Original photo by taylor gregory/ Unsplash

Pleasure gardens walked so Six Flags could run. While many people visit amusement parks for a fun break from everyday life, things get much more interesting behind the scenes. What role did public transportation play in your favorite parks? What’s the fastest coaster? Which famous family attraction had a disastrous opening day? From the humble beginnings of carousels to record-breaking roller coasters, there’s a lot to learn about amusement parks.

The old Dyrehavsbakken amusement park in 1849.
Credit: The History Collection/ Alamy Stock Photo

The Oldest Amusement Park Dates Back to the 16th Century

Amusement parks as we know them today are a fairly modern concept, but they started evolving from traveling fairs and pleasure gardens in Europe centuries ago. The Danish park Dyrehavsbakken, more commonly known as Bakken, opened to the public in 1583 as a pleasure garden known for its natural spring waters. Not long after, vendors started setting up booths for selling their wares and providing entertainment alike. Over the years, the park transitioned from a pleasure garden to a fair to an amusement park, and is now considered the world’s oldest amusement park.

You won’t find much, if any, 1500s nostalgia there today, but Bakken has maintained one tradition over at least 200 years: Pjerrot the white-faced clown, a character who visits the park every day. Its oldest ride is a wooden roller coaster from 1932. Bakken also avoids many modern amusement park archetypes: The vendors are small, independent businesses, and the aesthetic is more simple than flashy.

First trolley car at Lake Compounce.
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American Amusement Parks Started as Trolley Marketing

The electric trolley industry was booming in the 1890s, and while they became popular among commuters, evening and weekend traffic was pretty low. Electric companies often charged trolley operators a flat rate regardless of how much power they actually used, so trolley companies started trying to drum up business during the slow times.

Enter the trolley park, a fun and relaxing destination at the end of the tracks. Attractions at these parks included dance halls, coin-operated machines, boat rides, and live entertainment. Because electric trolleys were much more pleasant to ride than their coal or steam predecessors, it was easy to pitch the ride as a tourist attraction in and of itself.

The trolley park concept spread quickly across the country, and attractions started to resemble what you’d find in a modern amusement park. A 1902 issue of Cosmopolitan, then a family magazine, describes an early river-floating ride called an “aquarama,” a roller coaster called “Railway to the Moon,” and “the latest in the up-and-down railroad… the ‘loop the loop,’ as it is properly termed.”

Lake Compounce in central Connecticut, the longest-operating amusement park in the United States, was founded in 1846, far before the trolleys came in — but it can still be counted as a trolley park. The park started with people flocking to the site to see scientific experiments. It operated as a “picnic park” that held frequent public barbecues until 1895, when Bristol and Plainville Tramway Company began service and the park got its own permanent structure, with a restaurant and ballroom.

View of the Formula Rossa launched roller coaster.
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The Fastest Roller Coaster Goes Almost 150 Miles an Hour

The highest-speed coaster in the world is, fittingly, at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Called Formula Rossa, the ride reaches its top speed of 240 kilometers per hour (about 149 mph) in less than five seconds. The ride is so fast, passengers need to wear goggles to protect their eyes from any impacts with flying insects or sand. Ferrari’s other theme park, Ferrari Land in Tarragona, Spain, has the fastest coaster in Europe, at a comparably measly 112 miles per hour.

Because no record can exist without somebody trying to break it, Formula Rossa may be dethroned soon by Falcon’s Flight at Six Flags Qiddiya in Saudi Arabia, scheduled to open in 2023. Park owners promise a top speed of at least 155 miles per hour.

Close-up of two Disneyland cards in the amusement park.
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Disneyland’s Opening Day Was a Disaster

Today, Disneyland is one of the most well-known and most-visited theme parks in the world, welcoming 18.7 million visitors in 2019 alone. But its opening day on July 17, 1955, went so badly that some staff members called it “Black Sunday.

Many rides hadn’t opened yet, including the entirety of Tomorrowland, and crews had to build attractions at such a breakneck pace that they weren’t able to weed around the canal boat ride, instead placing signs pretending they were exotic plant species. But that was the least of the trouble.

