Through the Gates of Yesteryear’s Amusement Parks

This post is by Mike Staton.
This post is by Mike Staton.

Just three weeks ago we revived a childhood memory and again rode the passenger trains of the Santa Fe Railroad.

Now we’re going to catch some new memories and walk through the gates of “Yesteryear’s Amusement Parks.” Some are still around, like Disneyland, but vastly changed and updated with 21st century technology. Others are gone, victims of declining attendance and rickety rides.

Back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I lived for trips to Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. In our San Bernardino neighborhood just off Foothill Boulevard (travelers passing through knew it as Route 66), boys and girls loved to talk about Space Mountain and the jungle ride at Disneyland or the shootout re-enactments at Knotts Berry Farm’s Ghost Town. My next-door neighbor, Roger Gall, wore a beaded Indian-style belt purchased at Disneyland. I was envious; pestered my mom and dad so they had no choice but to buy me one when we made the pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom. In the early 60s it seemed like every kid at Meyers Elementary School had an Indian belt.

Grandpa Frog took me on this sports car ride at Disneyland. He had to do the driving. I didn't meet the height requirement.
Grandpa Frog took me on this sports car ride at Disneyland. He had to do the driving. I didn’t meet the height requirement.

We always looked forward to visits by grandparents. That’s when we’d go to Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. Dad always took home movies at the parks. I’ve got a DVD tucked away in the closet that shows scenes of those visits now almost 60 years in the past. They’re precious because all the faces – except for me and my sister Jody – are gone. One scene shows my mom and me exiting a Disneyland boat ride, walking briskly toward the cameraman… of course, my dad. She had my hand, and I struggled to keep up with her. The ride had malfunctioned, and we’d been marooned for quite a while – long enough to leave mom in a tizzy.

In another scene, Grandpa Frog and I come around a curve in a sports car. He’s driving and seven-year-old mike is no doubt wishing he could be in the driver’s seat. The roadway doesn’t yet have a guide rail, so grandpa is actually driving. If I’d have been tall enough to reach the height line, I could have driven. Sadly, that would have to wait for a future year and another trip.

In 1964, my cousins Candy and Pat paid a visit and we went to Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. Here we're having supper at our home in Corona. That's dad serving us.
In 1964, my cousins Candy and Pat paid a visit and we went to Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. Here we’re having supper at our home in Corona. That’s dad serving us.

The last time I rode the Matterhorn – in 1964 during a visit by my Ohio cousins Candy and Pat – I finagled with my safety belt for the entire ride. The teenage ride helper hadn’t secured the belt as tight as I thought necessary and I struggled to make it snug as the bobsled began moving. I held the belt tight against my waist as the bobsled twisted left and right along the rails darting into and out of the mountain. Was the belt truly loose or was my overactive imagination at work? Frankly, I don’t know.

My memories of Knotts Berry Farm are not as vivid as those of Disneyland. I do recall my aunts Hortense and Avis sharing a bench with a couple of saloon floozies. If you’ve been to Knotts Berry Farm, you know what I’m referring to… the floozies are statues. Thousands of photos have been taken over the decades of folks cuddling up to them. Of course it helps that dad’s Kodak Brownie 8mm movie camera captured the moment.

That's me, folks, getting a lesson on pseudo Indian ritual. Looks like I'm being a bit uncooperative.
That’s me, folks, getting a lesson on pseudo Indian ritual. Looks like I’m being a bit uncooperative.

I do recall eating in Knotts Berry Farm’s chicken dinner restaurant. The fried chicken and biscuits were good, but the boysenberry pie still awakens my taste buds more than fifty years after I last spooned it into my mouth. I know the train robberies and gunfights should be my favorite memories, but they’re not close to my slices of boysenberry pie.

In my childhood, train and car trips to Ohio to visit relatives included making memories at quaint amusement parks patterned after Coney Island. Only Cedar Point adapted to changing times. Chippewa Lake and Meyers Lake amusement parks are gone.

