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

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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17 Responses to Amusement Parks: The First, the Oldest and the Long Gone

  1. Jonathan says:

    Interesting post, thanks for writing! As a side note, I believe the roller coaster in the third picture is actually Nighthawk at Carowinds.

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  2. Interesting post, Ken. It’s fascinating how amusement parks come and go. There was a very vibrant amusement park in Winnipeg, Beach, Manitoba (Canada.) Then a fire destroyed the hotel that was the hub of the activities in the early 20th century, and everything came to a halt. It has since experienced a resurgence, but none of the grandeur of the old days with the elaborate hotel and dance hall as the hub of the park.

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  3. Amusement parks really do capture the imagination. I used to have my sophomores design a Julius Caesar inspired theme park. In the process, they had to work in proper citations of quoted material form the play, but what they most liked was coming up with rides focused on stabbing, buckets of blood, and death…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t realize that Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio, was that old. We were planning on going there this summer. Interesting post, Ken. We are big amusement park people. I think I am going to add these to my list of parks to visit. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. lenie5860 says:

    We don’t really have a lot of Amusement Parks in our area – the only one I can really think of is Wonderland in Vaughn around Toronto. I’ve never been there although my kids all have. We do have Marineland, Storybook Gardens (one I love) and African Lion Safari – all of which are more Theme Parks rather than Amusement Parks.
    Timely post with summer coming on and parents wanting someplace to go with the children.

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  6. Had no idea that Bakken is the oldest amusement park in the world. Went there when I was a child growing up across the strait. Interesting to know.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In western PA as kids, we used to go to Idlewild Park. I remember it as great fun, but that’s because so much of our family outings were! I don’t care for amusement parks and rides anymore, but sure know a number of people who love them.

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  8. heraldmarty says:

    Really enjoying this series. My dad’s family lived in Yonker’s New York and growing up every summer we spent a month driving across country and back, always a different route. I still remember going to Coney Island because for a kid from CA it really was a completely different world. At home, we had The Pike. It closed in the late 1970’s I believe, but the structures remained for years and became pretty creepy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Erica says:

    When I think of older amusement parks, I think of them being closer to what we would now call a county fair. It is just how I picture it in my mind. I think there is something to be said for the older, more simple amusement parks. They are now offering a 3-D roller-coaster where I live and I wonder if you really feel as present when you spend the whole ride looking at something imaginary.

    Having said that, I’m not a roller coaster person. In fact, the only roller coaster I’ve ever been on one was an old, rickety one from Atlantic City. This was about 10 years ago and my friend convinced me to go on it because it looked so gentle compared to today’s roller coasters. Well, it was terrifying simply because it was so old and you felt like it was going to come apart at any moment. I knew it wasn’t just me when the 2 teenage boys behind me held each other and screamed the entire ride.

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  10. Donna Janke says:

    I am not much of an amusement park person but I enjoyed reading about their history.I didn’t realize they dated as far back as the 1500s. The ones on and around piers particularly interest me.

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  11. Andy says:

    Part exposition and part amusement park, the San Diego County Fair, which my family went to every year when I was growing up, goes back to 1880 and deserves a place on your list – I fondly remember going on a lot of fair rides and eating a lot of nutritious food during those visits. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  12. W,A,Rusho says:

    I often feel a sadness when I see pictures of these amusement parks, most of which are no longer there.
    Here, there was one which has been around for a long time. It was small, mostly for younger children, but the property was sold. Luckily, most of the rides was sent to a nearby business that opened it up on their property.
    It seems like a loss of innocence when they disappear. The leave, and our society moves on, to something more exciting, but less fascinating.
    Thanks for sharing this look into the past.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. BroadBlogs says:

    There is something romantic about those old amusement parks. Would love to going to revisit them!

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