Canobie Lake Park launches Castaway Island water park

Read all about the storied history of the Canobie Lake Ballroom, and more.

Sign Up For Our FREE Daily eNews!

“That is an amusement park’s mission …we want you to forget reality. Anything in your outside world gets to temporary leave when you enter our gates.” Chris Nicoli, Canobie Park Brand Manager  


UPDATE: Canobie Park is opening Castaway Island on May 25, and admission is free with regular park admission:

Memorial Day Weekend: Saturday (5/25/19), Sunday (5/26/19) & Monday (5/27/19) from 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.

Early Weekends: June 1st, 2nd, 8th, & 9th from 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Daily*: June 15, 2019 thru Labor Day: 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.

As I walk along the fence leading to the security area, every few moments delighted screams accompany me from the Yankee Cannonball as it hurtles its passenger in waves of excitement. It’s one of the oldest operational wooden coasters in New England and winner in 2013 of the Coaster Landmark award by American Coaster Enthusiast, an award that preserves rides for their historic value.

A very friendly security guard greets me, an older gentleman who directs me toward the personnel department, where I wait to meet Chris Nicoli, Canobie Lake Park Brand Manager. The typical sweet scents of cotton candy and fried dough that evoke sentimental memories waft through the air as Nicoli and I leave the security area and blend our way into the park.

Almost every New Englander I’ve known has fond memories of Canobie Lake Park. Some of us, myself included, spent school trips, summer and corporate outings there. When the rare case arises where I meet someone who has never been to Canobie (as it is affectionately called by locals) the shock is a bit overwhelming. I surmise it’s because Canobie has been such a summer staple in current and past generations that it is difficult to see it through any other lens. In particular, Canobie holds memories of a junior high school field trip where my cousin spent the entire day on a bench upon experiencing the after-effects of the Turkish Twist. In exploring the park that day, it seemed she was not the only student fighting pangs of nausea.

I came to learn more about Canobie Lake Park’s historic Ballroom, where icons including Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and countless others graced the stage during its Big Band era. But I left with much more –including a real history of the venue, collecting a treasure-trove of back stories and anecdotes about one of New Hampshire’s best-loved attractions.

The room where it happened

Last year the ballroom received a gold-and-cream Art Deco refacing. Gold stars imprinted with the names of various artists who performed in the ballroom are inlaid in cement at the entrance. I know this because during my annual trip the year prior, as I was nearing the Sky Ride, the newly faced ballroom vapor-locked me into its vortex upon first sight. Canobie Lake preserved this ballroom, where essential artists of the past once performed, in exactly the most proper of fashions. 

243 1
An homage to Jerry Lee Lewis. Photo/Constance Cherise

Knowing my love for classic artists, 10 years ago my niece who worked for Canobie at the time informed me of the newly-constructed museum, which I visited that summer. I knew Canobie showcased performers, previously mentioned, however, I did not realize just how many artists graced the stage. 

Before there were entertainment complexes such as the Boston Garden (that’s right … the Garden) or Xfinity centers, musical acts performed in ballrooms backed by live orchestras. The artists who performed at Canobie are considered the world over – by musical experts and layman alike – as nothing less than profound.  Not only did they define the sound of their generation, their body of work is simply and accurately described as timeless – predominately because iconic recording artists performed songs that were written by iconic lyricists backed by live orchestras with musicians of the highest caliber.

Musical interlude: Vintage Star Power vs YouTube Famous

It is essential to understand this was not the time of American Idol nor the era of becoming “YouTube” famous. Television was in its infancy.  Technology to manipulate vocals and lip-synching were virtually non-existent, propelling “top-drawer” artists through radio, live television performances and concerts. Being heard over the radio was a very long, generally mafia-sponsored hard-earned endeavor, far less than performing on television. Even bribed DJs were mindful of the music they promoted, for the sake of their reputation. Usually, if you made it to television, you “had” something that far surpassed typical aesthetics. These are icons that “other” icons measure themselves by; icons whose names will continue to reverberate throughout history.

