Silverwood: Northwest's largest theme park is in remote lake country

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2001

ATHOL, Idaho -- The largest amusement park in the Northwest isn't in Seattle or Portland, Ore. It's not in Spokane, Wash., or Boise, Idaho.

It's near Athol, Idaho, far from any large city, in the middle of northern Idaho lake country.

Silverwood -- the name evokes the region's economic history of extracting silver and timber from the surrounding mountains -- draws 350,000 visitors each year.

The amusement park banks on its location between lakes Coeur d'Alene and Pend Oreille to attract tourists to this sparsely populated area about 50 miles northeast of Spokane.

''A large percentage of our guests are from the Seattle market, and the Montana area and Canada,'' said Nancy DiGiammarco, spokeswoman for Silverwood.

They are lured by four roller coasters, minimal crowds and the outdoor recreation available nearby. As northern Idaho business leaders continue building on the tourist industry to replace old economy jobs, Silverwood is a key component.

The park was created in 1988, when owner Gary Norton bought an old private airfield and set up a small antique aircraft museum. Then he went to an auction in Reno, Nev., and bought an antique steam locomotive. He laid three miles of track around the 700-acre property and built a few Victorian-style buildings.

''People came and visited the town and rode the train, and were looking for more rides,'' DiGiammarco says.

Over the years, Norton added numerous carnival-style rides, such as bumper cars and a Tilt-A-Whirl.

In 1996, Silverwood took a big step forward with the unveiling of the Timber Terror, a huge wooden roller coaster with tracks that dominate the south end of the park.

A second roller coaster, called Tremors, opened in 1999. Portions of the 3,000-foot-long Tremors run underground.

''Tremors brought this park to destination status,'' DiGiammarco says.

With two smaller roller coasters, Silverwood is a coaster addict's dream. There are also daily magic shows, live music, a movie theater and an ice show.

Silverwood is still a relative bargain at $24 per person a day.

Despite a downturn in the national economy, 2001 is shaping up as a good year for Silverwood, DiGiammarco says.

Next year is expected to be even better, when Silverwood unveils a new water park that will include slides, a wave pool and a lazy river loop.

Because of northern Idaho's tough winters, Silverwood is primarily a summer destination, operating from May to mid-October.

While parks like Disneyland draw millions of visitors per year, Silverwood makes a profit by drawing from 2,000 to 4,000 visitors per day, DiGiammarco says.

The smaller crowds and unhurried pace are part of the appeal of Silverwood. Many tourists come back each year.

Only about 200 of the park's 700 acres are developed, leaving plenty of room for growth. The park sits right on U.S. 95, with a large paved parking lot and an adjacent RV park.

''There are no traffic problems here,'' DiGiammarco says.

Silverwood's large size and remote location are somewhat unique, says Susie Storey of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

''A lot of parks are very small, maybe 35 acres,'' Storey says.

While it can be tougher to get customers to a rural park, Silverwood's constant addition of new attractions makes it a destination, she says.

''They continue to reinvent themselves and people will come,'' Storey says. The new water park will prompt more visitors to make long drives to the park, she predicts.

Silverwood is the only theme park built on a working airstrip, which allows some customers to fly their private planes right onto the grounds.

''Families come in for the weekend and sleep under the wings,'' DiGiammarco says.



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