Best Old-Fashioned Amusement Parks in the US

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When the summer amusement park season arrives, the buzz is all about the coolest coasters, the latest thrills and the most wondrous immersive experiences. Massive theme parks' high-tech enticements come with hefty admission fees and impatient crowds, though, and undue pressure to make every moment magical can leave a family frazzled. Although the number of old-fashioned amusement parks in America has dwindled, those that have defied economic forces are not only affordable alternatives to the mega-parks, they're guardians of simple pleasures that even the most interactive video game system can't replicate. Whether it's the rackety clack of a wooden roller coaster or the reassuring voice of Mr. Rogers, the breathtaking views from an ocean-side Ferris wheel or the frigid sensation of touching the North Pole, these old-time parks' immutable charms transcend generations. When kids clamor for Disney, introduce them to the joys of low-tech parks. Read on to see where you can find them.

True Survivors

As many as 2,000 "trolley parks" dotted the American landscape in the early decades of the twentieth century. These precursors to today's amusement parks -- built along public transportation lines by trolley companies to foster weekend ridership – largely succumbed as new trends in transportation and leisure pursuits emerged. Those that endure offer something modern, corporate-owned theme parks can't manufacture: character. There are only "a handful of parks that have retained their original personality," says Theme Parks Guide Arthur Levine. "For parks to survive and continue to thrive, they need to appeal to today's kids and families," he says. Those that have succeeded strike "a delicate balance between honoring their tradition and reaching out to a younger audience."

Lake Compounce

Bristol Connecticut's Lake Compounce – the oldest continuously operating amusement park in North America – has reinvented itself since a brush with near death in the 1990s. "I love what they've done to both preserve its character and update it and make it relevant for today's generation," Levine comments. Founded in 1846 as a picnic park, "The Lake" still has attractions that date to its trolley-era heyday including a 1911 carousel and the 1927 Wildcat wooden coaster. More than a decade of expansion has catapulted the park's thrill rating without compromising its charms. Even the formidable Boulder Dash – the second-longest, second-fastest wooden roller coaster on the East Coast – blends with the park's history and scenery. In 2010, Lake Compounce was first in the U.S. to introduce Text2Ride reservation technology, yet it is old-fashioned value that keeps families coming back. Free, unlimited soda saves thirsty park-goers a small fortune.

Coney Island

Levine calls Coney Island the "granddaddy" of classic amusement parks, and while Brooklyn, New York's seaside play place has seen better days, "the future is looking brighter," he says. Streetcars and steamboats began shuttling vacationers to this beach resort after the Civil War, and, by the turn of the twentieth century, Coney Island was the country's most popular amusement area. Although men in bowler hats and women in bustled skirts are long gone, Coney Island refuses to relinquish its vintage vibe. The 150-foot Wonder Wheel, opened in 1920, still illuminates the night sky, and the echoes of riders past meld with the screams still elicited by the Cyclone roller coaster, a 1927 landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 2010 reincarnation of compact yet thrill-packed Luna Park with 19 all-new rides, and Travel + Leisure's inclusion of Coney Island on its 2010 list of America's Best Beach Boardwalks, have raised the profile of this iconic destination. Hopefully, Levine says, "they are going to recapture some of the magic."

Lakeside Amusement Park

Christened "The Coney Island of the West" when it debuted in 1908, Lakeside Amusement Park in Lakeside, CO, was originally connected to the Denver city center via a direct tram line. A century later, its picturesque lakeside location and Rocky Mountain views – along with 40 antique and state-of-the-art rides – keep the park top-of-mind with fun seekers. Two miniature, coal-fired locomotives originally built for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair take train riders on leisurely excursions, and the 1908 carousel's carved wooden ponies gallop effortlessly under the gentle coaxing of a new generation of little buckaroos. Lakeside's late-night hours conjure bygone days when weekends were solely for play, and the illuminated 150-foot Tower of Jewels, once home to Big Band concerts and dance marathons, remains a post-sunset spectacle. Retro neon signs beckon park-goers to ride the Wild Chipmunk or to take the wheel of an Auto Skooter. Best of all, on weekdays, an unlimited ride wristband costs less than parking at Disneyland.

Canobie Lake Park

With live shows, pontoon boat tours and more than 85 rides including the spinning, swinging Xtreme Frisbee and the Corkscrew steel coaster, the 373-acre Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire, sounds more contemporary than quaint. But Canobie Lake's independent owners take pride in the 1902 date emblazoned on the park's entrance gate. In contrast to modern asphalt midways, Levine likes Canobie Lake's "beautiful canopy of trees. The rides are integrated with the landscaping," he says. And some of the rides are real old-timers. The Yankee Cannonball has been Canobie Lake's signature ride since 1936. The park also claims one of only four extant Caterpillars. Ubiquitous following the ride's 1925 Coney Island debut, the Caterpillar cocoons passengers under a green canopy as it picks up speed.

Charming Parks for Young Children

Theme parks that cater to the preschool set and their slightly older siblings are perennially popular with parents, who may recall their own childhood visits to these fantasy lands. "They generally don't cost as much as the major theme parks," yet they're "loaded with charm," says Levine.

