Kiddie Amusement Parks

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on May 24, 2009
David Mudd Bob Aston owns the nation's original kiddie park, an attraction in San Antonio, Texas, since 1925.

"Hang on, Ruby!" Holly Hall yells as her 2-year-old daughter rides in a turtle-shaped tub rolling 'round a track at Kiddie Park, a beloved attraction in Bartlesville, Okla. (pop. 34,748), since 1947.

"Kiddie Park hasn't changed. That's what's so good about it," says Hall, 28, of nearby Nowata (pop. 3,971), who rode the same tyke-size ride when she was Ruby's age. So did her mother, Suzan Perkins, 52, of Nowata.

While mega theme parks race to build ever-more extravagant attractions and thrilling rides, a handful of amusement parks that cater exclusively to young children, including Bartlesville Kiddie Park, endure for their nostalgic charm and old-fashioned fun.

"This park is a treasure," says Ron Adams, 61, president of the Bartlesville Playground Association, which operates the community-owned park from May through September.

Founded by the late Bill and Marge Beasley, the park originally featured nickel train rides, swings and slides, a wading pool and occasional pony rides. With cash donations and money raised through bake and rummage sales, the couple added other rides until management of the park was turned over to the town in 1954.

Community support
Townspeople continue to support the park and maintain its miniature train, antique pedal cars, carousel, Ferris wheel and 12 other vintage rides.

"When the park needs something, I approach some businessmen and they say, 'Heck, yes, we'll help. We worked there as teens,'" says Bill Alexander, 38, park superintendent.

Donations from Bartlesville businesses, civic organizations and individuals, along with volunteers who pitch in as ticket takers and landscapers, help keep admission free and ticket prices affordable at 25 cents a ride.

Typical of Kiddie Park supporters is Gary Long, 46, owner of C and M Collision Repair Center in Bartlesville, who paints a different ride each winter when the park is closed. He spent a month disassembling and painting the Little Fire Ball roller coaster in 2007.

"I do this for Bartlesville because when my children were young and I didn't have a lot of money, I could bring my kids out and on a five-dollar bill, we could have a pretty good time," Long says. "It's a great place."

While the park's rides are designed for the 12-and-younger set-including toddler Cooper Alt of Gardner, Kan., who gleefully steers a 1950s Jeep-the park also is a boon for the town's teens.

Each summer, dozens of 14- and 15-year-olds earned $3 to $3.50 an hour to operate the antique rides and sell 75-cent cotton candy, snow cones and popcorn. "They make new friends and learn what a dollar is," Alexander says.

A free train ride at the end of the day has been a tradition since Kiddie Park opened 62 years ago. With the announcement that the park is closing in 10 minutes, children and adults, some shouldering sleepy-eyed tots, gather at the miniature depot.

Engineer Kimberly Witte, 15, smiles at her young passengers as they board the candy-cane-colored train. After she blows the whistle, Witte engages the gears and the train slowly rolls down the track loaded with another generation of happy riders.

"Our park is truly representative of folks who love and care about children," Adams says.

Relics of the baby boom
Bartlesville's Kiddie Park is one of 14 such parks that endure across the nation. About 200 were in operation during their post-World War II heyday, according to Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association and author of several books about the history of amusement parks in America.

As soldiers returned home and started families and people moved to the suburbs, the demand for family entertainment led to the development of amusement parks with small-scale rides for children. The Allan Herschell Co. in North Tonawanda, N.Y., sold entrepreneurs a ready-made package of rides designed for children.

Most of the parks were short-lived, though, because they catered only to families with small children and were located on prime real estate. "They quickly fell out of favor and were largely gone by the 1970s," says Futrell, 44, of Bethel Park, Pa.

Fun for generations
While most of America's kiddie parks have faded into history, a few survive thanks to devoted owners and several generations of loyal visitors.

The original kiddie park opened in 1925 in San Antonio, Texas. "It's amazing that it
survived the Depression and all these years," says owner Bob Aston, 58.

Aston, whose parents owned a motel next to San Antonio Kiddie Park, practically grew up steering the park's pedal cars. "I remember when I had my fifth birthday here and we had the same rides."

"My mama told me that when I was 4 years old, I asked my daddy to buy me the Kiddie Park," recalls Aston, who fulfilled his own wish when he bought the park in 1978 from its original owner, P.W. Curry.

The park's centerpiece is a 1918 hand-carved Herschell Spillman carousel, which Curry purchased in 1935.

"I want to keep the integrity of the place. We don't replace, we restore," Aston says about the park's rides, which include a pint-size Ferris wheel, roller coaster, boats and pedal cars.

Rides costs $1.50 at San Antonio Kiddie Park, which is open year-round. Every Wednesday is bargain day when $7.50 buys unlimited rides.

"The poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich come to Kiddie Park," Aston says. "We've had five generations here at the same time and two weddings on the merry-go-round."

At Memphis Kiddie Park in Brooklyn, Ohio (pop. 11,586), the star attraction is the Little Dipper roller coaster, which has been zipping around and making riders squeal since 1952. The Herschell-built roller coaster is the oldest operating steel roller coaster in nation.

Most of the park rides are restricted to the "50-inches-and-shorter" crowd, but adults can climb aboard the Little Dipper. And they do.

"I hear parents tell their kids, 'That's the roller coaster I rode when I was your age,'" says Mike Kissel, 54, who has managed the park for 19 years. "I get such a kick out of it."