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No Longer So Amusing Amusement Parks


Rocky Point Amusement ParkExcitement, gravity defiance, adrenalin rush, escape – Down like a roller coaster, Back like a loop-the-loop, And around like a merry-go-round – it’s Palisades Park (1962, Freddie Boom Boom Cannon) or our favorite amusement park we frequented as a youngster during the Sixties.


The final decade of 19th century America at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution witnessed the birth of the amusement park where people could amuse themselves on weekends as a respite from the long, grim work days at the mills. Just as most folks lived in the nearby mill houses and owed their soul to the company stores, the electric trolley lines with so many streetcars of desire, purchased land sites and developed them into amusing destinations along their line.  Many such parks sprung up along the shoreline, eventually expanding from picnic groves to include mechanical amusements, regular entertainment, dance halls, sports fields, boat rides, restaurants, and other resort facilities.


The Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II during the 1940s did a House of Horror twist of the macabre for amusement parks, rendering them no longer so amusing.  Our parents’ generation moved to the burbs where the black-and-white boob tube became the main source of entertainment.  By the 1950s, rigor mortis of urban decay settled over the park grounds. By the time the Sixties rolled around when most of us Boomers jumped in the family wood-paneled station wagon, heading for a day of amusement at the park—they became downright skanky—plagued by fires, closed down, or demolished by wrecking balls.


Growing up in the Sixties, my sister and I frequented one of two prominent Rhode Island landmarks nearly every Sunday for our package of excitement, gravity defiance, adrenalin rush, and escape.


Crescent Park 


Formerly located in the vicinity of the 400-foot Bullocks Point Dock in Riverside, the “Coney Island of New England,” originated in 1886.  Over the years, acquisitions such as the Shore Dinner Hall, the famous Looff Carousel, Flying Toboggan, Rivers of Venice, roller rink, and the Alhambra Ballroom graced the grounds. Hitting hard times post WWII, Crescent Park rallied for a time in the 1950s into the 1960s through the addition of “Kiddie Land” and “The River Ride” constructed with wood from the old roller coaster. In 1969, the Alhambra Ballroom succumbed to fire. Even adding the menacing ride “The Turbo” to lure thrill seekers couldn’t save the park from its demise due to financial problems and pollution.  The only token remaining is the historically significant Carousel where one can still ride the merry-go-round and try for the brass ring.


Rocky Point Park

Formerly located on the Narragansett Bay side of Warwick, Rhode Island’s most popular amusement park operated from the late 1840s until 1995.  A 1918 ad billed the resort as “New England’s most beautiful amusement park,” and from the 1950s through the 1980s, it continued to be the main attraction in Rhode Island. Rides such as the Ferris wheel, Cyclone, Skydiver, Corkscrew, Log Flume, Musik Express, House of Horror, and the Freefall thrilled its patrons. By 1996, the park fell into bankruptcy and many of the major rides were auctioned.  Eventually, most remaining structures not destroyed by fire were demolished, sparing The Palladium and Shore Dinner Hall.  The 123 acre property is in limbo as to its developmental future.  Chronicling the history of the park as well as documenting the love Rhode Islanders harbor for this cherished institution--the Midway Pictures acclaimed film, “You Must Be This Tall” (Winner, Best in Festival, Main Street Festival, 2008).

You must be this tall—54 inches for ticket trolls to release the chain so you could run along the ramp and scramble to grab yourself a seat on an adult ride.  Never highly amused by our frequent family pilgrimages to Crescent or Rocky Point Parks, mandated by my younger sister, I nevertheless made the best of it.  Polar opposites, she never got her fill of thrills on the adult rides my father accompanied her on.  Though I loved the Dodge-Ems, I gradually developed a tolerance for the Tilt-a-Whirl, Whip, Musik Express, and Ferris wheel.  

Even as a pre-teen Sixties chick, I surmised our amusement parks were on the skids from the cracked and weed-infested asphalt to the stereotypical attendants collecting tickets with all the insolence they could muster. Folsom cadets sporting slicked back ducktails with long sideburns, and muscular forearms covered with tats occasionally stopped a ride, wielding a greasy wrench to adjust a part. The concession stands were presided by a consortium of Fagan flimflammers trying to entice you to spill your change and take a chance on winning a prize.  

If the oil fumes from the French Fries or Dough Boy stands didn’t churn your stomach pre or post ride, the sticky sweetness of candy apples or cotton candy would sock you in the gut. For all of my disillusionment with amusement parks, I found myself drawn to the robotic, snaggletoothed fortune teller inside the glass booth of the Penny Arcade. For a quarter, I eagerly waited for the gypsy to dispense a mass-produced fortune card.

Though so many of our former amusement parks of the Sixties no longer exist-- their buildings burned or demolished, many of the rides have been auctioned off and destined for smoother asphalt.  Rocky Point Park’s Musik Express sold for $130,000; its bumper cars fetched $1,875; the House of Horror sold for a mere $1,000.  Yet, you can’t put a price tag on memories. We ate and ate at a hot dog stand, We danced around to a rockin' band, And when I could, I gave that girl a hug, In the tunnel of love…

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