NEW LONDON — With a brush in his hand, Jeff Mullen dabbed white paint onto the metal framework of his “new” ferris wheel at Ocean Beach Park last week.
“It’s a nice wheel. We just put some new pins on it. It’s just a matter of touching it up here and there and it should be ready to go,” said Mullen, who owns Action Amusements at Ocean Beach Park. “The wheel itself is from the 1940s and the base is 1965. We found it up in New York. A friend said it might be available, so we bought it and we brought it back in January and we’ve been working on it ever since. It’s all redone, we redid all the buckets and all the major processes have been restored.”
The vintage ferris wheel fits right in with the other rides which range in age from the 1940s to the newest, the Jumpin’ Star, built in 2000, which Mullen acquired last year.
“We built this for little people, little kids. There are four or five rides for adults, other than that, it’s all for little people,” said Mullen.
Most of the rides had a skeletal look with pieces not yet attached because Mullen was getting ready for a visit from the state inspectors.
“The engineers are coming in to do all of the inspections. They like to see everything apart so they can look at everything, which is very good,” he said. “Everything is checked so well. The State of Connecticut inspects all the rides all the time. We have engineers that come in and engineer the rides and make sure that everything is proper.”
Mullen said he and his crew are on site every day of the year, working outside.
“We take these rides all apart, everything is gone through and it’s a labor of love,” he said. “There’s always something to do, always something you can do to make it better. Safety is our number one priority around here. I want everything to be 100 percent. If it’s not 100 percent I’m not interested in it. It’s very important that everything is mechanically sound, cosmetically sound, and that’s how we run the operation. This is a 12-month-a-year process and there’s no way to do it, but the right way and that’s how we do it.”
A different year
Because of the pandemic, it will be “a very different year,” said Dave Sugrue, who has been director of the park for more than 30 years. Since 1999, he has worked for Centerplate, which manages the Ocean Beach Park for New London. The park was built after the 1938 hurricane destroyed much of the city and was modeled on Jones Beach on Long Island.
“We’ve got a good-sized beach so we are keeping the beach open, but a lot of the other attractions and other amenities will not be open,” he said. “We’ve asked people to maintain social distancing on the beach, 15 feet between beach blankets.”
Visitors are asked to stay to the right on the boardwalk in one-way travel lanes. Two concession stands may open and will be operated with safety protocols, including distance markers.
Attendance will be reduced by at least 50 percent. Sugrue said he’s telling people not to drive long distances to the park.
“If you’re coming from afar you’re probably coming because it’s a nice day. And, there’s a good chance you’re going to be turned away so I don’t want to disappoint people who have come all that way just to tell them we don’t have space with our new reduced capacity,” he said. “Our messaging is don’t do that to yourself. If it’s a beautiful day and you’re in Springfield or Hartford or somewhere, don’t get in the car and think you’re going to get in because you won’t. Stay at a local park, you’re better off. I can’t believe I’m saying these words but it’s the truth and it’s the right thing to do. We’re still welcoming people with open arms and anybody who can get in, will have a great day.”
Mullen said the amusement park season starts in earnest around July 4.
“I think we’re going to be on a limited basis as far as the number of rides we’re going to run. ” he said. “We’re going to have six-foot barriers for everybody and we’ll have face masks and gloves. As far as the little rides go, we can separate the children — rather than have two kids in one part of the ride, just have one child in part of the ride. It should work out fine with more spacing. On the carousel, riders will be allowed on the outside and inside horse, but not the middle.”
Growing up at the park
Mullen, who grew up in Norwich, said he and his family visited the park every Sunday when he was a kid.
“When I was little, it was such a great place in the 1960s and 1970s and it’s still great. The beach is beautiful, the sand is tremendous. It’s a real wholesome park for families.”
In 1994, Mullen was doing repair work on the games at the beach arcade when he was offered the chance to buy the arcade and he jumped at it.
Save Ocean Beach, a nonprofit that promotes protection and preservation of the beach, approached Mullen about putting in a carousel.
With advice from Sugrue and George Tattersall, who earlier opened Mystic Carousel and Fun Center in 1993, Mullen bought a first vintage carousel from Adventureland in Iowa.
“They took it all apart and put it in a tractor trailer and shipped it out here and George Tattersall came and helped put it back together,” Mullen said. “From every year from then on I would start looking around — and I liked antiques — so I started looking around for things that would fit the park, things that used to be in the park years ago back in the early days.”
Mullen, who every day wears a hat decorated with a carousel horse that was originally Tattersall’s, said he has 16 rides and most are from the 40s, 50s and 60s, including some that were built in Coney Island.
One of his favorites is the roller coaster, which is a “shift coaster” from 1962. It doesn’t run as high as a modern-built roller coaster, but the ride is unforgettable, he said.
“I’ve never seen anyone come off this thing who didn’t say that’s different. It’s bumpy, it’s shaky, Everything is locked in, you’re not going anywhere, it’s a true coaster. It’s not like they build today, everything is so smooth today,” he said. “The only thing new on this is the LED lighting, that’s it.”
He said “coaster groups” come from all over the world to ride this coaster who are skeptical until they take the ride.
“They look at it and it doesn’t look like much, but let me tell you what, that thing will shake the heck out of you because it’s old school, it’s bumpy. It’s a cool old coaster.”
The giant water slide was built in 1980. Mullen started work on it in 2000, when it was in a very rundown state.
“We replaced a lot of the I-beams and nuts and bolts. We put in a new electrical system, filtration system. The pumps have been all rebuilt. This is one of the only two of this style left in the country, the other one’s in Pennsylvania,” he said. “It’s kind of historic. It’s a cool old water slide. It’s not smooth like a lot of the new stuff is, but it’s a good old water slide. That’s another labor of love.”
Mullen pointed out the kiddie whip ride was made in Coney Island by the W.F. Mangels Company in the 1950s and the 36-horse Thiel Carousel, built in 1976.
“It’s all steel horses, steel platform, that way the weather doesn’t affect it,” he said. “The wooden horses never held up well down here when they used to have the other carousels. The moisture would affect those horses and they would start falling apart and you’d have to reglue them back together again.”
The vintage rides are “steady,” explained Mullen, they don’t change direction like the newer rides, with the exception of the park’s 1948 Octopus.
“I would never buy a new ride. I like old things. I like to take things and make them good again,” he said. “The new stuff is great — there’s no question about it — it’s fun and the kids have a blast on it. This just keeps the heritage alive.”
Mullen also uses a flip phone, doesn’t text or email and hardly uses the internet.
“I don’t need that type of stuff,” he said. “You have to keep the past alive, if you don’t keep the past alive, you got nothing.”