By Tim Sykes
Photos from the author’s collection
For the first time in nearly 30 years, I found myself standing at the corner of Ridgeway and Erie Roads in the town of Crystal Beach, Ontario, where I could immediately observe the many changes for myself. Landscaped properties and tall trees now line the street behind a tall fence. Large homes with extended balconies stand facing Lake Erie behind an historic concrete break wall. Electric golf carts quietly circle through the curved streets of a gated community, shuttling residents to tennis courts and swimming pools located in the centre of the property. You could see that the laidback atmosphere of this beach community is a big attraction for the current property owners, as they casually make their way over to their private beach. For the majority of the present residents of the Crystal Beach Tennis and Yacht Club, they have purchased their homes in an attempt to find their version of paradise. For more than 100 years, however, millions of people found their own paradise at this very spot. The site of their quiet neighbourhood was once known as Crystal Beach Amusement Park, among the finest historic and most traditional amusement parks in North America.
Most traditional parks like Crystal Beach started life around the turn of the century, and the few that remain today have somehow survived the fickle whims of the general public, and now are looked upon as a nostalgic throw back to a more innocent era. Sadly, after being in existence for 101 years, Crystal Beach Park closed forever after the season ended in 1989. Many of the buildings and rides had been part of the park for decades. The massive Crystal Ballroom opened in 1925, becoming the largest dance hall in North America, with room for 3000 dancers on its gleaming wooden dance floor. Big bands from across North America appeared on its stage, playing before sold out crowds every week. Park owners built a huge concrete dock that jutted out into Lake Erie. The “Canadiana” ferry boat brought patrons from downtown Buffalo, New York to Crystal Beach for 45 years.
The earliest roller coasters to appear at the park included a simple Figure 8 coaster and the larger Switchback Scenic Railway. The Giant, a bright yellow roller coaster was built in 1916, and was in operation for more than 70 years. In 1927, Crystal Beach Park hired Harry Traver to design and build The Cyclone, still considered to be the most terrifying roller coaster ever built. This magnificent thrill ride had an unorthodox track layout, which twisted and turned at steep angles throughout the entire ride, torturing its riders. The only straight section of track was the lift hill and the break run at the end of the ride. The extreme design and nature of this ride became a maintenance and insurance nightmare for park management. After 20 years of operation, the Cyclone was removed and replaced with The Comet, a very tall and long roller coaster that operated from 1947 until the park closed in 1989. With a lift hill of 95 feet and a length of more than 4000 feet, The Comet was an imposing structure. What made it even more impressive was that it stood on top of a concrete base next to Lake Erie. The intimidating sight of the coaster high above the water’s edge made for an unforgettable on-ride experience for any patron of the park. Other later era roller coasters included the steel framed Galaxie and Wild Mouse, as well as a kiddie coaster.
Crystal Beach Park often boasted about having the finest rides and games of any amusement park anywhere. With such a long and lustrous history, these claims were supported with the inclusion of such favourite and classic rides as the Scrambler, the Hey-Dey, Ferris wheel, Tilt-A-Whirl, Tumble Bug, and The Octopus, plus dozens of others. The Laff in the Dark, with its charming two seat cars that would ferry you through this spooky dark ride was first built in 1936, and entertained for more than 50 years. The Magic Carpet was an extremely popular fun house, located near the entrance to the park. Built in 1947, the walk thru featured crooked rooms, moving walls, distorted mirrors, air jets, and a “magic carpet” slide at the end of the exhibit.
The wonderful Sky Ride slowly took riders across the length of the park and back over top of the ferry dock, before letting you off near the entrance to the Comet. A classic carousel was located in its own building in the middle of the midway. Brightly painted wooden horses circled up and down for decades, thrilling generations of riders.
Young children were entertained in an expansive area known as Frolicland. Dozens of miniature rides and attractions were available for the kids and parents alike. Next to Frolicland were a miniature golf area, a miniature train ride, and a bingo hall. Located throughout the park were food concession buildings, offering everything from popcorn, hot dogs, and drinks, to the park’s unique “sugar waffles” and a popular local beverage known as Logenberry. Patrons were also encouraged to bring their own food and drinks to the various shaded picnic areas near the Giant coaster entrance. Next to the Auto Skooter bumper car building was the Fun City arcade building, with its dozens of arcade games and skill. The outside of this building featured a landmark Art Deco styled tower aglow in neon lighting.
Management of Crystal Beach Park made sure the grounds were spotless at all times. The mature trees throughout the park created much needed shade, and the numerous gardens were well manicured. As beautiful as the park was during the day, at night, the park became magical, bathed with bright neon lighting and signs everywhere.
With all the many previously mentioned rides and attractions, there was also nature’s attraction that was hard to pass up. The soft sandy beach and clean fresh waters of Lake Erie that made Crystal Beach Park stand out among the many other traditional amusement parks in North America.
When Crystal Beach Park closed in 1989, there was a collective sense of shock and loss for thousands of people. Summer was never the same without a trip to Crystal Beach Park, and even after nearly 30 years, there is still a sense of loss for many. Several rides from Crystal Beach Park were purchased and moved to other parks. Many original signs and other artifacts have appeared in museums and private collections. Adventurous thrill seekers have traveled to Lake George, New York, where they stand in line to ride the Crystal Beach Comet roller coaster, now that it has been moved, restored and once again thrilling thousands of riders. The park’s miniature train has also been restored, and is now shuttling passengers around on a winery tour in Jordan, Ontario. The Crystal Beach Logenberry beverage can be purchased at several stores in the Buffalo, New York area. At various large outdoor events each summer, a local entrepreneur often sets up his concession, selling the famous Crystal Beach Sugar Waffles that are still hand made using the same equipment once used at the park. Yes, these are minor concessions, but tiny bits of Crystal Beach Park do live on.
For the current residents of the Crystal Beach Tennis and Yacht Club, the paradise they have found within their gated beach community pales in comparison to the thrills, excitement and lasting memory of Crystal Beach Park, Canada’s legendary amusement park.