Theme Parks: The Unusual, the Outrageous and the Outright Awful

1. The Past


Hoppalong Cassidy movie posterA key marketing strategy during the emergence of theme parks in the 1950’s and 1960’s was to bring popular television characters to life. That was the theme behind Disneyland. Among the most popular shows of the era were westerns with cowboy heroes like the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. And also Hoppalong Cassidy, aka William Boyd. An entrepreneur as well as an actor, Boyd tried to capitalize on his movie and TV success by opening Hoppyland in the Los Angeles area in 1951. Typical of the attractions was a pony cart ride around a man-made mountain stocked with goats. And Boyd himself made personal appearances espousing the “Hoppy code of conduct.” That involved drinking milk, eating vegetables and listening to your parents. One can only imagine how that resonated with the teenagers who the family dragged along. Apparently, Hoppyland didn’t resonate that well with anyone and was shuttered after four years.

Bedrock City

As the baby boom generation began to graduate from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, in addition to Westerns they began to watch more mature (slightly) prime time animated shows like the Flintstones. The popularity of this cartoon saga of a caveman family with modern blue collar sensibilities inspired a number of theme parks. One of those was Bedrock City in Williams, Ariz., not far from the Grand Canyon. Opened in 1972 with actors playing Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, Bedrock City offered attractions like foot-pedaled cars and a slide that looked like a brontosaurus tail. For lunch you could snag a Fishasaurus sandwich. Why is this park listed in the past when it is still open? One recent blogger visitor noted: “The park employs two or three people at best. Infrequent visitors drift in and out.” It is apparently in an advanced stage of decay although they continue to play Flintstones cartoons over the loudspeakers. A sister Bedrock City park in Custer, S.D., closed last year. This one has been up for sale for $2 million since 2015.

Entrance to Bedrock City

Entrance to Bedrock City, Custer, S.D.

Action Park

This northwest New Jersey water park has the reputation as the most dangerous theme park ever. It opened in 1978 at the site of the Great Gorge Ski Resort and closed in 1996. During that time six customers were reported to have died at the water park, which locals commonly refered to as “Traction Park” or “Class Action Park.” A Mashable story referred to it as “A lawless land that was ruled by drunk teenage employees, frequented by even drunker teenage guests, and filled with rides that seemed to defy even the most basic notions of physics and common sense.”

Mountain CreekThe park was reopened in 1998 with new owners, a new name, Mountain Creek, and without the unsafe rides. After the wave of publicity that followed the Mashable article and with a more adventurous new owner, the name was changed back to Action Park in 2014. But alas, the ownership changed again and with this owner not wishing to perpetuate the “lawless land” image, the name was changed back to Mountain Creek for this summer season. Mountain Creek is actually a lovely water park built on a ski slope in mostly wooded terrain. It is refreshingly pleasant on even the hottest summer days.  I visited recently and only whacked my head against a sidewall once.

2. The Present

Diggerland USA

DiggerlandGranted this sounds like a better theme for a Playground sandbox than for a theme park. Diggerland, West Berlin, N.J., is a construction themed park and is the U.S. outlet for a group that includes five parks in the U.K. Attractions include “dumper trucks,” a back hoe adventure and big diggers. You might think the Shake N’ Roll attraction is about music, but no, it a vehicle with rollers like the ones that smooth newly paved asphalt. You can get a taste of Diggerland online by looking at their web site live goat cam. Since our governor has stalled all road construction projects because he is bickering with the state Senate about how to fund them, Diggerland might offer the most heavy equipment action in the state.

Holy Land Experience

Holy Land Experience

Sandwiched amidst some of the biggest and best theme parks in the world in Orlando, Fla, is the Bible-themed Holy Land Experience. I took a look at the daily schedule and noticed that you can begin the day with “Holy Communion with Jesus” and catch “Baptisms with Jesus” right before park closing, weather permitting of course. There are also dramas throughout the day including “Four Women Who Loved Jesus” (do they dance and sing?) and a 60 minute “Passion of the Christ.” What else spells family fun like a bloody Jesus? This is a theme park? Well, not exactly, according to the owners who classify it as a museum and hence avoid paying property taxes.

