The Amusement Parks of My Childhood

Prime time for me as far as amusement parks go was between the ages of 8 and 15. Old enough to jump on almost any of the rides and to go about without constant adult supervision, but not old enough for some of the things that would capture my attention later. So my fondest memories of amusement parks are of the ones I visited during that time in my life. Most are long gone, victims of the reality that real estate development has a bigger payoff than putting kids on rides.

Palisades Amusement Park

This was my idea of the happiest place on earth. One of the most memorable days of my childhood was our 8th grade end of year trip here. It almost made 8 years in a mediocre elementary school worthwhile. Unleashed on the midway surrounded by all by classmates.

Palisades Park had a good run. It opened in 1898 as a trolley park picnic grounds and lasted until 1971. Perched on the Palisades on the west bank of the Hudson River across from Manhattan, it was a scenic setting, albeit one that as a child I barely noticed. It had a 400 X 600 foot saltwater pool which generated waves. But I was a Jersey boy who went to the shore in the summer and swam in the Atlantic, so I had no interest in a fake ocean.  What I was interested in was the rides, like the Super Himalaya and the Flying Cages, the midway, pinball arcades and the vinegar fries.

The park was immortalized in Freddy Cannon’s hit song. In this video the song is preceded by the Palisades Park advertising jingle.

Music played a big part in the experience. There were rock bands, do-wop groups and Motown acts. Often they were introduced by “Cousin Brucie,” the loudest and jiviest of the DJ’s of the era. Bruce Morrow’s voice also accompanied much of the saturation advertising that the park did on WABC radio, the dominant pop/rock New York station at the time.

Alas, Palisades Park may have been too successful for its own good. The two towns that it straddled, Cliffside Park and Fort Lee, as well as surrounding towns became gridlocked with park related traffic and were anxious to see it go. In 1971, the land was sold to a developer for $12.5 million. It is now the site of four luxury high-rises.

The former site of Palisades Amusement Park

The former site of Palisades Amusement Park

Bertrand Island

In an earlier post, I talked about my experience as a day camper at the Paterson YMCA (Growing Up in the 50’s: Ode to the Y). Part of that experience was the Friday bus ride to Lake Hopatcong in Mount Arlington, N.J., to spend the day at the beloved Bertrand Island Amusement Park. This was perhaps the amusement park that I most visited as a child and as a bonus I was there without parents. Built on a piece of land that jutted out into the lake, Bertrand Island opened in 1925 and lasted until 1983. It wasn’t much bigger than a carnival but also had a beach and a boardwalk. What I remember are some of the rides, the haunted house, the bumper cars, the Boomerang and the Whip. The latter was a favorite of mine, a ride with round cars pulled along an elliptical shaped track, it would go slowly on the straightaways then whip you around the corners. Seems this is not a ride that stood the test of time. Neither did Bertrand Island Amusement Park. This one ended up giving way for a townhouse development.

Wild West City

I didn’t grow up in the type of family where we would hop on a plane and fly across the country to go to a theme park. The only theme park I remember involved about a one-hour drive north into Sussex County to visit Wild West City. Like the many similar cowboy themed parks around the country, Wild West City was a re-creation of a western town, or maybe I should say a re-creation of the way TV westerns portrayed western towns. It bills itself as offering “the best of the West in the heart of the East.”

I was somewhat incredulous to learn that Wild West City is still in business. (I guess nobody is building luxury condos in Netcong, N.J.) I was equally incredulous to see that Uncle Floyd was appearing this summer in the saloon at Wild West City. The clock must of stopped ticking up there a couple or three decades ago.

Wild West general store

(Colin Bedson)

There was lots of cowboy gear to be had at Wild West City: cowboy hats, toy guns and holsters, chaps and some hombre scarves. But the big attraction at this park was the live shows. There was a stagecoach holdup, a bank robbery and, the big one, the gunfight on main street. I think I was a little too old to accept this as real, but a few years ago, things did in fact get real. A 17-year old cowboy actor who was playing Wyatt Earp was paralyzed after he was shot in the forehead by another actor who inexplicably had loaded real bullets rather than blanks in his six-shooter. The victim received a $1.9 million settlement paid by the company who owns the land and an outfit named Arizona Territorial Rangers, a group of cowboy re-enactors.

1964-65 New York World’s Fair

Technically the World’s Fair is not an amusement park. But, as I pointed out in an earlier post, is was World’s Fairs that were at least in part responsible for inspiring amusement parks, so I’m including it here. The New York World’s Fair is also one of the few memories I have of a happy family outing. Many of our outings consisted only of me and my mother with my father opting instead to sit in his recliner and drink beer.

Unisphere

The Unisphere

We all went to the World’s Fair, probably at least three or four times. It is possibly the only time I ever traveled with my family 0n public transportation. We went via the New York City subway #7 train from Manhattan to Queens. Making it even better from my perspective is that in the same year that the World’s Fair opened, Shea Stadium opened with only a boardwalk between the two. So our visits to the World’s Fair usually culminated with a Mets game.

As I remember this event, it was very much dominated by large American corporations. We went to the General Electric Carousel of Progress and marveled at the some-to-be conveniences that would be available in our single-family home kitchen. Another glimpse of the future was provided by General Motors’ Futurama.

