Through the Ups… and Downs…
by Doug Carpenter
What’s the only thing worse than being a bored, cranky kid off from school with nothing to do? Well, for starters, probably being that child’s parent. Fortunately for both sides of that age divide, whether you’re officially a youngster or just a young-at-heart adult, when you need to be amused, you know exactly where to go. To an amusement park.
Surprisingly enough, despite their flashy attractions and pulse-quickening thrills, America didn’t invent amusement parks. For the record, that honor goes to Denmark, where the world’s first opened just outside Copenhagen in 1583. That, of course, hasn’t stopped us from putting our unique stamp on what has become a staple of the way we have fun today.
The American tradition of the modern enclosed amusement park began in 1895 when Captain Paul Boyton opened the world-famous Coney Island. It’s only fitting that, 110 years later, the tradition should continue here in Western New York at a place area residents young and old have been being entertained and thrilled for more than four decades, appropriately named Fantasy Island.
Anybody who’s grown up or raised a family in Western New York knows Fantasy Island. And if, by chance, it should happen to have slipped anyone’s mind, all it takes is an exuberant “Fun? WOW!” — the longtime Fantasy Island ad slogan forever etched on the local consciousness — to trigger a flood of park memories. One person you definitely don’t have to say it to, however, is Marty DiPietro.
DiPietro is the “Martin” whose name has become part of what in now known as Martin’s Fantasy Island. As its sole proprietor since purchasing it from Charles Wood in 1994, DiPietro is responsible for maintaining not just the park but also tradition it represents for generations of families who’ve been coming to it since it opened in July of 1961.
Sheila Colan and her family are part of that legacy. She vividly remembers making numerous visits to the park that very first season, much to the delight of her son, Stephen. And no wonder. At 23 months, he was the ideal age to fully enjoy Fantasy Island’s original emphasis on kiddie-friendly themes… captured perfectly by the giant storybook that greeted visitors upon their arrival at the park’s fondly-remembered Garden of Fables.
As the years have passed, the park has grown to 80 acres from its original 12, seeing the places where that landmark feature and many of the other early attractions stood filled by new rides and activities. But while some traditions may change, others don’t.
Little Stephen Colan, for example, is all grown up now. But during the intervening years, he has continued to visit Fantasy Island regularly. His Mom has seen to that, helping things along with the annual holiday gift of a family pass to the park. It’s not so much for her son, she says, as it is for his kids: 14-year-old Christopher and six-year-old Andrea… who now Grandma Sheila says is the real ride-loving “daredevil” in the family.
Marty DiPietro understands that about as well as anyone could. That’s because the park is very much a family affair for him, too… on a scale that illustrates perfectly the reasons why he’s right where he ought to be doing exactly what he ought to be doing. Running Fantasy Island.
Unlike business people who get into the amusement industry purely as an investment opportunity, DiPietro, 51, has invested a considerable portion of his life working at something he loves: making families happy. His current role as majordomo of one of Western New York’s best-known homegrown entertainment venues is only the latest leg of a journey that started when he was just 17. And in more ways than one, it had him — quite literally — on the road for years.
DiPietro’s first road trip was one a lot of Western New York families took over the years, not just during the 1950s and ’60s of his youth but back into the early part of the 20th century, as well. It was north, across the U.S./Canadian border to Ontario and the legendary Crystal Beach amusement park. And for a kid growing up in West Seneca, as DiPietro remembers, it was a pretty good distance to trek. But well worth it.
“The big thing for us at the time was Crystal Beach. And ‘West Seneca Day’ was, of course, the day. We’d all save our money and then every week, we’d go to the local Val Drugs and buy more tickets.” As an added academic incentive, the park would reward grade school children with bonus tickets for the A’s and B’s on their report cards, although DiPietro laughingly recalls that “We had to pay for most of ours.”
There is, however, something about the amusement parks of our childhoods that hold a special place in our hearts. And though they may be gone, we remember them with great fondness. Crystal Beach was one. Another was Glen Park, an amusement area built in the 1940s by Town Casino impresario Harry Altman to accompany his Glen Casino theatre and restaurant in Williamsville.
Tucked snuggly behind the casino, it was accessible by crossing a small foot bridge, giving many children the feeling they were entering a hidden haven of fun. Lost to a fire that years later also claimed the landmark casino where stars like Sammy Davis Jr. once performed, the land on which the much-loved rides once stood now provides Amherst area residents a much-enjoyed greenspace in the heart of their community.
Crystal Beach closed its gates forever in 1989 after providing Western New York and Southern Ontario families 101 years of laughs and thrills. But its memory lives on. For those truly nostalgic for Crystal Beach’s glory days, those memories can still be relived today, thanks to the technological magic of computers.
Kindred spirits who loved the park as you did have created a number of Internet web sites where you can read about the park’s history, experience its sights and sounds by viewing photo galleries and actual videos of its attractions, and even purchase Crystal Beach keepsakes… including the same candy that used to be sold at the park.
They include www.crystalbeachpark.net, where you’ll find a variety of viewable video clips of the park’s rides and activities; www.crystalbeachmemories.com, which showcases dozens of great photos of the park as it was both in its early days as well as the way most of us remember it; www.inter-pc.com/crystalbeach, hosted by Paul Kassay, whose obvious devotion to the park’s memory has deservedly earned him the title of Mr. Crystal Beach; and www.crystalbeachcandy.com, where they’re still in business in Fort Erie, Ontario, just minutes from where the rides once stood, and still making the sugar waffles and suckers that were a must-have whenever you visited the park.