Jesus on the cross

Parque Ecoalberto

If crucifixion themed attractions aren’t your thing, how about this one? The Parque Ecoalberto in Cajon, Mexico, invites you to experience a simulated illegal border crossing. This 3-hour experience costs $20 and comes complete with sirens, whistles, chases and border guard impersonators yelling at you. The owners say this Caminata Nocturna attraction is in fact intended to discourage Mexicans from attempting to make the real trip. Though one wonders whether theme park goers are the right demographic for deterring illegal border crossers. There are some more conventional attractions like outdoor swimming pools and water slides. No word yet on whether they’ve been able to book Donald Trump to film a video in which he calls you a rapist as you leave the park.

3. The Future

Eataly World

Billed as Disneyland for foodies, this park is scheduled to open in Bologna in 2017. It promises to have some 25 restaurants as well as grocery stores and food courts. The intent is to cover all aspects of Italian food, “from farm to fork” according to a park spokesman. Other planned attractions include a chocolate fountain, oil mills and citrus greenhouses. And there will be lots of culinary education programs. But don’t book your trip yet as this was originally supposed to open in 2015 in conjunction with the Milan World Expo.


Erotic sculptureIf you’re not a foodie, perhaps you’re more interested in sex. Mauro Morata, who is in charge of the project to build a sex-themed park in Piracicaba, Brazil, offers some high-minded ideals for this clearly not family-friendly attraction. The park is intended, he says, to teach people about sex and the history of sex and to encourage the use of condoms. Among the planned educational experiences will be a nudist pool, a snack bar selling aphrodisiac laced food items, rides shaped like genitals and a theater with vibrating seats. What is not supposed to happen at this park is actual sex. (Will they be patrolling the restrooms?) But, no worry, there will be motels nearby, operated by none other than ErotikaLand.

(All photos, except the ones from Mountain Creek, are from Wikipedia Commons public domain collection.)

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One-year-old Korean dog, rescued from meat market, finding a home in Southern California

Adami is a one-year-old Golden Retriever living with a foster family in Ladera Ranch, Calif. He is being treated for a severe case of heartworm. Adami’s treatment requires that he be contained. That’s not easy for a playful one-year old. But it sure beats what was in store for him in his native Korea.

Adami was purchased from a dog meat market while still in one piece by a South Korean animal rights activist  She contacted Barbara Gale of Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue (SCGRR) and before long Adami was on his way to Los Angeles rather than the dinner table.

Adami at the butcher shop from which he was rescued.

The Tess McIntyre Foundation recently made a $2,000 donation to SCGRR to help defray the cost of Adami’s heartworm treatment and hospital stay. The Foundation is seeking additional donations to provide further assistance as Adami proceeds along the path to recovery and adoption.

Upon his arrival in the U.S. on April 18, Adami was neutered and treated at the Animal Medical Center (AMC) in Los Angeles. He remained there until early May when he was released to his current foster home. His initial 60-day treatment involves two injections of Immiticide. The veterinary staff at AMC will determine if a third injection is necessary.


Adami at SCGRR shelter

SCGRR has been working to rescue dogs not only from Korea, but from China and Taiwan as well. While the production and consumption of dog meat is illegal in South Korea, there are some traditional Korean dishes that are made with dog meat and the law often goes unenforced. According to the Korea Animal Rights Activists (KARA), some 2.5 million dogs are slaughtered each year in that country.

The Tess McIntyre Foundation was founded last year. It is named after Tess, a three-year-old Golden Retriever who was adopted from SCGRR. Tess was killed in an accident not long after moving into her new home. Her owners have dedicated their efforts in her memory to helping other rescued dogs. One of the primary goals of the Foundation is to support dogs who need medical care before they can be put up for adoption.

(The author, Ken Dowell, is a trustee of the Tess McIntyre Foundation  You can follow the foundation on Twitter@TessMcIn.)

This story was originally published on the Tess McIntyre Foundation web site.


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How Amusement Parks Became Theme Parks

By the middle of the 20th century amusement parks were still primarily based on the model that had been established in 1890’s. Though they may have been re-invented over and over again the centerpiece was still the midway, the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel.

It took another wave of prosperity, the one that followed World War II, to bring about a new flurry of amusement park openings. In the late 40’s and the 50’s productivity, employment and wages were all on the uptick. Car ownership increased dramatically and, as the baby boom generation began to grow up, family road trips became the preferred form of vacationing.

So you’ve got a car, a backseat full of kids and some money and time to spend. Where to? Starting in the mid 50’s, the theme park increasing became the answer.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

It was the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., in 1955 that heralded the emergence of the theme park. Countless parks have been built since based on the Disneyland model. To this day many would argue that the Disney resorts are the gold standard of theme parks.

