In the shadow of Disney and Universal there exists a dying breed of little-known theme parks, brimming with regional charm, authenticity, and the American spirit. Pam Turlow visited 40 of them. This is her road trip.
From Maine to California, if you exit the too-bright interstates and drive down the local traffic roads, or maybe up the dark side of Route 88, you'll sometimes find up ahead in the distance a shimmering light, a remnant of an America where everything was local, where painted, peeling carousels and cotton candy spun before your eyes was the real magic of Saturday night.
These theme parks, known mostly to the people who live near them and who have been playing in them for generations, captured the imagination of voice actress Pam Turlow, who packed up her husband and went in search of her childhood, and of our childhoods, in such fanciful fantasylands as:
Come join Pam Turlow on her Cotton Candy Road Trip and experience the tucked-away theme parks where the Ferris wheels still turn, the haunted houses still drip blood, and the brass rings are still there for you to grab, in Mickey Mouse's shadow.
Park #1: Kiddieland
Park #2: Cedar Point
Park #3: Memphis Kiddie Park
Park #4: Tuscora Park
Park #5: Kennywood
Park #6: Idlewild
Park #7: Del Grosso's Park
Park #8: Lakemont Park
Park #9: Conneaut Lake Park
Park #10: Waldameer
Park #11: Storybook Gardens
Park #12: Santa's Workshop
Park #13: Lakeside Amusement Park
Park #14: Nelis' Dutch Village
Park #15: Silver Springs
Park #16: Hershey Park
Park #17: Dorney Park
Park #18: Knoebels
Park #19: Hoffman's Playland
Park #20: Seabreeze Amusement Park
Park #21: Darien Lake Park
Park #22: Arnolds Park
Park #23: Children's Fairyland
Park #24: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Park #25: Silver Dollar City
Park #26: Belmont Park
Park #27: Santa Monica Pier
Park #28: Universal Studios Hollywood
Park #29: Knott's Berry Farm
Park #30: Disneyland
Park #31: Carousel Park
Park #32: Enchanted Forest
Park #33: Oaks Park
Park #34: Flintstones Bedrock City
Park #35: Storybook Land
Park #36: Gillian's Wonderland Pier
Park #37: Keansburg Amusement Park
Park #38: Coney Island
Park #39: Rye Playland
Park #40: Palace Playland
Epilogue: Five Trees
It came to me in a dream.
Yes, I know full well that’s one of the most hackneyed phrases a writer can start a book with. But it’s true. The clarity of said dream hit me in the solar plexus with a rush of nostalgia, regret, and determination (I’ll get to the determination part later). In it, I visited the lot where my childhood kiddie park formerly stood. Utility workers dug deep into the earth to lay down electrical lines (or were they unearthing the forgotten treasures left behind from children who lost them decades ago?). My attention drifted to the entrance of the now-defunct Fairyland Park, MY kiddie park, which magically was just…there. A door situated in the center of the gate beckoned to be pushed. In my sleeping mind’s eye, the filming of this dream was in black and white, but peeking and teasing through the crack in the door frame was color. Rainbow and magic and possibility. And I knew that door must be pushed open. And those memories must be recalled so that, hopefully, they’ll create the impetus for newer generations to maintain existing parks, nurture those memories. Because vintage parks have a magic not found in the mega roller coaster, thrill-and-vomit-inducing, “my pants are still wet and it’s dinnertime”, extreme ride, waterpark varieties.
The soul of an old balloon man lives in a vintage park. (In the poem, “In Just”, e.e.cummings, uses the image of a balloon man. He’s depicted as lame and goat-footed, like Pan; both old and fading, and fantastic, brimming with a puckish charm that begs one to follow him with childlike enthusiasm. Little wonder “In Just” is one of my favorite poems.)
Many a kiddie park has gone the way of dial phones (heck, landlines!), cassette tapes, and drive-ins. But some still remain. The determination I felt after waking from my dream pushed me from wallowing in regret from a self-perceived sin of omission of not visiting or honoring these parks, that possibly let the magic of smaller, older, family-centered amusement parks just fade into the ether. This is the fire under my Bunsen burner helping me to forge ahead with the “Road Trip”—visiting 40 amusement parks, all at least 40 years old as of the time of my visit, over the course of 40 non-consecutive days. Oh—and I’m aiming to only visit parks with a minimum of three rides; this is my criteria for what makes a park an amusement park rather than a nice city park with maybe a carousel and not much more.
I’ll share what I learn about the history to a certain degree—but this isn’t a history book. If you want park history, check out an individual park and you’ll often come across a book by a local writer who’s spent their life there. Buy those books if you want history. What I’ll be capturing will be the impressions I get while visiting, who and what I encounter, and the essence of each park. This Road Trip is about the experiential journey I’ll be taking, which might incorporate some history, some legends, and perhaps even some ghosts. I’m trusting in the serendipity of the moment; not all of this Trip can be carefully planned.