Crystal Beach candy, in fact, isn’t the only part of the park that’s still giving people joy. When its assets were divested in 1989, the then-owner of Fantasy Island, Charles Wood, purchased the Canadian complex’s signature attraction, the Comet roller coaster, and moved it — every rail, car and safety bar — to his other amusement park, Great Escape, in Lake George, New York. But the spirit of the park… the tradition of quality family entertainment that truly great amusement parks provide… has remained firmly anchored right here in Western New York, in large part because of people like Marty DiPietro.
Starting out as a 17-year-old with an uncanny knack for playing carnival midway “games of skill” and walking away with what he describes as literally “bags full of plush animals,” DiPietro could hardly have known how long his relationship with that colorful form of entertainment would last. But from there, it was only a small step to putting together similar games of his own and taking them around to area fireman’s field days and church festivals.
It wasn’t long before his success at that inspired him to take advantage of the opportunity to purchase a small portable carnival company and take it on the road himself. Over the next 18 years, the positive reputation of what was now known as Martin’s Shows grew steadily, as did the show itself. What began with just six rides and a couple snack concessions… plus the “milk can” game DiPietro created himself when he first started out… ended up featuring 25 rides and attractions travelling throughout Western New York in not one but two on-the-road units.
The intense demands that come with running that kind of business are not, you can imagine, ideal for someone with a growing family. And by then, that’s what DiPietro was returning to when he came home from the road. Not that his wife, Sue, didn’t empathize. Having grown up in the amusement business herself helping her Dad erect Ferris wheels, she loved the business as much as he did. So when the chance to purchase Fantasy Island presented itself, he knew it was time to take his personal show off the road and embrace a new challenge. And, he says, a challenge is truly what it was.
When he acquired the park from the ready-to-retire Charles Wood in ’94, he recognized immediately that once-glittering Fantasy Island had seen better days. “Not only was its reputation tarnished, the park itself was in rough shape.” His first step was to launch a $5,000,000 campaign to upgrade the park’s appearance and attractions, as much to refurbish its spirit as to spiff it up. It would be just the beginning of a continuing commitment to investing in the park as a way of enhancing its value to its patrons.
Its original “storybook” flavor has been spiced up through the years with the steady addition of new rides and attractions replacing existing features and expanding the park’s audience, making it appealing not just to tots but to ‘tweens, teens and fun-loving grown-ups. Joining classic attractions like the Petting Zoo and Western Town, with its legendary “Wild West Revue and Shootout,” were popular contemporary amusement park offerings like miniature golf and a water park, which DiPietro expanded in 1995 to include a wave pool and again in 2003 with a new water slide he named Surf Hill.
The measure of any amusement park worth its salted popcorn is, of course, its rides. And DiPietro speaks proudly of Fantasy Island’s efforts to keep pace with the ever-changing technology of delivering thrills and chills. In the spirit of Crystal Beach’s beloved Comet, he installed its Silver Comet roller coaster in 1999. Towering 95 feet above the park’s skyline, it reaches a top speed of 55 mph, explaining why it fast became a park favorite.
He also expresses confidence that ride enthusiasts looking for 21st century excitement won’t be disappointed with Fantasy Island’s newest attraction, set to be ready to roll this July. The $2,000,000 Crazy Mouse Spinning Coaster, being constructed on the site previously occupied by the park’s Wildcat ride. And demonstrating yet again how the circle of life continues even in the world of amusement parks, that ride will also live on, entertaining Russian riders at its new home park in Moscow.
Like the families who have been coming to it for so many years, as Fantasy Island has continued to grow, treasured traces of its grand past still remain. One of the park’s showpieces, its original Carousel — designed, by the way, by North Tonawanda’s world-famous Allan Herschell Carrousel Company, as were its two trains and its boat ride — now stands proudly on the spot where Fantasy Island’s larger-than-life Storybook originally welcomed newly-arrived guests when the park itself was young.
To say that Fantasy Island is a family affair is something of an understatement. In addition to an extended family of employees whose number reaches nearly 700 annually, for the DiPietro family itself, the park is a labor of love that everybody cherishes… and chips in to keep running smoothly. Marty and his wife work side-by-side managing Fantasy Island’s complex business affairs, with Sue personally overseeing the park’s retail shops, admissions operations and office administration.
And as if it weren’t enough to grow up having a Dad who owned an amusement park, today all three of the now-grown DiPietro daughters play an integral role in the park’s operation. The oldest at 25, Heidi handles purchasing for all of the park’s food outlets as well as managing six of them in addition to working full-time as a teacher. Jennifer, 23 and a recent Medaille College business graduate, supervises the running of all of Fantasy Island’s games while managing two of the park’s eateries to boot. And 21-year-old Alicia tackles the major job of running the park’s central eating establishment, Basgetti’s.
It means a lot to DiPietro that his family not only works at Fantasy Island but genuinely loves doing it. It’s a feeling that connects him just that much more closely to the families who come to the park again and again because they love it. “We do get a lot of people telling us ‘I came here as a kid and now I bring my kids here.’ It’s the kind of thing people remember.”
And clearly, the kind of thing that helps DiPietro remember why he got into this business in the first place.
© 2005 Doug Carpenter