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America’s Most Amazing Theme Parks – The History of Amusement Parks

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The rides. The food. The adventure! Year after year attendance at amusement parks rises regardless of the financial, social or political climate. Let’s talk a little about the history of amusement parks.

History of Amusement Parks

Photo via Amusement Park History

Many want to relive their childhood memories or create new memories with their family. Some are thrill seekers searching out a roller coaster adrenaline rush.

To understand the obsession with amusement parks, it’s important to learn a little bit about the history of amusement parks.

This post is the first in a series of posts about America’s Most Amazing Amusement Parks. 

Where did the idea for amusements parks come from? Most Disney lovers think it was Walt Disney but that isn’t true.

The First Amusement Parks

The first amusement park opened in 1583 in Bakken, Denmark. It was until the 19th century that America started creating fun spots for families. In 1875 the first railroad to the Brooklyn seaside of Coney Island began bringing waves of visitors to the area.

Photo via RochesterSubway.com

Coney Island until that time had been a playground for the wealthy but was now attainable for Americans of all classes. Developers quickly began erecting attractions to entertain and amuse the masses. Fortune tellers, games, vaudeville acts and cabaret were followed by a carousel.

Coney Island grew more popular and in 1884 the first real roller coaster – Switchback Gravity Pleasure Railway – started the roller coaster craze. The ride reached 6 mph and made Coney Island the heart of the amusement industry.

Photo via Hyde Park Historical Society

At the 1893 World’ Fair in Chicago the George Ferris Giant Wheel made it’s debut. The wheel stood 264 feet high and offered panoramic views of the city. This World’s Fair exposition which included rides, games, food, penny arcades and shooting galleries was the prototype for the amusement parks of today.

Around the same time trolley lines were being constructed across the country and parks were built at their end points with picnic areas, dance halls, restaurants and rides. The turn of the century brought trolley parks and amusement parks and all of America was hooked.

In 1903, 40,000 people showed up at the opening of the new Coney Island Luna Park. By 1910 there were 2,000 amusement parks across the country. Many of these were existing gardens, playgrounds and zoos that evolved into amusement parks with the addition of mechanical rides, pools, theaters, moving pictures and pyrotechnical shows.

Just as Americans were beginning to really enjoy amusement parks, along came the Great Depression and a rapid decline of amusement park attendance. Hundreds closed and those that were able to stay open (Hersheypark and Knott’s Berry Farm) suffered financially. They struggled until well after the end of World War II in 1945.

Enter Walt Disney

When Walt Disney had an idea for a family-friendly amusement park, the industry found new life. In 1954 Disney broke ground on 160 acres in Anaheim, California. The park opened in July of the following year. 15,000 people were invited to attend opening day but 33,000 people showed up.

Disneyland Construction – Photo via A Real Treasure: Disneyland

The attendance was so overwhelming the park ran out of food within hours. Lines began forming at 2 a.m. for the next day. During Disneyland’s first year, it welcomed 3.6 million visitors.

The beginning of Six Flags

After visiting Disneyland Angus G. Wynne, a Texas businessman, was inspired. In 1961 he opened Six Flags Over Texas. Like Disneyland it was broken into “lands.” The park opened with rides like a stagecoach, railroad and Wild West Show. Before he knew it, Walt Disney had some competition. 

History of Amusement Parks

Photo via Flashback: Dallas

Within a few years Wynne opened Six Flags in Georgia and in Missouri.

Other Parks Start to Open

After watching the success of Walt Disney and Angus Wynne new parks began to open. Cypress Gardens, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld in San Diego, Universal Studios in Hollywood to name a few all opened during this time.

As the competition grew, Walt Disney began looking for a second location. His next venture included a theme park, hotels and recreational facilities in Orlando, Florida. On October 1, 1971 Walt Disney World opened to 10,000 people.

History of Amusement Parks

WDW 1971 Map – Photo via Time Magazine

Unfortunately Walt Disney died before the project in Florida was completed but the company continued and grew after that first park and launched Epcot, MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios), Animal Kingdom, California Adventure, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland. In 2017 more than 150 million people worldwide visited a Disney park.

Disney Rivals Begin to Expand

Like Disney, all of it’s rivals began to expand nationally and beyond. Six Flags has more than 24 parks in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico and is currently expanding into Dubai, China and Saudi Arabia.

Universal Studios opened locations in Florida, Japan and Singapore. SeaWorld opened in Florida, San Antonio and Abu Dhabi. Legoland, which was originally a European park, opened first in California and then in Florida. A new Legoland in New York is in the works to open in 2020.

As of 2019 there are over 400 amusement and theme parks in America with a combined revenue of over 22 BILLION dollars.

Next up will be – America’s Most Amazing Theme Parks – #1 Walt Disney World (of course!!)

History of Amusement Parks

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