The 1960s were a time of growth and uncertainty for the amusement parks industry, but helped to set the stage for a boom that came one decade later. The time period began with many parks wanting to emulate the Disney model and open theme parks, often with costly results. Some of the first of these were Pacific Ocean Park, Pleasure Island and Freedomland U.S.A.
CBS and the Hollywood Turf Club bought Pacific Ocean Park (or POP as it was known locally) in 1958. It had operated as a traditional park for many years, but the new owners felt that the "theme park feel" equated to automatic success and overhauled the park for the 1958 season. Over $16,000,000 was invested in the new park and the new owners did a remarkable job themeing the park and rides. The problem was, they did their job a little too well. Admission to POP was only $2.50 and gate receipts did not begin to cover the costs of operating a theme park that was regularly exposed to coastal elements. The park was simply too large to make a decent profit and made little money until it closed in 1968. The park did have a good coaster, the Sea Serpent (earlier the High Boy), which was built in 1926 by John Miller and was a wonderful seaside coaster.
Pleasure Island was planned for a suburban location outside of Boston and opened in 1959. It cost $4,000,000, covered eighty acres and featured four themed sections. The park failed to make the necessary profits in its first year and shortly afterwards began to neglect the theming in order to bring in rides, and hopefully customers. Although though this was a new "theme" park, many Bostonians traveled to Canobie Lake and Lincoln Park to experience their well-known thrills. Even though they were old, the parks still offered a lot, including the Cyclone, a ride designed by Prior & Church and built by Traver which operated through 1969, the Lighting, one of Traver's triplets that operated through 1933 and John Miller's Thunderbolt coaster. Lincoln Park had a great double out and back in the Comet and an exciting collection of spinner rides.
The biggest failure in the new world of theme parks was Freedomland U.S.A., which was located in The Bronx, New York. The park proclaimed itself to be the "Disneyland of the East." Freedomland had areas themed for different events or periods in American history such as New England, Civil War Battlefields, Mardi Gras and many other areas. 60,000 people crowded the park on opening day in 1960, double the number they had been anticipated. The public found a park that was not finished and, as author Judith Adams said, "stimulated yawns rather than excitement or laughter." Although the opening of Disneyland and Freedomland were equally bad, Disney had something special which allowed it to overcome the criticism that bombarded the park in its first month. The public's perception of Freedomland never changed and the word around the city was that Freedomland was not worth the $3.50 admission price. The park scraped by for three years and added thrill rides, but it was too late. Freedomland closed in 1964 after operating its entire existence in the red and scared off other investors who were considering investing in new theme parks throughout the United States.
The bright spot during this time was the Six Flags chain, started by millionaire Angus Wynne in 1961. The first park was Six Flags Over Texas near Dallas. It featured the areas of Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States (these were the different powers which had governed Texas during different times in the state's history). Two rides were introduced at this park that revolutionized the theme park industry and established Arrow Dynamics as a major player in the roller coaster field.
In 1963 Six Flags over Texas introduced El Aserradero (Spanish for the sawmill), an Arrow Development log flume. The ride was very similar to the many flumes the company produced over the years. It featured two drops, the first low and the second high, and four passenger logs that floated through the course. That same year an Arrow log ride opened at Cedar Point.
The other breakthrough Arrow and Six Flags engineered was the Run-A-Way Mine Train, which opened to the public in 1966. It was 2,484 feet long, traveled at twenty-six miles per hour and utilized three lift hills. Although it wasn't a thrilling ride, this coaster helped to pave the way for the coasters that went upside down in the next decade. The ride was renamed the Mine Train in 1996 and but still entertains guests as the oldest coaster operating at Six Flags Over Texas.
