One of the abiding memories of my childhood is of visits to Coney Island. I’ve never been a rollercoaster fan, nor one of gargantuan amusement parks, but I love the small-scale ones and the rides aimed at children the ages of my kids.
So, Little Amerricka, in Marshall -- 20 miles northeast of Madison -- was a revelation when we discovered it recently. Of course, it’s been there for years and is no secret, but we’d never made the trip before.
Part of the initial lure of Little Amerricka -- spelled to reflect the name of the founding Merrick family -- is that it is inexpensive. There’s no fee to get into the park and all-you-can-ride wristbands range from $10.95 to $21.95. Purchase them online in advance and you can save $2 on each band.
Or you can simply purchase a la carte tickets at $1.50 each. Most rides are a single ticket, though a few require two or three. Season passes are also available online for between $38 and $60, based on a range of options.
There is free on-site parking and the snacks are reasonably priced, too. But you can also bring your own food and save even more.
The park offers birthday party packages and group rates for schools and day cares.
We went on a cloudy day with a minor threat of thunderstorms and the place was still doing a fine business. It felt festive enough but without big crowds. The kids barely waited more than two or three minutes for any ride, keeping them -- and us -- happy.
The park, which opened in 1991, is small but packed with fun. There are 26 rides, including two rollercoasters.
One, The Meteor, is a classic wooden 1950s-style coaster with big wooden handbrakes manned by a staff member. The junior coaster was purchased from another amusement park and rebuilt at Little Amerricka in 2007.
The other, the Mad Mouse, is metal and a bit more herky-jerky, so my kids demurred. But one of them really dug The Meteor, despite it being his first time on a coaster of any kind. From the ground The Meteor looks pretty small and tame, but it’s got enough slopes to keep all but the most daredevilish rider happy (I know, I'm a coaster lightweight).
The park also has an 18-hole miniature golf course, a haunted house and a monorail that encircles most, but not all, of the grounds. I liked that the monorail station looked like elevated subway stops in Brooklyn and Chicago.
There’s a 1/3-size railroad, called the Whiskey River Railway, with real steam and diesel engines, based in a wooden depot that offers 20-minute trips through a roughly three-mile route through adjacent farmland. Along the route, riders can see sheep, zebras, llamas, geese and other animals.
Though my kids were disappointed that they were too short to ride the go-karts, they loved the bumper boats and my youngest bounced in the inflated jump zone at least four times. They were similarly enamored of the carousel and the Little Dipper kiddie coaster.
Like me, they wouldn’t go anywhere near the Wild & Wooly Toboggan, which lifts riders to the top at 90 degrees and then descends in a stomach-churning series of curves. But they did like the inflatable slide that looks like a giant saber toothed tiger.
Thinking back to a photo my mother took of my brother and me riding in tiny fire engines at Coney Island as a child, I snapped away as my own kids did the very same at Little Amerricka on a fire engine ride bearing a metal plate engraved with the words "Pinto Brothers Amusement Rides, Coney Island, N.Y."
The rain came and went a couple times, but nobody stopped riding and nobody ran for shelter. It was too mild and everyone was having too much fun. What finally sent us for the gates was the impending closing time.
With a couple tickets still in our pockets, we’ll be back at Little Amerricka next year for some good old unadulterated -- and inexpensive -- amusement park fun.
Note: Check the season schedule before you go.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.