Today is my birthday! Happy Birthday to me. And it's Monday, and I haven't done an Obsessive Nostalgia Disorder post in a while. Since I'm another year older, it's the perfect time to remember fun birthdays past. Fourteen years ago this week, I was performing in a local production of The Laramie Project, newly single, and I was flirting with another actor, a good friend who was going through a divorce. (We married a year later, and it's been wonderful ever since!) I loved my castmates and director, and I celebrated my birthday with a late-night post-show dinner at Old Chicago.
The next day was the Boeing picnic at Joyland Amusement Park. I hadn't been to Joyland in years, but my dad asked me if I wanted to go with him. It seemed like a fun little birthday thing to do. So my 24-year-old self went with my daddy to Joyland. I'd forgotten how pretty the picnic grounds were. The amusement area was smaller than I remembered. Of course, I must have been in my early teens the last time I'd gone, and my memories had been obscured a bit by trips to much bigger theme parks: Frontier City, Worlds of Fun, Six Flags Over Texas. Joyland was so tiny.
It looked shabby, too. Joyland opened in 1949, and I truly loved its vintage charms. But my adult eyes saw the age of the park in a new light, and I admit, I worried a bit about safety as Daddy and I hit the rides. We rode the Tilt-A-Whirl, which was a family favorite. It sat near the front of the park by the old carousel and Louie the Clown and his Mighty Wurlitzer. (More on that in a bit.) We rode the Ferris Wheel and the Scrambler. The Log Jam was the flume ride, and I still remember when it was brand new to the park, in the mid-1980s. It was a blast, and the big splash at the end cooled us down. The Whacky Shack was the dark ride. The outside still looked fabulous, but the inside made me sad. There were points where you'd hear a sound and my brain could remember something that was supposed to happen there, but nothing did.
And we rode the Roller Coaster. The 1949 ACE Coaster Classic was my very first roller coaster. I still measure all wooden roller coasters by the standard set by its first two hills. It wasn't the tallest coaster, nor was it the fastest. It didn't do loops or have any bells and whistles. The lift hill was a tall ride, straight up. As you neared the top, you saw the vintage clown sign that read, "Last chance!" We'd put our hands in the air, and WHEW!, you dropped straight down. No turns, no tilts. Just a perfect, straight tummy-tickling drop. You could touch the branches of the trees, if you kept your hands up. Then whoosh!, straight up again, and another straight drop. The rest of the ride was a bit quieter, but those first two hills were my favorite part of Joyland. And in 2001, that ride was still incredible.
That was my last trip to Joyland. I didn't know it at the time, though.
In 2004, the park closed, and the owners tried to sell it. There were a couple of interested parties. It reopened for one last season in 2006, when Big Sis was still a baby. The Roller Coaster was named "The Nightmare" - it had always been called "Roller Coaster" - and the old cars were painted, but the ride remained closed. There was a lot of drama that year, I remember. The park closed again, and that was it.
In the 1980s and early '90s, there were family trips with both of my parents, together and separately (post-divorce). I remember end-of-the-year field trips, and getting discounts based on your report cards. There were bumper cars and a roller skating rink, and concerts at the little amphitheatre.
My parents have many boxes and albums of pictures that I long to go through someday, and I hope to find some pictures taken at Joyland. Right now, I only have two. Judging by my bad perm, I think it was 1987. My dad had taken us and the two neighbor girls from across the street, and maybe another neighbor girl or two. It might even have been my birthday. I don't remember.
Our little park started to decay, year after year. It became a popular spot for urban explorers. Over the years, I would see features at BuzzFeed, The Chive, and The Daily Mail. A local group, headed by a well-meaning teenager, tried to raise money to buy the park, but their goals were unrealistic. While I never ventured behind that fence myself - it's private land and considered trespassing - the pictures I would see showed a park being reclaimed by the elements, and many classic rides had already been sold. Perhaps saving the Roller Coaster and Whacky Shack would have been a more realistic cause.
In May 2014, word came that the owner was donating the old carousel to Botanica. Many people were sad by this news, because it hammered home the fact that Joyland would probably never reopen. After seeing videos like this, I was happy about the news. The park was beyond repair, but a small part of it would be saved. Botanica is building a shelter for the carousel and repainting the horses. I am excited to bring the girls to ride it when it opens. A few of the horses are on display in the lobby! Then, it was announced that a local historical preservation group was hauling away several large pieces of the park, including the sign at the entrance. They had purchased those pieces several years prior, but had left them, hoping the kids who were trying to buy the park would be successful. The decaying park is a favorite target of vandals. There have been several fires, and so many of these items were in danger of being lost forever. It was time for them to go into storage. The group says they would like to open an exhibit someday to display all these lost pieces of Wichita they've collected through the years.
My mother was in town at the time, so we drove to south Wichita to take a few pictures. I'm a chicken and didn't want to trespass, but I took some pictures of the sign, then we parked in a nearby lot and I photographed the Roller Coaster with my zoom lens. The trees were growing up through the tracks.
Joyland continued to hit the news. In one of the weirdest stories of the year, Louie the Clown was found. Louie was an old mechanical clown who "played" an old 1905 military band organ. Louie disappeared sometime after the park closed, along with other things. The organ was sold to a park employee. I found this out by searching for information on Google several years ago, and reading some message boards on an organ website. Back in February, the Wichita Police Department held a press conference. There, at the table, was Louie the Clown. Louie was found at the home of a former park employee. This house had been searched before, but nothing had been found. His name was familiar to me, and sure enough, he was the employee who had "purchased" the organ. (In truth, he never finished paying it off.) He was now in prison ("Louie the Clown found at sex offender's home," read the headlines), and a new search had yielded Louie and a bunch of other lost items.
This spring, the lift hill on the Roller Coaster collapsed in a storm. News came that the park was finally being torn down, although a few more pieces were going to the preservation group. Then quietly, without much fanfare, a video hit Facebook. The Roller Coaster had been razed.
It makes me sad that my girls will never ride that roller coaster. They love thrill rides, you know. I've dreamed about riding that coaster again, literally. It was a great dream, but a little scary, too.
We have no local family-owned amusement parks left around here. This morning, I was reading about a trip to Kennywood in Pennsylvania on Design Mom, which made me start thinking about Joyland again. Pennsylvania has several old-fashioned amusement parks, much older than Joyland, and I've told Mr. B more than once, I would love to take a family trip to all of them. Waldameer even has its own Whacky Shack! There's Lakemont, Knoebels, and Kennywood and Idlewild... If you've been to any of these places, feel free to comment.
I have a Pinboard dedicated to Joyland. I'll leave you with a video of Louie the Clown, playing his Wurlitzer. A lot of people I know claim Louie was "terrifying" or "creepy." I loved Louie. He was the first thing I'd run to see when I entered the park as a little girl, before hopping in line to ride the merry-go-round.