Ride ‘Em and Weep: Amusement Parks in 1945

A 1945 article in the Post talks about Tilt-A-Whirls, Tumble-Bugs, Loop-O-Planes, and the greatest of them all: the roller coaster.

Roller coaster

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In 1945, World War II was ending, G.I.s were returning home, and Americans were ready to put the grim times behind them and have a little fun. Enter the amusement park.

Amusement rides made their debut long before the 1940s. The first rides – merry-go-rounds — have been around since the Roman age of emperors.  In the 1600s, the French improved on the idea, developing a carrousel to simulate a jousting match.

The first carrousels appeared in America in the early 1800s, and the first planned amusement park – Playland – opened in Rye, NY, in 1928.

By the 1940s, amusement parks had expanded their offerings to Tilt-A-Whirls, Whips, Dodg’ems, Skooters, Loop-O-Planes, Ferris wheels, and Tumble-Bugs. It was enough of a national trend to appear in an article in the June, 9, 1945, issue of the Post, where the authors interviewed the creators of these scream machines. William Mangels, one of the largest makers of merry-go-rounds, noted that he’d tried using lions, tigers, and giraffes, but people always preferred the horses. Another manufacturer, W.E. Sullivan, owned a bridge company, but nobody bought his bridges. So he started making Ferris wheels, and sold five millions dollars’ worth.

But the real money was in the good old roller coaster – in 1945, one could ride the Thunderbolt, Skyrocket, Zephyr, Mile Sky Chaser, Cyclone, and Giant Racer. While the coasters of the 1940s didn’t nearly match the height, speed, or insane gyrations of modern coasters, they were just as terrifying – maybe even more so for being built upon clattering wooden frames.

In the 1940s, ride makers were still trying to figure out ways to make their coasters faster, scarier, and more stomach-turning.  One inventor came up with the Loop-the-Loop, but it didn’t make the cut; at the time it could only move one car at a time around the vertical circle, rendering it unprofitable.

Then, as now, we can’t get enough of rides that terrorize. Why do we love them so much? A psychiatrist of the era said it allowed riders to “experience a pattern of emotions which brings him back to the ‘secure insecurity’ of childhood, and this is one of the sources of the perverse pleasure.”

Sadly, many of the parks mentioned in the article have since closed. Palisades Amusement Park, across the Hudson river on a bluff overlooking New York City, closed 1971. Luxury apartments were built in its place. Pontchartrain Beach outside of New Orleans closed down in 1983. And the Coney Island park mentioned in the article, Steeplechase Park, closed in 1964 (Coney Island is still home to two amusement parks – Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park).

Amusement parks of the 1940s were no doubt quaint compared to the slick, expensive, immersive parks of today. The authors couldn’t have foreseen what the theme parks would become, or that families would plan week-long vacations and spend thousands of dollars on them. The opening of Disneyland, after all, was still ten years off. But 75 years later, the thrill is still there. As one ride maker observed, “”The new generations are always growing up…and they are always discovering for themselves the same old rides, the same old thrills. No, you can’t ever change that. These rides are as old as gravity.”

First page of the story, "Ride 'Em and Weep"
Read “Ride ‘Em and Weep” by Maurice Zolotow and Harold S. Kahm from the June 9, 1945, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Geauga Lake Park, Geauga Lake, Ohio (Wikimedia Commons / Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection #77801)

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