Shadows of Shamu

Summer brings back our writer’s most cherished amusement park memories, when killer whales and dolphins leaped through the air at SeaWorld, thrilling her family. This year, Geauga Lake is gone, the final chapter in the loss of a Northeast Ohio landm
The promise of summer’s swelter triggers my kids’ annual craving for chills, thrills and the over-the-top decadence of midway food. Festivals and fairs can fill the bill, but they come and go. When it comes to the landscape of embedded memories, nothing stands in for childhood fun quite like an amusement park.

There was a time — 120 years, in fact — when a Cleveland-area family could indulge in a day of full-blown amusement park fun without filling the gas tank or blowing the monthly budget. That era ended in September, when Geauga Lake closed its gates for good. It was the final curtain on a sad, inevitable story that, for me, began in 1999, when Six Flags took over the place. The worst blow came in 2001, when Six Flags bought neighboring SeaWorld of Ohio, and Shamu and company got the hook, shipped to SeaWorlds in California and Texas.

The demise became clear during my family’s last visit there, when dual admission to Six Flags and a watered-down version of the former SeaWorld was positioned as a bargain. Two hours at Six Flags Worlds of Adventure proved it wasn’t.

While my kids were maniacally shooting each other with foam balls in the Looney Tunes cage, I walked to the other side of the park to see the dolphin pool. Against the blood-curdling screams from the roller coaster and vendors hawking temporary tattoos, I remembered the serenity of the dolphins, wearing their usual dolphin smiles — a ballet in the midst of a circus. But the dolphins were gone, and in their place swam a smattering of stingrays.

In past years, polite but persistent elbowing was the only way to find a spot at the blue concrete perimeter of the dolphin pool. Crowding there in the brutal humidity of a Northeast Ohio summer day, dozens of children and parents would stretch out their arms, hoping that the sleek hide of one of those beautiful creatures might glide briefly under their hands. It happened to me just once, and once to my son, both exhilarating moments. Even now I can remember the ethereal silkiness of that dolphin’s back beneath my fingers. I had always told my daughter, “Don’t worry. There’s always next time.”

But that day, only one young boy and I stood watching the stingrays in the former dolphin pool. “The dolphins are gone,” I said, and he eyed me with the wariness with which children are taught to regard strangers who speak to them. Then his mother yelled from several yards away: “If you think you’re gonna ride these rides, you better get over here rightnow!” He ducked away to join his family.

The whole tenor of the place had changed. Six Flags and the former SeaWorld made for a painfully awkward, loveless marriage, and both looked worse for the wear. Thick mats of weeds had invaded the formerly lush landscaping of SeaWorld. Someone had thrown an empty beer can in the children’s big sandbox. In line for ice cream, I saw a pregnant woman grind out her cigarette in a planter of geraniums. My kids thought I was a stick in the mud, but I found the place depressing.

SeaWorld had been around since I was in high school, though unsurprisingly, it bored me as a teenager. As an adult, I had mixed feelings about an enterprise that would train magnificent whales to do parlor tricks. But years later, as a mother, tempted by the prospect of face-to-face penguin encounters, I gave the place another try. As it turned out, my family made a boxful of scrapbook memories there (and one day, as God is my witness, I’ll put those great pictures into an actual scrapbook).

Gate fees were priced such that season tickets paid for themselves with only a few visits, and we lived less than 30 minutes away. Once or twice a week, sustained by a hastily packed lunch of peanut butter crackers and juice boxes, my children and I would spend a few happy hours exploring marine life, feeding the ducks and bouncing in the ball pit, and still make it home for nap time.

Sometimes on Friday evenings, my husband would meet us there after work. In one crystalline memory, my children have just emerged from the giant kiddie slide to discover him waiting for them at eye level, a cotton candy in each hand. The instant delight on their faces, sweet surprise times two— Daddy’s here! With treats!— became one of those images the heart decides to register as joy defined. And while that moment could arguably have happened at any amusement park, something deep in my psyche insists there was a rare ingredient in those balmy SeaWorld nights of yellow lights and splashing whales, the scent of waves and bug spray and spun sugar in the air, the screams of thrill-seekers looping in and out from afar as they rode the dark sky on a ribbon of steel. That ingredient, still eluding definition, was part of some old secret local recipe, lost now and buried among the rubble.

I was naïve enough to assume there would always be a SeaWorld here. In my mind, it was as deeply embedded a regional landmark attraction as the Metroparks Zoo or the Botanical Garden — or Geauga Lake. Even as its demise became clear, I somehow imagined that the owners would come to their senses and restore the place to its former glory. I somehow imagined more summers there, more golden Friday nights, more opportunities to hope for a dolphin to glide under our waiting hands.

When it was obvious, even to me, that those days had ended, my family’s amusement park-craving had not. So it was goodbye Geauga Lake and SeaWorld, hello Cedar Point. While our once-a-summer trek to Sandusky is always memorable, at the end of the day I feel overspent and saturated in every sense, like I’ve just traveled hours to gorge at a pricey buffet when I really craved lunch at the local family diner.

If only Six Flags and Cedar Fair L.P. had known what their customers knew all along: Roller coasters and kiddie rides are a big draw, but marine life made the magic happen. The colossal miscalculation of their marketplace is stupefying. Deep pockets (until recently, anyway) and decades of amusement park history were on their side. Add in sophisticated marketing tools that routinely scrutinize consumers’ habits and preferences, and it’s hard to fathom how such crucial knowledge of their customer base fell under the radar screen. It’s enough to give credence to the analysts and loyal season pass-holders who assert that Cedar Fair bought Geauga Lake in 2004 to kill its own, erasing the unwanted competition of a precocious stepchild. All the markings of a cheesy TV movie are there, and it wouldn’t be hard to compress the long, sad timeline into 90 minutes: helpless animals hoisted out of their adopted habitats by huge leather straps and shipped off to unfamiliar lands, greedy corporate fat cats rubbing their hands at the undoing of their pesky competition.

Here’s the rub: If I watched that movie, I’d grab the Kleenex and settle in for a good cry. Because no matter how it happened, the disintegration of Geauga Lake and SeaWorld is a stunning loss for our community, and for generations of families who loved one or both.

I’m glad I saved my children’s ID cards from the years we were SeaWorld regulars. I look now at the tiny photos of their sweet, sweaty faces and think about summers I thought were endless. But as one woman’s post on a Web site of Geauga Lake aficionados mourns, “It’s time for me to move on to other things and I can tell you I won’t be moving on to Geauga Lake’s Wildwater Kingdom.”
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