Goshen News, Goshen, IN

August 3, 2013

NOT THAT YOU ASKED...:Fair takes writer back to amusement parks of her youth


— So, did you get your fill of the midway at the Elkhart County Fair last week? I’m about to make a shocking confession for a resident of Elkhart County — I didn’t make it to the fair this year. (And loud gasps were heard throughout the county.)

I know! It’s THE event of the year how could I miss it? I wanted to go to see CCR (Credence Clearwater Revisited) but honestly with just getting back from Mom’s memorial and knowing I was leaving town again in a couple of days for national conference, I needed to stay home. But trust me, I feel the loss.

For city folks like me, the fair is more about the entertainment, the midway and the food and the animals and projects are secondary. (Sorry, city girl speaking.) It reminds me of the boardwalks I frequented as a child. When I was a kid I loved the rides and the beaches. I was a daredevil with the rides, wanted to ride them over and over. Now I like to look at the rides but still love the beach.  

Even though I wasn’t as crazy about the rides once I became an adult and realized just how much could possibly go wrong, I still went on the rides with my boys when they were little feeling that I could somehow protect them better if I were right there.

But all it took was watching a documentary last night about great, old amusement parks that stirred up two strong emotions in me:

• the desire to take my grandchildren to some of the amusement parks that I frequented as a child — Playland in Rye, N.Y., Coney Island and the Jersey Shore; and

• deep-seated disappointment that I never made it to Palisades Park as a child.

Those places were all featured in the documentary, so allow me to whine a little as I share this “poor me” story. But if you put yourself in the mindset of a 6- to 12-year-old maybe you’ll empathize.

Palisades Amusement Park was a 30-acre park that overlooked the Hudson River.

Built atop the Palisades Cliffs, it opened in 1898 as a trolley park, which traditionally had picnic areas, dance halls and some amusements. Its location south of the George Washington Bridge that took New Yorkers either out to Long Island or over to New Jersey was convenient.

In 1908, it was sold and renamed Palisades Amusement Park. It was famous for its Ferris wheel, diving horses and salt water pool — the water pumped in from the saline Hudson River, 200 feet below.

It was opened annually the weekend before Easter and closed the weekend after Labor Day. It had about 40 to 50 rides, including five coasters and in the ’50s and ’60s was a rock n’ roll and Motown music venue, with local Disc Jockey “Cousin Brucie” acting as host.

The park’s popularity grew beyond the New York-New Jersey metropolitan areas, in part due to advertising in comic books and the 1962 hit song by Freddy Cannon, “Palisades Park.”

I could see the Ferris wheel and the Cyclone Coaster from my neighborhood across the river. I’d go down to the Hudson River and could see the coaster cars flying up and down. On a clear day I swear I could hear the excited screams and the music bouncing off the cliffs and coming across the wide river.

I’d ask every summer, “Can we go to Palisades?” and the answer would be “maybe.” And the summer would come to an end without making the trip.

My older siblings got to go with their friends or with friend’s families. “Maybe next year” mom would say when I’d whine that we didn’t make it to Palisades again.

The park closed in September of 1971 and I never got to that iconic place that beckoned to me with its flashing neon lights atop the cliffs. The search I did said that the death of one of the brothers who owned the park and the age of the other, as well as the enormous traffic jams caused by the park’s growing popularity, was the reason for its demise. The locals preferred to put up high rise condominiums rather than continue to endure the traffic jams.

I think because it seemed so within reach — since it was within sight — but yet unachievable that has always had me feeling like I missed out on something really cool, sort of like being the only person in Elkhart County who’d never been to the fair!

One of my favorite places was Playland in Rye, N.Y. We’d go every year on school field trips. I’d also go on my own with friends on the bus for the 12-mile trip that felt more like 40 miles. We’d hit the beach and go on the rides, including Dragon Coaster and the Wild or Crazy Mouse and the Derby Racer — one of only three Derby Racers still in operation today. (The other two are in Cedar Point and England).

The Derby Racer has carousel horses but they “race” around a track. We’d win Kewpie dolls at the games and smooch with our boyfriends in the Ye Old Mill boat ride.

The Art Deco style of the promenade and the dance hall/skating rink/concession stand is very memorable and that’s why I immediately recognized the boardwalk and the fortune telling machine at the end of the movie “Big” with Tom Hanks. What I didn’t know was that Playland is the only government-owned-and-operated amusement park in the United States. It is owned by Westchester County and was given a historic designation.

So hopefully it won’t go the way of Palisades Park and someday I’ll be able to take my grandkids there to ride the same rides I once did and stroll the boardwalk together.

Indiana has a couple of great old amusement parks, too.

Santa Claus World — now Holiday World — has the distinction of being the first theme park.

Disneyland has been given the credit for being the first theme park, but it actually is Santa Claus World, which opened in 1946 about 10 years before Disneyland. They now have areas for Thanksgiving, Halloween and July 4 so the name was changed to Holiday World.

And Indiana Beach, proving that there is more than corn in Indiana. Ride on!

Denise Fedorow is a columnist and correspondent for The Goshen News. Her column appears every other week. She said she’s been to Indiana Beach, but not Holiday World so will have to add that to her “bucket list.”