America's Greatest Amusement Parks
Published: April 2009
By Justin Martin
No cartoon characters, no movie tie-ins, just untainted fun— at America's old-fashioned amusement parks
For lovers of old-fashioned amusement parks, 1955 will forever live in infamy. That was the year Disneyland opened, and family fun has never been quite the same. Soon, theme parks were sprawling everywhere, with half-mile lines, high-concept rides, and steep prices.
At the outset, amusement parks were about simpler joys. In 1884, LaMarcus Thompson opened the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway at Coney Island, in which train cars pitched down a sharp incline, introducing people to the thrill of being scared out of their wits. By 1915, America had roughly 2,000 amusement parks. Sadly, most have long since been boarded up, but a few of the best are still around. Some favorites are highlighted here, places where you can hear calliope music, ride a wooden roller coaster, eat cotton candy, and spend a few hours forgetting how quickly the world changes.
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+ EASTERN U.S. +
Coney Island is indelible in the American imagination. During the mid-19th century, while nearby Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach grew into posh resorts, the area known as the Gut was run by John "Chief" McKane, a corrupt politician, and became a center for illicit pleasures such as gambling, horse racing, and mixed public bathing. It was a natural site for all the curiosities that followed—everything from a new invention by a man named George Washington Gale Ferris to freak shows featuring sword swallowers, mermaids, and Jo-Jo the Dogfaced Boy.
After a subway line to Coney Island was completed in 1920, the boardwalk received up to a million visitors a day in summer. But by 1965, Coney's three parks had closed down, and the rides and arcades entered a long dormant period. Today, Coney Island is reverting to its former tawdry splendor. Visitors can win stuffed snakes at Skee-Ball, gape at a headless woman, and ride the 1927 Cyclone at Astroland. And no visit is complete without a hot dog and fries from the original Nathan's, on Surf Avenue, a fast-food temple that dates to 1916. Open Summer-Labor Day; admission free; $12.99 covers all rides at Astroland (http://www.astroland.com/; 1000 Surf Ave.; 718/265-2100).
Winter Haven, FL
The park for people who consider roller coaster rides more torturous than pleasurable. Cypress Gardens is famous for its waterskiing extravaganzas; world records have been set here and Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson have strapped on skis. The other big draw, of course, is the botanical gardens, which visitors can float through in electrically powered boats. Hibiscus and bougainvillea grow alongside rare African sausage trees and floss-silk trees. In addition, Cypress Gardens is notable for what may be the quietest amusement park attraction anywhere: a Victorian-style glass conservatory that houses 76 varieties of butterfly. If you remain hushed and still, butterflies will land all over you-which may scare some people more than a 200-foot roller coaster plunge. Open year-round; adults $31.95 (plus tax), children 6-17 $14.95 (plus tax), all-inclusive; 2641 South Lake Summit Dr.; 800/282-2123.
West Mifflin, PA
This 1898 trolley park has outlived the trolley, the Pittsburgh steel industry, and 17 other Allegheny County amusement parks. It has a breathtaking location, high on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River. Kennywood's pride and joy is its 1936 Noah's Ark, a boat-shaped fun house that rocks from side to side as visitors stagger through. Kennywood also has the only Auto Race ride left in the world, in which kids drive old-fashioned sedans along a wooden track. Open mid-April through Labor Day; $17.95 weekdays, $21.95 weekends, all-inclusive; exit 9 off I-376; 412/461-0500.
Since 1925, generations of children have stumbled over the pronunciation of this park's name, which in Cherokee means "beautiful lake of the highlands." Many of the 30 rides here take advantage of the lovely lake: the Alpine Skylift is a chairlift that travels over it; the Boat Chute, built in 1927, spills into it. But Winnepesaukah's most memorable attraction is also its simplest: feeding popcorn to the giant carp that inhabit the lake. Open mid-April to mid-September; gate admission $3, $12 all-inclusive; 1115 Lakeview Dr.; 877/525-3946 (toll-free).
With Art Deco buildings and a location on Long Island Sound, Playland has been cast in several movies, including Big and—inappropriate as it seems—Fatal Attraction. The park is worth strolling for the atmosphere alone, but you might be tempted to stop in at the Music Tower, which holds musical revues and oldies acts, or to play a round of miniature golf. There are picnic groves, a beach, and 45 rides, seven of them in place since opening day, in 1928. Try the Derby Racer, a high-speed carousel for thrill-seekers. Open mid-May to mid-October; admission free, ride tickets $1.50-$3.25; Exit 19 off I-95 to Playland Pkwy.; 914/925-2701.
Whalom Park has seen it all during its 103 years. William McKinley visited while campaigning for president in 1896, a roller coaster was blown over by a hurricane in 1938, and John F. Kennedy held a rally in the ballroom. The fun house administered a rousing electric shock until the park found it impossible to get insurance and closed the attraction down (it reopened, shock-free, as the Prism). Whalom Park also has a Whip and a KiddieWhip (built in the 1930's by a company with the unsettling name of Mangles Manufacturing); a rocket ride; and a Tumble Bug, which sends a half-dozen people linked in insectlike segments tumbling over a bumpy track. The perfect complement to all that spinning and jolting: fried dough, perhaps the world's greatest nutritional hazard. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day; $3 general admission; $14.00 persons over 48" tall, $10.00 persons under 48" tall, all-inclusive; 10 Lake Front; 978/342-3707.