Ella – There are those artists with introductory phrases, generally known by their first names due to the unparalleled perfection of their craft, such as “Ella” Fitzgerald, the three-octave “First Lady of Song,” known for her scatting abilities, improvisational style, and mimicking of instruments. Her delayed phrasing and pure melodic vocals gently caress, like the waves of a lazy ocean at sunset. Her voice is suspenseful, silencing a tour bus full of hard-livin’ top male jazz musicians of their time, simply by singing.

Sarah – A unique non-traditional, broken rhythm vocalist, also known for her complex improvised phrasing, “The Divine One,” “Sarah” Vaughn’s multi-octave range, fluid, effortless delivery, remains unsurpassed.

Frank – Ol’ Blue Eyes, Chairman of the Board,  The Voice … the magnetic rebel Frank Sinatra. One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, a voice, a personality and a decadent life virtually unlike or unmatched by any other. Frank Sinatra is famous and infamous for many reasons.  Credited for being one of the first artists to create the”swooning” craze among” young teenage girls, called “bobby soxers,” causing fainting spells and riots.

Artists were coupled with American Standard songs written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin, all of whom are cemented amongst the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century. 


Handwriting on the wall, and history

Nicoli begins by taking me to the hallowed backstage area, where we explore dressing rooms, the green room, and stage entrances and exits. Sharing the same space where Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, and Ray Charles once stood, not to mention countless others I was introduced to as a child, it’s surreal, to the say the least. Nicoli reveals an example of a running theme found throughout our conversation about Canobie Lake’s dedication to preservation while simultaneously moving forward. Through the years, ballroom performers signed the walls as ritual. Acknowledging the historical significance, Canobie respectfully decided to create false step-out walls over the legendary autographs, entombing them instead of destroying them.

On a personal note, Nicoli tells me that during his 8th grade year he attended a family company outing at Canobie for the Raytheon company. It was as memorable as it was fateful.

“I saw someone wearing khaki pants and a polo shirt, and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I want to wear khaki pants and a polo shirt,’ he recalls. “My parents think it’s hilarious that after all these years, I ended up right back in the same spot.”

Nicoli began his marketing career working for Pheasant Lane Mall, then moved on to radio promotions. A marketing assistant opportunity opened up at Canobie Lake and Nicoli was hired.  One year later Nicoli became the Marketing Manager, then moved to the entertainment management role. Currently, in his 17th year with Canobie Lake Park, he has taken on the new role of Brand Manager.  Nicoli is the perfect sound piece for Canobie’s mission of preserving the old while welcoming the new. 

“This is my favorite job without question,” he says, in a tone that betrays his affection for the playground.

In the early 1900s the Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway Co. A trolley network linking Salem, Haverhill, and Nashua was formed. Trolley ridership waned on the weekends, and as a way to bring in revenue, the trolley companies created botanical gardens as weekend entertainment, which eventually evolved into amusement parks. Canobie Lake Park opened in 1902 (as did Pine Island, of Manchester) and its famous ballroom held concerts from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Once Canobie’s concert era came to a close, the ballroom, more or less became a storage facility. In the late 1970s, the ceiling was in need of repair. Upon its removal, the architectural trussing came to light, and, impressed by its beauty, the management decided to accentuate the exposed craftsmanship. The ballroom was built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. – the same company that built the Yankee Cannonball. It was completed in 1936, requiring no structural repairs to date. The next time you are in the ballroom, look up … that is solid roller coaster engineering above your head.

Yankee Cannonball, still a thrill. Courtesy Photo

A little over 10 years ago, Canobie brought music back to the ballroom. They began showcasing tribute artists to perform, which in turn brought more guests. Noticing the energy returning, Canobie focused its efforts on restoration. 

When asked about the origins of the museum, Nicoli explains: “The Dave Whitney Big Band performs annually on our Big Band day. Guests were telling us their stories of who they saw here.  We felt we needed to share it with the public.”

