There Was Once an Amusement Park Here: New York City's Lost '50s-Era Amusement Parks
With the rise in popularity of the automobile came a new breed of amusement park. The roadside attraction. While the first amusement parks were built as destinations, the roadside attraction was designed to be a stop during the journey. For example, the amusement parks of Coney Island were built to take advantage of the crowds visiting the beach. In contrast, a roadside amusement park was designed to be spotted by the children of motorists while they were on their way somewhere else. In New York the trend began with amusement entrepreneur William Nunley who in 1939 co-owned the carousel that operated in the Golden City amusement park. When Robert Moses began eminent domain proceedings against the park, Nunley had the carousel and it's building moved to the town of Baldwin in Long Island. Nunely wanted to take advantage of the Sunrise Highway, a busy road used by thousands of motorists. His carousel was built adjoining a restaurant, with the idea that families looking for a place to eat would chose the one with an attached ride for the kids. The building expanded to include an arcade, and more amusements were added to an adjoining lot which was dubbed Happyland.
Nunley's restaurant became a huge success, and he began building more restaurants with attached amusement parks across the Tri-State area, including one in Yonkers, and the Jolly Roger in Beth Page. One of the Nunley's restaurants was built on Cross Bay Blvd in Broad Channel, just on the other side of the Cross Bay drawbridge from Rockaway Playland. The road was heavily traveled by motorists going to Playland, and Nunley gambled that he could convince a fair amount of them to stop on the way. Nunley's Broad Channel soon expanded into the successful Broad Channel Amusement Park. It survived until about 1960 when once again Robert Moses sized amusement park property with eminent domain, this time to build a toll plaza for the new Cross Bay Bridge. By now the Nunley family knew the drill. The rides were immediately packed up and moved elsewhere. All that remained of the park was the shed that housed it's carousel, surviving until the late 90s when it was finally demolished.
The Nunley model was so successful that during the 1950s others began building their own versions. Treasure Island Restaurant & Arcade and it's adjoining amusement park Kiddy City was built in Douglaston on an undeveloped stretch of Northern Blvd, across the street from Alley Pond Park. Opening in 1955, the park was 25 acres including both adult and kiddie rides, and a miniature golf course. Advertisements boasted they had "the most modern rides". It thrived for a good ten years, but closed in 1964 after a devastating fire which destroyed the Treasure Island building. While the amusement park itself was unscathed, it remained closed for a couple of years while the owners pondered it's future. Some accounts claim that one or two of the rides may have continued to run via independent operators. Treasure Island was the main moneymaker for the complex, able to remain open year round and during rain days when the amusement park was closed. Deciding they did not have enough money to rebuild a new restaurant, nor enough to pay for their insurance premiums which increased due to the fire, the owners sold off the amusement park rides and instead reinvested in the mini golf course. The site of the amusement park was converted into a successful driving range.
Fairyland in Queens became a twice victim of the city. Built on Horace Harding Blvd in Elmhurst, Queens in 1949, it began as a restaurant and small kiddie park. But only one year after opening, the city condemned the property so that Horace Harding Blvd could be widened and turned into the Long Island Expressway. The owners moved operations to a new location, a huge lot located at the intersection of Woodhaven Blvd and Queens Blvd. This time they build a larger amusement park next to a restaurant with a decent sized steel coaster and a few other adult rides. As the neighborhood developed around it, Fairyland became a favorite destination of local families. in 1968 the city condemned the second park, this time to give the property to a developer who wanted to build Queens Center Mall.
But the most beloved of the restaurant parks was Adventurer's Inn located in College Point on the edge of the now decommissioned Flushing Airport. It began as a themed restaurant in 1950 with an adjoining mini golf course, expanded to include kiddie rides, then eventually included many adult rides. The amusement park's official name was Grate Adventure Amusement Park, but then adopted the restaurant's name. It became a favorite destination of the local residents of College Point. But the neighboring town of Whitestone saw it as a nuisance. They complained that the park was attracting undesirables who would then drive into their neighborhood. It should be pointed out that the park was separated from the closest Whitestone homes by a half mile. But since the residents of Whitestone were affluent and white, it was not long before they had politicians on their side.
Claims were made that residents of bordering Flushing were complaining about the park, and Adventurer's Inn spent the 70's harassed by city officials responding to those alleged complaints. But the park defiantly remained open. In 1978 the city claimed they needed the property to build an industrial park, and promptly rezoned the property under Adventurer's Inn. They used the new zoning to condemn the amusement park section, take possession, and surround it with a padlocked fence. It remained padlocked for a couple of years while the owner went to court against the city. During that time the city allowed the rides to be vandalized and rusted until they were no longer safe. In 1980 the amusement section was declared hazardous and bulldozed for the safety of the public. Meanwhile the Adventurer's Inn restaurant remained opened, and during the 80's transformed into a popular video arcade. Around 1984 an arsonist set fire to the building, and it burned to the ground. The owners sold off the property. Shortly after, it and the rest of the proposed industrial park was rezoned for box store retail.
