Local fairs and carnivals have been around since the Middle Ages, but modern amusement parks can trace their roots to the 19th century, when so-called “pleasure gardens” and “trolley parks” first flourished in the United States and Europe. These early resorts featured primitive—and often wildly unsafe—rollercoasters and rides, but they also included a variety of offbeat attractions ranging from strongmen and wild animals to freak shows, staged disaster spectacles and even battle reenactments. Take a trip through six of history’s most enchanting and influential amusement parks.
Opened in 1897 by entrepreneur George C. Tilyou, Steeplechase Park was the first of three major amusement parks that put New York’s Coney Island on the map. The park took its name from its signature attraction, a 1,100-foot steel track where patrons could race one another on mechanical horses, but it also included a Ferris Wheel, a space-inspired ride called “Trip to the Moon” and a miniature railroad. While Tilyou intended Steeplechase to be the family-friendly antidote to Coney Island’s seamier side, some rides still ventured into territory that was risqué by Victorian standards. Attractions like the “Whichaway” and the “Human Pool Table” tossed strangers against one another and gave couples an excuse to canoodle, and the wildly popular Blowhole Theater allowed spectators to watch as air vents blew up unsuspecting female guests’ skirts. As the ladies struggled to cover themselves, a clown would shock their male counterparts with a cattle prod. Fire destroyed much of Tilyou’s park in 1907, but he responded by building a more elaborate Steeplechase that remained in operation until the 1960s. Ever the showman, he even charged ten cents for visitors to view the charred ruins of the original park.
For much of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the famed Vauxhall Gardens offered Londoners a much-needed respite from the grime and sprawl of the big city. Nestled on the south bank of the River Thames, this verdant pleasure garden consisted of several acres of trees and flowers, footpaths, and pavilions lit by thousands of shimmering gas lamps. For the price of one shilling, visitors could stroll through Vauxhall’s lush groves, admire paintings and sculptures and take in music performed by the site’s house orchestra. The Gardens also offered more unusual diversions including a miniature diorama of a village mill and a resident hermit who told fortunes. By the 1820s, Vauxhall had begun to abandon high culture and refinement in favor of dancing and other more mainstream entertainments and soon patrons could take in fireworks displays, ballooning exhibitions and sideshow acts such as sword swallowers and tightrope walkers. Before shuttering Vauxhall’s gates for good in 1859, the owners even used pyrotechnics and troupes of actors to stage large-scale reenactments of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Roman chariot races and a crusader attack on the city of Acre.
Coney Island’s Dreamland only operated for seven years between 1904 and 1911, but during that time it established itself as one of the most ambitious amusement parks ever constructed. The brainchild of a former senator named William H. Reynolds, the site included a labyrinth of unusual rides and attractions lit by an astounding one million electric light bulbs. Visitors to Dreamland could charter a gondola through a recreation of the canals of Venice, brave gusts of refrigerated air during a train ride through the mountains of Switzerland or relax at a Japanese teahouse. They could also watch a twice-daily disaster spectacle where scores of actors fought a fire at a mock six-story tenement building, or pay a visit to Lilliputia, a pint-sized European village where some 300 little people lived full time. Dreamland featured everything from freak shows and wild animals to imported Somali warriors and Eskimos, but perhaps its most unusual offering was an exhibit where visitors could observe premature babies being kept alive using incubators, which were then still a new and untested technology. The infants proved a huge hit, but they and many other attractions had to be evacuated in May 1911, when a fire—ironically triggered at a ride called the Hell Gate—leveled the property and shut Dreamland down for good.
First opened in 1893, Saltair was a desert oasis situated on the south shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The Mormon Church originally commissioned the site in the hope of creating a wholesome “Coney Island of the West” without the perceived sleaziness of the New York original. Their family-friendly park proved an instant hit, as scores of visitors arrived by train from nearby Salt Lake City to enjoy music, dancing and bathing in the lake’s saline-rich waters. Saltair’s most striking attraction was its gargantuan pavilion, a four-story wonder adorned with domes and minarets that sat above the lake on more than 2,000 wood pilings. Along with touring this “Pleasure Palace on Stilts,” visitors could also show off their moves on a sprawling dance floor, ride roller coasters and carousels, and watch fireworks displays and hot air balloon shows. The park boasted nearly half a million visitors a year until 1925, when the iconic centerpiece burned in a fire. A rebuilt Saltair opened soon after, but it failed to capture the magic—or the revenues—of the original. The park closed its doors for good in 1958, and its abandoned pavilion was later destroyed in a second fire in 1970.
Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens first opened in 1843, when showman Georg Carstensen persuaded King Christian VIII to let him build a pleasure garden outside the walls of Copenhagen. Originally constructed on around 20 acres of land, Carstensen’s creation featured a series of oriental-inspired buildings, a lake fashioned from part of the old city moat, flower gardens and bandstands lit by colored gas lamps. The park quickly became a Copenhagen institution, and won fame for its “Tivoli Boys Guard,” a collection of uniformed adolescents who paraded around the premises playing music for visitors. Tivoli later added an iconic pantomime theater in 1878, and by the early 1900s it featured more traditional amusement park fare including a wooden roller coaster called the Bjergbanen, or “Mountain Coaster,” as well as bumper cars and carousels. Tivoli Gardens was nearly burned to the ground by Nazi sympathizers during World War II, but the park reopened after only a few weeks and remains in operation to this day.
Founded in 1903 by theme park impresarios Fred Thompson and Skip Dundy, Coney Island’s Luna Park consisted of a gaudy cluster of domed buildings and towers illuminated by an eye-popping 250,000 light bulbs. The park specialized in high concept rides that transported visitors to everywhere from 20,000 leagues under the sea to the North Pole and even the surface of the moon. A trip to Luna could also serve as a stand in for world travel. After a ride on an elephant, patrons could stroll a simulated “Streets of Delhi” populated by dancing girls and costumed performers—many of them actually shipped in from India—or take a tour through mock versions of Italy, Japan and Ireland. If they grew tired of walking, visitors could relax in grandstands and watch the “War of the Worlds,” a miniature, pyrotechnic-heavy sea battle in which the American Navy decimated an invading European armada. The park’s owners also cashed in on the popularity of disaster rides by staging recreations of the destruction of Pompeii and the Galveston flood of 1900. The carnage reenacted in these attractions became all too real in 1944, when Luna fell victim to a three-alarm fire that began in one of its bathrooms. The original site closed for good a few years after the blaze, but the iconic name “Luna Park” is still used by dozens of amusement parks around the globe.