The Tragedy of Freedomland
This is a story that contains much to make the amusement loving New Yorker blue on so many levels.
On this day in 1960, an amazing amusement park — larger than Disneyland — opened in the Bronx. Accurately billed as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Family Entertainment Center”, it was conceived and built by Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood (1920-1992), one of the early collaborators on Disneyland, which had opened in 1955. Fired by Disney executives in 1956, Wood took it on the chin and built this 205 acre park in Baychester.
The history themed park was built in the shape of the contiguous 48 states of the U.S. and broken into corresponding regions, usually representing those periods in the 19th century: Old New York; Old Chicago (with a re-creation of the 1871 fire); the Great Plains (with a working stage coach line); Old San Francisco (with a re-creation of the 1906 earthquake); The Old Southwest (with wild west saloons and real steam trains); Old New Orleans; and a futuristic section called “Satellite City” with space rides. There was a tramway ride that could transport people over the “Rocky Mountains”. And, to boost attendance, in 1962, a bunch of conventional midway rides were added.
The project was apparently cursed. This is the Northeast. The park was partially built on buggy swampland. Bad weather kept it closed a good part of the year. These combined to make it difficult to make the park pay its costs back. Several of the exhibitions burned before the park opened. A stagecoach overturned, injuring ten people (snapping the spine of one of them) resulting in a costly lawsuit. When the park began to de-emphasize the history angle, some of the sponsors pulled out. Then in 1964, the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows. That’s a lot of bad all in a row. Freedomland closed in 1964
What a bummer! It died right around the time Steeplechase in Coney Island closed and around the same time Astroland (with its similarity to Satellite City) opened. Was there just too much competition? The hell of it is, I’m sure the failure of Freedomland convinced capitalists that investing in Coney Island was a bad idea for decades, and this is why the Disney people passed on the idea after careful consideration, and why Horace Bullard had a hard time getting backers or city support. So that’s one reason it’s unfortunate. But also…the Bronx could have USED such a tourist attraction. It has the Zoo and Yankee Stadium…something else must have been nice. By the way, I notice that the Zoo manages to make a go of it year ’round. How does it do that? A smart planner would have figured out how to make the park pay during the winter months, as they have been trying to do with Coney Island right now. Live and learn. But I sure do wish I could have gone to to Freedomland.
There’s a cool photo spread at this web site: http://www.benros.com/images/Freedomland%20Images/freedomland.htm
And here are some cool home movies:
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc