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 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.
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.
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.