Already a popular and widely recognized movie and TV brand, Disneyland brought its characters to life.  It was a destination. Not the end of a trolley line or an accessible day trip venue, but a place to get in the car and travel to from all over the country and to stay and make a vacation of it.

What distinguishes the theme park from the classic amusement park is simply the theme. At Disneyland that was the characters, Mickey and Donald and Pluto et al., that were already beloved by the nation’s children. There was also the Disney cultivated theme of wholesome and clean. No Coney Island Blowhole Theater here, nor any of the Gumpertz-like freak shows. Within the park, attractions were divided into sub-themes. There’s Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.

While Disney is widely viewed as the creator of the theme park, Disneyland was not, in fact, the first. Storytown USA, a Mother Goose themed park, opened in Queensbury, N.Y. (near Albany) in 1954. It later changed its name to the Great Escape, added a water park and was purchased by Six Flags. On the other coast Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Vista, Calif., which is still in operation and remains very successful, has its roots back into the 1940’s. That’s when the original owner Walter Knott built a replica Ghost Town on his berry farm.

Knott's Berry Farm

Among those that claim to be the first theme park is Knotts Berry Farm

Knotts_Berry_Farm_Stand 1920

Knott’s Berry Farm circa 1920 when it was a stand to sell berries on the side of the road.

Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind., also claims to be the country’s oldest theme park. It is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary. The park opened as Santa Claus Land in 1946. One of its guests, in 1955, was Ronald Reagan. It later expanded beyond the Christmas theme by adding a Fourth of July and a Halloween section. In 1984, its name was changed to Holiday World and in 1993 it too added a water park.

Not all of these theme parks were successful. One of the more prominent failures was Freedomland, a 95-acre American history themed park in the Bronx, N.Y. In the same way that Disneyland was broken down into themed sections, Freedomland was subdivided based on historical themes such as Little Old New York 1850-1900, the Great Plains 1803-1900 and the Old Southwest 1890. Freedomland opened in 1960 and was troubled from the start. There was a stagecoach accident in the Great Plains that injured 10 people. Six unfinished buildings were destroyed by fire. The front office was robbed and, built as it was on a city landfill, mosquitos turned out to be prominent if uninvited guests.

By 1964 Freedomland filed for bankruptcy and it was demolished the following year. The Freedomland property is now the site of the enormous Co-Op City housing development. That has led to speculation that developers may have played a role in hastening the theme park’s demise.

Pirate Ride

This Pirate Ride was salvaged from Freedomland and moved to Cedar Point.

Freedomland aside, theme parks have flourished over the last several decades. Disney alone has expanded not only to Florida, but to Japan, China, Hong Kong, France and Hawaii. According to attendance statistics compiled by the Themed Entertainment Association, nine of the eleven theme parks with the highest attendance in 2015 were Disney properties. The Magic Kingdom led the way with more than 20 million annual visitors. Disneyland in Anaheim was not far behind with 18 million+. Overall nearly 138 million people visited Disney Theme Parks in 2015.

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Baseball, Local and Global

Can-Am League Flags

The Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball is already a two-language, two-country league. This year the independent league expanded its international footprint even further by playing host to teams from Japan and Cuba. Below are photos from four Can-Am League games played in June, involving teams from four different countries.

The national anthems

Rockland Boulders 14, Trois Rivieres Aigles 4

Palisades Credit Union Park, Pomona, N.Y.


New Jersey Jackals 6, Shikoku Island All-Stars 5 (10 innings)

Yogi Berra Stadium,. Little Falls, N.J.


The Shikoku Island All-Stars are a select team of players from the four-team Shikoku Island League, Japan’s first independent professional league. Like the players in the Can-Am, the Shikoku League players are hoping to get a shot at the majors, in their case Nippon Professional Baseball. This is the second year the Shikoku team has traveled to the U.S. to play the Can-Am teams. Last season they were 6-10 on their tour but impressed with their fundamentals. This year’s 8-12 mark was a slight improvement.

warming up

Cuban National Team 6, Sussex County Miners 4

Skylands Park, Augusta, N.J.

Showing the flag

The Cuban National Team that toured the U.S. and Canada playing Can-Am League teams included a few of the players that participated in the game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Havana under the watchful eye of President Obama. Cuba swept all three games in Sussex County, although one of their players reportedly slipped off into the sunset during this leg of the trip. Overall, Cuba posted an 11-9 record against Can-Am competition. They won eight of their last ten and beat Shikoku 5-3 in their final game

Cuba comes to the plate

The winners

Light up the globe

New Jersey Jackals 3, Cuban National Team 1

Yogi Berra Stadium, Little Falls, N.J.

