Lost Amusement Parks by Chas Glynn

When I was quite young, I went with my folks to Playland at the Beach, a San Francisco amusement park that was about to be torn down. Researching it now, I realize that the oldest I could have been would have been was seven. Even as a child, though, I had a sense that I was visiting something that was ending, something that belonged to another era. Having an architect dad may have helped—many family trips revolved around visits to historic structures that were on the verge of demolition. When we visited Playland, it was winter, rainy, and the Wild Mouse and most of the other outdoor rides had already been decommissioned. The indoor fun house, however, was still open for business. One entered the fun house through a door topped with a giant clown (looking back this may explain my lifelong clown obsession). Even in its dotage, though, the fun house was… fun. There was a big wooden slide (which I think may be the one on the cover of the Cowsills’ album) a vast tunnel which rotated as you attempted to walk through it, and the house of mirrors. I remember my dad grumbling about the state the place had fallen into—the slide was slow because hadn’t been waxed to a high sheen, the panes of glass in the house of mirrors were covered in dust and countless fingerprints. I was enthralled. Shortly after our visit, Playland was torn down and condos built in its place. Across Ocean Boulevard, the Camera Obscura remains as one of the few leftovers of this urban seaside amusement park, although the part service, loath to be burdened with a decaying relic perched on an unstable cliff, continually threatens to tear it down. As with many people, amusement parks left a strong impression on my young mind. And having the site of these memories disappear leaves a certain nostalgic sadness. My own experience inspired me to look into other amusement parks that have come and gone. In tribute to these lost places, here are some amusement parks and attractions that live on only in memory, as well as one magical individual’s visions of what a park should be.

I first read of The World of Sid & Marty Krofft amusement park in Dynamite magazine, which had an article on the then-planned park, and featured a breathless description of a unique new ride in which one sat inside a giant silver ball as it careened through an enormous pinball machine. Hearing nothing more of it in ensuing years, I assumed it was a pipe dream, but I later found out that it had opened and operated, although for less than a year. Located in Atlanta’s Omni International complex, TWOS&MK opened in 1976. This was an indoor park—more of an amusement mall than a traditional park. Visitors boarded a giant escalator which carried them to the top of the six-story complex, where they entered through a gateway composed of a pair of enormous, balloon-wielding mimes. Guests then passed into the Kroffts’ personal fantasy world. In addition to the pinball ride, there was a 60-ton “Crystal Carousel” which floated, hovercraft-like, on a cushion of air. Most familiar was a re-creation of Lidsville, from the psychedelic Krofft TV series of the same name, where visitors were invited to “celebrate amid giant hats.” A short trip down a simulated mine shaft conveyed visitors to the “Living Island Adventure,” where they could view a pageant starring characters from the H.R. Pufnstuf series.

The park, intrinsically tied to several popular television series, could have been a success, but various factors caused it to fail. It faced many problems—the pinball ride caused a number of injuries, and kept breaking down. Indeed, most of the attractions were built from scratch and faced frequent mechanical problems. And the summer of ’76 proved to be a bad time for tourism. High gas prices, coupled with relentless Bicentennial boosterism (which created the impression that popular tourist spots would be packed with celebrators) meant that many stayed at home that year. And then, too, the Kroffts’ vision was just a little… odd. While the warped and vaguely disturbing aesthetic of their TV shows meant that they would long stick in the minds of kids growing up in the ‘70s, it didn’t necessarily play well with parents taking their kids out for a day of fun. What was amusingly weird for a half-hour on Saturday morning became a bit unnerving when one had to spend a day stuck among it in a windowless complex.

Strange as The World of Sid & Marty Krofft was, it paled in comparison the transcendental meditation-themed amusement park long planned by Doug Henning. TM combined Eastern mysticism and pop-spirituality to become a fad in the ‘70s, but it’s hard to conceive of it as natural fit for the hurdy-gurdy world of the amusement park. Magician Doug Henning thought differently, though. In 1987, he put his career on hold to begin the creation of Maharishi Veda Land—a theme park to be built in his native Canada, close to Niagara Falls (with a planned sister park in India) which was devoted to Vedic wisdom and enlightenment. In a press release he stated: “We are taking Maharishi’s knowledge and then structuring it into entertaining and magical exhibits, rides, and films. There will be boat rides through an ancient Vedic civilization where everyone lives in perfect harmony with natural law. In this exhibit we see enlightened men flying through the air, making objects materialize and vanish at will. We will be able to walk through the Courtyard of Maya where everything we see is an illusion that fades away at a second glance.” Doug used his illusionist skills to design such features as piles of money and jewels that disappeared as people grabbed for them, levitating buildings, and boulders metamorphisizing into people. Featured attractions were to be the Magic Flying Chariot Ride (which took visitors on a Monsanto-inner-space-like journey into the atomic structure of a rose), the Corridor of Time (in which parkgoers went on a trip from the birth to the death of the universe), and the Seven Steps to Enlightenment (a series of tiered pavilions which were designed to lead the visitor toward full consciousness). Henning boasted that “one time through and you will never see the world the same way again.” Doug Henning died in February 2000, but he earmarked much of his fortune to ensure that work would continue on his beloved amusement park. However, despite over a decade of planning, Maharishi Veda Land seems still to exist largely on paper. Only time will tell if tourists of the future will flock to this park to mix spiritual enlightenment with their thrills and spills.

