Merced County Times Newspaper
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‘Save The Train’ begins for Kiddieland


There’s some local news to share this summer that will surely disappoint many local youngsters — especially in a growing Merced, where more and more families are constantly looking for fun activities.

Here it is: The beloved train at Kiddieland in Applegate Park has gone kaput. It’s not working. The ride is closed.

While the five other Kiddieland rides are open and operational, such as the Go Gator Roller Coaster and the Carousel, the star-attraction train ride is not.

This is not good. Something must be done.

What’s summer without making lasting memories on the “Kiddieland Express?”

Well, it’s definitely not the first time the old train quit working. After all, it’s been around for more than 50 years. The longtime engineer, John Sykes, kept up the train maintenance for decades, and he even crafted specialized parts for it. Sadly, Mr. Sykes died last April at the age of 84.

But it’s not even the engine that’s the problem this time around.

It’s worse. It’s the tired, old railroad track.

In recent weeks, the Kiwanis Club volunteers who operate Kiddieland were dealing with minor-but-constant derailments.

Can’t have that. Safety is the top priority at any amusement park, no matter how small. They had to shut the ride down. The track was already under review and due for replacement, but the heavy rains last winter didn’t help. Ground saturation is a contributing factor.

Kiwanis Club leaders considered costs, much-needed upgrades, and the future of the amusement park. It was decided to retire the old train, and immediately start a fundraising effort for a new and improved one.

And they came up with a great idea: How about a brand new electric train that travels on wheels through a trackless path of pavement.

They could extend the route throughout Applegate Park too, or at least that’s one of the plans.

The perfect train for the job was discovered online — and it literally has all the bells and whistles.

The manufacturers call it the Wattman Maxi Express — a revolutionary train that is led by an impressive battery-powered locomotive and allows riders “to embark on an unforgettable journey.”

Some of the features include an audio system that recreates real train sounds — from the engine speeding up, to rolling steel wheels, to the familiar air horn. There’s also special effects like steam that shoots up from the locomotive smoke stack. The engineer will be able to play music or talk to the passengers. And speaking of the passengers: There’s going to be more space, more leg room, and even ADA access for people who use wheelchairs and other resources to get around.

“It’s the coolest train that you ever did see,” said Janet Ramsey, a board member and sponsorship chair for the Kiwanis Club of Greater Merced.

Of course, the coolest train does have a price tag: about $150,000 — but they say that’s a lot cheaper than buying a new diesel-powered train along with new track upgrades.

Nevertheless, the biggest hurdle to bringing the new electric train to Kiddieland will be the removal of the old track, and creating a new, paved route around Applegate Park. The Kiwanis Club also needs to fund a project consultant to work the train vendor, local contractors and city officials.

The good news is that the City of Merced is already providing $500,000 in this year’s fiscal budget to help with improvements at Kiddieland as part of the city’s annual community funding program. Those funds were previously earmarked, and while some can assist in the current train dilemma, club leaders say they need at least $500,000 more to bring the new goal to fruition.

Thus, the “Save The Train” effort has begun in the community. A big Casino Night fundraiser is being organized for this coming January. Stay tuned for more details on that. And meanwhile, the Kiwanis Club is asking local residents, companies and community groups for support in the form of tax-deductible sponsorships to help ensure generations of family fun at Kiddieland. There are various levels of sponsorships and they feature display recognitions, including a permanent place on the sponsor board at Kiddieland.

“We need your support as a sponsor to continue the tradition of providing a safe, affordable, amusement park for the families of Merced,” says Karen Adams, vice president of the Kiwanis Club.

Some big names in the community are already answering the call. MERCO Credit Union and its members have pledged an annual $10,000 over the next decade, or $100,000, for Kiddieland. This generous contribution will be in memory of John Sykes, the engineer who was known affectionately as “The Train Man.”

MERCO is a regional, non-profit community development credit union known for supporting local organizations and events. The credit union is also about to celebrate its 70th anniversary serving the community.

That’s just a little older than Kiddieland, which opened in 1957 by founding Kiwanis members and a partnership with the City of Merced.

Today, Kiddieland has its Roller Coaster, Merry-Go-Round Carousel, Helicopter ride, Rocket Ship ride, Car ride, and a Snack Shack. It’s open Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., from roughly the 1st weekend in March through October each year.

Each year, the Kiwanis start the Kiddieland season in March with a Fun Run Race to the Kiddieland Train. They just concluded their 31st annual Easter Egg Hunt at Applegate Park where 4,000 eggs and stuffed bunnies disappear in the blink of an eye. The annual Fright Night, which last year served approximately 700 kids and parents, is considered a safe fun alternative for families. They also host a Free Community Kids Night, an All Dads Matter event, a National Night Out with the Police Department, and contribute to many other youth-sponsored programs throughout Merced.

Kiddieland meets safety standards and complies with the Department of Industrial Relations and the Merced County Environmental Health. Prior to the operating season, state inspectors certify each ride with a vigorous inspection process. Each year, as standards are changing, the Kiwanis Club must provide the mandated repairs/improvements to obtain our operating certification. These inspections are costly and must be completed prior to opening.

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