In the day’s 100-degree weather, the asphalt was so hot that high heels became stuck in it, and the availability of drinking fountains was severely impacted by a plumbers’ strike. This was before widespread use of car air conditioning, and families stuck in the seven miles of heavy traffic leading into the park had to endure extreme heat. When they finally got in, not only did they have insufficient access to water, but the restaurants and refreshment stands eventually ran out of food — due in part to the more than 10,000 people who had entered the park via a tall ladder instead of the front gate.

Things continued to go badly for the next few weeks. Children managed to wreck 30 out of 36 cars in an attraction meant to teach them the rules of the road. Stagecoaches in Frontierland got the axe after they kept tipping over, both through faulty design and skittish, unpredictable ponies. Walt Disney’s dream of live circuses was dashed by a loose herd of llamas, and it just got worse from there.

Regardless, people kept coming, and it only took seven weeks to amass 1 million visitors.

Spaceship Earth, part of the Epcot Center, Walt Disney's billion-dollar dream-come-true.
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Epcot’s Original Concept Was a Whole City

Epcot Center, a theme park within Walt Disney World, opened in 1982 with exhibits exploring human life and world culture in the past, present, and future. But Walt Disney’s original vision was significantly more ambitious: He imagined it as an entire city.

Initially imagined by Disney as the “heart of everything” in the Disney World project, EPCOT, then an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was an urban planning experiment in a completely closed-in, climate-controlled environment led by Disney and other major corporations. In addition to building a whole planned community, including a radial transportation grid, from scratch, the Community of Tomorrow was meant to be a sandbox for new innovation and technology. Residents would either work in the city center or travel by people mover and monorail to a similarly experimental industrial park between it and the Disney World theme park.

For better or for worse, Disney never realized this ambitious vision, since he died the same year (1966) that he presented his plan to the public. Disney did, however, keep the name, so the next time you’re visiting that giant golf ball, you can imagine what might have been.

Amusement park Wunderland in Kalkar, Germany.
Credit: Andreas Wienemann/ Shutterstock

A German Amusement Park Was Built in an Unfinished Nuclear Power Plant

The SNR-300 nuclear reactor was ready to go in 1985, but with mounting public and political pressure against it, especially after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the project never moved forward. The plant was officially abandoned, and in 1991 a Dutch investor scooped up the property for 2.5 million euros, left the cooling tower and reactor building in place, and turned it into a hotel and theme park that opened in 1996.

Wunderland Kalkar now has more than 40 attractions, a few specifically planned around the cooling tower. Climbing walls, plus a mountain mural, line the exterior. The base of the interior of the cooling tower is called “Echoland,” and, for the more adventurous, the “Vertical Swing” spins you all the way up to the top.

An empty carousel ride at an amusement park.
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Carousels Started Out as a War Game

The carousel, now the most quaint of carnival rides, started its life in 12th-century Arabia and Turkey as a serious game called Little War, in which horsemen tossed perfumed clay balls at one another; whoever failed to catch the ball would have to live with the strong perfume smell until their next bath. Italian and Spanish crusaders brought the game to Europe, but once it got to France, things got really extravagant.

Carosella meant “Little War” in Italian, and once the French got a hold of it, they named it carrousel. At first, French nobility played war games on their own horses, including the scented-ball game and a ring-lancing game, with both them and their horses dressed to the nines. Then they created mechanical models in the 17th century, with wooden horses attached to spokes extending from a central post, to practice the games. These models evolved into elaborately designed luxury diversions for the wealthy, typically powered by a horse, mule, or overworked human.

These merry-go-rounds, a term first coined in 1729 by a British poet, spread throughout Europe. When the steam engine came along around 1870, it allowed for more elaborate carousel decorations and made them easier to manufacture — and before long they were the carnival staples they are today.

Sarah Anne Lloyd

Sarah Anne Lloyd is a freelance writer whose work covers a bit of everything, including politics, design, the environment, and yoga. Her work has appeared in Curbed, the Seattle Times, the Stranger, the Verge, and others.