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Vintage Amusement Parks Mean Big Fun For Small Kids

Old-school kiddie parks offer a bit of history at a bargain price.

 

Trying to navigate a big amusement park with small children is about as much fun as digging your own eye out with a fork.

Places like Disney World and the Six Flags parks are great for the bigger kids and grown-ups, but when you’re under 42-inches tall, those huge rides and all the visual and auditory stimulation are just plain overwhelming.

Taking my 3-year-old daughter to see Mickey Mouse is more about creating an experience for me to remember. Our trip to the famous Florida landmark was fun, but it isn’t something I care to repeat anytime soon. Nor, in fact, can I—or most people—afford to repeat a trip that includes an average of $40 per-day, per person tickets. [Disney World tickets range from $71 per person for 10 and older, but are much cheaper if you by 3-day, 4-day, etc tickets]

Simple Pleasures at Memphis Kiddie Park in Brooklyn, Ohio

You’ll find me at Memphis Kiddie Park every July until my wee one grows too big to ride the 11 vintage amusements that dot this six-and-a-half acre park located in Brooklyn, Ohio, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland.

Established in the middle of the last century, the park is a charming throwback featuring rides like the pony carts, spinning rockets and racecars. And my child adores it with a ferocity previously reserved for ice cream.

“We opened in the spring of 1952 and we’ve been operating continuously in the same location, with the same rides, since then,” says general manager Mike Kessel.

Close your eyes and listen to the calliope music and you could be right back in the era of Harry S. Truman and a time before anyone ever stepped foot on the moon.

The prices are as old-fashioned as the pristine rides, with $20 providing a full day’s worth of entertainment.

The park runs on a ticket system, and tickets will run you $1.40 apiece. For the best bang for your buck, buy the book of 25 for $21.50.

How many tickets do you need per ride?

One.

One single ticket for each ride.

How can you beat it? And if your kid has a meltdown or naptime rolls around? Save your extra tickets.

“It doesn’t cost a penny to walk into the park,” Kessel says. “You can come and go as you please.”

Not only that, but the tickets never expire. So, say you come back, oh, 40 years later. That ticket book is still valid.

“We’ve had people hand us tickets from the fifties, and we still take them,” Kessel says, adding that a framed set of tickets from all the different decades is housed inside the ticket booth.

The rides at Memphis Kiddie Park are mostly limited to kids under 42-inches, but there are three rides that you can ride as a family. For some kids, the idea of getting on an amusement park ride without their parents can be a little scary.

If that’s the case, ease their fears by riding the train, merry-go-round or the Little Dipper rollercoaster with them.

Ah, yes. The Little Dipper.

This ride just might be one of the most interesting in the nation; the Little Dipper is the oldest continuously operating steel children’s rollercoaster in the United States

This brief but whiplash-inducing ride happens to be a favorite of my daughter, who screams with delighted terror each and every time she rides it with her daddy.

Because me? Not so much a rollercoaster enthusiast. A bad back and a weak stomach make me less than an ideal riding companion.

However, Mark Cole, president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, knows a thing or two about rollercoasters. He should, he’s been on more than 400 of them.

“It’s a fun little park and a fun little coaster,” Cole says. “The main attraction for us is the fact that it has been there for so long, and they do allow adults to ride it.”

In 2004, the American Coaster Enthusiasts held their annual convention in northeast Ohio, and attendees made a trip to Memphis Kiddie Park just to see the Little Dipper.

“We had a group that was close to 600 people,” Kessel recalls. “We’ve had people from all over the world come to see the coaster, people from Sweden, Great Britain, places like that.”

Just this summer, Kessel fielded a phone call from France asking about the park’s yearly schedule.

If you are in the Cleveland area anytime between mid-April and the middle of October, you can and should make a visit to this family-owned park. And while you’re there, be sure to check out some of the city’s other attractions, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra.

Retro Rules in Bartlesville, Okla.

