America's Best Carousels
It took exceptional devotion to complete the 27-year restoration of Jane’s Carousel, but most of us can easily relate to the nostalgic appeal of a merry-go-round: the sound of the organ, the whimsical wooden animals pumping up and down, the lights reflected in the mirrors. And while carousels aren’t likely to be the reason you travel, they’re often placed somewhere iconic (Boston Common) or beautiful (Santa Monica pier), where you’d be drawn naturally. The ride is an added, affordable delight.
“The carousel was the first form of mechanical recreation and the original root of modern amusements,” says Bette Largent, president of the National Carousel Association. The earliest carousels date back to around A.D. 500, though you’d hardly recognize them: rather than lit-up spectacles, these were baskets hand-spun around a central pole. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that carousels as we know them came into existence.
Today, roughly 400 merry-go-rounds are in operation across America, whether in city parks or at kid-friendly attractions such as zoos. Michigan’s Grand Rapids Museum finds its own way to incorporate the wild: its carousel is housed in a glass building that juts over a river. With a little imagination, you’ll feel as if you’re about ready to gallop through the water.
If you want more of a tangible rush—as far as carousels go—swing by Cedar Downs Racing Derby in Sandusky, OH, where the mechanical horses reach speeds of up to 15 miles per hour and move back and forth as they vie for first place.
So what is in store for the future of carousels? Well, according to Largent, it’s a nod to the past. “The latest trend is a return of the wooden carousel,” says Largent. “We may indeed have as many wood-carvers today as during the height of the industry in the early 1900s.”
Read on to see our favorite carousels around the U.S., and share your own memories in the comments below.
Tom Mankiewicz Conservation Carousel, Los Angeles
Many of the 66 hand-carved figurines at the Los Angeles Zoo’s $2.5 million carousel—an Asian elephant; a mountain tapir; a lowland gorilla—were inspired by the zoo’s own endangered animals.
Cost: $3; lazoo.org.
Smithsonian Carousel, Washington, D.C.
This wood-and-metal carousel, built in 1947, sits right in front of the Smithsonian Castle, adjacent to the National Mall. Try to catch a ride on the horse-dragon hybrid figure; the carousel’s only fantastical creature stands out from the run-of-the-mill horse and chariot figures.
Cost: Free; visitingdc.com.
Crescent Park Carousel, East Providence, RI
This massive carousel has been the central fixture of Crescent Park since 1895 and highlights the handiwork of Charles I. D. Looff, one of the first and premier carousel builders. It was almost scrapped in the late 1970s, but a group of locals rallied to help save the carousel, which has since been added to the National Register of Historic Sites and Places.
Cost: $1; 75 cents on Thursdays; eastprovidenceri.net.
Riverview Carousel, Six Flags Over Georgia, Austell, GA
This carousel takes a classic approach: all of the figures are horses, racing alongside four multiperson chariots. You’ll note some signs of wear and tear on some of the wooden figures, but that just adds character to this century-old historic landmark.
Cost: $39.99–$54.99 for park tickets; sixflags.com.
Looff Carousel, Spokane, WA
A giraffe, a tiger, a pair of Chinese dragons, and many horses add up to 57 hand-carved wooden creatures circling this 1909 carousel in Spokane’s Riverfront Park. Be on the lookout for the oh-so-coveted Miss Liberty, a horse decked out in red, white, and blue.
Cost: $2; spokanecarrousel.org.
San Francisco Carousel, CA
Designed and built in Italy, this double-decker delight stands out for its hand-painted scenes of local landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, and even the sea lions that take up residence—or at least idle away afternoons of sunbathing—by Pier 39. Of the 32 seats, riders can choose a traditional horse or something a little different, like a panda bear or sea dragon.
Cost: $3; pier39.com.
Santa Monica Pier Carousel, CA
There’s plenty of old-time fun to be had on Santa Monica’s famed oceanfront pier, where you’ll find this nearly 100-year-old carousel. Restored in 1990, the ride is one of just 70 or so left in the world made entirely of wood. Go for a spin as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean—it’s about as picture-perfect as a carousel ride can get.
Cost: $1; santamonicapier.org.
Cedar Downs Racing Derby, Sandusky, OH
In a fitting twist, the 64 horses move forward and backward as they “race” each other around this 1925 carousel. While it might not seem über-speedy, at 15 miles per hour, it’s one of the fastest carousels you can ride.
Cost: $19.99–$45.99 for park tickets; cedarpoint.com.
Jane’s Carousel, Brooklyn, NY
Originally built in 1922, Jane’s Carousel recently emerged from a 27-year restoration. Its 48 glass-eyed horses, housed in a Jean Nouvel–designed pavilion that sits riverside in Brooklyn Bridge Park, feature ornate saddles and gold-leaf detailing.
Cost: $2; janescarousel.com.
Trimper’s Rides, Ocean City, MD
Built in the 1920s, this carousel is one of few of its age with a menagerie of animals, including a pig, an ostrich, a frog, and a goat. After taking a spin, check out the other antique rides at Trimper’s on the boardwalk of this classic beach town.
Cost: $2; trimpersrides.com.
Detroit Zoo Carousel
Choose either a traditional horse or one of the more unusual critters (including a camel, a ladybug, and even a mini Tyrannosaurus rex) as your mount at this 33-seat carousel that debuted in September 2011. You could even pony up to rent out the wood-and-brass carousel for your own private event.