I took my first roller coaster ride in 1960 at Meyers Lake in Canton. Grandpa Frog took me on the Comet. Family members said I was pale as a corpse as grandpa led me away from the wooden structure after that wild ride. Grandma Mid chastised him and made sure he kept the rides no scarier than the ferris wheel, merry-go-around and bumper cars.

slide of the week, americana
Back in ’59, my aunts Hortense and Avis sat beside these saloon doves

The memories of Chippewa Lake are not of rides, but of my mom’s stories about her teenage years and dances in the Starlight Ballroom. Sometimes it was a Saturday night date and jitterbugging or slow dancing to bands such as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Other times mom and several girlfriends would pile into a car and motor across the county line to Chippewa Lake. It must have been a dazzling sight… the way the ballroom’s light reflected off the lake. The last time I went to the amusement park was 1969, and it was a shell of its former self. It closed in 1978 and was razed in 2009.  If you think the kids of the late 19th century had nothing to do but go to church picnics and play piano recitals for their grandmothers and aunts, think again. Chippewa Lake opened in 1878.

We took many trips to Cedar Point with my cousins Candy and Pat after we moved back to Ohio in 1965 when I was in 8th grade. There’s a blur of memories, but one stands out… climbing into a bumper car and taking aim at Candy. Another fun memory: riding in the back of their dad Jack’s stationwagon on the way to Cedar Point and singing Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

I took my first roller-coaster ride at Meyer's Lake in Canton, Ohio. Again, it was my Grandpa Frog who rode with me.  I'm told I was white as a sheet as the coaster cars came to a stop.
I took my first roller-coaster ride at Meyer’s Lake in Canton, Ohio. Again, it was my Grandpa Frog who rode with me. I’m told I was white as a sheet as the coaster cars came to a stop.

You’d think I’d have a ton of snapshots of those long-ago days at Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm as well as those Ohio amusement parks, right? I’ve done days and days of scanning over the last few years, but I found only one photo for this post. An Indian wearing a headdress is showing me the proper way to cross my arms and hold them high. Did any Indian tribes actually do this?

I’ve never learned how to take the home-movie DVD and convert it to an Internet video file format that can be downloaded onto YouTube. But I wanted to end this post by leaving a link to a video of Disneyland in 1957. Here it is: Notice how well the adults dressed, the women in dresses, the men in dress shirts and pants, some with ties and sports coats. And not a tattoo anywhere.

Meyers Lake and Chippewa Lake amusement parks are abandoned. This is Chippewa Lake's ferris wheel. Mom told me many stories of her teenage years when she danced to Big Band music in Chippewa Lake's ballroom.
Meyers Lake and Chippewa Lake amusement parks are abandoned. This is Chippewa Lake’s ferris wheel. Mom told me many stories of her teenage years when she danced to Big Band music in Chippewa Lake’s ballroom.

# # #

Mike’s the author of two fantasy novels, The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin. They’re the first two books of a trilogy. He’s working on the third novel, Assassins’ Lair. He’s been at it for four years, but he promises he’ll soon have it shipshape for his publisher.


19 thoughts on “Through the Gates of Yesteryear’s Amusement Parks

  1. So much fun. I’ve seen some photos of vacations that we were on, but the only ones I remember were trips to my Grandma and Grandpa Dicken’s house. I had several cousins who lived close to them, so that was usually a fun trip. We took our kids to Disneyland when they were younger. They didn’t even have Epcot Center back then. It was okay. Long lines to wait for a ride, and really hot weather. Del and Tommy rode the roller coaster, they looked a little sick when they exited. Cher’ley

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I worked at the Daily Commercial and lived in Leesburg, a bunch of us from the newsroom went to Press Night at Disneyworld. Took the Space Mountain rollercoaster ride at night. It was so dark I didn’t know which way to lean. I didn’t like that.


  2. Great bunch of memories, Mike. And the video of Disneyland was great too. What magic that was then. We didn’t see Disneyland until 1984 when our daughters were young. I remember the haunted house ride mostly. Walt Disney, of which I’m told we are distantly related, was a genius, and the Disney philosophy for entertaining and making people feel special was amazing. And you are right, didn’t see any spandex or casual attitudes or attire in the scenes. Boundaries for dress and behavior were firmly in place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just took a glance at what you and others have written in response to the post. Great reading about others’ memories of amusement parks. Distantly related to Walt. That sounds like a post idea. Lol.


  3. Mike, thank you for sharing your memories. I never did the rides at parks, motion sickness, but always enjoyed seeing folks after that got off. Never did Disneyland, but was at Disney World in 1975 when it was still so young. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You are probably right. It did put a cramp on some of the things I did as a child. I even got sick on the merry-go-round. (Sigh)


    1. Hey, Stephanie, better late than never. I probably won’t ever go back. Better to keep the kid memories without adding in the modern ones. When I lived in Leesburg, Florida, I did do Disneyworld whenever relatives came visiting — and that was a lot. Included EPOT. Back in the ’80s.


