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Dorney Park finds ticket to getting along with neighbors

Lehigh Valley amusement park’s growth now considers impact on homeowners.

It was the kind of request that once would have drawn crowds of Cetronia residents in protest.

Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom wanted more freedom to build thrill rides as tall as 200 feet.

But at the February meeting before the South Whitehall Board of Commissioners, cordiality had replaced the animosity that once marked Dorney’s relationship with its neighbors.

"We’re pretty happy with the plan as it is," said Cetronia resident Gary Ward, who led a two-year fight in the 1990s against Steel Force, a roller coaster that Dorney boasted would be the tallest, longest, fastest on the East Coast.

South Whitehall commissioners unanimously granted Dorney’s request, giving the park an easier route from concept to construction of rides. The accomplishment illustrates the more open relationship the park has fostered with its neighbors.

When Dorney opened this weekend for its 125th season, it was with the neighbors’ blessings.

These days, Dorney notifies them about its plans for rides and attractions and invites them to share their concerns over noise or bright lights. When problems arise, they know they can call park officials directly.

"We’re a resident on the block as much as the next guy," said spokesman Chuck Hutchison.

Dorney Park was founded in 1884 as Solomon Dorney’s Trout Ponds and Summer Resort, which featured a fish hatchery and picnic grove. .

In the early 20th century, the park acquired some of its iconic rides, including the Dentzel carousel in 1901, and, in 1920 the Whip, which still operates today.In the decades following World War II, the park continued to add rides and games..

But the park was largely a local attraction. Neighborhood traffic drove through its middle via Dorney Road. Instead of an admission charge, the park sold individual ride tickets, which children could win by bringing in Coke bottle caps or good report cards.

Dorney also featured weekly stock car races whose deafening noise irritated Cetronia residents. They also complained of heavy traffic on their streets during the park’s busiest hours.

Dorney Road closed and the park started charging for admission in 1980. Five years later, Allentown businessman Harris Weinstein purchased the family-owned park, announcing plans to turn it into the "Disneyland of the Northeast."

That’s when Cetronia residents started to worry.

Weinstein invested $40 million in the park over the next seven years. He presided over the opening of Wildwater Kingdom in 1985 and in 1989 installed the world’s largest wooden roller coaster. By the time Weinstein sold the park to Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. in 1992, the park was drawing 1.3 million guests annually.

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