The early 20th century was a boom time for amusement parks in North America, Europe and beyond. Magnificent, towering wooden rollercoasters, beautifully handcrafted carousels and a range of innovative new contraptions drew in droves of excited visitors to these bustling new leisure areas. These early attractions helped to lay the foundations for what today is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Sadly, the timber that was used to construct many of the rides during this golden era ultimately proved to be their downfall. It offered a tempting target for arsonists, resulting in the loss of a number of historically significant parks. Fortunately for history fans, there are still some fascinating early amusement parks in operation today. Here are five of the very best:
1. Blackpool Pleasure Beach (UK)
The construction of the first rail link to Blackpool in 1846 led to a boom period for the coastal town that lasted right through to the 1960s. Opened in 1896, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is a survivor from that era and still one of the UK’s most popular amusement parks. History fans will be attracted to its line-up of vintage attractions. The River Caves was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, while the 1904 Flying Machines (photo) is both a surprisingly thrilling ride and a stunning kinetic sculpture.
2. The Coney Island Cyclone (USA)
Arguably the most famous historic roller coaster in the world, the Coney Island Cyclone in New York first opened in 1927. A “hybrid” coaster made of wood and steel, it has survived numerous threats of demolition and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Riding it today can be a mixed experience: it’s very rough, but the views from the top are stunning.
3. Luna Park, Melbourne (Australia)
A number of identically-named Luna Parks were opened across the US and Australia during the initial rush of amusement park construction, and those in Melbourne and Sydney are still operating. Like Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Melbourne’s version mixes classic original attractions with enough modern additions to keep the public interested. The stand-out ride at the park is the Scenic Railway, which is the oldest continuously-operating rollercoaster in the world.
4. Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach (UK)
Great Yarmouth’s Pleasure Beach is on a smaller scale to its unrelated namesake in Blackpool, but is still well worth a look. While its selection of modern attractions is a little underwhelming, the park retains the essential feel of a boom-era British seaside destination. As with Luna Park, Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach is dominated by its Scenic Railway. Look out for the brakeman who rides with you: there are no brakes built into the circuit.
5. Lakemont Park, Pennsylvania (USA)
Only one amusement park can lay claim to having the oldest operational roller coaster in the world, and it’s Lakemont Park. Its record-holder, Leap-The-Dips (top photo), stands at just 41 feet tall and is unlikely to set your pulse racing in the same way as a modern equivalent. Nevertheless, having opened in 1902 it is a throwback to the very beginnings of the amusement park industry.
Looking for historical thrills closer to home? Many living history museums contain selections of vintage fairground attractions that offer a glimpse into a bygone era.
Nick Sim combines his love of travel and amusement parks on his own site, where covers the latest news and reviews from UK theme parks.