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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.