by Brent Hovey

Reporter

Bainbridge -- "It's an end of an era."

That's how Aurora Mayor Lynn McGill summed up the announcement that Geauga Lake, which has existed for 119 years, will no longer operate its amusement rides.

Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., which bought the park four years ago, announced its intentions Sept. 21.

Cedar Fair will remove the rides from the north side of the lake, but will continue to operate the Wildwater Kingdom water park, which is mostly on the south side.

The majority of Wildwater Kingdom's 30 acres is in Aurora, while the majority of the rides are in Bainbridge Township.

The rides will be moved to other Cedar Fair parks, according to a Sept. 21 press release. Cedar Fair operates 11 amusement parks, including Cedar Point, five other water parks and six hotels.

"I'm sorry the park is closing because it's had such a long history here," said McGill.

Dick Kinzel, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Cedar Fair, explained the situation in a statement.

"After four years of operating Geauga Lake as a combined water park/amusement park attraction, we have concluded that its future should be entirely as a water park," the statement read.

"Visiting Geauga Lake is a 119-year-old tradition in Northeast Ohio. That tradition will continue, but in a new and exciting way.

He continued, "Geauga Lake's Wildwater Kingdom has been recognized as one of the finest water parks in the country.

"Over the past three seasons, we have invested approximately $25 million to create and develop the premiere water park in northeastern Ohio. Since its opening 2005, Wildwater Kingdom has been the park's highest rated attribute."

Attendance has fallen

Bryan Edwards, a Cedar Fair spokesman, said attendance was the major factor in deciding to close the amusement side of the park.

"The market demand simply wasn't there," he said. "The water park has been the most popular attraction and we believe it can succeed as a water park only. We bought the park in 2004 and we've been disappointed with the attendance figures since."

Geauga Lake and the former adjacent Sea World once attracted more than 3 million visitors a year. Last year, Geauga Lake drew only 700,000.

"I'm sure they've been studying it for some time," McGill said. "It's obvious the attendance is not where they needed it to be."

The water park will continue to operate as Geauga Lake's Wildwater Kingdom. Edwards said it's important to keep Geauga Lake in the name.

"People are saying Geauga Lake is closing, but it's not," he said. "Geauga Lake will just operate as a water park. The name, history and tradition will live on, but in a new way."

Looking to the future

Edwards added Cedar Fair believes the water park can be successful on its own since it is a one-of-a-kind entity in the area.

"It's [the water park] been our marquee and most popular attraction at Geauga Lake," he said. "When people think of rides and roller coasters, they think of Cedar Point. With its close proximity, if they want rides, they'll go there.

"When you think of places to go to cool off or spend the day with the family, Geauga Lake comes to mind," he added.

Cedar Fair bought Geauga Lake in 2004 from Six Flags, which purchased it from Funtime Inc. in the mid-1990s. In 2000, Six Flags acquired Sea World and called the combined park Six Flags World of Adventure.

Sea World's animal attractions were phased out, and McGill believes that is what ultimately led to the demise of Geauga Lake's thrill rides.

"The Geauga Lake side was supported by Sea World," the mayor said. "People came to see Sea World, and Geauga Lake benefited because people stayed another day and visited both places.

"When Sea World left and Six Flags closed the Aurora side of the park, it started a decline."

McGill said the feeling around town is that a lot of people wish they would have know about the closing before the end of the year so they could visit one last time.

"People would have liked to have gone on the rides one last time," he said. "Anytime an institution closes, people want some memorabilia from it. They felt there should have been a final chance to go."

Little effect on cities

The closing of Geauga Lake will have some effect on Aurora, but McGill said it will be minimal.

He explained during the heyday of Sea World, Aurora collected $800,000 a year in income and admission taxes. Now, the figure has dropped to about $30,000.

With the Bainbridge side now closed, McGill said he assumes the main entrance to the water park will be on Aurora soil.

"We'll have to work something out with [Cedar Fair and Bainbridge] that was different than before," said McGill.

"They are keeping the water park open and that's good. There will be a lot more focus on it since it is profitable for them. I hope that will continue."

Streetsboro Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kori Marsinek said the park's closure probably won't have a great impact on businesses there.

"During the last couple of years, the hotels have not been relying on [business from the park]," she said. "It used to be a two-day destination when it was Sea World and Geauga Lake.

"If they take the water side and make it into something pretty big, I think we could get that back."

"It's a bittersweet day," said McGill. "It's sad they're closing the amusement park, but it could have been worse -- they could have closed everything.

"There is some sadness, but also some positive things they could do on the Aurora side of the park to make it a success."

E-mail: bhovey@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-688-0088 Ext. 3115