I thought Memphis Kiddie Park was one of kind—and in a way, of course, it is. But it turns out that you can provide your preschooler equally cheap, retro fun in Bartlesville, Okla., as well.

Bartlesville’s Kiddie Park has a couple years on Cleveland’s version—it was established in 1947, and relocated to its current location sometime between 1959 and 1960, according to manager Bill Alexander.

Located 46 miles north of Tulsa, Bartlesville is a small town of about 34,000—all of whom felt so strongly about their local landmark that it was taken over by a foundation in order to prevent it from closing down.

All of the profits from the park go back into operating costs, and a board of directors provides oversight.

“The park is a vital part of summer life here,” says Alexander. “Kiddie Park is so ingrained in this community that it is incredible.”

And how could you not fall in love with a children’s amusement park that charges 25 cents per ticket, with rides taking no more than two tickets?

“Where else can you spend 20 bucks, ride all night and eat hot dogs?” Alexander asks.

Where else, indeed.


Alexander says that the park draws visitors from all over Oklahoma and Kansas, as well as from just about every state in the union. A 36-foot vintage rollercoaster currently operating under the name “Little Fireball” and a circa-1956 carousel are two of the most popular attractions.

But rides and prices aside, Alexander says that the real charm of Kiddie Park is the happiness that it brings to small children, and, by extension, their parents.

“The best part is seeing the little kids have fun,” he says. “It’s a great place, because parents can take their kids and not spend hardly any money at all. The kids are having a great time, and their faces are just lighting up with joy, and it isn’t going to cost an arm and a leg.”

And while Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a trip to Bartlesville will allow you to see a true architectural rarity—this small city is also home to the only skyscraper ever built by Frank Lloyd Wright: the Price Tower.

Letting the Little Ones Ride in San Antonio

If Texas is more your style, be sure to stop at San Antonio’s Kiddie Park. This may very well be the granddaddy of them all—it was established in 1925, and is the oldest children’s amusement park in the United States.

But beware; according to the park’s Web site, no grumps are allowed.

Guess I won’t be going there anytime soon.

Anyhoo, $8.25 buys your kid unlimited rides from 10 a.m. to dark Monday through Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to sunset on Sundays. Owner Bob Aston, 57, grew up going to Kiddie Park.

“As a child I even asked my daddy to buy it for me,” Aston says. “I waited a few years, until I was 27, and then I bought it for myself.”

Located just 30 blocks from The Alamo, this San Antonio institution has been operating continuously for 82 years. The park’s most famous attraction is its Hershell-Stillman carousel, installed in 1959.

“We’ve had five generations of the same family riding that carousel,” Aston says. “We get folks bringing in their great-great-grandchildren.”

Those great-grandparents will recall when the only rides were live ponies and goats. The first mechanized attractions were installed in 1935.

Set on a tiny one-acre lot, the park boasts 10 strategically arranged rides, including a 40-by-100-foot steel rollercoaster, also called the Little Dipper, as at the Ohio Kiddie Park. Parents wishing to ride with their kids can do so on the merry-go-round or on the park’s newest ride, the helicopters, installed in 1962 and manufactured right in San Antonio.

Above all, Aston says, his park is a place for families to spend time together and have a great time building memories.

“We are like one big happy family,” he says. “My kids had a wonderful time growing up here, and now my grandkids come here. It is great fun to watch them.”

Kiddie Park is open year-round, thanks to the balmy climate of southern Texas. But beware—if the thermometer drops below 55, the park closes its doors.

Now all I have to do is make sure my kid never gets wind of that, or we’ll have to relocate to Texas.


Destinations: Bartlesville, San Antonio, Cleveland

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel

Activities: Parks and Playgrounds


User Comments

haha I don't know about any of these places.

Off the Beaten Path I didn't know about any of these places, but am definitely taking note of them now. Commercialized parks like Disney and Six Flags are sometimes entirely too expensive and crowded--especially when part of a vacation--to be enjoyable. Thanks for profiling these hidden gems.

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