The sunny Wednesday afternoon air was filled with the screams and laughter of excited kids and pre-teens rushing to re-ride the roller coaster at Upper Clements Park.
Running toward the coaster one boy told his buddy, “I’m going to keep doing it until I’m no longer scared.” His friend responded, “I’m going to go until I get sick.” Such shared goals and aspirations are the basis for life-long friendships.
I have always been confused by this roller coaster’s rustic railway tie look. Greg Frampton, the new manager at Upper Clements, told me it is a nod to our mining heritage, designed to mimic the rails used in Cape Breton coal mines.
So, as a survivor of Disney’s Space Mountain, I gave it a go. It’s a short, 90-second-long, surprisingly powerful ride! It makes a quick 45-degree ride up (hey, we’re learning math!), then whirls you sideways into a surprisingly sharp, quick, scream-inducing drop, up another rise, turn and uneven drop, spin and we’re shaken and done. As a spectator I underestimated its speed, force and compact thrill. As a rider I barely managed to keep my glasses from flying into the bushes and stream below. It is deceptively fun. Even for an adult.
As a Valley resident, Upper Clements is in my backyard. I vaguely recall going to it when it first opened in 1989, but in the ensuing decades I’ve only driven past it. Stopping now is a true treat. Like the explanation for the roller coaster, the park was well thought out and relates perfectly to this place and province.
Appropriately for the Annapolis Valley, the park entrance is through a beautifully attended apple orchard. Where many theme parks begin with acres of pavement, this is a bucolic, serene welcome to a family-friendly place.
The main gate is housed in a type of modified train station. Railways were important to the development of the Valley’s agricultural, fishing and tourism sectors, so that’s another fitting homage to place. To the right of the entrance is an old Canadian National Railways steam locomotive and box car. Frampton’s dream is to get the steam whistle working and find a way for visitors to operate it.
Ahead is a plaza bordered by a barbecue deck, ice cream parlour, bandstand, haunted house and gift shop. Behind, is the park train station and canteen. Upper Clements’ small gauge train travels the bayside length of the park, turns inland past the flume ride brought here from Expo 86 in Vancouver, to loop around the Red Baron Airplanes, Bumper Cars, convoy truck ride and vintage Ferris wheel (some grandparents may have had high school dates on it) to a second station adjacent to the Kedge Courtyard.
The courtyard is a cluster of different dining options plus a new kids zone (for very little kids from 20 months to eight years old) on the far side of the park.
Pulled by an engine named Evangeline, the train is both fun and relief for tired visitors. For railway addicts, the train’s other fun quirk is its round-about. At the end of each trip the engineer slowly drives Evangeline onto a large lazy susan-like round-about, disconnects her from the passenger carriages and pushes this truck-sized machine around to reconnect to the back side of the train for the return ride across the park. This is very old school railroading.
Wandering the treed paths of the park I noticed how kid-focused this place is. Hitting my head on a low door helped emphasize that. While many of us worry modern devices make kids too sedentary, Upper Clements celebrates movement and modest muscle use, through experiences like climbing towers and a rope slide, which is like a low-level zipline across a nine-metre-long sandpit. In the very natural-looking man-made lake, teens and adults can take paddle boats onto this one-metre deep water, while tiny visitors get to skipper bumper boats over a natural-looking, shallow cove. There are rope bridges, slides, ziplines, trails and the need for movement to go from one experience to another. So while there is a Cotton Candy Canteen, ice cream, bakery and other similar culinary necessities, it’s a subliminally healthy day out.
Last year the park’s two big disappointments were the weather and having the flume ride out of service. That wasn’t a problem with the ride, but with approach infrastructure. This year, Frampton says, the flume will splash again.
Two other significant changes to the park this year are a new emphasis on food quality and free admission. Visitors can now wander the park at leisure without charge. The new pricing flexibility allows for the purchase of individual attraction tickets or an all-attraction day pass. This is a budget booster because now instead of spending your entertainment budget on one visit families could stretch it out over several days or the season.
On the food front Frampton would like to see Upper Clements become a destination for casual dining. I was pleasantly surprised there are several licensed establishments on-site.
In total, Upper Clements have over a dozen mechanical rides, plus train, supervised play areas with a wading pool, mini golf, pirate area (another part of our history), laser tag pavilion as well as non-mechanical experiences (slides, ropes, climbing towers, ballpit, playhouses), plus camping park and an adventure area.
Whether or not you’ve been, Upper Clements is worth a revisit or a first visit. If you have children or teenagers it can be a loud, fun, active day out. If you lack the cover of children it’s still a pleasant walk in the park. It could even be a date destination. Upper Clements was designed for kids, but is a fun day for all ages.
If you go: Upper Clements is located on Hwy 1 midway between Annapolis Royal and Digby. It is open until September 1. http://upperclements.com