The national anthem

The New Jersey Jackals are the Can-Am League’s perpetual runners-up. For five straight years they have made the playoff finals only to lose, last year to Trois-Rivieres, in 2014 to Rockland and for three straight years to Les Capitales de Quebec. Once again this year, the Jackals are among the league’s top teams and they won both international series two games to one. In this game, Jackals pitcher Lee Sosa brought a no-hitter into the ninth inning before giving up a walk and a single and being removed from the game.


Disputing the call


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American Pioneers of Amusement, Part 2: The Fearless Frogman, a Collector of Human Oddities and a Roller Coaster Engineer

Paul boytonCaptain Paul Boyton

This is a guy who at 15 lied about his age so he could join the Union Navy and fight in the Civil War. This is a guy who swam across the English Channel in an inflatable rubber suit, feet first. This is a guy who took a job with the Peruvian government that involved swimming offshore and trying to plant torpedoes on the Chilean ships that were embargoing Peru.

Paul Boyton was probably born in Ireland in 1848. But it might have been Pittsburgh where he grew up. The “Captain” might have come from his adventure in Peru or it might have been bestowed on him for his involvement with the United States Life-Saving Service, a predecessor to the Coast Guard, in Atlantic City.

Capt. Paul Boyton

Boyton in his rubber suit

Known as the “Fearless Frogman,” Boyton was once credited with making 71 life-saving rescues during a two-year stint as a lifeguard in Atlantic City. But it was the English Channel crossing that made him an international celebrity in the late 19th century. He toured Europe for five years with his rubber suit, putting on exhibitions that included going down waterfalls and through rapids. He did the same in the U.S., going down the Mississippi in 1876 from Alton, Ill., to St. Louis.

The rubber suit had inflatable tubes. Boyton likely was hoping to sell it as a life-saving device but had no luck with that. It appears that Boyton spent most of what he received and thus was almost always in need of a way to generate cash.

He managed an aquatic show as part of the Barnum circus for a while then settled in Chicago in 1885. It is there that he began to make his mark in the amusement business.  In 1894 he opened Paul Boyton’s Water Chutes. This park is the first amusement park in America to rely solely on mechanical attractions, as opposed to places like Coney Island and Atlantic City where there is beach and ocean.

Boyton also brought the Chutes ride to England (Earlscourt World’s Water Show) and to Belgium (1894 Antwerp World’s Fair). But if you were into building and promoting amusements in the 19th century, Coney Island was the place to be. And Boyton opened Sea Lion Park in Coney Island in 1895. In addition to Shoot the Chutes, Boyton still did swimming exhibitions in his rubber suit and there were as many as 40 sea lions who juggled and competed in races.

Boyton sold Sea Lion Park in 1902 after a difficult, rainy season. It was incorporated by the new owners into Luna Park. Boyton’s Chutes ride kept going at Luna Park until 1944. Boyton himself settled in Brooklyn and lived there until his death in 1924.

Samuel W. Gumpertz

While George Tillyou and Paul Boyton was instrumental in making Coney Island the birthplace of American amusement parks, Gumpertz contribution was to add the sideshow. Gumpertz took the amusement park and added a little circus and a bit of carnival.

Gumpertz was born in Washington in 1868 and moved to St. Louis at an early age. By the time he was nine, he had run away with a circus. Given his size he became the “top mounter” in the pyramid of acrobats. A variety of entertainment related gigs followed. At one time he was a child actor at the Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco, but lost that position when his voiced changed. He left a ranching engagement to run away with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His resume also included producing some Shakespearean plays and he was manager for a young Harry Houdini.

Gumpertz eventually settled into Coney Island and shifted his focus to the display of human oddities. One of his best known creations was Lilliputia, part of Dreamland, another Coney Island amusement park. Lilliputia was set up as a miniature city populated by some 300 small people, many of whom Gumpertz had recruited from various expositions. They had their own parliament and their own fire department, the latter of which staged a false alarm every hour for park guests.

