1550 thru 1700
Pleasure Gardens begin to appear in Europe. These were the first permanent areas set aside specifically for outdoor entertainment. The attractions included fountains, flower gardens, bowling, games, music, dancing, staged spectacles and a few primitive amusement rides.
Large ice slides, supported by heavy timbers, become popular as a wintertime diversion in Russia. Small Wooden sleds used iron runners to glide down hills in St. Petersburg were quite elaborate. These simple amusements were the forerunner of today's roller coasters.
The pleasure garden is exported to America with the opening of Vauxhall Gardens in New York City. By the early 1800s it is home to one of the first carousels in the country.
Coney Island is linked to New York City via roadway and the first hotel opens launching the growth of America’ most legendary amusement area.
The first looping gravity railway is exhibited at Frascati Gardens, in Paris, France. The French called the device Chemin du Centrifuge.
With the completion of the first railroad to Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, it is fast becoming popular as a seaside resort.
Coney's most popular attractions were located in pavilions built near the water. The attractions included Cabaret entertainment, Vaudeville acts, Melodramas, Fortune tellers, Games, and rides such as small carousels.
LaMarcus A. Thompson introduces his Switchback Gravity Pleasure Railway at Coney Island. This device is recognized as the first true roller coaster in America although several similar attractions had already opened.
The first electric powered street railway opens in Richmond, Virginia. Soon hundreds of trolley lines are constructed around the country. To maximize revenue, operators seek ways to attract riders during lightly used evenings and weekends periods. Amusement parks, typically built at the end of the trolley lines, provided the ideal solution. These “trolley parks” spread rapidly throughout America offering picnic facilities, dance halls, restaurants, games, and a few amusement rides.
Lina Beecher of NY, constructs America's first vertical looping roller coaster in Toledo. It is later relocated to New York's Coney Island.
Chicago's Columbian Exposition introduces the famous George Ferris Giant Wheel. A true wonder of the then modern world, the Ferris wheel weighed in at over 4 million lbs. and was 264 feet high.
Also introduced at the Columbian Exposition was the Midway Plaisance (or White City Midway). The ornate building facades and brilliant electric lights, dictated amusement park design for the next 60 years.
Chutes Park in Chicago opens. Built by Captain Paul Boyton, Chutes Park was the first amusement park to be enclosed and charge an admission. After relocating in 1896, Chutes Park closed in 1908. The park served as a model for Sea Lion Park at New York's Coney Island.
Captain Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park opens at Coney Island. Sea Lion Park inspired numerous amusement parks throughout the United States including the three Great Coney Island Parks including Luna Park (1903-47), Dreamland (1904-11) and Steeplechase (1897-1964).
THE TURN OF THE 20TH CENTURY
The late 1800's saw the beginning of a brand new industry, Public Transportation. Electric Traction (Trolley) Companies began to appear in the urban United States.
Electric light and power companies charged the traction companies a flat monthly fee for electricity on which they ran their trolleys. It didn't matter how much or how little the trolleys were used.
Naturally, the trolley magnates became frustrated because little need existed to operate trolleys during the weekends although they still had to pay for the electricity to operate their systems.
A solution was to get the general public to ride the trolleys on Saturdays and Sundays, thus creating more revenue for the traction companies.
How did they do this? By building an amusement park at the end of the trolley line, hence the term, "Trolley Park", and a new era began. Soon hundreds of trolley parks were in operation throughout the United States. However, only twelve remain.
Thompson and Dundy's Luna Park, Coney Island, opens on May 16th. The electrical "Arabian Nights" style of architecture attracted over 40,000 patrons that first evening. Luna Park burned down in 1947.
By this date, more than 2000 Amusement Parks are operating throughout the U.S.
John Miller patents his design for the underfriction roller coaster. This new method of holding the coaster to the tracks, while reducing drag, would revolutionize the roller coaster, safely allowing for higher, steeper drops and faster speeds.
1915 through 1920
Many parks close, due to the public's increased mobility caused by the invention of the automobile, and interest in new attractions such as motion pictures.
This is the golden age of amusement parks. Many larger cities had as many as six. Competition spawns the Great Wild Ride building boom that lasted until the end of the decade. Many of the best roller coasters of all time were built during this period.
Playland in Rye, NY opens May 26. Designed by a New York architectural firm, under direction of Frank Darling, is the first fully planned amusement park built from the ground up.
The Stock Market Crash and Great Depression cause the closing of many more parks. The number of amusement parks in the U.S. decreases to less than 500 from over 2000 in 1910.
Amusement Parks offer a diversion from the Second World War. Rationing and scarcity of supplies hamper the wartime growth of amusement parks.
Baby boomers come of age and a new innovation, Kiddielands, begin to spring up, near another post war phenomenon, the shopping center. Due to rapidly rising property values, the boom in Kiddieland building is short lived.
Disneyland opens. Generally considered the nation's first theme park. Built at a cost of $17 million, Disneyland represented the largest investment for building an amusement park that had been made up to that time. In spite of skepticism over such a new concept, the park was an instant success, drawing 3.8 million visitors to its five themed areas during its first season.