Not every roadside amusement park was built in conjunction with a restaurant. The first children of the post World War II Baby Boom were reaching their kindergarten years by the early 1950s. That was a sudden surge of millions of young children being driven around by their parents, who had nothing better to do on those long trips than look out the car window. Thus came into existence the roadside kiddie parks. These were cheaper than places like Nunley's, with snack stands instead of restaurants, and usually no adult rides. They went up wherever there was a well traveled road that had the available property.
Some accounts have anywhere from fifteen to twenty kiddie parks within the New York City borders. However, for this hub I could only confirm that seven of these parks actually existed, two of them being the aforementioned McCullough's in Coney Island, and the still operating Deno's Kiddie Park, which is owned by the same family who owns the nearby Wonder Wheel. The problem is that most people visited these parks when they were under the age of five, so memories of them are very dim. There are thousands of accounts from those who remember their parents taking them to an amusement park when they were a child, but can not pinpoint where that park was located, or the park's name. Was there really a kiddie park on Jamaica Ave in Hollis Queens, or was this account really a memory of McGinnis out in Garden City on the Jericho Turnpike? Was there really an amusement park on Woodhaven Blvd between Park Lane South and Forest Park Drive that was eventually replaced with apartment buildings, or was that just memories of the annual Oktoberfest, a fair with rides that once pitched it's tents every September in Forest Park's Victory Field for two weeks? While I believe there must have been more kiddie parks dotted about this city, I can only confirm five existing within the city limits.
In 1950 Max Gruberg opened Kiddie Land on Horace Harding Blvd and 174 street. He sold that park a year later to another amusement park company, perhaps after learning the city had taken Fairyland four miles down the road. Horace Harding Blvd was being widened and converted into the Long Island Expressway, a project of, you guessed it, Robert Moses. The project would not reach Kiddie Land for another five years, but in 1955 the city officially took the property using eminent domain. The owners were given but a few months to either relocate or sell off their rides. While the Long Island Expressway was a necessary project, Moses did use it to abuse his power. The Long Island Expressway was not being widened on that side of the street, and did not actually go through Kiddie Land's property. But Moses was given the authority to use eminent domain for any property that abutted the highway's proposed route, and he used it to remove anything he did not like. The city ended up selling that property, unused, once the highway was completed. The same fate befell the Bronx Funland, a kiddie park that opened on Bruckner Blvd near White Plains Road in 1951. In the mid 60s Moses decided to widen Bruckner and convert it into an expressway. Bronx Funland was forced to close in 1966.
But while Moses did his best to eliminate any amusement park he could, some were built in areas the city had no plans to develop, or along roads that were already widened by the city years before. The ones he missed lived on for decades. Fairyland Kiddie Park, which opened at the intersection of Utica and Flashbush Av in 1952, lasted until 2002 when the owners finally decided to accept an offer by developers for the property. It had been built along a stretch of Flatbush that initially ended in an area called Dead Horse Bay, named because it was a dumping ground for dead horses and their parts. Up until the arrival of the automobile, it was horses that pulled the wagons and transported people. There were millions of horses living in the city limits. When they died, their corpses were sold to glue manufacturers. The rendering plants that made that glue were located near Dead Horse Bay, and the parts the glue makers did not use were dumped into the wetlands. The smell emanating from the area was so strong that the property just North of Dead Horse Bay was practically worthless. Finally in the 1920s the glue rendering plants were shut down, and most of the wetlands were filled in with sand to build the city's first airport, Floyd Bennett Field. Robert Moses extended Flatbush Ave past the airport and over the Marine Parkway Bridge to the Rockaways. With the land along Flatbush Ave still undervalued and sparsely developed, and it being a major road taking travelers to Jacob Riis Park, the area became a perfect place to build a kiddie park.
Peter Pan Playland opened on Emmons Ave in Sheepshead Bay in 1954 and lasted until the mid 70s. The park was built on a block that was not zoned to allow amusements. One third of the block was zoned for retail stores while the other two thirds was zoned for residential homes. While Perter Pan Playland owned the entire block, the city refused to allow it to expand onto the half of the block that was zoned residential, nor would they allow it to be used as a parking lot. The owners had hoped to eventually expand onto the rest of the block with adult rides. As it was, the city just barely tolerated the park existing on land zoned for stores. According to some Sheepshead Bay residents, the owners of the park finally gave up and sold the block.