Midget City

Lilliputia, or Midget City, at Dreamland, Coneyland

Dreamland, like its other wood-structured neighbors burned down in 1911. Gumpertz kept going, setting up the Dreamland Circus Sideshow, operating out of a tent on Surf Avenue. One of his lead attractions was the pinhead “Zip What Is It.” And there was two-foot tall Baron Paucci and Lionel the dog-faced boy. Gumpertz’ freaks were real. He traveled to Asia, Africa and Europe and it is estimated that he imported 3,800 unusual people. For his Wild Man of Borneo exhibit he leased 19 “wild men” from a tribal chieftain in Borneo. He also paid the government of French Equatorial Africa $3,000 a week to bring over 12 “platter-lipped” women. The women were part of a tribe where it was custom to stretch their lips on wooden platters, sometimes as much as 10 inches wide. They were accompanied by their husbands, although not all the husbands made the return trip as a couple ran off with normal lipped African-American women.

Gumpertz kep his show going through the 1920’s. In 1929, at age 67, he once again ran away with a circus, leaving Coney Island to join Ringling Brothers.

Lina Beecher

Not just an engineer, Lina Beecher has gone down in history as a roller coaster engineer. His contribution to the science was the creation of the looping, gravity force type of coaster.

Beecher was born in Byron, N.Y. in 1841. He was a lieutenant in the Union army during the civil war. He was an inventor and among his creations were the flangeless railway system, the Monorailway and the acoustic phone, a predecessor of the mobile phone. In between inventions he held a number jobs that included working in the railroad business in Tennessee and the orange industry in Florida.

Beecher’s signature creation was the Flip Flop Railway, a circular vertical loop coaster that Beecher sold to Paul Boyton to be moved to Sea Lion Park in Coney Island. Beecher had initially tested the coaster with sand bags and then with monkeys before trying it out on human beings. There were no seatbelts on Beecher’s coaster, you were held in your seat by gravity alone. The Flip Flop Railway lasted a few years at Sea Lion Park. There are no reports of anyone completely falling out of their seat but there were lots of complaints about whiplash due to the g-force generated.

Loop the Loop

Beecher’s Loop the Loop coaster at Olentangy Park

Beecher modified his design and built a Loop the Loop coaster for Olentangy Park in Columbus, Ohio. He built this one out of steel rather than wood and the loop was elliptical rather than circular. While seemingly less dangerous than its Coney Island ancestor, the riders weren’t buying it. The Loop the Loop had a short life before being taken out of services.

Beecher gave it one more try. He built a looping coaster for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901. Fair organizers, however, deemed it too dangerous and refused to allow it on the grounds.

Little information is available about Beecher after that. He died in 1915 at age 75. His concept of the looping roller coaster obviously lived on, albeit with seatbelts and some neck protection.


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Safari sightings, Zimbabwe/Zambia

Photos by Juliane Dowell


Lion cubs


zebra with baby


Zimbabwe bird



Photos are from Wilderness Safari’s Ruckamechi Camp in Mana Pools National Park and Linkwasha Camp in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Toka Leya Camp at Victoria Falls, Zambia.


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Copa America, age 100

Copa America is the oldest major soccer tournament in the world. In the Western Hemisphere it is second in importance only to the World Cup itself. Uruguay won the first Copa America in 1916, besting Argentina, Brazil and Chile. The modern tournament is contested among the ten South American national teams, with a couple guest teams thrown in to complete the bracket.

For the 100th anniverary, Copa America Centenario, was played for the first time in the United States. Playing in 60,000+ seat football stadiums the 10 South American teams were joined by six teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean. Those photos are from the three games played at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

Ecuador 4, Haiti 0

Ecuador fans heading into MetLife Stadium

the teams

Quarter final, Colombia 0, Peru 0 (penalty kicks 4-2)

Entering the field

Colombia fans

Peruvian header


The Final. Chile 0, Argentina 0 (PK 4-2)

Heading into MetLife Stadium


Chile vs. Argentina



Corner kick

The winners

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American Pioneers of Amusement, Part 1

George C. Tilyou

Born in New York City in 1862, George Tilyou moved to Coney Island at age 3. His father set up a restaurant and beach rental business. Tilyou’s entrepreneurial spirit became evident at an early age when visitors from the Midwest came to Coney Island after a trip to the Philadelphia Exposition. 13-year old George met them with offers of a cigar box full of beach sand or a medicine bottle filled with ocean water, 25 cents each. Upon reaching adulthood Tilyou partnered with his father in buying the Surf Theater and staging vaudeville acts. He later started a stagecoach company and tried his hand at real estate.

But it was on a honeymoon trip to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that Tilyou discovered his true calling. He at first tried to buy George Ferris’ Great Wheel to bring it home with him. When that didn’t work he had his own built at Coney Island. Tilyou gradually added other attractions and amusements around the Ferris wheel and in 1897 he closed it in and opened Steeplechase Park.

