The Existential Allure of Amusement Parks

Every night at 9:30 p.m. we hear the Disneyland fireworks. Our Santa Ana home is just five miles from the tourist throngs of Anaheim, and the nightly ritual of thunder-like booms is strangely comforting. Whatever is happening in our lives, whatever is happening on Twitter, there will still be fireworks in Disneyland, delighting thousands of revelers, young and old, on the crowded streets around Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

At approximately 9:46 p.m. the fireworks end. The throngs disperse and a mass of exhausted families moves down Main Street U.S.A., past still-crowded ice cream parlors and confectionaries, with the ubiquitous smell of fresh popcorn filling the air. Twinkling bright lights outline the Victorian shapes of the buildings along Main Street U.S.A., underscoring the escape into nostalgic idealism as tourists prepare to reenter the modern landscape of 8-lane freeways and 24-hour CVS.

Disneyland, like any theme park of its kind (although few others come close), attracts the masses because it creates a space set apart from "the real world" outside its walls. In its enclosed world, Disneyland creates a dreamland where visitors worry about little and wonder about much. There are sensory spectacles aplenty: the g-forces of a rollercoaster, the sounds of a parade, the taste of a funnel cake. Cynics might say it is simply the pinnacle of consumerism: costly diversions to distract us from work and sickness and stress and death. But is diversion such a bad thing? Isn't our need for occasional escapism simply part of being human, a reminder that we all stir and long to reach the perfect world we're wired for? 

Electric Park

Walt Disney's vision for Disneyland was in large part inspired by his boyhood memories of Electric Park in Kansas City.

I grew up in Kansas City and still love the city dearly. In the years I lived there, World's of Fun was the amusement park for Kansas Citians, but a century ago it was Electric Park, often called "Kansas City's Coney Island."

The first Electric Park was built on the Northeast side of Kansas City in 1899 by Joseph, Michael and Ferdinand Heim (of the Heim Brothers Brewery). One of the world's first full-time amusement parks, Electric Park featured a rollercoaster, water rides and a beer garden with beer piped directly from the brewery next door. In 1906 the park closed and reopened in a new, larger location further south at 47th and the Paseo, which opened in May of 1907 and saw nearly 1 million guests a year at its peak.

The park's name came from the fact that 100,000 electric bulbs (a relative novelty at the turn of the century) lit up its buildings and midway. The park had everything: a roller coaster, an alligator farm, a shooting gallery, a nickelodeon theater, a German village, boat rides, a swimming beach, soda fountains, ice cream parlors, a bandstand that often hosted John Philip Sousa, and an evening light and water show featuring elaborately clad female performers atop a massive fountain.

 Vintage postcard of Electric Park. From Kansas City Public Library.

Vintage postcard of Electric Park. From Kansas City Public Library.

From 1907 until 1925, Electric Park was the most popular amusement for working class Kansas Citians, including young Walt Disney and his sister Ruth, who were regular visitors after the Disney family moved to Kansas City in 1911. With his boyhood home just 15 blocks and an easy trolley ride away from the park, young Walt probably went to Electric Park to spend the money he earned delivering newspapers (Kansas City Star and Kansas City Times) along his father's delivery route.

Many elements from Electric Park directly inspired Walt's plans for Disneyland, including a nightly fireworks show, a steam train that circled the park's grounds, and meticulously maintained landscaping that accentuated the park's "set apart" fantasy quality. Today's Main Street Electrical Parade and water-and-light shows (e.g. World of Color and Fantasmic!) also hearken back to the sensory spectacles of Electric Park.

Sadly, the brilliance of Electric Park was relatively short-lived, as most of the park burned to the ground in 1925. A young Walter Cronkite remembers witnessing the blaze from his nearby home: "The Ferris wheel seemed to turn as the flames climbed up its sides. The grease caught fire on the two parallel tracks of the Greyhound Racer roller coaster..."

I've toyed with the idea of writing a book or a screenplay about Electric Park, not only because of the Walt Disney connection and its role in the origin story of Disneyland, but because of the drama of its ephemeral story. Erected and destroyed in the span of under three decades, Electric Park was materially temporal. Kept alive for a time in the nostalgic memories of men like Disney and Cronkite, it has now faded into forgotten history as the last of those who remember it themselves pass away.

Bell's Amusement Park

Though I spent formative years in Kansas City, my childhood was spent in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And anyone who lived in Tulsa as a child will remember Bell's Amusement Park.

Opened in 1951 by Robert Bell in Tulsa's Expo Square, Bell's was a small, family-run amusement park for 55 years before closing in 2006. I remember going to Bell's as part of the Tulsa State Fair every October (the park joined up with the fairgrounds), enjoying the log ride and haunted house and, most of all, the fantastic wooden roller coaster, Zingo.

Zingo was the first rollercoaster I ever rode and it sparked in me a love of coasters from a very young age. From Zingo I tackled the coasters of Frontier City in Oklahoma City, Six Flags in St. Louis, Cedar Point in Ohio, Magic Mountain in California, and so forth.

Rollercoasters became something of an obsession for me as a kid. I watched TV shows about them (I still have a few VHS tapes featuring some of the best coasters in the world). I designed them on graph paper and on computer games (RollerCoaster Tycoon!). I researched the best coasters in the world and made a point of building roadtrips around them.

For me, rollercoasters represent the appeal of the amusement park in a nutshell: experiences of suspension and escape, where we can flirt with danger and adventure in a controlled environment. To ride a coaster is to confront fear in safety, to flip the script on dread and turn it into something about which we can laugh and scream and throw up our hands.

Rollercoasters may feel unsafe and out of control, but there is a track. There is a plan for this ride that has been carefully conceived, tested and maintained. We can't always see what is coming next (which is what makes them thrilling), but we know the track is going somewhere and will eventually lead us home.

Postcards of the Past (and Future)

It's haunting to look at the vintage postcards of the old Electric Park, or to look at what was once Bell's on Google Earth and see only an empty parking lot. These once-glorious playgrounds of escape are now just memories and fading artifacts.

But for a time these places provided generations of people not only an escape but also an invitation. An invitation to imagine the possibility of a world where wonder and awe and thrill and delight were not exceptions, but the rule; an invitation to pay attention to the wiring in us that finds rest and contentedness in a place that has been prepared for us; an invitation to remember those sweaty nights of happy screams, Sousa marches and booming fireworks in the sky... and to look to a future where the park will never close.