Less odd, but still very much a personal vision, was one man’s attempt to recreate the mythical world of Oz. Atop North Carolina’s Beech Mountain (a popular winter resort), Grover Robbins enlisted the help of designer Jack Pentes to construct the Land of Oz theme park in 1970. Eschewing traditional rides, it endeavored to give visitors the experience of visiting L. Frank Baum’s literary creation. Beginning in a Kansas farm (which featured a petting zoo), visitors went through a simulated tornado and embarked on a walk down a yellow brick road into a place adorned with colorful Styrofoam scenery and dancing, costumed characters. One could visit the Cowardly Lion’s cave, peer into the handcrafted Scarecrow’s house, or take a Wizardly ride in a hot-air balloon. Unfortunately, the remote location made travel to the park an ordeal of twisting mountain roads, and the area was prone to frequent flash thunderstorms, which sent visitors scurrying for shelter. Park employees soon adapted, and would kick off their shoes so as not to slip on the yellow brick road, which became treacherously slick when wet. In 1975, a fire swept through the park, destroying many of the attractions as well as the original dress worn by Judy Garland in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, on display courtesy of Oz-ibila collector Debbie Reynolds. What remained of the park was kept in operation for several more years, growing increasingly more vandalized and decrepit, until it finally closed in 1980. Occasional reunions of park employees and Oz fans take place among the ruins, and Dorothy’s house has been incorporated into the nearby Emerald Mountain vacation development, but this Oz now largely exists only in memory.

Disneyland, of course, is in no danger of disappearing, but many parts of it have faded away. Over the years, rides and attractions are updated, subtly or radically altered, or removed altogether. Tom Sawyer’s Island initially featured a fishing pier, with rods provided by the park, but this was closed very shortly after the park’s opening. It quickly became evident that the successful anglers would be burdened with an unwieldy dead fish for the rest of their visit, and many were abandoned in trashcans or lockers. The nearby Swiss Family Treehouse experienced a more recent renovation. Following the release of one of Disney’s animated Tarzan movies, the attraction was renamed Tarzan’s Treehouse, with revamped signage and various modification to the set dressing. In an odd oversight, however, Swiss polka music still plays on speakers hidden throughout the treehouse.

Those who visited Disneyland in the ‘70s and ‘80s may recall a rather dated version of the future presented by Tomorrowland. Gone now is the Submarine Voyage. Disneyland once had the third largest submarine fleet in the world, after the US and Soviet navies, although Disney’s could only go a few feet underwater. Despite the continued popularity of this ride, it was eliminated in the ’98 revamp of Tomorrowland. Gone too, is Monsanto’s Adventure Through Inner Space. Visitors would board buggies and be “miniaturized” to travel through the world of atoms and molecules. (A former girlfriend of mine, as a child, broke her leg hopping from car to car on this ride and entered the hallowed ranks of those who have been injured on amusement park rides.) Also gone is the rather dated House of the Future, which offered such marvels as plastic furniture and a microwave oven. One missing attraction that may not ring a bell except for hardcore Disney fanatics is Captain EO. This large-screen 3D multimedia presentation opened in 1986 and was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, produced by George Lucas, and starred Michael Jackson as a space explorer who transforms an evil planet through the power of pop music. In 1997, it quietly closed and was replaced by the “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” 3D movie.

Tomorrowland has been fully overhauled, and now attempts to present a vision of the future from a millennial standpoint. Rapidly advancing technology, however, makes today’s gee-whiz gadget commonplace within a few years. Also, the future seems much less a magical wonderland than it did in the mid-20th century. Some of Tomorrowland’s appeal may well have been that it took visitors to an antiquated, but much more appealing, vision of the future. Touchingly, the original Tomorrowland is commemorated in a mural visible over the revamped Tomorrowland.

While Disneyland looms large in shared memory, many have their own personal memories of more obscure amusements past. Mike Lavella, publisher of Gearhead magazine, recalled White Swan Park in his native Pennsylvania. Distinguished by its swan-themed rides, it closed after a number of accidents and fatalities marred its reputation. The country-themed Opryland amusement park is no more, replaced by a more lucrative mall. And while there were many Luna Parks, the one located smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan is viewed by many to be the first modern American amusement park. Featuring landscaping, neoclassical architecture and permanent installations of rides and attractions, it strived for a more tasteful environment than the typical tawdry carnival environment of the day. Present-day park operators could well learn a thing from this industry pioneer.

I’ll close with another personal memory, not of a vanished park, but a vanished ride. The Cave Train at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk wasn’t thrilling or state of the art—in fact it was worn at the edges by the time I visited the Boardwalk in the mid-‘80s. One rode a miniature train through a stalactite and stalagmite-laden tunnel of sprayed stucco, featuring smoke-spewing volcanoes, black light illumination, and fanciful cave scenes of dinosaurs and cavemen in odd, humorous situations, It was obviously built some decades before, and I always got the impression that it was the product of one person’s odd vision. I couldn’t ever ride it without thinking of the Cramps’ song “Caveman.” It’s gone now, replaced by some prefab spin-n-puke ride, and I feel the Boardwalk is the poorer for it.

Researching this article, I became aware of the vast number of lost amusement parks, and the weight of memory that they have for so many people. While it would be impossible to catalog them all, I hope that those who read this will remember amusement parks from their past, and perhaps seek out decaying attractions remaining in their communities.