Real World Theme Parks The Ancient History of Theme Parks

I'm old. I just barely made it into the Baby Boomer generation by a few months. And as it happened, I chanced to live in the Los Angeles area a couple of times during the middle and late 1960s when I was quite young, then again in the mid-1970s when I was early into my teens. In between and after, I've wandered all over most of the US. All along the way in my misspent youth, I went to what were called, back then, "amusement parks". I confess that this whole "theme park" phrase is rather new to me.

Anyway, back in the 60s, there were a bunch of small amusement parks in nearly every town. Pier parks, fun fairs, that sort of thing. Midway games, some flat rides, and maybe a rickety old woody if you were lucky. And of course the travelling carnies that would set up shop for a week or so in the parking lot of the local supermarket. These had Scramblers, Kickflips, double-ended ferris wheels, and midway games. And they'd leave town hurriedly whenever somebody got killed.

But Los Angeles was ahead of the curve on all that. Back then, it had what was then the 1-and-only Disneyland and a Busch Gardens, plus Knott's Berry Farm. All were way bigger and way different than what you could find elsewhere in the US at that time. But they were still just "amusement parks", not "theme parks". And they were very different than they are today. Which is what I want to talk about.

So let's start with Disneyland in the 60s-70s. It was good in some ways and sucked in others. The suckage was the ticket books. You weren't free to choose what rides you went on how often. Instead, when you paid to get in, you got a ticket book, which had tickets for specific rides in it. You could buy several different versions of the ticket book, each of which had more or less tickets for various rides, but no matter which you bought, you weren't at all interested in half the rides you got tickets for, and never enough for the rides you really liked. But otherwise, you could tell the place was a cut above normal. It had more rides and they were usually much better, but the theming wasn't as thick as it later become. For example, the Matterhorm was a hollow shell. When the bobsleds went inside it, you could see the inside of the outer shell all held up by scaffolding sitting on a concrete slab, with various bits of litter scattered about, dropped there by folks on the skyride or maybe employees. I wouldn't call it a "theme" park because it had no theme. This patch was Main Street USA, this patch was Frontierland, this patch was Tomorrowland. IOW, a bunch of random things thrown together. And they closed the park early so you watched the fireworks from the parking lot while sitting on the roof of your car. You could even come just for the fireworks, paying a nominal parking fee.

Busch Gardens was just a garden full of macaws. The only ride, other than the brewery tour, was a boat pretending it was in the Amazon, with macaws on every tree. And there was a show of trained macaws. The macaws were usually drunk, as were most of the guests, because there was free beer everywhere. Everything was about beer lager. Which I suppose is a theme.

Then there was Knott's Berry Farm. I went to this most often because for some months I lived in a motel right across the street. Back then, it was still a berry farm, with rows of berry bushes occupying much of its acreage, right in the middle of L.A. The main attractions were watching various jellies and candies being made. But it did have a steam carousel and a live steam train that got robbed by bandits who chased it down on horses, swung aboard, and had a shootout in each car with any lawmen who were riding along. The whole thing was themed Old West. I found it the most interesting of all these places.
Really interesting read bullet head! Fascinating that Disney was not as themed as it is now. I know lot of UK parts started as gardens (especially Alton Towers) and becane what they are today after adding rides over time.
Really interesting read bullet head! Fascinating that Disney was not as themed as it is now. I know lot of UK parts started as gardens (especially Alton Towers) and becane what they are today after adding rides over time.
Well, that's what happened with these places. The Matterhorn was wide open inside in the late 60s but by the mid-70s they'd enclosed the bobsled and skyride tunnels. I'm sure the rest of the thing is still wide open, unless they've build a secret command bunker in the space ;). And the transitions between areas got smoother and more stuff got added and/or reworked. Eventually it evolved into what it is today. But I think a big part of that was them starting from scratch in Florida, then retrofitting the original with some of those ideas. Political correctness has also impacted it. Originally, the operator of the jungle boat ride would shoot blanks at animatronic hippos attacking the boat, and there were Indians massacring a frontier family by their burning cabin. Don't see that anymore.

All in all, I don't really like the theming of Disneyland and Disneyworld. Yes, individual pieces in them are exquisite, and they do more queue scenery than most folks, which is all nice. But I'm just not a fan of the jarring contrasts between the different "lands", and the overt commercialism. The whole place is a collection of ads very various Disney movies. I suppose the idea is that the movies come to life there, which is cool if you're into the movies. But if you're not, it just looks like ads for stuff you don't care about, kinda like what the Internet has become ;)

Busch Gardens in L.A. started adding some coasters at some point but I understand they're gone. But the brewery tour was a ride, a sort of suspended monorail that snaked all through multiple floors of several big buildings, showing how they made beer on an industrial scale. I hope that's still there, and the drunk macaws :)

Knott's Berry Farm ended up with quite a few rides. I remember when they got their log flume in the mid-70s. At that time, I liked KBF better than Disneyland. The whole park was just very well put together and had a consistent Old West theme throughout, with lots of little details thrown in as lagniappe. It was more like something something you'd make in PC that way, with a hand-crafted look. I haven't been there in decades so I don't know if it's still like this, but at least back then it was a work of art.

Also in the 70s, I started hearing of other big parks starting up. The 6 Flags chain was starting, and it, Astroworld, and Magic Mountain, etc., were all separate entities back then. I was able to visit these places early in their lives, too. I rode the Revolution at MM when it was brand new (and I wasn't yet a teen, so it irks me kids can't ride the American Arrow in PC). Back then MM was trying to do its own unique theme with its own mascots and stuff, I guess to compete with Disney that way, but this never seems to have taken off, probably because they didn't make movies. OTOH, Astroworld and the 1st couple of 6 Flags parks really weren't themed at all. Those parks looked the same everywhere, just paths with identical trees all along them, and most rides had little theming of their own. And zero queue scenery, just cattle chutes with fairly simple roofs. But to be honest, I like this more than the blatant movie advertising that is a Disney park. I used to go to a lot of travelling shows, after all, where the only decorations were the stripes and broken glass in the underlying parking lot, so I don't need much scenery :).
It's great seeing a thread pop up summarising and expanding our conversation last night. I love this stuff. So much juicy, interesting stuff.
We're all so used to themeparks being around that it's amazing to hear about their early history.
I would agree about the commercialisation of Disney. I enjoyed Efteling at the PC meeting as it was well themed like Disney, but it was just so much more authentic, which made it more the 'most magical place on earth' in my eyes. *(the most magical place is actually Hogwarts). I do really love hearing about Themepark/amusement park history.
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nice nostalgia trip Bullethead. I remember when suddenly the New Zealand amusement park (yeah, all 1 of them) suddenly started to use the term "Theme Park".
and we the consumers wondered what the heck that meant - i mean, we were used to being amused, not sure we wanted to be themed.

really, as far as we could tell, it was just a "Fun Fair" that stayed in one place. I mean we had a few travelling fairs with rides and coasters, that would cycle around the country - about three fairs yearly if i recall, we had A&P Show (agricultural and pastoral), the Winter Show, and the Royal Easter Show.

even now, our only serious Theme Park is hardly themed by modern standards.
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