Day 553: When The Thrills Are Quelled

originally published July 6, 2013

Neither of my voyages to the magnificent city of New York have brought me to Brooklyn. This is a matter of personal irk, as Brooklyn is where my great-grandfather hung his funky old 1910’s-era fedora after shuffling through the lineups at Ellis Island, planting the Schwartz flag on North American turf. And apart from this soil of my familial roots, I have always wanted to ride the historic Cyclone at Coney Island. Honestly, what was Coney Island before there was a Cyclone?

Well, it was a great place for rabbit hunting, but that’s going way back to the 1600’s when New York was New Amsterdam. In the opening days of the 20th century, Coney Island was relegated to fun and amusement, even before its most famous attraction went up. Before Astroland there was Dreamland – a very different breed of amusement park.

Dreamland is where we’ll set our wheels into motion, combing through some of the parks that once were and are no more.

Speckled with one million electric light bulbs – quite a feat in 1904 – Dreamland opened with ambitions of being a slightly higher-class fun park. There was an imitation Swiss alpine landscape through which you could ride a train, a replica of Venetian canals through which you could drift on a gondola, and a Lilliputian Village featuring 300 dwarf inhabitants through which you could walk and… I don’t know, feel tall. There was a one-armed lion tamer with a handlebar mustache, a display of incubators and premature babies, and of course a number of sideshows for folks to ogle at the self-proclaimed freaks.

Dreamland was a huge hit – not as well-run as Luna Park down the beach, but well worth a trip to the southern edge of New York City to catch an eyeful and have a blast. And those light bulbs… in a pre-Las Vegas world, this would have been the most spectacular display of man-made luminescence on the continent. At least until 1:30am on May 27, 1911 when some of them started to explode. Then the Hell’s Gate boat ride went up in flames. And, because most every structure in the park was made of wood, so did the rest of Dreamland.

The incubator babies were saved, but one of the one-armed tamer’s lions escaped into a panicked crowd and had to be shot by police. The dream of Dreamland was over.

For a very different type of thrill, you could get your Jesus on in Holy Land USA, located in the beautiful city of Waterbury, Connecticut. Local attorney John Baptist Greco set out to recreate the landscape of Bethlehem and Jerusalem circa zero A.D. by digging into the Waterbury landscape. Greco even shuffled his vision back to the beginning of time, recreating the Garden of Eden in the shadow of the 56-foot cross that stood as the park’s centerpiece.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, this was the place for a Christian-themed afternoon in the northeast. Over 40,000 visitors checked in annually – not exactly Disneyland numbers, but nothing to sneeze at (though I’m sure someone would say “God bless you” if you did). The park closed down in 1984 with plans in place to beef it up and get it snazzy and ready for the Max Headroom generation, or at least for the Christian component of that generation. Unfortunately, Greco passed away in 1986 and the park was never reopened. It is, however, still standing, closed to the public but only a fence-hop away. You can go exploring if you want, but be careful – it’s technically illegal to do so, and after a 16-year-old girl was raped and murdered inside the park’s walls in 2010, it might be seen as a dangerous neighborhood. Forsaken by the Lord.

If you feel more like celebrating the commercial side of Christmas (even in July), you could steer your car down to Indiana and visit Santa Claus Land. Louis J. Koch took a trip with his kids to the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, only to find his kids to be heartbroken when it turned out that Santa Claus didn’t live there. The fact that Indiana is located several thousand miles away from the North Pole should have been a tip-off, but whatever.

Santa Claus Land opened in 1946, featuring a toy shop, a restaurant and some themed children’s rides. People flocked to the place, which offered its Santa theme year-round. By 1984, Koch’s son, who by then had taken over, expanded the park to include a Halloween section and a 4th of July section. The park was rebranded as Holiday World, and the Santa theme got shuffled far into the background.

Down in Kentucky, Tombstone Junction was a theme park with an old-west theme, designed to cater to those who longed for the days of spittoons and six-shooters, when women were either prostitutes or schoolmarms. It was kind of like Westworld without the insane killer robots that kill everybody.

Tombstone was not adorned with a lot of rides, mostly just stage shows, a railroad, and some locals dressed up in costume to add to the atmosphere. The park opened up in the 1960’s, but by the time the 80’s rolled around, the western theme wasn’t as big of a draw. Also, the local coal industry collapsed, which put a serious dent in the local economy. Then a fire broke out in 1989, followed by another in 1991, proving that even nature Herself had had enough of the old west.

Six Flags New Orleans should still be rocking today. Everyone knows, Six Flags parks tend to be stacked with high-quality, big-rush thrill rides. And when Jazzland opened up in 2000, claimed as part of the Six Flags empire in 2003, the New Orleans park was no exception.

Then along came Hurricane Katrina.

The park was flooded. We’re not just talking about soaking the engines of the bumper cars here, this place was submerged.

Okay, the park was the least profitable item on the Six Flags balance sheet, but still – they’d bring it back to life, right? New Orleans will prevail!

Well, no. The park was determined to be a total write-off; there was no pulling it back from the brink. Batman: The Ride was packed up and shipped off to another Six Flags venue, and the rest was left to rot. Some incredible photos were taken by folks who wandered through the wreckage, capturing a post-apocalyptic tableau that is well worth a venture down a Google Images search. The future of Jazzland looks to be an outlet mall – hardly likely to reach the same level of thrills.

The fun doesn’t always withstand the test of time. But sometimes the stories are worth the loss.

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