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Where carousel spins glory anew Restoration has fulfilled Olcott resident's yearning for revival of park's timeless magic

More than a decade ago, Rosemary M. Sansone saw a promising future where others saw downtrodden remnants of a glorious past.

The Olcott resident was interested in restoring a dilapidated carousel roundhouse that had been built in the 1940s as past of the original Olcott Amusement Park and abandoned in the mid-1980s.

Active at the time with the Niagara County Legislature's Krull Olcott Development Committee and encouraged by its chairman, the late Tom Kelley, Sansone decided to do a little research.

"I was hoping this would help revive Olcott and bring people in and support other businesses," she recalled. "I had seen this done in Mansfield, Ohio, where they brought a carousel in, and it made a huge difference; it really brought businesses in."

The restoration of that neglected roundhouse evolved into the successful Olcott Beach Carousel Park, which now sells about 90,000 ride tickets annually and is celebrating its 10th anniversary with its season opening this weekend. While this tiny hamlet has never fully recaptured its glory days of the early 20th century, the influx of visitors has helped encourage the opening of some new, sometimes seasonal businesses.

The park has hosted visitors from Russia, China, Japan, India, several European countries and most of the United States and Canada, according to Sansone, who serves as park president.

"I think we pick up quite a few people visiting Niagara Falls because people like to see the countryside and see what America is all about," the retired teacher said. "Someone once said, 'This is just like a Norman Rockwell painting.' "

Newfane Town Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg said the carousel has played a role in the development of Olcott Beach.

"Where else can you go for 25-cent rides?" he said. "You see lots of grandparents there with the grandkids because they can afford to take them there, and every year, it gets more and more popular."

Sansone rattled off some of the changes that coincided with the carousel, including summer concerts at the gazebo, a kiddie water park and playground at Krull Park, a new restaurant called Shipwreck and a new retailer, An American Country Store.

Car cruises on Main Street kick off from 1 to 4 p.m. today with a Super Cruise and continue from June 2 through Sept. 8 from 6 to 9 on Saturday evenings, sponsored by the Olcott Beach Community Association.

A major trolley destination, Olcott was booming for decades starting at the turn of the 20th century, with a dozen hotels, three amusement parks and large dance halls where big-band sounds could be heard skipping on the lake breeze on hot summer nights.

International Railway Co. owned a great deal of lakefront property from 1900 to 1937, according to local historians, and built an amusement park and huge hotel. The hamlet boomed until the automobile replaced the trolley, and the railway tore everything down in 1937.

Burt Flynn opened Olcott Amusement Park on the new park's current site in 1942, and he and later owners kept it going until 1986. The land is now owned by the town and rented to the park.

Olcott Beach Carousel Park is a nonprofit corporation formed to "restore, create, develop and maintain" an amusement park reminiscent of those old parks, with an eye toward promoting tourism, education and economic growth in the area, according to its mission statement.

The park offers 25-cent tickets for a variety of 1940s and '50s rides painstakingly restored, as is its centerpiece -- a 1928 Herschell-Spillman carousel -- safely tucked inside that roundhouse Sansone set out to restore so many years ago. Its windows open to stunning views of Lake Ontario.

One of the most unusual features of the park is its staff; it's operated entirely by about 50 volunteers.

Wrights Corners resident Don Dixon, who racked up the most hours as a park volunteer in the last two years, recalls some of those grand days of the 1940s. He's 84.

"I graduated from high school in 1946, and every Saturday night and Sunday, everybody went to Olcott Beach," he recalled. "There were two dance halls back then, just west of where the carousel park is now, and I think it was 10 cents a dance. I can remember the carousel they had there and the bumper cars and Skee-Ball machines. We have two original Skee-Ball machines from Olcott here now at our park, and that's where I usually volunteer."

New this year at the park is a "pick-up duck" game, where children will win prizes by plucking a winning duck from a small trough of water, and a vintage arcade game called the Erie Digger Machine.

"It kind of works like a little steam shovel, and kids pick up little prizes [with the shovel], and the prizes drop down a chute," Sansone explained.

The park has relied on donations, grants and two big fundraisers each year -- an auction in the spring and the JazzSea Sunset event at the Olcott Yacht Club that is set for Aug. 14 this year. While the auction has proved to be successful, Sansone said, her group is going to forgo it next year and try to rely on summer earnings to maintain the park.

"We've pretty much accomplished all we want to do in the park, and now we are focusing on just maintaining it," she said. "If we need to add another fundraiser later, we will.

"Everyone's been wonderful -- the whole Town of Newfane has been extremely supportive with all of our events."

State and county officials, as well as the Olcott Lions Club, Lockport Optimist Club and Grigg-Lewis Foundation have been very supportive, Sansone added.

The Carousel Park, located at 5979 Main St., opened Saturday. Its hours are noon to 6 p.m. today and Monday for the Memorial Day holiday. It will be open from noon to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays throughout June. An extra day -- Wednesday -- has been added this year, and the park will be open Wednesday through Sunday from July through Labor Day.