Hop to it and celebrate preservation
NAPHA to visit four classic Midwest amusement parks
Many parks, as I’ve written about before, can simultaneously dazzle us with futuristic, cutting-edge technology and comfort us with the warm embrace of nostalgia. I find this curious, but compelling contrast fascinating. It illustrates the oversized emotional pull these special places can have.
As you might expect, the members of the National Amusement Park Historical Association revel in nostalgia. They share a joy and reverence for classic parks and seek to preserve the heritage and traditions of the amusement industry. Each year, the organization holds a ParkHop event at which participants visit and celebrate traditional parks.
Starting today, the group will be kicking off a Midwest tour at Indiana Beach, a lakeside park that opened in 1926, nearly closed forever in 2020, but has been given a new lease on life thanks to an eleventh-hour rescue. ParkHop attendees will be visiting three additional parks over the following three days: Santa’s Village in Illinois, and Bay Beach Amusement Park and Little Amerricka, both in Wisconsin.
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It might seem odd to find Indiana Beach, which draws inspiration from the bustling Jersey Shore boardwalk amusement parks, nestled among cornfields in the tiny town of Monticello. But in a build-it-and-they-will-come way, the modest park has become a beloved tradition in the region. Hoosiers go as much to rekindle cherished memories as they do to ride well-regarded coasters such as the wooden Cornball Express.
According to Don Hurd, Indiana Beach’s historian, the park owes much if its popularity to Tom Spackman, the second-generation member of the family that founded the park. In the 1950s, he rented high-powered searchlights, beamed them into the sky, and declared that the park was inviting space aliens to visit. For another promotional stunt, he hired a man to live in a glass cage under water.
“He was like the P.T. Barnum of amusement parks,” Hurd says. “It’s amazing how much Indiana Beach grew under his watch.”
The Spackman family sold the park in 2007, and a succession of corporate owners mismanaged it, alienated its loyal fan base, and almost destroyed it altogether. In 2020, Gene Staples bought and saved the park from the wrecking ball. The Chicago businessman came to Indiana Beach as a kid, brought his own children to the park, and apparently couldn’t bear to see it demolished.
“He was the white knight,” says Hurd. “Gene is a perfect fit for Indiana Beach. He loves Americana and classic amusement parks. He is a big kid at heart. He’s bringing the sparkle back to the park.”
Indiana Beach has new paint, new energy, and will soon boast a major new attraction. It is set to debut its seventh coaster, a refurbished steel ride with three inversions, later this season.
“Indiana Beach had such a remarkable rebirth,” says Jim Futrell, NAPHA’s historian. “It got us thinking that there are some interesting stories to be told about preservation.”
Santa’s Village, which is located outside of Chicago, has a similar tale. Opened in 1959, the Christmas-themed park closed in 2005. It reopened under new management in 2011 and has both restored many of its existing rides and brought in vintage rides from a nearby shuttered park. The funky spelling of Little Amerricka is an ode to its founder, Lee Merrick. The relatively young park, which opened in 1991, nonetheless boasts an impressive collection of rare, older rides such as Test Pilot, one of the few remaining Roll-O-Planes (a pendulum ride which sends passengers flipping upside down) still operating.
Among the country’s ten oldest amusement parks, the municipally owned and operated Bay Beach dates back to 1892. Some of its vintage rides, such as its circa-1950s Ferris wheel, are still spinning on its midway. When the park wanted to expand and add a major thrill ride, NAPHA played a role in brokering a deal to move Elvis Presley’s favorite roller coaster, the Zippin Pippin, from the defunct Libertyland in Memphis, Tennessee to Bay Beach.
“There are great, old rides out there and parks that want them,” says Futrell, explaining that the association sometimes acts as a clearinghouse to connect buyers and sellers. “We like to give rides a shot at a second life.”
About 50 NAPHA members will be participating in this year‘s ParkHop. They will be taking tours of the parks, enjoying exclusive ride time on some of the most popular attractions, and listening to presentations from representatives about the parks’ history and plans for the future. Hurd will be addressing the group at Indiana Beach.
Parks such as the four featured at the Midwest event act as living museums. Instead of placing artifacts in static exhibits, they invite visitors to experience the rides and to squeal and scream in delight, just as guests have been doing for decades. Why is it important for parks to preserve the heritage of the amusement industry?
“One of the most powerful, fundamental appeals of a trip to the amusement park is shared memories across generations,” Futrell contends. It turns out that preservation can be good for the bottom line as well. “Looking at the parks we’re visiting, having links to the past can be a very successful business strategy,” he adds.
Have you visited any of the Midwest parks included on ParkHop? Do you have a favorite classic park in your neck of the woods? Why do you think it is important to maintain and honor the traditions of the amusement industry? (Or is it not important to you?) Weigh in with your thoughts.
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