New York State Pavillion

The New York State Pavilion (Doug Coldwell)

Some pieces of this World’s Fair are still in place in Flushing Meadows Park. The Unisphere has been meticulously maintained and is as magnificent as ever. The New York State Pavillion is still in place but in an advanced state of decay. I remember the Pavillion being used for rock concerts in the 70’s. I saw Steppenwolf and Poco there, as well as a then up-and-coming band called Led Zeppelin. The small stadium that was called the Singer Bowl at the World’s Fair (because everything was named after a U.S. corporation) has been renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium and is still used for the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

Freedomland

I mentioned this short lived park in an earlier post. It had an American history theme. I think I went once. It was pretty interesting to me. I remember the attraction about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern and starting a fire that destroyed 3.3 square miles of Chicago in the 19th century. And I remember the one about the turn of the century earthquake in San Francisco. I was of course a child who would grow up to be a history major so maybe other kids didn’t find this park that interesting.

Freedomland opened in 1960 and shut down in 1964, the same year the World’s Fair opened. It gave way to the granddaddy of all real estate developments on former amusement park sites, Co-op City.

 

So while most of these parks have been replaced by luxury condos, luxury townhouses or luxury high rises, there is one other childhood favorite of mine that is still going strong, the Jersey Shore. I still spend at least a couple of weeks of every summer there.

My memories include going to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City at an early age where my mother took me to see Bill Haley and the Comets perform Rock Around the Clock. (I think Dad was in the bar.) I remember the building in Asbury Park with the ferris wheel going through the roof and Casino Pier in Seaside Heights with its roller coaster and majestic carousel, both destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. And in my immaturity, the ride I remember from the Wildwood boardwalk amusement pier was a spinning thing with the unfortunate name Schitzenfahrt.

Jetstar, Casino Pier

This is what was left of the Jetstar roller coaster in Seaside Heights after Hurricane Sandy.

This entry was posted in Growing Up in the 50s, History, History of Amusement Parks, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Amusement Parks of My Childhood

  1. Conneaut Lake Park (NW PA) was the closest “real” amusement park for us. BUT we were lucky to have grocery money so not a lot was left over for such luxuries. It had a big wooden roller coaster and lots of smaller rides. Each summer a carnival or small circus would usually show up in our small town. The rides were less impressive but cheaper. The best part was the day the show packed up and left. Our gang was there sifting through the trash and matted down grass searching for nickels and dimes dropped by careless revelers. Finding a quarter meant everyone shared in the treasure. A pack of that awful bubble gum for the hope of a Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris baseball card, an orange Nehi and a fudge bar. Life was simple and good back then and we weren’t aware of our own lacking.

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  2. Amusement parks for me weren’t the same in the 70s / 80s as it was for you. Though I enjoyed them none the less. When I was a kid, I was fearful of the roller coasters so it wasn’t until 8th grade did I actually go on them.

    I love the video of Palisades Park. Wow, there were some big names that visited that Amusement Park. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gingerbread Castle in Hamburg, NJ!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. susht says:

    Amusement Parks and child hood go hand in hand. Going though your post was taken back to my childhood. Thank you for the travel down the memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Palisades was my playground growing up. I lived close enough to hear the screaming coming from the people on the Cyclone coaster. I only went to the World Fair once but it left a lasting impression on me. And although I remember the advertising for Freedomland, I never go a chance to visit the place.

    Very well written article. Thanks for posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Phoenicia says:

    I love theme parks. From the age of six/seven I would literally burst with excitement at the prospect of going on a ride.

    We visited theme parks which were connected to the beach so it was a two in one. Some family members/friends did not enjoy theme parks but were still able to enjoy a day at the beach.

    Theme parks with good entertainment are a bonus. I am sure this is why Disneyland does so well. It offers far more than rides for all ages.

    The photograph of the Jetstar rollercoaster looks creepy just sitting in the sea.

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  7. What a great trip down amusement park memory lane. The first one I visited was Six Flaggs outside of LA the year before I started sixth grade. Other than that, I’ve visited Cedar Point in Ohio right out of high school and Silverwood in north Idaho a handful of times. I kick myself for not visiting others when I had the chance while working in the Everglades. Florida has so many amusement parks.

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  8. Love that there was a duplicated Western Town (and that it’s still there), although sad about the shooting accident.
    I like the story about your bus-riding to go to the park. I’ll have to ask my husband if he did that when he was a kid to get from the city to Kennywood. He rode the buses everywhere as an 8-10 year old, so it won’t surprise me. Wish kids could do that these days.
    Love the memory sharing!

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  9. Erica says:

    My husband is a 60s buff. When he’s in my car, we sometimes listen to the 60s channel on Serius XM and Cousin Brucie still DJs. I think he has to be about 80.

    My favorite amusement park memory is Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. I went there when I was 8 and loved it. I also went to Disney in Orlando quite a bit because we only lived a few hours away during the earlier part of my childhood.

    Ken, I will miss your amusement park series. This has truly been a lot of fun!

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  10. BroadBlogs says:

    Yours have a down-home nostalgia that mine don’t. CA parks: Great America. Magic Mountain. Disneyland. But great fun. But maybe Santa Cruz Boardwalk would qualify.

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  11. Very fascinating niche you’ve carved for yourself, Ken. In all your research, have you determined that there are now more or fewer amusement parks? I know that many have closed and been dismantled, but there are new themed mega ones that have sprung up all over.

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  12. W.A. Rusho says:

    I understand progress, and all things must pass.
    But it breaks my heart when I see these places vanish. It is like seeing your childhood taken away from you.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Andy says:

    An “old-fashioned amusement parks” Google search led me to an “America’s Greatest Amusement Parks” article at travelandleisure.com – interestingly, the article describes the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, mentioned by BroadBlogs above, as “the West Coast Coney Island”. Although I like amusement parks (and prefer them to theme parks), I am not willing to go far out of my way to visit them, but for those with the time, money, and inclination to track these places down, it seems that the good stuff is still very much out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. pjlazos says:

    Great post, Ken. The theme parks of today have got nothing on their forebearers!

    Like

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