This time period was not perfect for amusement parks, as many long standing, traditional parks were torn down and lost forever. Steeplechase Park at Coney Island, New York closed in 1964. Olympic Park in Irvington, New Jersey in 1965. Riverview Park in Chicago in 1967. Euclid Beach outside of Cleveland in 1969. Cincinnati's Coney Island in 1970 and Palisades Park, across the Hudson from New York, in 1971. Entire books have been written which talk about the joy that each of these places brought their respective communities, so it is very hard for me to convey the impact the closings each of these parks had on the cities they had thrived in for so long. What I can do is tell you about their signature rides and attractions that endeared these magical places to entire cities.
The closing of Steeplechase Park signaled an end of an era for Coney Island. 1964 was the worst year for "the Island" and it proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Steeplechase. During the season it rained on many of the major weekends and even snowed Easter weekend. The park, which had operated for sixty-seven years, provided generations of New Yorkers with memories, was now lost forever. The land was sold to the Trump Corporation, which tore down the Pavilion of Fun in 1965, left the parachute jump standing in its place (it is still there, not operating) and sold the Steeplechase Ride to Pirate's World in Florida where it operated for a few years before being scrapped. The park remained an empty field for many years until the Brooklyn Cyclones built a stadium on the site in 2001.
Olympic Park in New Jersey operated from 1887 through 1965 and was run by the Guenther family. It featured the Whirl Wind, a 1924 John Miller coaster that ran until it was blown down by a hurricane in 1950. The following year Herb Schmeck designed the Jet, a compact coaster John Allen raved about. He said, "For the small plot of land it occupied, in my opinion, it was the finest roller coaster ever built."
The park also had a rare John Miller Dip-Lo-Docus, which appears to have ridden like a "tea-cup" car grafted onto a mild coaster layout. The park closed due to growing problems many urban parks faced. A couple of publicized acts of violence worked to keep the important family base away from the park. Fortunately, one important piece of Olympic Park survived to give pleasure to future generations. The park's PTC carousel, from 1914, was restored and moved to Walt Disney World where it still gives joy to many children in Fantasyland.
Riverview Park in Chicago began as a sharp shooting park. The Schmidt family operated it and added rides, including a beautiful carousel, in 1904. Through the years the park at Western and Belmont became a second home to many who lived in northern Chicago. It prided itself on having several roller coasters-some of the best to be found anywhere. For most of its existence, the park boasted between six and eleven coasters, a sizeable amount considering the park was only seventy-two acres. Some of the best rides were: The Bobs, a vicious twister (talked about in the Prior and Church section), the Fireball coaster (which tunneled ten feet underground), the Shoot-the-Chutes, Aladdin's Castle (a walkthrough), the Strat-O-Strats (a Traver circle swing) and many other staple rides in the park-known by many as the Kingdom of Magic.
George Schmidt, the owner of the park, closed Riverview without warning at the end of the 1967 season and did not give any reasons for his decision. The carousel from Riverview was saved and moved to Six Flags Over Georgia where it still runs today.
Author Gary Cooper wrote:
"The Western-Belmont overpass still looms, like a bridge to nowhere. Years from now, how will we recall that it was built for an amusement park called Riverview? It will be difficult because enchantment is ephemeral. It will take more than plaques, an industrial park with the same name and yellowed newspaper clippings to resurrect that. The times will have to admit the possibility of such a place, and that seems less likely each day."
Spurred on by the success of resorts such as New York's Coney Island, Euclid Beach opened in 1895 as a get away for the upper-class citizens of Cleveland. The park featured three signature roller coasters, the first of which was built by John Miller in 1913. The Derby Racer was a mobious racer (like Kennywood's Racer), which meant that each train would finish on the opposite side of the station from which it started. It is interesting to note that the race here was not determined solely on the weight of the passengers. There was a small control tower next to the loading station that housed the controls for various brakes along the ride's course in case of an emergency. The operators sometimes altered the outcome of a race between the two trains through the brake use.