Nicoli commissioned his theatre team to scour surrounding libraries to locate any information regarding the ballroom. “We found a ton of stuff,” Nicoli says, emphasis on ton.

The museum located in the rear of the ballroom was created by in-house theater technicians. The piano that is cordoned off is the original house piano found while renovating.  It was repaired and is still in use today.  

“Little things like that make you feel like you are carrying on a legacy. This ballroom is our owner’s heart and soul. The owners feel with the history of this building they are responsible for bringing it to the next generation.” Nicoli says.

The museum features posters of appearing artists, news clippings of events and performances, as well as Canobie Lake history. It also houses the Freedom Shrine, a collection of documents brought together to create the Constitution. The entrance is framed by two massive sculptures, one is Michael Jackson; the other, Lady Gaga, created by Themendous, a New Jersey-based prop company responsible for many other decorative pieces throughout the park. 

Canobie also hosts, meetings, corporate gatherings and educational classes within the ballroom, depending on organizational needs, generally for schools. “I love it,” says Nicoli.

Yankee Cannonball translates to ‘thrill’ in all languages

He recalls one of his favorite memories, an occasion where he held a class for 50 exchange students, who only spoke Chinese. “Every time I’d  said ‘Yankee Cannonball’ they threw their hands up and screamed so I incorporated Yankee Cannonball into all my sentences and we had a blast!” 

The Yankee Cannonball, the park’s signature wooden roller coaster, came to Canobie Lake via a closing, Lakewood Park in Waterbury, CT. “Five feet were removed from the bottom and 12 inches removed from each bay in order for the coaster to fit within the space of Canobie’s footprint,” says Nicoli.

We don’t directly compete with other amusement parks as much as people may think. We all serve a very different product to a very different clientele.  We take pride in being the first roller coaster ride for many guests or the first candy apple. We want to be an entertainment facility where families can participate together. While some facilities focus on giant thrill attractions, we focus on having over 50 rides that each member of your family can enjoy.”, Nicoli says.  

Canobie spent a decade installing new attractions each year, followed by infrastructure updates, increased parking areas, and upgrading of the sewer system, the single largest expansion done in the park’s 116-year history. This year’s newest addition is a resort style expansion of the water park.

“There is always something going on,” Nicoli states..

Nearly the entire Salem police force assembled to provide security for the Sony and Cher concert at the Ballroom. Photo/Constance Cherise

Nicoli shares a story about Sonny and Cher, who were booked to perform at the ballroom for a low dollar amount as their fame had yet to be solidified. However, before their performance date, “I Got You Babe” exploded onto the charts, and what was once a small act was now selling out stadiums, demanding a higher payment per performance. Sonny and Cher honored their original contract with the slight stipulation of changing the performance date. Vehicles were lined up along North and South Policy Street, Park attendance swelled to maximum capacity,  the ballroom guests were shoulder to shoulder, and almost the entire Salem police force stood onstage with the performing duo.

Originally the park had a bowling alley. The building still remains near the Untamed coaster as the Bear Lodge building, which also contains its own sense of nostalgia.  Two years ago Canobie Lake gathered its exceptional in-house arcade repair team to revive antiquated pinball machines to their full luster. Within Bear Lodge, an exclusive pinball parlor resides complete with an acrylic, transparent pinball machine, revealing its inner workings.  Full of the typical flashing lights, comic book art, and a world within itself, under glass, a fluid slip back in time occurs once you cross the threshold.

Following the exploration of the museum, we head to the construction site of the expanded water park. Although It is a weekday and foot traffic in the park is steady, the relaxed energy of the patrons still permeates. Nicoli states his expertise in the judgment of distance as we pass the water rides. He learned soon after joining the staff the boundaries of the “safe zone” after constantly getting wet, something I appreciate as we walk past the Boston Tea Party section. Along the way, we visit one of the haunted houses, fashioned after the real-life Canobie Lake Hotel. Walking through the corridors Nicoli reveals anecdotal, behind-the-scenes information that makes the haunted house feel not so haunted.