One kiddie park has an interesting history. In 1952 a Californian based company called Playland Center, inc. formed and purchased a block of property on Cross Bay Blvd in Queens between 163 and 164 Aves. There they opened a kiddie park in 1953. Above it's gate was the sign "Playland" with a smiling clown's head. Within a few weeks of Playland Center opening, they received a letter from the lawyers of the Playland Holding Corporation, the owners of Rockaway Playland, demanding they take the sign down. The sign was removed for the rest of the summer season. But in 1954 another "Playland" sign went up with the same clown head and the words "Kiddie Rides" in tiny letters underneath. Rockaway Playland had enough.
Since purchasing Thompson's amusement park in 1927 and re-branding it Rockaway Playland, the company had spent over $1 in advertisements, including newspaper ads, radio commercials, and billboards. And their mascot was a smiling clown head. In 1954 Rockaway Playland had spent $100,000 on promotion for their park. They were not fooled by what Playland Center was doing. Crossbay Blvd had always been the main route to Rockaway Playland. Even after the Marine Parkway Bridge was built, the quickest route to the Rockaways continued to be the combination of Woodhaven and Crossbay Blvds. The advertisements for Rockaway Playland even gave that route as the directions to their park. The region South of Rockaway Blvd had not yet been developed, especially Howard Beach which at the time was still almost entirely vacant lots. The only real development was along Crossbay Blvd as dozens of drive in businesses took advantage of the well traveled road. The property Playland Center purchased was the closest block sized vacant lot to Rockaway Playland along that route, the rest of the property between either already developed, or too marshy. What Rockaway Playland suspected was that Playland Center was trying to trick motorists into believing that the small kiddie park was in fact their amusement park. When Playland Center insisted on replacing the Playland sign with a similar clown logo, those suspicions were confirmed.
An injunction was filed in New York Supreme Court against Playland Center, inc. to permanently remove the sign, and the judge agreed. Playland Center was ordered to remove the sign. For the rest of it's existence, Playland Center could not display it's original name or logo. It eventually became known as the Crossbay Amusement Park. That name was never official, but adopted over the years by those who brought their kids to the park. Although Playland Center could no longer trick motorists into stopping at a faux Rockaway Playland, they still continued to do good business. They were, after all, situated on a well travelled route. And as the area South of Woodhaven began being developed into homes, which millions of young parents began moving into, the Crossbay Amusement Park served it's purpose as a conveniently close kiddie park to bring their children to. But eventually that development would lead to it's downfall. Howard Beach was not the ideal place to build homes. Situated between a smelly city dump and equally smelly sewage treatment plant at Spring Creek, and the noise of JFK Airport, developing property West of Crossbay Blvd was slow going. But eventually, by the late 70s, the Crossbay Amusement Park found itself surrounded by homes. And the new residents were not happy with the noise and extra traffic the park produced. Like many amusement parks situated in residential neighborhoods, the Crossbay Amusement Park found itself at siege, with public officials looking for votes constantly vowing to have the park shut down. They finally gave up in 1998, outliving Rockaway Playland by 13 years. The official reason for the closing was the combination of increased property taxes, surging insurance premiums, a drop off in business, and a hard to ignore offer by developers. But according to some Howard Beach residents who swear this to be fact, it was the conviction of John Gotti. Over the years, many Howard Beach residents had reached out to the local mob, asking them to do something about the park. But it was where Gotti had brought his kids, and he had a warm place for it in his heart. When he and later his son went to prison, the new boss in charge of the Gambino crime family politely asked the amusement park to leave town, or else. Today 163-50 Crossbay Blvd is a Staples.
By the beginning of the new millennium, the last of the roadside amusement parks were on their way out. They were a product of the post-war baby boom which ended in 1964. That meant that by 1970 business was dropping off, especially for the kiddie parks that had no adult rides. The parks that held on faced an even bigger challenge. initially built in the middle of nowhere, they were eventually surrounded by a residential neighborhood. And as City Hall pointed out to developer Joe Sitt when he wanted to build condos in the middle of Coney Island's amusement parks, residents and amusements do not get along. Even those who knowingly moved next door to an amusement park believed their rights were being violated by the park's noise and hubbub. Politicians did their part to pacify these residents and rid the city of these parks with regulations and taxes, making their operations nearly unprofitable. And the final straw, the once-cheap property these parks were built on became very valuable. This combination eventually forced the decision for these parks to close. But another consideration was the generation of amusement parks that followed them. The theme parks. And yes, New York City did have one of them.
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