THE history of Silverwood Theme Park can be traced back to 1973 and a small aerodrome in ‘the middle of nowhere.’ In that year Clay Henley founded the aerodrome on a large field just north of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the private airport also having an antique plane museum which intrigued one Gary Norton, the founder and owner of Silverwood.
Norton had recently sold his company, International Systems Corporation, and was looking to spend his newly found free time indulging one of his passions, namely flying and collecting antique planes. On Henley’s passing in 1981, however, his family sold the property to Norton who at the time turned one of the hangars into an air museum. Among his most prized possessions was his P-51 Mustang World War Two fighter and most of his stories revolve around this plane. Sadly, however, a fire destroyed 10 of the planes in the museum but the event fuelled his desire even more to collect treasures.
Norton would often travel around the country visiting different auctions in search of new additions to the museum and in 1986 he ended up at an auction in Reno, Nevada, which was to change his life for ever. This is where he found ‘the train,’ a Porter steam locomotive dating from 1915. It had become part of another collection in Reno where it had been rebuilt and restyled to resemble an older locomotive.
When the engine was at auction in 1986 and the price had reached $250,000 only two bidders were left – Norton and a rep from Disneyland. But it was Norton who made the successful bid for the train.
Having laid the tracks and got the train up and running, Norton soon began to feel that his ‘train set’ needed a little town to go with it and subsequently Main Street was created featuring buildings with intricate woodworking detail and expertly handcrafted features. Before long, it was time to name the new destination and Norton contemplated what represented the North Idaho area the most – silver mines and forest land. As a result, Silverwood was born.
Opening day was June 20, 1988, and visitors lined up to experience the train ride, pony rides and the aircraft museum. In that first year of operation approximately 110,000 visitors came to Silverwood, after which Norton realised that he needed more attractions to keep guests coming back. One of the earliest features of the park were the air shows, which created iconic memories for many visitors, but sadly Norton’s desire to host the shows ended when a close friend was killed during a show performance elsewhere.
Another family passion, however, is music and from this Silverwood on Ice was created. Norton purchased a theatre pipe organ, put together a very talented group of skaters, including world and Olympic champions from around the world, and brought them to Silverwood. The first show consisted of toys in a store coming to life and dancing.
Rides continued to be a key part of the offering at the park too and in 1990 Norton purchased the Corkscrew coaster which had originally opened in 1975 at Knott’s Berry Farm. Soon the Country Carnival area was born, with treats, games and carnival rides filling newly paved pathways. Also added in the early 1990s was the Roaring Creek Log Flume.
Animals also became a part of Silverwood’s attractions, with a wide variety including lions, tigers and elephants calling the park their home over the years. Eventually, however, Norton let the animals go to larger, more suitable zoos and professional keepers.
1996 marked a major turning point for the venue with the introduction of the wooden roller coaster Timber Terror, originally named the Grizzly, from Custom Coaster International (CCI) which transformed the park into the theme park it was originally meant to be. The ride also increased attendance significantly and showed Norton that this was the way to go in the future.
Tremors, another wooden coaster from CCI, opened in 1999 and regularly comes out as one of the top rated wooden coasters in the country.
The next major addition came in 2003 with the opening of Silverwood’s Boulder Beach waterpark, a move many parks were making around this time as they sought to add further to their ‘dry’ attractions. Norton looked to incorporate elements that were not in other waterparks, while among the attractions featured was a lazy river so that Idahoans could indulge in their favourite pastime of floating down the local rivers. The waterpark proved a huge hit with guests from the outset and has since grown to double its original size.
2006 saw the addition of Panic Plunge, a 104ft high drop tower ride, in Roller Coaster Alley, while as the park’s success continued in the ensuing years, more opportunities for growth came about. With the success of Boulder Beach, its expansion was inevitable. In 2007 a second wave pool was added along with more slides, changing rooms, more food venues and private cabanas.
In 2008, Norton bought what is now the Aftershock coaster, a Vekoma Giant Inverted Boomerang, from Six Flags Great America and it has since gained national recognition as one of the top inverted coasters in the US. The following year, Scarywood Haunted Nights began in the fall, Norton transforming some of the parks most popular attractions, such as Thunder Canyon, Timber Terror and Engine #7, into frightening experiences.
By now major attractions were being added to the park almost every other year and in 2011, Ricochet made its debut in the waterpark, adding a sister slide to the popular Avalanche Mountain family raft ride. Resembling the latter with its twists and turns, it also takes riders in and out of dark tunnels. In 2013, SpinCycle was introduced, challenging gravity by spinning riders while pulling them 104ft in the air. On its debut it was the tallest attraction of its kind in the world.
A philosophy that has always been important to Norton is that Silverwood offers something for every member of the family. One area that had room for growth was the children’s section and in 2014 this was expanded and turned into Garfield’s Summer Camp. The area is full of ‘smaller’ thrills, along with a café that is ideal for the smallest members of the family.
2016 witnessed another addition to the waterpark in the shape of the Riptide Racer. Standing nearly 60ft tall and offering over 400ft of sliding fun, this mat racing waterslide features six side-by-side racing lanes which guests ride lying down, head first on aerodynamic mats.
Silverwood has grown from a local attraction into the largest theme and waterpark in the US north west, with 221 acres of fun and over 70 rides, slides, shows and attractions, as well as many beautiful gardens and fountains. There is also an award winning magic show performed by the owner’s son, Nick Norton, as well as a train ride with a stunt show.
A variety of restaurants keep hungry visitors happy and provide a range of offerings from summer fast favourites such as chicken strips, pulled pork sandwiches and funnel cakes all the way up to salads, ribs and hand pressed gourmet burgers . The park also has a campground on site and partners with several hotels in the area that offer stay and play packages.
During the summer, the park hires an additional 1,500 employees to work alongside its almost 100 permanent staff members, while as far as attendance goes, it is expecting a record-breaking year in 2018. Silverwood enjoyed record-breaking ticket sales earlier this year and has typically had about 650,000 visitors annually before last year, surpassing this with 679,725 in 2017. A large increase is expected this season too.
Although no new rides were added for 2018, various improvements and changes around the park were made. Among these were longer operating hours during June, the expansion of the Toy Store which doubled in size, new tricks and illusion from Nick Norton in his live show and restroom renovations, while a beautiful flower photo opportunity by the front gate was added to commemorate the park’s 30th anniversary.
Silverwood has stood the test of time and is one of very few parks in the US still in family ownership. It provides a perfect blend of attractions for all the family and in doing so continues to make special memories for guests.
At a glance
Founded in 1988
Family owned park
Annual attendance over 675,000
100 permanent employees
Covers 221 acres
Over 70 rides, shows and attractions
Boulder Beach Waterpark opened in 2003