For most New England kids, summer wasn’t complete without a much-anticipated visit to the amusement park. At one time they were plentiful, scattered throughout the region, and mostly family-owned, with rides, games, attractions, and stands selling sugary, greasy (delicious) food. In recent years, however, their numbers have dwindled, until just a few remain. My favorite, located just an hour north of Boston in Salem, New Hampshire, is Canobie Lake Park.
A classic New England amusement park, with a midway, rides, arcade games, and concessions, Canobie Lake has been delighting visitors since 1902.
Its history can be summed up in one word: trolleys.
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, trolley cars were the exciting, new way to travel, and the town of Salem found itself smack dab on the Northeast Street Railway Corporation line. Canobie Lake Park was first opened as a pleasure resort to drum up business. Back then it was more of a botanical garden, with boating, picnicking, and a penny arcade.
During the 1920s, the rise of the automobile was tough on the trolley industry. Business slowed, and then stopped by the decade’s end, and Canobie Lake Park went with it. Then, in 1932, a private citizen purchased the park and whipped it back into shape. In time, Canobie Lake Park grew more successful, and attractions such as the Yankee Cannonball were added, along with a popular lineup of musical acts.
In 1958, three close friends from New Jersey decided to purchase Canobie Lake Park, and it’s still under their collective ownership today. With a commitment to classic family fun, keeping things fresh and new, and a reputation as “New England’s Best Family Value,” Canobie Lake Park has consistently beat the odds, and continues to grow and thrive.
They also keep enough of the classic stuff around to appease returning guests, which was the focus of my visit earlier this summer with my big sister in tow. We spent many happy summer afternoons at Canobie Lake Park as children in the 80s, and were eager to see if it still held the same magic.
Ready for a tour?
My favorite ride at Canobie is likely also yours — its signature thrill ride, the Yankee Cannonball. I’ve never found a more authentically thrilling ride than this old-fashioned gem. You can keep your corkscrews and vertical drops — nothing beats the clack-clack-clack of a coaster car as it slowly climbs the wooden track and then hurtles down the other side. My sister and I shrieked just as loudly this time around as we did back then.
It was built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1930 and brought to Canobie Lake Park in 1936 from Lakeview Park in Waterbury, Connecticut, where it was called the Greyhound. Canobie didn’t start calling it the Yankee Cannonball until 1985. The ride lasts about a minute, gets a top speed of 35 mph, and the only time the park has had to close it was after Hurricane Carol in 1954.
I’m also a sucker for the Sky Ride, a Canobie fixture since 1986, that takes you for a chairlift ride over the northern section of the park.
Beloved, too, is the Pirate Ship, also from 1986.
And a ride I loved as a kid, but now fear my stomach wouldn’t be able to handle: the spinning teacups — officially known as Crazy Cups.
Then there’s the ferris wheel, known at Canobie Lake Park as the “Giant Sky Wheel.”
Other Canobie classics?
For one, there’s the park’s Dance Hall, a unique space leftover from the days when the park used to host some of the country’s hottest musical acts. From the 1930s to the early 1950s, Canobie Lake Park hosted names such as Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra, and later, Sonny & Cher, and Aerosmith. How’s that for “big name”?
If you’re interested in learning more about Canobie’s musical heyday, there’s a great firsthand account over on the Music Museum of New England website.
Another favorite classic spot at the park is Kiddie Land, which has barely changed over the years, and where 48″ is still the gold standard.
The park’s transportation classics include the Canobie Express steam train and Blue Heron lake cruise.
And for timeless fun, there’s the carousel, mirror maze, bumper cars, and antique cars.
New(er) rides are also constantly cropping up at the park, replacing old ones (like the Matterhorn) or taking the place of outdated attractions (like the swimming pool).
Fan of arcades and games? You’ve still come to the right place. Step right up, little lady…
My favorite, it must be said, is Skee Ball.
In one corner of the park, over near the Mine of Lost Souls, there’s a Skee Ball spot that still has the lever you pull after feeding in the quarter. The balls whir and smack down into the well, and when you sink one into the hole, the score numbers flip like the numbers on an old alarm clock.
It was blissfully non-digital, even if a few quarters got stuck and one of the helpful game attendants had to come over each time and help us out.
My sister is pretty good at Skee Ball, and we quickly used up all our quarters.
Then it was time for lunch. There are endless snack options throughout the park — fried dough, popcorn, ice cream, cotton candy, candy apples, Italian ice — but just as many places to get a more substantial meal. We headed to the “International Food Festival,” which is a strange name for a food court that offers mostly pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, and ice cream, but if you’re in the mood for something more unique (grilled cheese, fried clams, tacos, buffalo tenders), you’ll find it somewhere in the park.
We went with personal cheese pizzas, and they were just the ticket.
In the fall, Canobie Lake Park turns spooky with ScrEEEamfest (on our list of the Best Halloween Events in New England). Held during the weekends after dark, there are haunted houses, a Monster Parade, petting zoo, and other ghoulish attractions with varying levels of fright.
When I visited, they were busy turning the park’s old roller rink into one of the houses for this year’s event. So if you like thrills AND chills, you won’t want to miss it!
There’s so much to see at Canobie Lake Park I’d never be able to show you all of it, but basically, if you’re like me and you grew up looking forward to an annual visit, going back is a joyful trip down memory lane, made sweeter with the passage of time.
I suspect it’s the same with all classic amusement parks. Feeling like a kid again is pretty darn irresistible.
And even if the park’s resident peacocks no longer have free reign of the place (“They would wander into neighbors’ yards and we’d get phone calls,” I was told.), you can still admire them near the Boston Tea Party ride.
Thanks for a fun day, Canobie! I might not be a kid anymore, begging for Skee Ball quarters and crossing my fingers that I make the 48 inches, but it was a treat to see and experience so many of my favorites, and watch so many other New England kids forming their own magical memories.
I’ll most certainly be back.
Have you ever been to Canobie Lake Park? Which classic New England amusement park was your childhood favorite? Whalom Park? Riverside Amusement Park? Lake Compounce? Rocky Point? Story Land? Edaville USA? York’s Wild Kingdom? Share your memories in the comments! Canobie Lake Park. 85 N. Policy St., Salem, NH. 603-893-3506; canobie.comThis post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.