After being fired by Walt Disney, the flamboyant C.V. Wood brought his hard-won experience as the self-titled "master builder of Disneyland" east, to a marsh in the Bronx, where in 1960 he unveiled his greatest project, a doomed theme park to tell the history of America: Freedomland.
Wood's efforts to build his "Disneyland of the East," a themed collection of lands that presented epic moments in American history as thrill rides, shows, and live action, were plagued from the start by politics, cost overruns, and financial chicanery. Despite these obstacles, the park prospered—until its big-money backers (as they had planned from the start) pulled the plug and cleared the land for lucrative urban development.
Through a well-researched narrative, personal and newspaper accounts, interviews, and exclusive photos, journalist and author Michael R. Virgintino presents the definitive history of Freedomland, from the people behind its creation, and the executives, entertainers, and sponsors who kept it running, to in-depth looks at each of its historically themed lands, and an analysis of the park's inevitable bankruptcy in 1964.
Unlike Disneyland, the story of Freedomland does not have a happily ever after, but theme park fans will not want to miss this captivating but cautionary tale of America's park.
Chapter 1: The Bronx!
Chapter 2: Creation of the Theme Park
Chapter 3: Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood
Chapter 4: The Building of Freedomland U.S.A.
Chapter 5: The World’s Largest Entertainment Center
Chapter 6: Corporate Sponsors and Food Vendors
Chapter 7: Little Old New York: 1850–1900
Chapter 8: Chicago: 1871
Chapter 9: Friendly Freedomlanders: The Park Employees
Chapter 10: The Great Plains: 1803–1900
Chapter 11: Freedomland’s Character Actors
Chapter 12: San Francisco: 1906
Chapter 13: The Old Southwest: 1890
Chapter 14: The Freedomland Record Album
Chapter 15: New Orleans and Mardi Gras
Chapter 16: Freedomland Collectibles
Chapter 17: Satellite City: The Future
Chapter 18: Musical Entertainment at Freedomland
Chapter 19: Others Associated with Freedomland
Chapter 20: Memories of Freedomland
Chapter 21: Radio/Television Broadcasts from Freedomland
Chapter 22: Long-Forgotten Freedomland Stories
Chapter 23: Freedomland in the News and in Books
Chapter 24: Freedomland Faux Pas
Chapter 25: 1964: Freedomland’s Final amp; Knapp
Chapter 27: Bankruptcy and the Building of Co-op City
Chapter 28: Freedomland’s Connections to Other Parks
Chapter 29: Freedomland Commemorated
Chapter 30: Postscript
Appendix: Freedomland U.S.A. Fun Facts
My parents came from the Bronx, the South Bronx to be specific. Raphael F. Virgintino came from 436 East 145th Street. Jennie Tomao was from 335 East 148th Street. They met as teenagers. My father was drafted into the U.S. Navy near the end of World War II. After his service, he and my mother were married during 1947.
My parents moved to Elmhurst, Queens, to start their life as a couple. During 1951, they purchased a new brick row house for about $8,000 in the northeast part of the Bronx on a ridge that overlooked the valley that swept into Eastchester Bay. That part of the borough had been open fields with a scattering of houses that dated to the late 1800s and early 1900s. As the veterans returned home, additional streets were established and each became filled with rows of brick homes along with semi-attached dwellings and the occasional stand-alone house. Most of the yards were the size of a postage stamp.
I came along a handful of years after my parents moved to Mickle Avenue. A few years later, Freedomland U.S.A. rose in the valley. Not realizing it at the time, I was at the right place at the right time.
Thanks to my parents, I experienced a wonderful 1950s and 1960s childhood in a neighborhood filled with kids and places to play ball, even if some of those places were the streets. The sewer plates served as home plate and second base, or the goal lines for touch football. Part of my childhood also included Freedomland.
We all heard about Disneyland, but few, if any, of us traveled to California during summer vacation. Stay-cations mostly were the norm, with an occasional venture to a nearby state. My summer fun at Freedomland captured my imagination and nurtured my love for American history. With my parents opening doors for me to experience Manhattan’s many museums, the Gettysburg battlefield, and the history of the Hudson Valley, my passion for our history continued to grow long after Freedomland closed its gates.
I never forgot about that wonderful place where it all began for me. Over the years, as a writer, journalist, public relations executive, and history buff, I have written about many different topics for newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and online publications while also hosting and participating in radio and television programs. During more recent years, I began to focus more on Freedomland. With the coming age of social media, I started the Freedomland Facebook page (Freedomland U.S.A.—The World’s Largest Entertainment Center) and then added Twitter and Instagram accounts to reach more people who shared my interest in American and theme park history, 1960s culture, and, specifically, a great park in the Bronx.
A lot of the research about Freedomland appears in these social media spaces, dovetailing with the articles I have written, media interviews, and presentations. Considerable time is dedicated to correcting other past and current articles and social media posts that contain misinformation about the park. A lot of effort, research, and time also have been poured into this book.
For several reasons, not everything about Freedomland appears between these covers. Some stories never have been documented in notes or archives. Memories have been lost as papers and photos were discarded and when people died as part of the journey of life. Some stories still require additional research. Several new pieces to the overall Freedomland puzzle will be located while you are paging through this book. Finally, I determined that not one more word could be squeezed within the covers.
Thanks to the creation of social media and the digitization of old newspapers, magazines, and other printed material, the research, documentation, and stories related to Freedomland will continue to add to the overall storyline of this magnificent park that could have and should have lasted to this very day. Unfortunately, other factors that were beyond the control of all who loved the park took Freedomland away from us after only five seasons.
Now, if you are ready, let’s go back in time. Ask your mom and dad to take your hand and bring you out to Freedomland!
Michael R. Virgintino is a marketing communications executive who began his career in the newsrooms of New York City area radio stations. He has directed corporate, nonprofit, and product-branding initiatives that rely on public relations, public affairs, corporate social responsibility, community relations, and related strategies. He also is an historian who writes about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and other topics, and he has, over the years, offered his communications capabilities to support the preservation of American history and historical sites across the country. He grew up in the shadow of Freedomland and created the popular Freedomland Facebook memory page several years ago.