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From Dreamland to Disneyland: American Amusement Parks

October 16, 2015 Archive Insight

This early 20th-century amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio, was named after its grand namesake at Coney Island, New York. THF123540

Suwanee Park, a turn-of-the-century-style amusement area, opened in Greenfield Village in 1974—featuring an authentic, hand-carved wooden carousel made by the Herschell-Spillman Company. While this carousel may have seemed quaint and nostalgic in 1974, it harkened back to a time when amusement parks were new and novel, delighting young and old with their promise of escape, entertainment, and thrills.


American amusement parks had their roots in European pleasure gardens—large park-like settings in which people relaxed, strolled, and socialized. Over time, pleasure gardens—like Tivoli in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Vauxhall in London, England—added refreshment stands and sporting activities like tennis and shuffleboard, then noisier features like balloon ascensions, concerts, plays, and crude mechanical rides. Lights were installed to keep the parks open at night. Fireworks displays became eagerly anticipated nightly events.

The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, was the first international fair in America to offer a distinctive amusement area in addition to the formal exhibits. This mile-long “Midway Plaisance” included an international village of restaurants and entertainment, along with a variety of concessions, side shows, and mechanical rides. The crowd-pleasing Midway inspired the creation of American amusement parks.

Dominating the Midway at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was a spectacular revolving wheel designed by George W. G. Ferris, Jr., that could hold as many as 2,160 passengers at a time. THF123531

Two entrepreneurs brought their impressions of the Midway back to the seaside resort of Coney Island, New York, and created what are generally considered to be the first true American amusement parks. In 1895, Captain Paul Boyton enclosed a space and charged admission to his marine-inspired Sea Lion Park. Two years later, showman George Tilyou created the unique and influential Steeplechase Park—named for the elaborate, gravity-powered horse-racing ride track that ringed its borders.

The layout, mechanical rides, and exotic settings of Steeplechase Park would define the format and spirit of American amusement parks to come. At a time when Victorian propriety instilled strict rules of behavior at home and work, Steeplechase swept people away from the restraints of existing social conventions. It was designed to not only actively involve customers but to catch them off guard, momentarily disorient them, put them in shocking contact with strangers, and give them a sense of pleasure and release by laughing at themselves and others. The wild popularity of Steeplechase brought bigger, grander, and more exotic amusement parks to Coney Island—Luna Park in 1903 and Dreamland in 1904. Between 1895 and the onset of World War I, Coney Island’s parks would dominate the amusement park industry.

The “Helter Skelter” at Luna Park, Coney Island, was just one example of the many rides designed to throw people off balance as others enjoyed looking on. THF241449

The exotic settings of Coney Island parks—like Luna Park shown here—were an important part of the overall attraction of these parks. THF241621


The success of Coney Island inspired countless other amusement parks across the country, with construction hitting full stride about 1905. The timing was perfect, as workers in the increasingly industrialized cities and towns across America were searching for places to spend both their new-found leisure time and disposable incomes. At the same time, electrically powered trolleys (operating within cities and towns) and interurbans (operating between cities) made inexpensive excursions outside of town possible. In fact, these transportation systems were directly responsible for the spread of amusement parks across the country. To increase ridership on the weekends, many of these companies bought land on the outskirts of towns, where they designed, built, and operated amusement parks.

A trolley line, as shown by in the tracks in the foreground of this photograph, took passengers directly to The White City—one of three amusement parks located along the Cleveland lakefront in the early 20th century. THF123536

Many of the new amusement parks blatantly copied the names of the Coney Island parks—especially Luna Park, Dreamland (or its nickname “White City”), or simply Coney Island. Some of the new parks attempted to duplicate the layouts and exotic settings of their Coney Island namesakes, but most simply focused on rides and nighttime illumination. Seaside amusement parks—usually constructed next to existing beachfronts and resorts—dotted both the East and West Coasts. By 1919, more than 1500 amusement parks were thriving. Every city of a decent size had one. Major cities had two or more. Chicago alone had eight.

This Scenic Railway in Venice, California, must have thrilled riders as it extended out over the Pacific Ocean. This photograph dates from 1910. THF123548

It is within this flurry of amusement park activity that the Herschell-Spillman carousel now in Greenfield Village came to be made and used. Liberty Lake Park was a summer resort area located about 18 miles east of Spokane, Washington. An entrepreneur named Lou Hertig took over the 35-acre park in 1910. Over time, he expanded its amusement offerings to include a dance hall, penny arcade, shooting gallery, house of mirrors, and—in 1919—the Herschell-Spillman carousel that would end up 55 years later in Greenfield Village.

The founders of the Herschell-Spillman Company were machinists who, when amusement parks became the rage, profited by making operating carousels. Out of 40 total animals on the carousel in Greenfield Village, 32 of them are “jumpers”—that is, animals that move up and down when the carousel is operating. THF5584

Herschell-Spillman carousels, known for their variety of animals, were the only ones in the country to feature a riding frog—called a “hop toad” in the company’s catalog. THF113716

Decline and Reinvention

Many amusement parks fell on hard times as early as the 1920s, when they faced stiff competition from other forms of mass entertainment—especially the movies. Amusement parks that had once bedazzled customers didn’t seem so magical anymore.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many small parks were forced to close, while numerous others suffered from lack of maintenance, public boredom with aging rides, and vandalism. By 1936, the number of parks had shrunk to about 500. While many still-existing parks celebrated a banner year of attendance in 1946, after the end of World War II, attendance soon declined again. Old rides, unmaintained parks, a rougher sort of customer, the popularity of automobile travel, and the new medium of TV combined to paint a bleak picture of the future for American amusement parks.

Like Captain Boyton and George Tilyou at Coney Island, New York, some sixty years earlier, another entrepreneur came along in the mid-20th century to once again redefine the nature of American amusement parks. His name was Walt Disney, an animator and showman who used the new medium of TV to involve the American public in the process of building what he called a “new kind of family park” in Anaheim, California. In creating Disneyland, which opened in 1955, Walt Disney took notice of all the aspects of existing amusement parks, from the neatly-maintained and family-oriented Tivoli Gardens in Denmark to the by-then shabby and run-down seaside amusement parks of Southern California and Coney Island. In fact, the idea that culminated in Disneyland came during the 1930s, while watching his young daughters ride a carousel—by that time considered merely a kiddie ride.

Disneyland was the first of what became known as a theme park—featuring areas unified by a harmonious blend of architecture, setting, signs, food, and retail—what Walt Disney called 3D storytelling. Walt Disney was also unique in insisting upon superior guest service. THF205154

Through the rest of the 20th century, the older amusement parks continued to be hammered by rising insurance and labor costs, the burden of maintaining old rides, competition from theme parks and other entertainment venues, soaring land values, and the threat of civil disturbances and racial confrontations. The 1960s were especially tragic for the nation’s grand old amusement parks. By the early 1980s, fewer than 100 of the traditional amusement parks were still in operation.

Those that survived managed to adapt to changing times. Often, they combined original structures and classic attractions with thrill rides, water-park features, and children’s rides.

In adapting to changing times, no traditional amusement park was more successful than Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, emerging from a failing resort in 1950 to a top destination in America—particularly due to its continual addition of high-thrills roller coasters. THF123532

Today the Herschell-Spillman carousel in Greenfield Village is located near the Village Green. A ride on one of its many colorful animals still delights kids of all ages.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village, by Donna R. Braden, popular culture, Disney

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