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Newly formed company hopes to buy, reopen Fantasy Island next May

WBFO/Michael Mroziak

A company formed for the purpose of acquiring and reopening the shuttered Fantasy Island amusement park formally introduced itself Thursday. Empire Adventures, led by a longtime familiar face within the Grand Island attraction, hopes to restart Fantasy Island next spring, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the original park's debut.

Bill Baldwin, chief executive officer of Empire Adventures, was better known to countless Fantasy Island patrons over the years as Black Bart, one of the characters in the park's wild west shootout shows.

Standing beside partners, town and state officials, as well as a family representing three generations of regular visitors, the man who acted as a cowboy villain found himself struggling to hold back real-life tears.

"The people that are here around us are season pass holders. We've heard from them since day one, 'what are we going to do? Our park is gone,'" said Baldwin, who took a pause to regain his composure. "We couldn't handle that. We had to find a way to come forward, to bring it back no matter what happened, or what we had to do."

What happened was the formation of Empire Adventures, which is now actively negotiating with banks to secure financing for the project. The price to buy the land and its remaining assets is estimated at a minimum $5 million.

Grand Island Town Supervisor John Whitney says the town, through working with the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, would be willing to provide a tax break if necessary. Even before the COVID pandemic forced many businesses to close for several weeks, the town stood to take a significant hit to its sales tax revenue with Fantasy Island not opening this summer.

"We really want this park to be rejuvenated. We want to see this park back in action," Whitney said. "Right now, you'd be hearing the sound of the screams of the children going down the roller coaster, seeing the children on the water slides here, the whistle of the train. Those are things that are you know, they're ingrained in our brains, because we've lived it for so long. But now it's gone. And we want to see a comeback. But the financial backing will be the biggest challenge here."

State Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, meanwhile, says it's so early in the process that he can't say whether the state would provide any assistance. But, he credits Empire Adventures for trying to raise their own funds, rather than rely on public dollars.

"What I do understand and I appreciate is they're talking about coming up with the initial private capital. You're not pandering to the state that 'we want to do this, but we have no money.' They're doing it differently than most developers that come into the state," Morinello said. "So, I firmly believe that once they show what they have, that they've been able to start the process, they then can look at what is available from the state as far as assistance for the project."

For generations of teens, especially Grand Island residents, Fantasy Island served as a summer employer. Generations of families from throughout Western New York have also patronized the park, and one family representing three generations was there to lend their support.

Credit WBFO/Michael Mroziak
Bill Baldwin, second from left, speaks about the attempt by the newly-formed Empire Adventures to raise the capital that would make it possible to acquire and reopen Fantasy Island. Baldwin, who worked as the Grand Island amusement park's "Black Bart" character in its Western shows, now heads Empire Adventures, the company trying to revive the park which went out of business in February.

"I still remember the outfit I wore the first day I arrived at Fantasy Island with my cousins and my aunts and uncles," said Terry Vitko, who stood with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. "When they decided to close, it broke my heart. It just was one of those unimaginable things."

Her granddaughter, 10-year-old Chloe Woods, says what she appreciates about Fantasy Island was that age didn't matter there.

"The best amusement park I ever went to was definitely Fantasy Island. It didn't matter how old you are, because it there was a kiddie land and an area where they had bigger rides for bigger people," she said. "It was fun for all ages, and the water park was definitely the part where I loved the most."

Fantasy Island's previous owners, Apex Parks Group, closed Fantasy Island in February and sold off some of its rides. Some remain, and one of the Empire Adventures partners has rides available. Marenna Amusements in Connecticut and has offered to sell 14 classic rides, including a vintage carousel.

Flying Bison Brewing Company has offered its support as a potential sponsor, perhaps within a restaurant or beer garden on the grounds.

"I didn't grow up here, but my kids did, and I did get to bring them to Fantasy Island," said Flying Bison owner Tim Herzog. "What fun times we had, you know, fun. Wow, it sure was. The kids loved riding the Silver Comet. They love coming out. And for my wife, Betsy, and I, just hearing the sounds of the laughter the squeals when the kids would come down the roller coaster. If you drive by on the expressway, with windows down you could hear it. It was part of the pulse of this community, and not just the Grand Island community but all of Western New York."

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