The Great Depression, which began in 1929, was the most influential event that happened in the development of the young amusement park industry. According to the United States Census Bureau, the number of parks was 1800-2000 in 1930, went down to 303 in 1935 and hit rock bottom (245) in 1939.
As far-reaching as the impact of the Great Depression was, I was able to find very few sources that talked about the economic effect it had on the plight of the American amusement park. One large factor during this era that contributed to the downfall of parks was their sales by transit companies- often as a result of sharp declines in revenue. At the same time, the mass transit (trolleys and street cars) in most American cities were bought out by car & tire companies and taken out of business so they would not compete with the automobile. In turn, more people bought cars and wanted to see the country, not the old amusement park down the street.
War veterans that saw the world did not want to sit at home with their families; they piled everyone in the car and visited other places in the United States by utilizing their newfound prosperity. Another problem was that in the forties, fifties and sixties many parks still had "whites only" policies and would not cater to the minorities that moved into areas of the city surrounding many urban amusement parks. Instead of reversing their polices, some parks kept strict "No colored allowed" rules, even if it meant the closing of their park. Sadly, several traditional American parks might have survived if they would have opened their gates to all and become America's playground, instead of empty lots.
Neglect of rides and coasters in many parks, combined with rising insurance costs and a lack of raw materials during the Depression and World War II, helped to expedite the destruction of America's best-loved coasters. There was a new national attitude that said roller coasters were a thing of the past. This was a new, sophisticated period where Americans did not need the "low-brow" entertainment provided by amusement parks. However, this feeling of disdain for parks did change with World War II as people visited their local parks to forget about the nation's problems.
A few coasters were built during this apparent "down time," such as the Vettel family's Cyclone at Lakeside Park and Blue Streak at Conneaut Lake Park, National Amusement Devices' Sterling's Million Dollar Coaster at Rocky Glen Park in Pennsylvania, the Flyer Comet at Whalom Park, the Thunderbolt at Riverside Park and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company/Herb Schmeck Comet opened at Hersheypark.
In the period after World War II coasters were built on a regular basis. Even though the number may pale in comparison to today, we must remember that the American economy had not done well on a regular basis for quite a while. With the exception of the wartime period, the economy was not strong enough to sustain growth since the Twenties. The quality of life was slowly beginning to get better as the troops came home and had children, a population boom which would slowly spur on the growth of amusement parks.
"Kiddie-coasters" became immensely popular in the fifties, as parents with steadily rising incomes and growing families looked for new things to do with their children. These coasters featured simple double out & back layouts. Herb Schmeck & PTC designed a new breed of kiddie coaster that was a perfect addition to the kiddie parks that sprouted up.
The Little Dipper was built at Kiddieland (Melrose Park, IL) in 1950, The Comet at Waldameer Park was built in 1951 and the Little Dipper at Hillcrest Park erected in 1952. The 1951 Dipper stood at 45 feet, while the other two were 24 feet tall. The Little Dipper (Hillcrest) was unique because it was moved from a Chicago mall to the present site in the late 1960's. It was built at the mall to attract patrons to the new style of shopping. This was fairly common during this time as many malls had miniature golf courses, fairy-tale buildings and other items to help draw the public off the highway and into the mall. The last of this style was The Sea Dragon at Wyandot Lake, designer John Allen's first solo project. It was erected in 1956, stood 37 feet high and still gives a fun ride.
Fortunately for us all four of these coasters are still standing for future generations of beginning enthusiasts. These coasters were the perfect transition pieces for the "baby boomer generation." They were big enough for parents who had cut their teeth on the coasters of the twenties, but small enough for a country that was full of children.
Roller Coaster History written by Adam Sandy. All rights reserved.
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