The Thriller was a Philadelphia Toboggan Company out and back coaster that opened for the 1924 season. It featured three cars, four benches each and a lift height of 71 feet. The first season the second hill was 60 feet high, but quickly altered by the park to twenty feet, thus giving wonderful airtime as it flew over the low-slung hill. The third major coaster built during this time was the Flying Turns, designed by the partnership of John Miller and Norman Bartlett. It opened in the summer of 1930 and was created by erecting a steel superstructure, onto which long pieces of cypress were laid (this created a half-barrel shaped trough in which the cars ran). Bartlett's first Flying Turns was located at Lakeside Park in Dayton, built on a much smaller scale and ran one car at a time. This was his first full-scale version of the Flying Turns and remained an icon of the park for years to come. Euclid Beach closed in the fall of 1969 and Cleveland lost a wonderful family park. Today there are a few bits and pieces of the park to be found. The stone arch that welcomed visitors for years still stands, the carousel is in the process of being rehabilitated and guests can still ride the Derby Racer (a carousel which features racing horses) at Cedar Point.
Palisades Park opened in 1898 on the bluffs of the Hudson River across from New York City. The Schneck brothers, who lost interest in the park after becoming major players in the growing film industry, first operated it. They sold the park to the Rosenthal Brothers (who built the Coney Island Cyclone) in 1935. During this time the park was losing money and many thought the brothers were crazy to try to salvage it. Through some miracle the pair prevailed and were able to successfully run Palisades for many years. Many coaster designers built rides at Palisades, but few lasted beyond the twenties. The Skyrocket was built in 1926 by John Miller with the assistance of Erwin Vettel. Two years later Harry Traver's Cyclone opened, but it operated until 1934. That year the Skyrocket suffered a fire, was rebuilt and re-christened the Cyclone. Its thrilling twister layout thrilled riders until the park closed. The Cyclone was probably one of the best-maintained coasters because of one man- Joseph McKee. He was the park's superintendent and kept Palisades very clean. But McKee's real expertise lay in coasters. He built over 300 of them and created elements like the S-curve. After the fire he operated the Cyclone and over the years constantly maintained and reworked the coaster so it gave the best ride possible. It was a dedication that cannot be found in any big themer today, but then again, the ride he had perfected over the years could not be found in one, either. The park's owner, Irving Rosenthal, sold the land to Winston Towers, which built condominiums on the land in 1971. They can still be seen perched across the Hudson on the spot where many got their first kiss, rode their first coaster and millions of memories were made.
Cincinnati's Coney Island opened in 1886 as "The Coney Island of the West," but dropped most of the name the following season to become Coney Island. Some of PTC's best coasters were built at Coney Island, including the Wildcat, a twister coaster (1925), a ride called the Twister (1928) which ran completely enclosed and the Shooting Star, a double out and back, built in 1937. The park operated until 1970 and closed because of the repeated flooding that occurred during the many years the park operated. Another reason it closed was because of its success. The new parent company, Taft, knew that there was stable patron base in Cincinnati and wanted to create a new park in an area where it would flourish. It simply began to be too expensive to operate the park, so parts of it, including the Flying Eagles (flying scooters), a log flume, carousel, sky ride, monster and many of the large, old trees and were moved to the new location of King's Island.
Many of these parks will never be with us again. But these are not the only parks loved by thousands. I could have told you about Lincoln Park outside of Boston, the Pike at Long Beach, the Highlands in St. Louis, Mountain Park in western Mass., or Pontchartrain Beach in New Orleans. Each of these parks helped to create memories that can only occur in the wonder of a traditional park. You may be asking, what can I do? Well, on your next cross-country trip stop to see a traditional park or two. Not just gems like Kennywood, but also take time to see Camden Park in West Virginia, William's Grove in Pennsylvania, Lake Compounce in Connecticut, Joyland Park in Kansas, or one of the many other traditional parks throughout this country. I promise that you will enjoy yourself and have a good time within the walls of a classic family park.
Roller Coaster History written by Adam Sandy. All rights reserved.
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