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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16 Responses to How Amusement Parks Became Theme Parks

  1. Very interesting, Ken. I’d never made the connection before as to how amusement parks evolved into theme parks. Very informative post.

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  2. Interesting post, Ken. I had a feeling that Walt Disney started the trend for a change in title. While I have been to Disney World and Disneyland numerous times over my life, I am always in awe at how all the theme parks can transport you to a different world. We visited recently and it brought me back to the first time I went there at age 4. It has to be said that other theme parks like Universal Studios are really doing a great job with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We really felt like we were in the midst of Harry and his world. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Ken — The Disney theme parks are massive playgrounds for adults and children with wonderful attractions. However, the price of admission is exorbitant. A single day ticket is $101. For a family of four, it is $81.25 each, or $325. That’s out of the ability of pay for most families.

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      As long as their attendance numbers go up every year as they have been, I’m afraid there is little chance of this changing in the future, unless of course that change is a price increase..

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  4. heraldmarty says:

    I grew up with Disney, our high school graduation party was even there! But my favorite from when I was a kid was always Knotts Berry Farm. It’s much bigger now, but back then it had that old western feel and it was really fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Erica says:

    Ken, this so weird because I was born in Glens Falls and moved to Queensbuy, NY when I was 3. I never heard of StoreyTown. I also lived there when I was so little and remember it as a small town, not a place where there would be an amusement park. Funny what you learn.

    I live in Los Angeles now, so Disneyland is just a short drive away. And I have many adult friends who go on a frequent basis. And even if they bring their kids, I’m pretty positive they are just using their kids as an excuse to go. I’ve only been once (though I lived in Florida from 4-8 and frequently visited Disney World.) But it seems like Disney really does understand how to keep a crowd returning over and over.

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  6. I still kick myself for not going to Disney World when I worked a couple of winters in the Everglades. Theme parks are strange beasts, but oddly irresistible as well.

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  7. Phoenicia says:

    I think it is a shame when a business venture does not go to plan i.e Freedom land. The planning and finances that must have gone into it.

    Disneyland will always remain popular with families all over the world. As a child I could only dream of going to such a place. The dream came true aged 23!

    I must say Disneyland Paris is not bad either. I was expecting a poor replica and was surprised.

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  8. Fun read about the evolution of the parks. Kennywood is the Pittsburgh Amusement Park. I get queasy just watching the commercials for the rides that fling people all around!

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  9. I always look at the old Disney films about the day their park opened. I guess it was a fiasco at the time, nothing worked right, and was nicknamed “Black Sunday”.
    I guess it shows if you adopt and stick to it, you can be successful.
    Busch Gardens is always my favorite, and each one has a different theme.
    Thanks for sharing this, always a great read.

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  10. Andy says:

    No discussion of California theme parks is complete without a shout-out to SeaWorld, even if the killer whale shows seem to be on their way out.

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  11. inesephoto says:

    Interesting read! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. resultize says:

    Hey, Ken! great post! very interesting! I read a lot by myself about the history of Disneyland and their business strategy, it is pretty impressive

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  13. Hi Ken, Fun Post! Disneyland and Knott’s have been in my backyard for years, so loved your info on them. I personally really like Knott’s Berry Farm. It is fun to visit with it’s ghost town theme. I think it often gets overlooked because of Disneyland nearby, but it shouldn’t. The old picture of the first berry stand there is awesome. I hadn’t hear of Holiday World before. I would like to see Dollywood someday. Guess I’m still a kid at heart!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: The Amusement Parks of My Childhood | off the leash

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