Cost: $2, plus zoo admission of $12–14; detroitzoo.org.
Frog Pond Carousel, Boston
Boston Common, the must-visit park in Beantown’s downtown, has been home to a carousel for some time now. And why shouldn’t it be? Situated next to the famous Frog Pond, it’s the perfect location. The 2012 season saw the introduction of a brand-spanking-new replacement carousel, featuring mostly traditional horses—but be on the lookout for the oversize cat with a fish dangling from its mouth.
Cost: $3; bostonfrogpond.com.
Grand Rapids Museum Carousel, MI
Built in 1902, this carousel is housed in a glass building built over a river, creating the illusion that you’re about to ride into the water. Note the ticket booth as you enter; it’s the original one that debuted with the carousel’s opening.
Cost: $1; grmuseum.org.
Morgan Wonderland Carousel, San Antonio, TX
Want to find out what happens when you mix a horse with a dragon? Stop by Morgan’s carousel. Sure, it features spectacular hybrid animals among traditional horses, but what makes this carousel truly special are the custom chariots designed to accommodate those in wheelchairs—so they can experience the up-and-down thrill like other riders.
Cost: $10–$15 for park admission; morganswonderland.com.
Flying Horse, Westerly, RI
Only children are allowed on this carousel; built in 1876, this is one of the oldest still in operation in the U.S. Each of the horses was carved from just a single piece of wood, and rather than being attached to the roof and floor as is traditional, they’re attached to the center frame, giving riders more of a floating feeling.
Cost: $1.50; visitrhodeisland.com.
Totally Kid Carousel, New York City
This Riverbank State Park model is hands down the most original carousel we’ve seen. In 1997, artist Milo Mottola challenged local kids to submit drawings of animals. After selecting the 27 he liked best, he brought the trippy creations to life, sculpting a lizard whose mouth is actually on top of its head and a purple and green lion, among others.
Cost: $1; nysparks.com.
Columbia Carousel, Chicago
A whopping 10 stories high, Columbia literally towers over many of the carousels on our list. We’ve been impressed by double-decker merry-go-rounds, but this Six Flags attraction one-ups the competition with its third level. Sign us up!
Cost: Free with park ticket (from $39.99); sixflags.com.
Kit Carson Carousel, Burlington, CO
Some 4,000 wooden carousels were carved in the U.S. between 1885 and the 1930s, and this is one of the few from that period that still exists. So what else jumps out on this one? It’s the only antique carousel in the country that still wears its original paint.
Cost: 25 cents; kitcarsoncountycarousel.com.
Prospect Park Carousel, New York City
One of the greatest parks in NYC is off the typical tourist path and home to this fantabulous carousel. It’s modest in size, but that helps make it seem like it’s moving much faster. Be sure to hop aboard the reindeer, which stands out in the crowd of horses, and don’t miss the depictions of Brooklyn landmarks, past and present, that adorn the ride.
Cost: $2; prospectpark.org.
Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round, Los Angeles
It’s horses only on this 1926 carousel nestled inside L.A.’s Griffith Park. The carousel’s 68 figures prance round and round to the waltz—more than 1,500 variations. Hold tight to their jewel-encrusted bridles on the turns.
—Kelsi Maree Borland
The Flying Horse Carousel, Martha’s Vineyard, MA
The Flying Horse is more than a fabulous vintage carousel sitting inside a quaint red barn. It’s a bona fide national landmark. Built by Charles Dare in 1876, it’s the oldest platform carousel still running in the U.S., complete with traditional brass rings. As T+L community member duckworth pointed out, a roundup of the best carousels is incomplete without it.
Cost: $2; mvpreservation.org.
—Kelsi Maree Borland
House on the Rock Carousel, Spring Green, WI
It took a decade to construct the world’s largest carousel, a 36-ton ride at that boasts 269 handcrafted creatures—and not one is a traditional carousel horse. Bring shades: 182 sparkling chandeliers and 20,000 lights brighten this merry-go-round, part of the House on the Rock resort complex.
Cost: $12.50 for access to the carousel and other Section 3 rides, or $28.50 for the Ultimate Experience Admission package; thehouseontherock.com.
Children’s Creativity Carousel, San Francisco
What a ride: constructed in 1906, this carousel traveled cross-country from Rhode Island to San Francisco, where it remained for nearly six decades before being placed in storage in New Mexico. In a happy turn of events, in 1983 the restored carousel was returned to the Golden State, where it’s become a beloved fixture of SOMA’s Children’s Creativity Museum.
Cost: $3 for 2 rides; creativity.org.
1911 Looff Carousel, Santa Cruz, CA
A staple of the Santa Cruz boardwalk for more than 100 years, this carousel is like a ride through history. Don’t look for crazy characters, though; of the 75 seats, 73 are traditional horses.
Cost: $3; beachboardwalk.com.
Noah’s Ark Carousel, Portland, OR
Brought to Portland’s Oaks Amusement Park in 1923, this carousel is double the fun: two decks featuring a menagerie of animals—from horses and deer to giraffes and lions—that move in time to organ music originally recorded in the park’s skating rink.
Cost: $2.50; oakspark.com.
—Kelsi Maree Borland