This week Hoosiers statewide were shocked to hear the news that Indiana Beach, our longest-lived amusement park, would be closing its gates forever. The news was especially surprising to the citizens of Monticello, IN, who had no idea it was in anything resembling dire straits. Situated along the shores of scenic Lake Shafer, it was a beloved vacation getaway whose TV ads featured a crow mascot proclaiming “There’s more than corn in Indiana!” during an era in which folks from other states wouldn’t shut up with their stupid jokes about Indiana’s ubiquitous corn.
Indiana has no Kings Island, no Six Flags, and no Disney theme park, but we have two independent amusement parks to call our own. Holiday World, located in southern Indiana in a town called Santa Claus, is a clean, calendar-themed entertainment machine whose most impressive feature to us Hoosiers is not their steel coasters or their massive water park; it’s the unlimited free soft drinks for all patrons. Yes, free. Drink stations are positioned all around the park with several varieties of Coke products and plenty of twelve-ounce cups. The stations are so plentiful that long drink lines are rarely a problem.
Their competition in the opposite half of the state, just north of Purdue University, is longtime family destination Indiana Beach, located in a town called Monticello — pronounced “monti-SELL-o”, not “monti-CHELL-o” like President Jefferson’s crib. The “beach” part is attached to Lake Shafer, a pretty body of water now surrounded on most sides by tourist havens and summer getaways. After decades of settling for being a mere beach, Indiana Beach began to build up an empire of machinery as the management has added rides one by one over the decades, slowly bringing more action to the area while leaving a little less beachfront.
I’d only been once before because beaches turn me crispy, swimsuits fail to flatter me, and the thought of trying it actually never occurred to me until a few years ago, when my wife floated the idea as a one-tank road trip. My second visit was made possible when my employer scheduled this year’s company picnic there. An excuse and discounted tickets were all the motivation I needed. My son, age 17, was permitted to opt out, leaving us adults to do whatever we wanted. As it turns out, we weren’t really in the mood for wild and crazy. In fact, nearly everything we rode was rated “Mild”, devices fit for AARP members and easily jostled agoraphobes.
The ride nearest the Indiana Beach entrance is the Steel Hawg, a wild ‘n’ twisty steel coaster that inverts and induces nausea. This is a prime example of what we fuddy-duddies merely gaze upon rather than experience for ourselves.
The Ferris wheel is more our sad, sorry speed. The ambience at the top was breezy on a hot day and included a comprehensive vantage point above the modest park. The Hoosier Hurricane, their standard-issue wooden coaster, consumes most of the view.
To our right: bucolic Lake Shafer.
You can view Lake Shafer from afar, snuggle up close to it in the water-park section, or — if you jog over to the Honey Creek Bay section — you can now zip-line across it. When Indianapolis hosted Super Bowl XLVI last winter, one of the most prominent and coveted features of its downtown Super Bowl Village was a zip-line along several blocks of Capitol Avenue. Tickets were sold out days in advance. Now every event organizer in Indiana wants one installed, whether temporary or permanent. They’re in danger of becoming this decade’s answer to bungee-jumping.
For an even better view, you can ride the two-way Skylift across the park, peering down at the other rides, treetops, and roofs. But don’t forget, unlike these former occupants: the safety bars are there for a reason.
This enormous water slide wrapped around a steel coaster is no doubt a consequence of overcrowding, but would be the greatest ride of all time if you could somehow combine the two. That inventor shall be anointed as Emperor Genius of Amusementia.
Or there’s the polar opposite of rollercoasters: the Wabash Cannonball kiddie train, which provides a tortoise-level mass-transit connection between the kiddie rides in the middle of the park and what used to be a miniature golf course on the far end. Sometime after my previous visit that mini-golf course was dismantled and replaced with a couple of benches and a fountain. This substitution doesn’t sound like an exchange that would result from consumer demand.
If the ironically named Cannonball seems too breakneck, the antique-auto track travels at speeds up to almost 1 MPH, and has the advantage of allowing riders to steer the vehicle themselves and determine their own destiny within the narrow confines of the strict, uncool guide-rail. In case this sounds too exciting for the faintest of heart, an auto with a flat tire is stationed nearby as a demotivational reminder to cocky braggarts that accidents can happen even at 1 MPH.
Our company-picnic passes allowed us dual admission to either the normal Boardwalk rides or the water-park rides. One unexplained exception: the Carousel. When we tried to board, we were rebuked and denied by a ringer for Old Man Witherby who insisted our all-access armbands weren’t all-access enough for the Carousel. I’m not sure what makes the Carousel such a hoity-toity upper-crust dreamlike experience that an additional charge for kiddie-ride passes is required. Maybe it only looks normal from the outside, but on the inside turns into an evil whirlwind like the one from Something Wicked This Way Comes. That would be worth an extra buck or two.
We declined to stage a protest, mostly because this random white tiger wouldn’t stop giving us such a piercing, vulturous glare. I imagine spooky kiddie-ride totems are more cost-effective than paid security guards.
Also on guard: a faux Moai fountain. Because of the similarities between Indiana and Easter Island.
When the time came to report to our assigned picnic shelter to commence with the company picnicking, we found our hosts running behind schedule and still carting our foodstuffs out from an unseen kitchen. Despite the unceremonious containers and the “Shelter Chicken” label that makes it sound like an imported shipment from the Wheeler Mission, the fried chicken was surprisingly fresh, warm, and delectable.
As my son has aged beyond theme parks and our nieces and nephews have their own agendas and parents, I fear my time for this kind of experience is drawing to a close. I still enjoy the food, the company, and the occasional arcade game, but the physical stress and motion sickness aren’t as endurable as they used to be, nor am I enamored anymore of walking long distances through water parks barefoot, topless, and nearly blind without my glasses.
Despite our limitations (some admittedly self-imposed), the good parts of Indiana Beach still kept us going for quite a few hours before we departed around 5-ish when the remains of our energy evaporated. Options still abound under those circumstances, such as a few video arcades that offer old-school coin-op fun, especially a long row of those great Data East licensed-character pinball machines that I could keep playing forever if I were insensitive about how that would bore my wife to sleep standing up. If you don’t mind paying extra, the Shafer Queen ferry can spirit you across the waters and allow you to see vacationing jet-skiers and well-heeled boaters up close in their natural habitat.
In addition to the company-picnic meal, their concession-stand food is also top-notch for its category. Three scoops of vanilla ice cream atop a large elephant ear certainly made my day, and helped me let go of my bitterness at Old Man Witherby and the Forbidden Carousel, which would make a great title for a Scooby-Doo episode.