Expanding the season with Screeemfest

In 2008, Canobie Lake Park expanded into Halloween season to include Screeemfest. “It’s like a big party!” Nicoli says. Originally seen as an extension of the summer amusement park season, Screeemfest was a carefully constructed roll of the dice.  It is the passion project of Nicoli and owner Ray Captel, VP of design and development since 1968, (responsible for the Boston Tea Party section of the park.) Screeemfest began with 12 of the 52  rides operational. Full-service food stands were closed and only snack stands remained. Nicoli clearly remembers standing outside the park entrance with Ray Captel watching and wondering if anyone would show on opening day of Screeemfest. 

“We were caught off guard by how popular it was going to be from the start.  We needed to get more attractions operational and quick!” Nicoli says. By its fourth week, Canobie was almost in full operation mode. Screeemfest continues to be as popular as its first year of introduction. Decked out with pumpkins, bails of hay, corn stalks, turkey legs and the magical enchantment of a glowing amusement park on a fall evening, combined with the comfortable, crisp autumn air, Canobie’s “off season”  just might eclipse the sweltering summer season – at least, that is until the new water park opens. 

Water park and coming attractions

We arrive at the construction site for the expanded water park. At one point, years prior, Canobie Lake had a swimming pool. In recent years (after almost 20 without a water feature, outside of the flume rides) Castaway Island is a wildly successful water park.

“We were noticing that on a 90-degree day, attendance in the park was low but Castaway Island was packed!” Nicoli says.

Castaway Island

Realizing they needed to create a larger water feature,  Canobie is expanding on its current water park to create a Tiki resort-like atmosphere, complete with alcoholic cocktails for adults, a wave pool, 60-foot water slides, a restaurant serving fare with a Caribbean twist and, for an upcharge, a private cabana including a television, refrigerator, lockers, telephone access to the cabana concierge.

 “We are competing with anywhere people go where there is AC. We need to have a product that people want,” Nicoli says of the expansion.

As we make our way back toward the security office, Nicoli talks to me about the continued preservation of the family-fostered atmosphere of the park, and the important details. 

“The trees … the amount of effort we go through to place things around greenery rather than removing greenery.  You don’t see trees in parks anymore.” says Nicoli.

Nicoli shows me the trolley drop-off area, explaining the park’s train tracks run on top of the original trolley tracks hidden underneath. The fully operational electric stone fountain near the Sky Ride is one of the park’s early attractions. The historic Looff-Dentzel carousel was originally created in the late 1800s.

 “Everybody here has a passion for this – we don’t have a lot of turnover on our team.  There are people who have been here 20, 25 years. You have to love it. Every single one of our members all chip in with their efforts,” Nicoli says.

As we part ways, I decide to walk the park alone, absorbing its eclectic energy. My first stop is the nostalgic pinball arcade, then, following the circumference of the park, I return to the ballroom.

 I realize the background music playing on loop includes that of artists who appeared at the ballroom. I listen to an energetic updated electro-swing version of  Ella’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” bebop through the speakers. 

Reflecting on my fateful good fortune of being in the right place at the right time for some Ella, I continue my leisurely stroll to the exit. As I approach the Boston Tea party, a familiar face walks directly towards me.  It is the same security guard who greeted me upon arrival.

“Did you get the job?” he asks, with a big smile.

“I’m not here for a job,” I answered, with a soft giggle. “I’m here to write an article about that ballroom,” I say, pointing   toward the building.

“Why? What happened there?” he asks.

“You don’t know?” I say, suddenly aware I am about to have the honor of being the one to tell him.

“Let’s take a walk,” I say, and together we head toward the ballroom. It’s a poetic ending to my day, and one of affirmation that the story behind the story of Canobie Lake Park – and its storied ballroom – need telling.

Canobie Lake Park, 85 N. Policy St., Salem, NH, remains open Friday-Sunday until Oct. 28. Go to for more information.

About this Author

Constance Cherise

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic MoviesSee her work here.