SALEM, N.H. -- Approaching the front gate at Canobie Lake Park, it is impos- sible not to notice the familiar, almost timeless sounds of an amusement park: the jovial organ melodies playing from a carou- sel; rider cheers as a roller coaster car flies past; the whoosh and splash as a log flume sprays water.

Inside, too, Canobie Lake hits all the usual beats you would expect, from a popcorn stand shaped like a giant bucket of popcorn to a decades-old wooden coaster. If you squint and tilt your head, it could be 1955.

But look closely and all of the indications of a modern park are there. The grounds are noticeably clean, even as a sunny Friday wears on.

Scarlett Messick, 9, of Lexington, is invited on stage during Canobie s  Tribute to Bruno Mars  show. SUN/JULIA MALAKIE
Scarlett Messick, 9, of Lexington, is invited on stage during Canobie s Tribute to Bruno Mars show. SUN/JULIA MALAKIE
The historic wooden coaster sits next to "Untamed," a steel coaster with a loop-de-loop and a 97-degree -- not just straight down, but straight down and a bit inverted -- drop. Performers imitating Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars put on several shows a day.

That variety, according to Chris Nicoli, Canobie's marketing and entertainment manager, is one of the park's key assets.

"The product that we sell is certainly fun, and then we have hundreds of ways that we make that fun happen: rides, games, live entertainment," he said.


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Performers at Extreme Sports Park. SUN/JULIA MALAKIE
Performers at Extreme Sports Park. SUN/JULIA MALAKIE
"We have an entertainment mix for everybody."

Canobie's history dates back to 1902, when a trolley park offering a pleasant weekend getaway in botanical gardens first opened on the placid shores of the lake. Automobiles became widespread in the years that followed, cratering business for the trolley companies, so the park was sold off into private ownership in 1929.

In 1958, three families from New Jersey joined forces to purchase Canobie Lake Park, and it has remained under their watch ever since.


They kept several of the most historic elements. The carousel, an evergreen feature at amusement parks, bears a plaque dating its construction to "circa 1903." Similarly, the Yankee Cannonball, that famous wooden roller coaster and a favorite among guests, was purchased from another park and re-installed at Canobie Lake in 1936.

Even today, the Cannonball is worth the time: As a young girl running down the exit ramp on a recent Friday shrieked, it is "so much fun!"

The design itself is fairly simple, with a series of hills winding out into the parking lot and then back, but the clack-clack-clack of the chain up the first incline builds excitement unlike anything else. And, for an 80-plus-year-old wooden coaster, the ride is fairly smooth. 

Newer rides check off thrill-seeking boxes, too, from the mechanical embodiment of nausea that is the spinning Zero Gravity to the aforementioned Untamed.

In a fitting touch, speakers outside that visually dramatic coaster sometimes blast the "O Fortuna," the Latin lyrics of which describe the malevolent whims of fate, from Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

Perhaps the most noticeable benefit at Canobie, at least compared to theme parks that get national attention, is that lines are usually short. Most lines, even for the biggest coasters, were 15 minutes or less on a Friday afternoon, although the caveat is that many rides themselves are over quickly.

In recent years, park officials have expanded the offering of games, including a new, six-minute version of the "Escape the Room" trend. Food options have grown as well, including a barbecue stand that opened last month, serving ribs and pork cooked for hours in a 20-foot smoker.

After more than a century in business, those new features are an important addition to a familiar foundation, Nicoli said.

"Every year, we're always adding different elements to the park," Nicoli said. "We're always evolving."

(It is also worth noting the Boathouse Casino, nestled in a far corner of the park, contains a copy of the 1999 classic "Star Wars Trilogy Arcade," which this reporter has not encountered in more than a decade. The final level remains virtually impossible, however, especially when the machine refuses to grant a continue despite quarters being added.)

Canobie prides itself on offering live entertainment as an alternative as well. Almost every day, there are multiple Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars tribute shows, where lookalike performers run through several of the stars' songs in front of live audiences.

Then there is the memorable extreme sports show that runs three times per day. Watching a man stand unsecured atop a pendulum 30 feet in the air or two motorcyclists circle upside-down inside a giant metal globe, totally at the mercy of centripetal force, is more thrilling -- or anxiety-inducing, depending on your perspective -- than any ride.

But for all the variety and the significance of it, ask Nicoli what his favorite ride is, and he will tell you three different answers, seemingly drawn to all of them.

"I don't know, I love the log flume, but I love Untamed," he said with a laugh. "And the Cannonball. The one I probably go on the most often is the Yankee Cannonball."