Which brings me to this: I’m into things that many people would consider “woo woo” or “out there”. I believe in angels and ghosts and faeries and, most importantly, Godly intervention. I’m convinced spirits tag along and make themselves known on adventures such as mine. And I’m 100% certain, without equivocation, that they love magical, creative places like vintage parks. I mean, come on, who’d want to leave? Just wanted to make sure I made that clear so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into by committing to read this book.
Cotton candy, or candy floss as the Brits call it, more evocatively, is pure whimsy and not necessarily good for you on a daily basis. But quite often, crystalline, Crayola-colored memories are created that ring true and solid around this fluffy confection.
Much the same can be said for a visit to an amusement park. It’s not essential for the continuation of the human species. But it sure makes that continuation a heckuva lot more fun. Vintage parks are places that have woven within their fibers memories sweet and tragic, their own vital breath, and names, essences, and many a sensory experience that make us recollect childhood wonder clearly and eloquently.
Yours in the Spirit of Amusement!
Pam Turlow, by day, is a voice-over artist. She has recorded her voice for many a product and project, including commercials, industrials, audio books, toys, animation, and on the list goes. In addition, she is a life coach, having graduated from the Coaches Training Institute. Pam has studied acting with the National Theatre in London and has spent some time on the boards, especially in musical theatre (favorite role to date: Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd at Circle Theatre, a performance which won her Chicago’s “After Dark Award”).
Besides creative writing (which she studied at Dominican University), Pam enjoys travel, Disneyland, dark chocolate, a good wine now and then, her dog Ivy (the dainty beaglette), and most of all, spending time with her lovely and talented husband, Ben Dooley, with whom she shares a home in a cozy suburb of Chicago.
Rock-a-Bye Baby, giraffes, and diesel trains are just some of the eclectic wonders that Pam encounters at Storybook Gardens.
Storybook Gardens saw its heyday in the 50s and 60s. Much of the place I visited this time has been kept the same, but much has changed. The 15-foot-tall recreations of various storybook characters and situations remain, but many are in a state of disrepair: Rock-a-Bye Baby’s baby has gone missing; Peter Cotton Tail’s watering can now belongs to Alice in Wonderland (the Disney version—can they do that?), and Jack Be Nimble was apparently not nimble enough and one of his feet has yet to be accounted for. Still, those are small things. What is important is that the feel of the park has not changed; it’s a place to feel safe and secure, to let the little ones run freely, to read fairytales with them, to let them climb on Cinderella’s coach and mingle with the mice the size of golden retrievers. It’s always been a special place to leave the outside world outside, much like the feeling you get when you pass through the arches at Disneyland and the sign reminds you that you’re leaving today behind and entering Tomorrowland and Fantasyland and all the other lands. As a matter of fact, Storybook Gardens opened right around the same time as Disneyland. There are some similarities; graceful gardens that wind through the park, waterways for resting and reflection. And a respect for childhood and simplicity.
We take the small diesel train ride around the perimeter of the park and the sweetness of its entirety is truly heartening. This is the park my parents took me to in 1966 or so and the Three Bears still reside in their little wooden house. The same three bears. I remember them and their rough fur the color of late autumn leaves. Marie takes my picture and I’m happy to be among this little family again, so much like the little papa, mama, and baby bear family I was once a part of.
What is quite different this visit, and also quite different from Disneyland (but not Disney’s Animal Kingdom), are the animals. Actually, the park has a new moniker: Timbavati Animal Park at Storybook Gardens. And I learn, from Matt who works at the park, that the new owner is all about the animals. He’s been on various TV shows handling animals. He knew the great “crocodile hunter” himself, Steve Irwin. And as we stroll through the park, past Old King Cole and his fiddlers three, we stop and visit a veritable globeful of animals. And, by golly, I’m seeing animals here that I haven’t even seen at some of the bigger zoos I’ve visited (I live near the world-class Brookfield Zoo and this little park gives them a run for their money as far as exotic creatures go). But what really sets them apart is that you can truly get up close and personal with ostriches, llamas, pot-belly pigs, even giraffes. Giraffes! We climb up a scaffold-like structure and are eye to eye with these gentle giants.
A college-aged couple is feeding the giraffes, whose tongues are carefully seeking out the very last kernels of kibble in the cups which the kids bought at the park’s gift shop for this sole purpose. And the girl giggles and remarks, “Just look at those horns. I never noticed that before. There’s three of them.” Here at Timbavati, a glorious array of monkeys roam and play, lemurs hang by their ringed tails, tails similar to raccoons’. And then there are the giraffes. All at this small, unassuming park, where a man with the vision to showcase these beautiful creatures took over an ailing Dells tourist attraction and kept true not only to his zoological mission, but to the original vintage appeal of the park.
