Lake Compounce restores, reopens historic Wildcat coaster

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For riders whose most recent memory of the venerable Wildcat rollercoaster at Lake Compounce is teeth-rattling, whip-sawing turns and jolting, spine-shaking hills, something a bit different is in store this year.

The iconic wooden rollercoaster rolls out for its 97th season later this month after undergoing  extensive retracking over the winter. If all goes to plan, that means a lot fewer jolts and slams as its trains race the winding, curving course.

The return of Wildcat is a key attraction that Lake Compounce is banking on to draw guests when the park opens for its 178th season on April 27.

The oldest continuously operating amusement park in the country puts a lot of emphasis on history, so Wildcat is a centerpiece.

Billed by the CoasterNation theme park website as one of the 12 oldest wooden coasters in the nation, the ride was built the same year as the internationally famous and notoriously rough-riding Cyclone in Coney Island. The graceful, flowing lines of Wildcat’s white wood supports are the backdrop to the park entrance, and coaster along with the C.P. Huntington train and the carousel are among Compounce’s chief links to the past.

But in recent years, Wildcat’s reputation suffered as riders complained more and more that the trip had become too jolting and bruising to be much fun.

Lake Compounce spent extensively in the past decade to replace sections of track, rebuild the lift hill and replace the trains with more modern ones to smooth out the worst jolts, but rollercoaster enthusiasts on ThemeParksandEntertainment.com, Reddit and elsewhere still gave the ride a thumbs-down with comments as grim as “absolute nightmare.”

“Every year we have a difficult discussion about Wildcat. We’ve always said ‘let’s fix it, let’s keep putting money into it,’ but we took a different approach this year,” said Jerry Brick, Lake Compounce’s former general manager and now director of construction of its parent company, Palace Entertainment.

Jerry Bricks, director of construction and maintenance at Palace Entertainment, talks about the changes to Wildcat, the 96-year-old wooden roller coaster that will be opening this season, during a media tour of Lake Compounce in Bristol, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Jerry Brick, director of construction and maintenance at Palace Entertainment, talks about the changes to Wildcat, the 96-year-old wooden roller coaster that will be opening this season, during a media tour of Lake Compounce in Bristol, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

“One thing we’ve never done is kind of re-engineer it. We worked with the Gravity Group out of Cincinnati, they’re big lovers of wooden coasters. They came with the new-style pre-engineered track,” Brick said. “In all the straightaways, we tried to add more support by adding strength. On the curves, we took the entrance into the curve and banked it.”

In all, about 800 feet of the track has been replaced.

A key part of the change was simply turning the wooden board supporting the track sideways instead of laying them flat. Jeff Putz, who runs the CoasterBuzz ride enthusiasts website,  on Tuesday used the analogy of popsicle sticks to explain how changing the configuration of support planks from horizontal to vertical would smooth out the ride.

“If you take a bunch of popsicle stick and stack them flat, they can still bend — and that creates the washboard feel,” Putz said. “But put them on their side so they’re layered side by side, you can’t bend that.”

Similar reconstructions of wooden rollercoasters at the Kings Island amusement park in Ohio have been a hit, Putz said.

Crew members work on removing pavers from the entrance to Wildcat, the 96-year-old wooden roller coaster, during a media tour of Lake Compounce in Bristol, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. The entrance will be paved over for easier access and a Speedy Pass lane has been. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Crew members work on removing pavers from the entrance to Wildcat, the 96-year-old wooden roller coaster, during a media tour of Lake Compounce in Bristol, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. The entrance will be paved over for easier access and a Speedy Pass lane has been. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

“The feedback in the first year from Kings Island is that they’re like a brand new ride and still feel great. The interesting thing is this maintains enough play to still feel like a wooden coaster,” Putz said. “I’m pretty confident this will be a game-changer.”

Doug Hemphill, Lake Compounce’s general manager, said the park is excited to have Wildcat ready for its first riders on opening day.

“We are proud to have restored the Wildcat coaster while also maintaining its integrity as an all-wood roller coaster as the ride celebrates nearly 100 years,” Hemphill said.

“We think we’ve solved the areas we had some problems with. It’s coming up on 100 years and its going to be great for people to come out and ride it again,” Brick said. “You’re not going to have to brace for those areas, now it’s just going to be an enjoyable ride.”

Mark Murrens, Director of Revenue, talks about the fudge and Tractor Beverage Co. drinks during a media tour of Lake Compounce in Bristol, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Mark Murrens, Director of Revenue, talks about the fudge and Tractor Beverage Co. drinks during a media tour of Lake Compounce in Bristol, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

New to the park this year will be its coffee shop, 1846 Coffee, along with a new souvenir and toy store near the entrance.  Pete the Cat along with the children’s TV characters Bluey and Bingo will be part of the Kids Fest on June weekends, and summer concerts will include Good Vibrations, Bruno & the Hooligans and Adventures in Parrotdise, tribute bands playing the music of the Beach Boys, Bruno Mars and Jimmy Buffett.

Details of the 2024 schedule and attractions are at lakecompounce.com.

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