See this photo below of the man who appears to experience equal parts nausea, pain, and regret?
And that pretty much sums up my take on theme parks. I find them deeply unamused – too loud, too many lines, too much motion sickness.
But there’s one thing that makes me less grumpy every time I go with my kids every summer. And it’s the gratitude I feel that I haven’t had to go to amusement parks in decades and centuries. The amusement parks of old were much worse. They were bloody, sexist, racist – basically a hell of a mess. Let me break it down for you.
1. Amusement parks of the past could be deadly.
Although accidents and incidents do happen, roller coasters are generally considered safe these days. This wasn’t always the case: the first roller coasters and other rides were uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. One of the precursors of the roller coaster was the ice slides – hills built of wood and ice – found in Russia in the 16th century. After a arduous climb of a staircase, the runners raced down the slope on a block of ice with a pile of straw for their seats. Fun! In the early 1800s, a wheeled version made its way to France, making it closer to a modern roller coaster. Except that often the wheels came off and the cars did not stop at the bottom of the hill. Less fun!
Coasters did not become more dangerous until the following century. Consider the infamous Coney Island Rough Riders roller coaster, which killed seven people in five years from 1910 to 1915 before it closed. The roller coaster was a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders,” the soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War. But the roller coaster was almost as dangerous as the Battle of San Juan Hill: According to PBS, in an accident, the high-speed roller coaster dropped 16 people, killing four. In another accident, the coaster skipped the runway and left three people dead. A woman survived the ordeal hanging on a rail with one hand, holding her child with the other.
Coney Island featured another coaster that wasn’t fatal, but it was certainly unpleasant. The Flip Flap Railway roller coaster of the 1890s was one of the first roller coasters to feature a loop loop. But unlike modern buckles, which are oval shaped to reduce forces on the rider, the Flip Flap was circular. This put intense pressure on the runners, knocking them out and inflicting a whiplash. A source believes that bikers experimented a force G of 12. For comparison, fighter pilots typically experience a G-force of 7. A log declared the Flip Flap and another coaster called the Loop the Loop “the unholy terrors of the beach”.
Another great place to get injured was New Jersey’s Action Park, which did damage from 1978 to 1996 before closing. The park is so famous it’s the subject of a fascinating 2020 documentary Collective action park. The “class action” in the title refers to the numerous lawsuits brought against the place. At least six people have died in Action Park. A man was electrocuted when he stepped on a live wire while kayaking. Others drowned in the wave pool (very rough). During one descent – Alpine Slide – cars were regularly jumping on the tracks and a runner died when his head hit a rock.
How bad was Action Park? A few years ago my New Jersey born wife received an email saying, “You know you’re from New Jersey when… you were seriously injured in Action Park. “
2. Amusement parks used to be very offensive.
Amusement parks of the past have managed to be reprehensible in almost every way: sexist, racist, capable, you name it.
Consider what happened to unsuspecting Coney Island patrons when they stepped off the roller coaster in the 1920s. They were forced to cross a platform dubbed the “Event theater. “Under the platform, a machine blew gusts of wind through the vents, lifting the women’s dresses and exposing their underwear to an eager crowd of peeping spectators. New Yorker article published at the time, “Management has judiciously planned several hundred places for clients to observe newcomers, and the gallery, mainly but not exclusively for deer, has a swell weather.” But there is more. Like historian Stephen Silverman writing in his book The amusement park, men and women were then “accosted by aggressive little men disguised as clowns, or tall men wearing blackface makeup. These hosts were armed with electrically charged pokers, allowing them to zap the unfortunate in their most sensitive places.
The amusement parks of Coney Island presented several humiliating attractions for the little ones, but perhaps the most elaborate was that of Dreamland “Lilliputie”, A fake city with few people as residents. Silverman describes it this way: “Built like an old German village built at mid-scale, with its own fire and police services, beach and standards of behavior, the enclave contained three hundred little people, all for the pleasure of paying spectators. “
Another deeply disturbing attraction in old amusement parks had a few names, including “The African Dodger”, among others even more offensive. In it, white patrons were throwing baseballs at black Americans, who were trying to turn their heads away. A number of people were seriously injured during this “game” suffering from broken noses and teeth when touched. Versions of this racist attraction persisted until the 1960s.
3. Amusement parks were cruel to animals.
The 2013 documentary Black fish exposed the controversial treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld. But long before that, amusement park animals were having a miserable time.
During the first decades of the 1900s, several parks featured diving horses. This is exactly what it looks like: horses being forced to dive 40-foot-high platforms in water tanks (and a horse would have jumped up of 85 feet). Protests from the humanitarian society – and loss of interest – ultimately shut down Atlantic City attractions in the late 1970s.
Or consider Topsy the Elephant’s bizarre story. Topsy worked in what would become Coney Island’s Luna Park, where she made the headlines by moving an attraction on the ground. Topsy was considered dangerous, because she had killed a man (but only in response to the fact that he intentionally burned his trunk with a cigar). Eventually, the owners of Luna Park announced that she would be executed. Originally, they wanted to hang her, but when the ASPCA protested, they instead fed her poisoned carrots and shocked her in front of a crowd of over 1,000 spectators. The execution was even filmed. It is much shorter than Black fish, but about as disturbing.
4. Some amusement park rides were literally hellish.
One Coney Island attraction was called “Fighting the Flames” and featured firefighters who put out a real fire in a real building– which doesn’t seem like a fun respite on a hellish summer day.
Plus, as Erin McCarthy of Mental Floss wrote, a ride from the past was particularly hellish. It would be Hell’s Gate at Coney Island Dreamland Amusement Park. Hell’s Gate, which opened in 1905, was somewhat of a precursor to Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World,’ but instead of seeing happy, singing people from all nations, the passengers of Hell Gate floated by. sinners tortured by demons. For example, a girl who steals money from a purse is dragged into a ditch, where she disappears amid the steam and fake fire. After that, the passengers were given a monotonous sermon on the dangers of bad behavior. (Dreamland competitor Luna Park had their own hell-themed ride: Night and morning, in which the horsemen entered a coffin-like room that mimicked the descent into the earth, and then took them on a tour of the afterlife.)
For what it’s worth, the riders seemed to enjoy these morality rides, but Hell’s Gate lived up to its name by burning to the ground in 1911. The blaze, which started when tar from the merry-go-round caught fire, has razed almost all of Dreamland Amusement Park, along with 50 other businesses.
So, in short, much more hellish than the log channel in Hershey Park. Wish me good luck.
Curious what other modern entertainment was not so fun in the past? Check out the previous episodes of our Bad Old Days series here.