Steeplechase Park logoThere was also the signature Steeplechase ride and the Parachute Drop. He brought the Trip to the Moon ride to Coney Island, although within a year he got into a dispute with the proprietor who bolted for neighboring Sea Lion Park. He built replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, a ballroom and a large saltwater pool (conveniently located behind his dad’s joint). It all went up in smoke in 1907, reportedly because a patron threw a lit cigarette into a garbage can. So what does a guy who hit up Midwestern tourists for boxes of sand do when his amusement park is burned to the ground? He charged admission (10 cents) for folks to come and look at the smoldering remains.

Tilyou rebuilt Steeplechase in 1908. In the same year he expanded to Atlantic City, building Steeplechase Pier which featured a ride called “Flying Chairs” that would swing riders out over the ocean. He passed away in 1914. The Coney Island park remained under family ownership and lasted until 1964.

Parachute crop

The skeleton of the Parachute Drop ride is all that remains of Steeplechase Park


George W. Ferris

George Ferris was an engineer. He was born in 1859 in Galesburg, Ill. Five years later his family left the town they had helped found and headed for California. They didn’t quite make it, instead opting to buy a ranch in Carson City, Nev. George went to California Military Academy where he graduated at age 17 then went on to earn an engineering degree at RPI.

Ferris House

The Ferris House in Pittsburgh

Ferris was involved is several railroad and bridge projects. In 1886 he moved to Pittsburgh and created G.W.G. Ferris & Company, an engineering inspection firm.

When the organizers of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 laid down the challenge to a meeting of engineers to build a structure for the fair that would rival the Paris Exposition’s signature Eiffel Tower, Ferris answered the call. It is believed that his original idea for the Great Wheel was sketched out on the back of a napkin in a restaurant. He originally conceived of the project as an observation wheel and in fact the finished product offered not only spectacular views of Chicago but you could see three states from the top of the wheel.

The exposition organizers were initially skeptical of the feasibility of Ferris’ project. But it was more imaginative that the ones submitted by guys who simply posed the answer as building a tower that was a little taller than Eiffel’s. Eiffel himself offered a proposal but the Chicago guys did not want a Frenchman building their signature attraction. So after some hemming and hawing they approved Ferris’s plan but with the stipulation that he had to raise his own financing.

The Great WheelFerris more than exceeded expectations. It was seven weeks after the fair opened that he climbed aboard for the first ride, along with his wife, the mayor of Chicago and a marching band. George Ferris’ Great Wheel operated flawlessly for the entire duration of the fair. It shrugged off gale force winds, thunder and lighting, even the remnants of a hurricane. It was the highlight of the exposition, accommodating 1.4 million passengers.

Things didn’t go well for Ferris once the fair closed. He turned down George Tilyou’s offer to buy the wheel and move it Coney Island. Instead he moved it to a small site near Lincoln Park in Chicago where it was only lightly attended. Ferris pitched some other exposition organizers to build other Great Wheels, but to no avail. He also was embroiled in costly legal disputes. He sued the Chicago Exposition organizers for a bigger share of the profits, but lost. He also faced patent infringement suits, including one from William Somers, builder of Atlantic City’s Roundabout, a similar attraction that Ferris’ had actually ridden before he created the Ferris Wheel. Ferris was successful in having these claims dismissed, but at considerable expense.

In the year following the Columbian Exposition, Ferris sold his share of G.W.G. Ferris & Company to his partners. He died of typhoid fever in 1896 at age 37. By that time his wife had left him, he had moved into a cheap hotel in Pittsburgh and he was facing bankruptcy. His name, of course, lives on and has been a part of virtually every amusement park built since.

The Great Wheel itself was auctioned off to the highest bidder after Ferris died. The high bid on The Great Wheel that had cost some $600,000 to build was $1800. The new owners brought it to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 after which it was demolished.

The Great Wheel in St. Louis

The Great Wheel at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis

Part 2 will include the man who brought the sideshow to Coney Island, a roller coaster engineer and the “Fearless Frogman.”

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The Early Rides: Lots of Thrills and Surely Some Spills

One of the things that differentiated the burgeoning amusement park business of the late 19th century from predecessors like fairs and pleasure gardens were mechanical rides. Mechanics, engineers, bridge builders and architects began to think about the science of amusement. Some of the designs they created would become iconic, the basis for decades and decades of amusement park attractions. Others were things we will never see the likes of again.