+ MIDWEST +
Cedar Point began life as a simple beach on Lake Erie with a bathhouse and beer garden; the first rides opened in the late 1880's. Today, the ride count has climbed to 56-everything from Snake River Fall, a water-flume ride, to a 1924 midway carousel whose carved wooden steeds have real horsehair tails. But most people come for the roller coasters. With this year's addition of the Mantis, Cedar Point will have 12-more than any park anywhere. The Mean Streak, at 161 feet, is one of the tallest wooden coasters in the world. Open mid-May to early October; adults $32.95, children $8.95-$27.95, all-inclusive; Exit 7 north off I-80; 419/627-2350.
Santa Claus, IN
Holiday World is based on a notion guaranteed to delight kids as much as it horrifies parents: What if every day were Christmas, Halloween, and the Fourth of July all at once?The park was founded in 1946 as Santa Claus Land, the ostensible summer residence of the Jolly One himself. Santa greets kids in his warm-weather attire-red golf pants, white shirt, no hat—then reads them Christmas stories and leads them in a caroling session. Site-appropriate holiday music pumps out of speakers to put visitors in the spirit for themed rides such as the Raven, a wooden roller coaster entered through a Gothic mansion in the park's Halloween section; and, in the Fourth of July corner, Paul Revere's Midnight Ride, featuring a starred-and-striped octopus ride. Open mid-May to late August; adults $22.95, children $16.95, all-inclusive; junction of Highways 162 and 245; 800/467-2682.
+ WESTERN U.S. +
In 1885 railroad magnate Simon Bamberger instituted a mandatory stop on the train trip between Ogden and Salt Lake City. Passengers could either stay on board or get out and explore his gardens, and perhaps buy a treat. Thus began Lagoon. Today the park has more than 35 rides, some of them quite charming, such as the 1893 carousel with hand-carved frogs, giraffes, and roosters. Twenty years ago, Lagoon relocated a pioneer village—cabins, church, jail, and all—from Salt Lake City. And for decades, the Lagoon Dance Hall featured diverse music acts, from Tommy Dorsey to Jimi Hendrix. Open mid-April to late September; adults $27.95, children $21.95, all-inclusive; Lagoon-Farmington exit off I-15; 800/748-5246.
White City was the park's nickname when it opened in 1908, and every building glowed under bright lights. These days, many of Lakeside's structures retain their White City splendor. Two miniature steam engines, featured in the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, depart from a beautifully preserved turn-of-the-century depot and chug around Lake Rhoda, views of the Rockies cresting in the distance. There are 39 rides, including the Rock-O-Plane, Roll-O-Plane, and Loop-O-Plane, which do exactly what they promise. Open mid-May through September; $1.50 gate admission (rides $0.50-3.00 each); $12.50 weekdays, $16.00 weekends, all-inclusive; 4601 N. Sheridan Blvd.; 303/477-1621.
SANTA CRUZ BEACH BOARDWALK
Santa Cruz, CA
This is the West Coast Coney Island, complete with a half-mile-long boardwalk and fixtures like Marini's, a candy shop that has seen three generations of the Marini family hand-dipping chocolates and spinning taffy. Arrayed along the boardwalk are 27 rides, highlighted by the Giant Dipper, a 1924 wooden roller coaster; and a 1911 Looff carousel, one of the few still in existence where riders can try to grab a metal ring. Another draw is the arcade games, old and new. Don't miss the Old Swimming Hole, a 1928 card-flip machine that riled Santa Cruz's most upright citizens at its debut, since it featured a young woman ambling behind a bush and tossing her clothes in the air. Open year-round (daily late May through Labor Day); admission free, ride tickets $1.50-$3.00 or $19.95 all-inclusive; 400 Beach St.; 408/423-5590.
+ EUROPEAN CLASSICS +
Tivoli is straight out of a storybook. In 1843, its founder sought permission from King Christian VIII of Denmark to build a park outside the rampart that surrounded the city. According to legend, the king replied, "As long as people amuse themselves they won't speculate about politics." The park has a pantomime theater, lush gardens, and such relatively modern entertainments as a roller coaster from 1914 and the Baljerne, a ride from the same year in which riders bob along in richly decorated tubs. Open late April through late September; gate admission adults $6.55, children $3.65; adults $30.00, children $27.00, all-inclusive; 3 Vesterbrogade; 45/33-15-10-01.
BLACKPOOL PLEASURE BEACH
An Englishman who failed in the New York ad biz went home with visions of Coney Island dancing in his head and, in 1896, founded Blackpool. Still up and running are such vintage rides as Sir Hiram Maxim's Captive Flying Machine, with its rotating rocket-shaped cars, and the River Caves, a gondola ride through tableaux of ancient China and Egypt. Despite an American influence, the nuances here are English: merry-go-rounds travel clockwise, and concession stands sell fish-and-chips. Open daily March 30 through November 3; admission free, pay on individual attractions or purchase discount sheets of ride tickets; Ocean Boulevard, Blackpool; 44-1253/341-033.
+ BIGGEST AND BEST +
Biggest roller coaster plunge: The Steel Phantom, Kennywood; 225 feet at 80 mph
Tackiest souvenirs: Hats with built-in ponytails, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Best skyline: Cedar Point—the peaks and valleys of 12 roller coasters
Best attraction for the faint of heart: Cypress Gardens' conservatory; butterflies alight on your shoulders
Best-preserved park: Kennywood, according to the National Amusement Park Historical Association
Most cameos: Playland; appeared in Big, Fatal Attraction, and Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" video
Best place to wear your Christmas earrings off-season: Holiday World
JUSTIN MARTIN is a staff writer for Fortune magazine.
The information in this article was updated and verified in April, 1999.