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10 oldest U.S. amusement parks still operating
Amusement parks offer adults the chance to reconnect with special places they visited as children and to rekindle cherished memories. They also allow parents who hold them dear to take their own children to parks and re-experience them through their children’s eyes. Some parks span many generations and have been the stuff of memories for decades.
Let’s count down the 10 oldest amusement parks still operating in the U.S.
It’s a bit difficult to develop a definitive list. For example, what, exactly, is the definition of an “amusement park?” Some of the places that we now call amusement parks started out as picnic groves and didn't have any amusement rides until many years later. Some, such as Salem Willows are tricky to qualify. The Salem, Massachusetts site opened as a city park in 1858, evolved into a small amusement park, but shed most of its rides through the years and barely qualifies as an amusement park today. Others, such as New York’s Coney Island are a collection of amusement parks and standalone attractions operated by independent vendors, many of which have opened and closed through the decades.
With the exception of Coney Island, which deserves recognition for its prominent role in the history of the amusement industry, the following list focuses on places that are defined, enclosed parks and that have roller coasters, carousels, and other rides that are typically associated with amusement parks. All of them date back to the 19th century. Their carousels have been spinning a long time.
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1. Lake Compounce, Bristol, Connecticut – 1846
The oldest, continuously operating park in the country, Lake Compounce is one of the places that began as a picnic park. (Mechanized amusement rides such as roller coasters didn’t exist until the latter part of the 19th century.) Like most older parks, it doesn’t dwell on its history. Nonetheless, there is a palpable and authentic sense of nostalgia along its midways, and Lake Compounce is a living piece of Americana. Older attractions such as the circa-1927 Wildcat roller coaster (which will be closed for a much-needed makeover this season) and the Carousel, which was built in 1898 and moved to the park in 1911, offer tangible ways to experience its rich past. But Lake Compounce has plenty of contemporary thrills as well, including Boulder Dash, one of the country’s best wooden coasters, and Crocodile Cove, a full-featured water park that is included with admission.
2. Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio – 1870
Located on the shores of Lake Erie, visitors have been flocking to Cedar Point’s beach for years. Guests used to arrive by boat. Today, cars are the preferred mode of transportation, and roller coasters are the preferred form of entertainment. Known as “America's Roller Coast,” the park's first scream machine opened in 1892. It is now home to a collection of 17 wild roller coasters, including the magnificent 205-foot-tall, 74 mph, RMC hybrid, Steel Vengeance. My, how times have changed.
3. Six Flags New England, Agawam, Massachusetts – 1870
There were no Six Flags parks in the 1800s. Six Flags New England began as Gallup’s Grove and evolved into Riverside Amusement Park in 1912. It offered The Giant Dip that year, the park’s first roller coaster. The Six Flags name and brand arrived in 2000. Aside from the Thunderbolt coaster, which opened in 1941, the 1909 Illions Grand Carousel, and a few other minor remnants of the park’s past life, there is little to be found from the pre-Six Flags days. Instead, the park is now known mostly for its thrills, such as the highly regarded Superman and Wicked Cyclone coasters.
4. Idlewild, Ligonier, Pennsylvania – 1878
Geared to families with young children, Idlewild is one of the few parks that wholeheartedly embraces its past. It is filled with classic rides such as the Rollo Coaster, which first opened in 1938, the Merry Go Round, a lovely carousel that has been giving rides at Idlewild since 1931, and the circa-1939 Whip. It also has a charming Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is themed to the television show of the same name.
5. Seabreeze, Rochester, New York – 1879
Known as a trolley park, passengers initially took the ride to Seabreeze on Rochester's outskirts to dine in its picnic areas and swim in its lake. Among the small park’s four roller coasters are the Jack Rabbit, which first started hopping in 1920, and Bobsleds, a junior coaster that opened in 1952 with a wooden track and was converted to a steel track coaster in 1968.
6. Sylvan Beach Amusement Park, Sylvan Beach, New York – 1870s
Located on Oneida Lake, the tiny park has some vintage rides, including a rare Rock-O-Plane, a Rotor, and one of my favorite flats, a Tip Top (also known as a Bubble Bounce). The free admission park offers free concerts and free access to its beach.
7. Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York – 1884
The birthplace of the modern amusement park as well as the first roller coaster (the Gravity Pleasure Switch Back Railway, which opened in 1884), Coney Island is still chugging away. Its heyday has long since past, but potent reminders remain, including 1927’s Cyclone, arguably the world's most famous coaster, and the iconic Wonder Wheel, which opened in 1920. More recent additions, such as 2021’s Phoenix coaster, have breathed new life into the legendary amusement area.
8. Dorney Park, Allentown, Pennsylvania – 1884
Originally a fish hatchery, Solomon Dorney converted his estate into a family attraction and initially offered a zoo, refreshment stands, and a hotel. It evolved into a trolley park and its owners added The Scenic Railway coaster, a Ferris wheel, and other rides as well as a dance pavilion and other attractions. Today, wild rides such as the hypercoaster, Steel Force, predominate. But visitors can still experience ThunderHawk, a wooden coaster that dates back to the trolley park era.
9. Lagoon, Farmington, Utah – 1886
Mules provided the power for Lagoon's first carousel. Its circa-1893 mechanized carousel still spins today. In 1899, Lagoon introduced a Shoot-the-Chutes water ride that sent riders plunging into the park's pond. Today, the park has a nice collection of 11 roller coasters including one that dates back to 1921. The cleverly named Lagoon-A-Beach water park is included with general admission.
10. Arnolds Park, Arnolds Park, Iowa – 1889
One of the few remaining free-admission amusement parks in the country, visitors pay per ride–just as guests have been doing at Arnolds Park for decades. The popular place inspired the name of the town in which it is located. Opened in 1930 as the Giant Dips, the wooden coaster now called The Legend still sends riders racing through its figure-8 course.
How many of these classic parks have you been to? Are you aware of their history when you visit? Are there any you are hoping to visit?