When the renowned architect Daniel H. Burnham put together the group of engineers who would be responsible for building out the grounds and attractions for the great World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he told the group “make no little plans.” In fact he went further and urged them to trump the Eiffel Tower, the centerpiece of the Paris World Exposition in 1889.

The first ferris wheel

The Ferris Wheel at the Columbian Exposition

George Ferris, a bridge builder from Pittsburgh, thought he had the answer. And his structure would soon bear his name, the Ferris Wheel. There were 36 cars which each held 60 passengers. For 50 cents you could hop on board and go for a ride that included two complete revolutions and lasted about 20 minutes.

While the Chicago Ferris Wheel is widely acclaimed as the first of its kind, it wasn’t actually the first of this type of attraction. Back in 1867, Isaac Newton Forrester received the first patent for a ferris wheel type of ride. He produced the Epicycloidal Diversion which he built near the beach at Mississippi Avenue in Atlantic City. Forrester’s wheel was actually four wheels, 30 feet high, and mounted on a revolving platform that stood 10 feet off the ground. From the descriptions it was like riding a small ferris wheel mounted onto a merry-go-round. Each of the wheels had two cars that held eight passengers each.

Another patent for a similar type contraption was issued in 1893 to William “Pop” Somers based on the Roundabout that he had installed in Atlantic City two years earlier. One of his early customers was George Ferris. Did the Roundabout inspire the Ferris Wheel? Somers thought so and he in fact sued Ferris for patent infringement. The suit was eventually tossed out because Ferris used different material (metal instead of wood) and the Ferris Wheel was significantly larger. But that didn’t stop Somers from building a Roundabout right next door to the Chicago fairgrounds. He later added another one in Asbury Park.

Coney Island has always been known for roller coasters so it is not surprising that Brooklyn claims the first. The Switchback Railway was built in 1894 by LeMarcus Adna Thompson. Its design was based on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, a working coal train in eastern Pennsylvania. The operators of the Mauch Chunk converted the old coal train into a passenger tourist attraction in 1870.  In the Coney Island version, passengers paying five cents would get on a bench like seat and hurtle from one tower to another. At the second tower they would switch to a parallel track (hence the name ‘Switchback’) for the return ride.

Dreamland ride

Shoot the Chutes

Another of the standards of the modern day amusement park, the Log Flume, had its origins in the 19th century as well. J.P. Newburg built the first Shoot the Chutes ride in 1884 in Watchtower Park in Rock Island, Ill. Newburg’s ride featured flat bottomed boats that slid down a 500-foot-long greased wooden track and into a lake. A decade later a Shoot the Chutes ride was the centerpiece of Paul Boynton’s Water Chutes which opened in Chicago. Boynton’s park was noteworthy as the first amusement park that was based solely on mechanical attractions. Boynton built another Shoot the Chutes ride two years later at Sea Lion Park in Coney Island. There is a Shoot the Chutes ride that was built in 1927 and is still in operation at Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park near Chattanooga, Tenn.

By the turn of the century, Coney Island had clearly established itself as the center of amusement park innovation. It was also the place to push the boundaries of 19th century behavioral standards. Nowhere was this more evident than in Steeplechase Park which lasted from 1897 to 1964. The signature ride was of course the Steeplechase. It consisted a set of four rows of horses that would race around the park on steel tracks. Propulsion was by gravity so the bigger riders generated the most speed. Often the riders were couples with the woman in front. Upon exiting the Steeplechase, riders were routed through a stage area called the Blowhole Theater? Why blowhole you might ask? Because it was through those holes that gusts of air shot up to lift the female riders dresses and skirts. Not far from the Blowhole Theater  was another attraction called the Human Pool Table, the main purpose of which was apparently to generate a little physical contact between riders. Steeplechase Park was obviously the place to bring a date.

At neighboring Sea Lion Park, the marquee attraction was the Trip to the Moon. Sixty passengers could fit on the cylinder-shaped space vehicle. As it got cranked up it would start to vibrate and its wings would flap. Looking out the windows the painted scenery would get smaller and smaller until there was only lights and a globe. But the real action started upon the moon landing. Passengers got to see midgets singing “My Sweetheart the Man in the Moon,” passed through stalactite caverns and into the throne room where sat the man in the moon himself.

Modern amusement park goers are accustomed to being dropped off into the gift shop. If you took the Trip to the Moon you were exited into the green cheese room where moon maidens were offering samples. Among those who enjoyed this attraction were Thomas Edison and President William McKinley.