I realize I love doing this work, taking this trip, touring and learning about these parks and the people with the wherewithal to keep them pumping. But I’m also continually blown away when these seemingly disparate occurrences keep sneaking up and finding me. I know to many it may seem that I’m trying to stretch the realities and squeeze these synchronicities so they fit into my journey. But I’m not squeezing or forcing a thing. Just the opposite: when I try to make something magic happen, the tour slows down and runs out of gas and nothing much meets up. But usually I’m with the flow since I’m so committed to the stories and the histories and the people who make this magic happen. And so I am here. So it’s no wonder a raccoon-tailed, monkey-faced, tri-horned giraffe trio show up, just to gently remind me that even with an overcast, frigid sky, even with Rock-a-Bye Baby gone bye-bye, all is as it should be and my journey is a wonder to behold and I’m only doing God’s work after all.
Continued in "The Cotton Candy Road Trip"!
Silver Dollar City, in the American heartland, offers up rootin, tootin' frontier characters; five-and-dime stores; and the semi-mythical chocolate Sky Bar.
The park opens at noon so we have scads of time to visit the entertainment mecca of these here parts, Branson, land of the Andy Williams Christmas Show, zip lines, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, the Hollywood Wax Museum, and the aforementioned Baldknobbers (which, after last night’s sleep, I’m wondering if I got the name wrong and it’s actually Tommyknockers). Branson seems to be Vegas without the gambling and hookers, the Dells with the addition of Jim Stafford (oh, how I had a crush on him for twelve minutes when I was ten!). I don’t mean to disparage, although it occurs to me that’s mostly what I have been doing here. It’s a different world entirely from what I’m used to. Who’da thunkit—only nine+ hours from Chicago there’s a place like Branson (where, I do believe, Who’da has his own showplace theatre, right next to Yakov Smornov’s).
Sufficiently freaked out still by our scary night’s stay, I seek out a book of local hauntings. A quick stop at a Quick Stop reveals that there’s an Old Town area of Branson and that I might find such a book there. So down, down, down the hill we go and where we stop…is across the street from a genuine 5 & 10 store! My mind races back to Stewart’s, the dime store I grew up with, now the southeastern quadrant of a Jewel grocery store parking lot. The store where I purchased about two hundred 45s with my own money, bought knock-off clothes for my Barbie, and yellow nail polish that made my mom wince. Ben and I are giddy—here’s a place of real trueness, not fakeness. Something without neon.
The interior of Dick’s Five & Dime hasn’t changed much since it opened fifty years ago. The checkout areas are narrow with wooden counters. The display cases are vintage. Sadly, a lot of the goods are newer and “Made in China” doodads and geegaws—at least when you first enter. But upon further inspection, I realize Dick’s is a treasure trove of the for-real and gen-you-whine! Classic toys like slide whistles (which Ben nabs for our old-time radio sound effects collection) and a variety of Slinkys warm my heart, as does a paper doll book that I snatch up for my collection of fond recollection: Betty Hutton, with costumes she wore in all her starring film roles. Of course, I’ll never cut it up, but I will plumb through it and admire the finery worn by my plucky musical comedy goddess.
I find a wall of “hard-to-find” and “older” items and I drag Ben over for the fun. If funds were grander right now, I’d be the proud owner of a corn de-silker. But they’re not, so back on the display peg it goes. I wander down an aisle dedicated to nothing but embroidery and knitting yarns and recall a smaller Pam finding such delight in handling the skeins found at Stewart’s 5 & 10, her five and dime of long ago, exploring the textures and colors. I once attempted to embroider a denim Barbie jacket with a rainbow on the back. My Uncle Wally, probably tipsy and definitely mostly blind, mistook the embroidery hoop it was in as an ashtray. I hated Uncle Wally for years afterward and have never attempted to customize Barbie clothes again.
Well, the clock’s a’tickin’ (I know—I’ve thrown about phrases and words that end with an apostrophe rather than a “g” a few times here; just an effort to flow along with the countrifiedness I’m guess’n), so Ben and I wrap our reverie at Dick’s, but not before checking out the impressive collection of vintage candy.
“Look,” I alert Ben. “A Sky Bar!”
“Make no mistake—I want me some of that Sky Bar. In my mouth!,” says Ben. And, indeed, we’ve both been countrified and it’s time to explore Silver Dollar City—yee haw!
Continued in "The Cotton Candy Road Trip"!