STEP RIGHT UP! How America Redefined Summer Amusement


Cotton Candy. Carnival Games. Roller Coasters

What’s an American summer without a trip to the Fair?

From small towns to big cities, countless families celebrate the annual summer tradition of a night at the amusement park. Small traveling carnival or major theme park, it’s the stuff childhood memories are made from. Can you remember winning your first big, overstuffed toy? Or learning the hard way that you shouldn’t eat three hot dogs before you go on the Scrambler?

If you trace back, Pleasure Gardens were the seed that grew into the modern day Amusement Park. Pleasure Gardens go back centuries – to ancient Rome, even – and served as public spaces where families and friends could gather for fun. Add a little American ingenuity and wham … it wasn’t long before neon blinked for miles and a whole new entertainment culture was born.

The Road to Neon Lights and Thrilling Rides

While not an amusement park per se, the Chicago World’s Fair is often listed as the inspiration for what was to come. A World’s Fair centers around debuting innovations and showing off the achievements of different countries. It’s entertaining for sure, but the sole purpose wasn’t entertainment. Unless of course one of the debuting innovations happens to be the ultimate carnival ride: the Ferris Wheel.

The Chicago World’s Fair opened on May 1st, 1893. A previous World’s Fair held in 1889 in Paris unveiled the Eiffel Tower. The tallest tower in the world at the time, people traveled from all over to soak in the view from the top. It became the architectural feat to beat. Which is exactly what George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. did after his wheel design was chosen to answer Eiffel.

On June 21, 1893, the first Ferris Wheel debuted. Measuring 250 feet, it carried 36 cars. For 19 weeks, it was a hugely popular draw. About 1.4 million people took a 20 minute ride for 50 cents on that first Ferris Wheel. News Reporter Robert Graves had a hard time putting it into words: “It is an indescribable sensation … that of revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage.”

Americans have been hooked on carnival rides ever since.

The Ultimate American Playground: Coney Island

It’s got a boardwalk. It’s got a beach. It’s got bragging rights to America’s first Roller Coaster.

The most popular – and one of the most famous – parks is Coney Island. New Yorkers and tourists alike flock to Brooklyn to visit this ultimate amusement haven every year. One of the biggest destination spots in America, Coney Island has close to a half dozen – and counting – rides and buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cyclone, Parachute Jump, Wonder Wheel, B&B Carousell and Child’s Restaurant are all official American landmarks.

Originally used by colonists as land for their cattle to graze, Coney Island was largely uninhabited until a toll road joined the island to mainland Brooklyn in the 1820s. In under a century, it went from barren land to elbow-to-elbow crowds.

In its prime, Coney Island was made up of three separate but equally iconic parks: Steeplechase, Luna Park and Dreamland.

teeplechase, the first and the longest lasting park, was built in 1862. The first roller coaster in the US was here. It was called the Switchback Gravity Railway, and thrill seekers had to climb a 50 foot loading platform to board the train.

Luna Park, home of the Cyclone, followed in 1903. It may not have had the first roller coaster, but it does have one of the most famous: the Cyclone. Lit by upwards of 250,000 electric lights, it was Coney Island, not the Statue of Liberty, that was seen first when boats entered New York Harbor.

Dreamland was built in 1904. It was considered the grandest of the three parks, but it was also the most short lived. The park was destroyed in a fire in 1911.

The Birth of the Theme Park

The next evolution in carnival and park culture? Pick a theme, and stick with it.

America’s first Theme Park was Santa Land. The history of Santa Land is as innocent and endearing as Cindy Lou Who believing the Grinch, which just might be the real spirit of Christmas anyway.

The town of Santa Fe, Indiana changed its name to Santa Claus because the town needed a post office. Santa Fe’s request for one was denied since there was already another town – and post office – with the same name. So, the town of Santa Claus was born.

Well, you can image just how much mail gets sent addressed to Santa Claus each and every year. The Indiana post office became inundated, and the postmaster recruited volunteers to help answer as many of the letters as possible.

Santa Claus, Indiana’s association with Christmas grew stronger every year.

Louis J. Koch bought 260 acres in the early 1940s to build a park to celebrate their namesake. Santa Claus Land, considered the first true theme park in America, opened in 1946.

Whether you’re splurging on a big trip to Disney or rolling up to your small town’s visiting carnival, trips to the fair mean dedicated leisure time. Time to make memories with friends and family, scream through thrill rides, win cheap stuffed animals and probably eat some fried dough. Sound like a good American summer night to us.