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Amusement Parks: The First, the Oldest and the Long Gone

There are many claims of first in the amusement park business. But the oldest belongs to Bakken near Klampenborg, Denmark. Its roots go back to 1583. Originally it was the site of a natural spring and attracted Danes as a source of natural spring water. The amusements, originally in the form of entertainers and hawkers, built up around it. Bakken continues to operate today and features six roller coasters as well as attractions like the Crazy Theater (indoor laser shoot-out), Extreme (a giant swing) and Samba Tower (air carousel).

There are many other claims of first, but most came a few centuries later. Paul Boynton’s Water Chutes, opened in Chicago in 1894, is said to be the first modern amusement park in that it relied solely on mechanical attractions rather than a natural setting.  One year later, Sea Lion Park opened in Coney Island. It was one of the first to enclose the area and charge admission   Kiddie Park in San Antonio is believed to be the first amusement park for children. It was opened in 1925 and is also still in business today.

The creation of amusement parks began in earnest in the late 19th century. Changes in society in the U.S. were creating a new customer base. Earlier in the century the elite had their retreats and the workers had their picnic grounds and beer halls. But in the late 19th century a middle class was emerging, a group with some money to spend and some time to spend it.  At the same time modern transportation systems, trains and trolleys and streetcars, were making excursions and day trips more accessible. Some of the transportations companies themselves engaged in building recreational and amusement centers along their routes as a way to attract more customers.

Many of the early amusement parks were built within existing resorts. Seaside communities that already attracted visitors to their beaches and oceans began to add mechanical rides and other amusements to increase their appeal. They were also becoming more accessible due to new transportation options. Two early examples are Coney Island and Atlantic City.

Steeplechase Park swimming pool

Steeplechase Park, Coney Island

After the opening of Sea Lion Park in 1895 the amusement business boomed in Coney Island. Steeplechase Park opened its gates in 1897. Luna Park came along in 1903 and Dreamland followed a year later. By 1910 as many as a million people would visit Coney Island on peak days. The Brooklyn entertainment center lays claim to the country’s first roller coaster and the first amusement railroad.

Steel Pier

Steel Pier, Atlantic City

On the Jersey shore, Atlantic City was already becoming a popular destination as the terminus of train lines from New York and Philadelphia. It was here that the amusement park built on a pier out over the ocean became popular. The first was Ocean Pier in 1891 followed by the Steel Pier, known for attractions like the horses that dove into swimming pools, in 1898.  Others were soon to follow: Heinz Pier, also in 1898, the Million Dollar Pier in 1902 and the Steeplechase Pier (by the owners of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island) in 1908. It was from the Million Dollar Pier that Houdini dived shackled into the ocean.

Cedar Point

Cedar Point roller coaster. (image by Alex Grichenko)

According to Arthur Levine, writing in USA Today, the ten oldest amusement parks still operating are: Lake Compounce, Bristol, Conn., 1846; Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio, 1870; Six Flags New England, Agawam, Mass., began as Gallup’s Grove in 1870; Idlewild, Ligonier, Pa., 1878; Seabreeze, Rochester, N.Y., 1879; Coney Island, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1884; Dorney Park, Allentwon, Pa., 1884; Coney Island, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1886; Lagoon, Farmington, Utah, 1886; Arnold’s Park, Arnold’s Park, Iowa, 1889.

Lake Compounce started as a picnic ground and was not much more than some picnic tables on the shores of the lake. It later became an example of what were to become known as trolley parks. A train station was built at Lake Compounce in 1895. The same year the Casino, the park’s first permanent building, was erected and a restaurant opened. With many more visitors now accessing the old picnic grounds, a carousel and an electronic powered roller coaster were soon to follow.

The late 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century were the heyday of early American amusement parks. While some of these older parks are still alive and well, many others didn’t make it. The early amusement parks and most of their attractions were built out of wood.  And in an era when you could probably ride a roller coaster with a cigarette hanging off your upper lip, many went up in flames. Steeplechase Park was largely destroyed by fire in 1907 and had to be rebuilt. Dreamland, also in Coney Island, burnt to the ground in 1911. Luna Park followed in 1944.  The Steel Pier suffered significant damage due to fire in 1924. It was rebuilt shortly thereafter only to burn down in 1982. It was replaced by a concrete structure in 1993.


Dreamland, Coney Island

Some others were felled by a decade of Depression sandwiched between two world wars. The next wave of amusement parks, including the advent of the theme park, didn’t take place until the 1950’s, fueled by the return of prosperity, the growth of automobile travel and the need to find something to do with all those baby boomer children.

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