  4. Thanks for the memories. It sounds like you had some great adventures. I’m sorry to say that my memories of amusement parks and carnivals aren’t all that pleasant because my parents insisted I go with them on scary rides like roller coasters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yea, I’ve never been a fan of roller coaster. Did do the Matterhorn and Space Mountain (at Disneyworld). But the modern ones at other mega-parks… I’m too old for them. They’re for 20-somethings and teens.


  5. My first amusement park experience was Camden Park near Huntington, WV. I remember thinking the place was huge! When I was a little older, we went to King’s Island. This was when it was still a relatively small regional park, long before Paramount bought it. But it made Camden Park feel pretty small.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Believe it or not, I never went to King’s Island, even though I lived in Beverly, Ohio, in the late 60s and early 70s and it wasn’t that far away — within a few hours’ drive. I guess by the time I was in college at Ohio University, I had other priorities. Being single all my life, I never had kids who would’ve pestered me, “Dad, dad, dad, let’s go to (fill in the amusement park).


  6. Loved your post, Mike. It brought back a ton of memories as I grew up in Placentia which is right by Anaheim. I heard fireworks every night as a kid and knew it was 9:30. I’ve been to Disneyland more times than I can remember but hadn’t gone for more than 20 years until a couple years ago. I still love it! Space Mountain, Matterhorn, and Thunder Mountain were always my favorites. Sadly, Thunder Mountain was closed (as was Small World) when I was there last. I didn’t go to Knott’s Berry Farm as often but I do have a lot of memories of Knott’s Scary Farm in junior high and high school shrieking and giggling with girlfriends. I also remember being a little kid and going on that parachute ride with my mom. We screamed in terror the entire way down and I never went on that ride again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words. That would have been something to have lived so close to Disneyland a kid could hear the firecrackers going off at 9:30 p.m. It’s a bit like here in the Vegas Valley. Sometimes a nearby casino or other venue will fire off fireworks at night. I’ve seen them sparking in the sky when on my late-night walk in the neighborhood. I haven’t been back to Disneyland since the mid-60s. But I’ve been to Disney World so many times I’ve lost count… it was part of the itinerary for family and friends when they came to visit me when I lived in Lake County, Florida back in the ’80s. A trip to the KSC Visitor’s Center was always on the agenda as well, since I was and still am a big fan of space exploration.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. That was a great post and wonderful memories shared Mike. Your film record is such a precious thing to treasure. I’ve managed to go to Califoria’s Disneyland only once, back in 1991 when we took our 2 daughters. i know I had as good a time as they had. The queues for the new Space Mountain were too long for more than 1 ride but we rode around Pirates of the Caribbean so many times till closing time, since it wasn’t so popular!


  8. There was a small amusement park in the Iowa town in which I grew up and I remember visiting it on Sunday afternoons after church. The roller coaster wasn’t high and I enjoyed it, but I’m not much for rides, nor have I been for quite sometime, so Disneyland/World, etc don’t appeal to me. But, the zoos, Sea Worlds, bear parks, etc. do and I’ve been to several in my life — and plan to continue doing so! My dad and I visited Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in southern Utah last year, and I hope to go there again either later this year or early next to do some volunteer work. Your memories are precious, Mike — thank you for sharing them with us! I can envision a story or two brewing from these reflections! 🙂


  9. Mike, This was a wonderful post down memory lane! My memories of amusement parks were at Rye Playland in NY and in Myrtle Beach, SC growing up. It was such simple fun back then. One memory that stands out was my mother dropping her handful of ride tickets for us as she watched my dad and I on the roller coaster. On the ferris wheel at Myrtle Beach, SC, the operator had us moving over and over again. The ferris wheel was right next to the beach so you felt like you were drifting towards the ocean. Afterwards, we would meet my grandparents at the old organ imported from Germany. It was like being at an outdoor concert with its music and we sat on green wooden benches in the gardens just listening.


  10. Wow, You had a busy childhood. My family didn’t go to many amusement parks. But I do remember a class trip to an amusement park. The roller coaster, bumper cars and other rides were lots of fun with my friends.

    As a child we spent a lot of time at the lake or the beach in NJ. So many of my childhood memories are of sandcastles, picnics and the Atlantic City boardwalk.


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