The Matterhorn premiers at Disneyland. The first major tubular steel roller coaster, it forever changes the face of roller coaster development.
The first Six Flags park opens in Texas. This was the first successful, regional theme park. In its first full season of operation, 1.3 million visitors pass through the turnstiles.
Arrow Development introduces the Log Flume ride at Six Flags over Texas. The ride quickly became the most popular ride at the park and soon the Log Flume was being built at theme and traditional parks around the world.
Late 1960's to Early 1970's
Large inner city parks begin closing, reflecting changing times. As turmoil increases throughout large cities, parks feel similar pressures.
Large corporate backed Theme Parks begin growing in numbers with such major corporations at Marriott Corp., Penn Central, Anheuser-Busch, Taft Broadcasting, Mattel, and Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich investing in theme parks.
Many small family owned traditional parks succumb to competitive pressures and go the way of the mom and pop grocery store. Still other traditional parks renovate and expand to compete with the new wave of theme parks. Examples include Kennywood, Pittsburgh, PA; Cedar Point, Sandusky, OH; Dorney Park, Allentown, PA; Geauga Lake, Aurora, OH; Lagoon, Farmington, UT; and Hersheypark, Hershey, PA.
The opening of Walt Disney World on 27,500 acres of central Florida. Disney makes the biggest investment ever for an amusement resort, a whopping $250 million.
Kings Island theme park near Cincinnati, OH, opens and is credited with the revival of the classic wooden roller coaster by building the Racer. The 1970s is the decade of the roller coaster. Not only are parks seeking to top each other with the tallest and fastest ride, but it is a decade of roller coaster innovation not seen since the 1920s as the looping roller coaster becomes an industry staple.
Opening of Canada's Wonderland, Toronto, Canada. It was widely considered to be the last theme park to be constructed in North America for several years. With costs up and all major markets apparently taken, experts considered the American theme park market saturated.
EPCOT Center opens at Walt Disney World in Florida. Considered a permanent World's Fair, EPCOT is the first theme park to surpass $1 billion in cost.
The opening of Disneyland in Tokyo. Other corporations in the amusement business are now looking to the Far East and Europe to expand their operations.
Geauga Lake in Aurora, Ohio, adds Boardwalk Shores becoming the first park to offer both a waterpark and amusement park for one single admission price. This begins a major trend for both newer theme parks and the traditional parks alike and the 1980s become the decade of the water attraction.
Sea World of Texas opens in San Antonio. They first major theme park to open in North America since 1981, it reinvigorates a slumbering industry. Soon several other new parks are under development, although not at the frenzied pace of the 1970's. Other new parks include:
Universal Studios Florida, Orlando (1990)
Fiesta Texas, San Antonio (1992)
Knott's Camp Snoopy (now Nickelodeon Universe), Bloomington, MN (1992)
Disney's Wild Kingdom, Walt Disney World, FL (1998)
Legoland, Carlsbad, CA (1999)
Universal's Islands of Adventure, Orlando, FL (1999)
Kennywood and Playland in Rye, NY are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the first operating amusement parks to be honored. This is symbolic of the renewed appreciation of the heritage of the amusement park industry.
Boardwalk and Baseball in Florida closes. Opened in 1974 as Circus World, Boardwalk and Baseball was the first corporate theme park to close. Facing stiff competition from Walt Disney World, Busch Gardens, Cypress Gardens and Sea World of Florida, the park never made a profit during its existence.
It is the decade of consolidation as several publicly owned companies start purchasing other amusement parks creating large multi-unit operators.
Batman, the Ride opens at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, IL. The first inverted roller coaster, in which the cars travel underneath the structure, is an immediate hit and soon parks around the world are building them.
Superman - The Ride opens at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, CA. This roller coaster breaks previously unthought of records for the tallest structure (415 feet tall) and fastest (launched) speed (100 miles per hour).
The roller coaster arms race reaches its peak with over 100 roller coasters opening world wide and the world's record for the tallest and fastest roller coaster changing hands three times from Goliath at Six Flags Magic Mountain (255 feet tall and 85 miles per hour), to Millennium Force at Cedar Point (310 feet tall and 85 miles per hour) in May, to Steel Dragon at Nagashima Spaland in Japan (318 feet tall and 95 miles per hour) in August.
The roller coaster arms race that started in 1988 seemingly comes to an end with the opening of Kingda Ka, Six Flags Great Adventure (456 feet tall, 128 miles per hour). The growing costs and increasingly narrow appeal of record breaking rides are the primary factors in bring the race to an end - for now.
The industry experiences a new wave of park closings driven by increasing real estate values, the maturation of the family entertainment center sector and financial problems of several operators. Among the largest park lost during this era were Geauga Lake, Aurora, OH (2007), Myrtle Beach Pavilion, Myrtle Beach, SC (2006), Libertyland, Memphis, TN (2005) and Astroworld, Houston, TX (2005).
Today the amusement park industry stretches across the globe. Several companies are global scale operators with facilities stretching across numerous countries. Numerous new markets are emerging such as China, India and the Middle East while the family owned amusement park is largely thriving in a new century. Technology continues to advance and gives visitors unprecedented new immersive thrills like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter which opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Florida in 2010.