Story Land

Unlike Disneyland, which also opened in the mid-1950s, Story Land in Glen, New Hampshire, has remained manageable, affordable and decidedly low-tech. Swan Boats are tricky to steer. Cinderella's Coach is powered by a tractor – not a team of prancing horses. And the jokes told by captains piloting the Story Land Queen are as old as the surrounding White Mountains. It doesn't matter. For tykes who have finally outgrown their strollers, Story Land is pure enchantment. Admission for kids under three is free. Parking is free, too, and here's a value-maximizing trick: Purchase admission tickets during the last three hours of operation, and you're entitled to a free pass for the following day.

Santa's Workshop

The hamlet of North Pole, New York, on the outskirts of Lake Placid has its own zip code and one major celebrity resident: Santa Claus. When Julian Reiss's daughter implored him to take her to the fantastical workshop he'd described in stories, the businessman teamed with an artist and a builder in 1949 to bring Santa's hometown to life at the base of Whiteface Mountain. For less than $20 per person, families can enjoy all of the park's rides and shows, including the nativity pageant: a tradition since 1954. Don't miss conversing with Tannenbaum the Talking Christmas Tree and posing for pictures at the Frosty North Pole – a column of ice that remains magically frozen even on sweltering days. Kids enjoy feeding reindeer and clambering aboard old-fashioned kiddie rides and, with Santa watching, they're always on their best behavior.


The world's twelfth oldest amusement park – Idlewild in Ligonier, Pennsylvania – has "been around forever," says Levine, who explains that the park's focus on diversions for children 12 and under lends it "a special charm." Amusement Today magazine named Idlewild the second best children's park in the nation in 2009: quite an accomplishment for a park that got its start as a picnic area in 1878. Olde Idlewild's classic rides include a carousel brought to the park in 1931, a wooden coaster from the '30s and a 1947 Caterpillar. The park's themed areas, such as Story Book Forest and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe, allow grown-ups to reminisce and to share the joys of a pre-Wii world with youngsters. A Next Day Pass can be purchased at almost half off the one-day admission fee, so consider an extended stay in western PA.

Free Amusement Parks

Some of America's most nostalgic amusement parks charge an even more nostalgic admission fee: They're free! The beauty, says Levine, is that parents and grandparents "can sit on a park bench and watch their kids or grandkids having fun without having to pay to get in." Families can save even more, he suggests, by packing a picnic and avoiding the "bland, awful, overpriced food" larger parks foist upon a captive audience.

Pacific Park

The Santa Monica Pier has been a fixture on the California coastline since 1909. In 1916, renowned carousel craftsman and entrepreneur Charles I.D. Looff gained approval for an adjacent Pleasure Pier, and by the 1920s, this tourist hot spot was home to a coaster, carousel and other rides, plus a grand ballroom. Competition from inland theme parks spelled ruin for many amusement piers, but Santa Monica preservationists battled City Council – and Mother Nature – to save their historic promenade. The 1996 opening of Pacific Park, L.A.'s only free-admission amusement park, returned large-scale amusement rides to the pier for the first time since the 1930s. Coaster fans can once again feel the spray of seawater in their faces, and, in a unique combination of old-fashioned fun and modern sensibility, riders of the 130-foot-high Pacific Wheel – the world's first solar-powered Ferris wheel – can enjoy sweeping views without taxing the grid.

Knoebels Amusement Resort

Elysburg, Pennsylvania, is home to America's largest free-admission park (there is a fee for some attractions). Knoebels has been around since 1926, and it's owned by the family that also owns the local lumberyard, but don't think for an instant that this is any rinky-dink amusement zone. Coaster connoisseurs give high marks to Twister and Phoenix – two wooden-track roller coasters – and the park's 50-plus rides include both up-to-date thrillers and beloved classics like Kiddie Boats, a Haunted Mansion ride and a 1913 carousel. Parking at the park is also free, and on-site camping – in your own tent or a log cabin – can make an amusement park family vacation economical.

Bay Beach Amusement Park

Bay Beach, established in 1892, has a long and colorful history of providing affordable family entertainment on the shores of Wisconsin's Green Bay. In the early 1900s, Captain John Cusick ferried passengers to the beach and grossed as much as $450 on sunny days by renting damp, sandy swimsuits for 10 cents apiece. Today, parking and admission are free, and the littlest park-goers can piggy-bankroll their own adventures: Ride tickets cost a quarter, and half of the park's 16 rides only require one ticket. Larger rides, like the Ferris wheel and Tilt-a-Whirl, require two.

Photo Credits: Lake Compounce, Lake Compounce; Coney Island - Don Emmert, AFP/Getty Images; Lakeside Amusement Park - Getty Images; Canobie Lake Park - Alamy; Pacific Park - Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty Images; Knoebels Amusement Resort - Knoebels; Bay Beach Amusement Park - Bay Beach Amusement Park; Story Land - Kim Knox Beckius; Santa's Workshop - Kim Knox Beckius

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