivor” in an industry that has seen hundreds of similar facilities fade away. As the curtain comes down in the park’s centennial season, Ron Gustafson talks us through 100 years of lakeside fun.
Even though 1930 spelled the end of the line for the Connecticut Trolley Company, its most popular summer stop, one that filled the rail cars to capacity, lives on. Quassy is one of only 11 remaining “trolley parks” in the United States, parks once owned and operated by electrified rail lines. Prior to The Great Depression of 1929, there was more than 1,000 such properties.
This 20-acre lakeside facility this summer marked a monumental milestone by celebrating its centennial. Not only has the park been in operation for 100 years, but for the past 71 seasons it has been owned by members of the same family.
Like many other parks of the era, Quassy’s main attraction when it opened in 1908 was that of a picnic grove offering boating, dancing and bathing in sparkling Lake Quassapaug. For years the facility was known as Lake Quassapaug, Quassapaug a Native American term meaning “big pond.” The locals started calling the park simply “Quassy” decades ago and the nickname stuck, though you will hear an occasional old-timer strolling through the property still refer to it as “Lake Quassapaug.”
Trolley rides from nearby Waterbury were 15 cents during those start-up years according to newspaper ads. A carousel was soon added, as was a dance pavilion in 1910. A gigantic pavilion added a few years later now houses a redemption arcade, though its unique architecture is still intact.
In the late 1920s major improvements were made to Route 64 leading to the lake and park-goers soon found buses to Quassy much faster than riding the rails and by 1930 the trolley line had ceased operation.
A new carousel roundhouse was constructed in 1927 near the dance hall and the E Joy Morris menagerie carousel was moved inside the structure it would call home for the next 60 years. The park limped along during The Great Depression while many similar businesses in the nation were shuttered for good.
A significant change in ownership occurred in 1937 when three of the park’s concessionaires, John Frantzis, George Terezakis and Mike Leon, purchased the property. It was during the sale that the classic Morris carousel nearly went up in flames. The carousel and the park survived more turbulent years during World War II.
For the 1946 season, Quassy promoted new rides. In the years to come, the Frantzis family gradually acquired more interest in the park as the other partners started to relinquish their shares.
What was said to be the first complete kiddyland purchased from the Allan Herschell Co was installed at Quassy in 1952. The four-ride package consisted of a Little Dipper rollercoaster, Sky Fighter jets, boats and pony carts. All of the rides except the pony carts continue to entertain youngsters after more than 50 years. Other Herschell rides in the park include the helicopters and one of the few remaining Monster (Mad Mouse) steel rollercoasters in the world.
Laid Back Atmosphere
The Morris carousel operated until 1989, when the owners decided it was time to retire the aging machine. An October auction was scheduled and brought national attention to the park as the classic ride was sold piece by piece. The proceeds allowed the park to order a new 50ft carousel for the coming year from Chance of Wichita. At the time Chance also owned the former Allan Herschell Co and was building carousels based on the original blueprints.
Even today, the park still has the laid-back atmosphere of the traditional facility that was the cornerstone of its foundation. With the advent of large theme parks over the past few decades – numerous examples within driving distance from western Connecticut – Quassy has managed to maintain its identity as the alternative to the emerging mega facilities.
Rarely are there long lines for any of the rides, nor a mass of humanity streaming down the walkways at this quaint lakeside venue. Pricing has also been an ally to Quassy as there is no general admission fee, allowing parents and grandparents alike to be spectators while the children ride classics like the Tilt-A-Whirl and Trabant.
And over the years Friday nights have become a “non-advertised” family event as Quassy’s rides, even cotton candy and soda, are only 25 cents each. “Everyone knows Fridays are quarter nights at Quassy,” notes John Frantzis, now the patriarch of the business. Hot dogs will set you back 50 cents, and up to 4,000 are served on busy Fright nights in July and August.
In recent years, a portion of the lower parking lot has been transformed with the addition of rides like the Chance Music Fest, Hrubetz Paratrooper, Monster rollercoaster and bumper cars.
Time To Take The Plunge
While other large parks in the region started adding water attractions, until a few years ago Quassy quietly trudged along the path it had forged for itself as an “iron” (ride) park, leaving it high and dry on those hot summer days.
“Our beach used to be packed,” John Frantzis recalls, but it got to the point where fewer and fewer people were coming to the lake to swim.”
In 2003 the owners decided it was time to take a plunge by building a new water attraction. Saturation Station, by SCS Interactive, was the first interactive family water play area of its type. With cascading fountains, water cannons, waterslides and a huge tipping bucket as a centrepiece, the multi-tiered attraction was an overnight success.
“I believe it saved the park,” John Frantzis says. He attributes the project’s success to his son-in-law, Eric Anderson, who also heads up the park’s operations.
There is an admission charged to go into this state-of-the-art waterpark facility, or it is included in the price of an all-day ride wristband. Building off the success of Saturation Station, Quassy then added two gigantic Tunnel Twister waterslides from ProSlide in 2006.
Now as the temperatures soar in July and August, so does the attendance at Quassy’s re-born lakefront attractions. The largest gamble and investment in the park’s history has paid dividends.
As Quassy Amusement Park enters its second century of providing “affordable family fun,” the centennial season was marked with the addition of a Galleon Pirate Ship from Zamperla and a three-lane Children’s slide. On July 19 the park officially celebrated “100 Years of Fun” by staging a big band centennial dance at its outdoor Lakeside Theatre stage. The following day the park served free ice cream and cake.
If anything, this historic property’s recent success in a highly-competitive market proves that Americana is alive and well.
Centennial season business
Though Quassy Amusement Park remains open weekends through until October 5, the lakeside property officially said goodbye to its 100th summer season at closing on Labor Day, September 1. Like many other amusement parks across the United States, Quassy measures much of its success on the numbers generated from mid-June through Labor Day, and this summer’s figures were more than encouraging.
“Our centennial season will go down as one of the top years ever for the park,” notes co-owner Eric Anderson. “Everyone was concerned about the economy and what gas prices were going to do in terms of travel. For us, when people stay closer to home because of an economic downturn, we generally see an increase in attendance.”
But high fuel prices took their tool on some potential guests: “Some school and camp groups had to because of transportation costs,” reveals George Frantzis II. “We still had good numbers, including some record nights in July and August. Thankfully our walk-in crowd helped to cushion the softer than expected school and camp outings.”
Corporate functions at the park were steady this season too, and Quassy also hosted a number of weddings and high school graduation parties. Season pass sales, meanwhile, were at a record high, confirming that families are staying closer to home during the summer months.
Being a non-gated facility, Quassy is unable to keep an official attendance record, but estimates suggest around 225,000 guests came to enjoy this very special season.