Life is a monotonous death epic and happens only once. Perhaps that’s why we seek out amusements, such as amusement parks. That train ride from birth to death, for which the French writer Fean Cocteau said only opium could allow us to stop off at a station and take a look about may, for us unable to source opium and afford both the classical education that allows one to fully benefit as well as the funds needed to treat any potential addiction, lead us to find other ways to spin about.
And to amusement parks we go to be spun, hurled, tossed about and sickened on Cotton candy. From steeple park to Coney Island the thrills and spills have been in western society for generations and certainly part of the American Century and roller coaster rise and ebb of the middle class. And we get to go on the rides again, and again, and again.
No more then an excuse to be dropped, watered, and mushed by gravity with members of the opposite sex and social strangers of all classes and creeds whether circus or carnival the fun park allowed for a break in routine. In time there arose a need for more structure to the strange experience. Having these pleasure palaces no longer sufficed for the masses. There needed to be an artistic device, some kind of nonsensical narrative to make this experience seem to make logic where none was needed nor present. There came the theme park, and everything fell into place. With a theme, there was a reason behind being ejected to a height at some velocity or dropped up and down along a track. You were doing it was because a mouse or a bunny or a cowboy made it so.
Of course the mouseland is the most famous if all parks that take on a theme and its history has been well documented and promoted by a multinational corporation. However, my own lived experience, my first memory of a theme park started at a certain set of amusement rides and attractions that sat next to the then undeveloped highway called the North Way. After stretches of wilderness and trees of a sudden there was a break in the forest. It was Storytown. Storytown took the connective tissue of nursery rhymes and children’s stories, long before that became an industry. The history of this park can be best found here and a blog post in better taste than this one is here. To me, the importance is that this space has both remained the same, and changed drastically in the decades since we children first went.
It was a great escape to go to Storytown, a funpark located at the foothills of the Adirondack mountains just a few miles outside of the Village of Lake George on the banks of the lake of the same name. In retrospect it was certainly the definition if not the epitome of Upstate Roadside America (Howe Caves aside). Little fiberglass monuments to certain copyright free characters, rides that even back then belonged in museums rather than out in the open sun, and shows involving all manner of antics of Cinderellas, Can Can dancers, and bandits. My favorite parts were the ghost town and Jungle-land.
Jungle Land was, like many amusements at this park, a walk through exploration like the Alice in wonderland walk through (that still stands in all it’s fiberglass majesty and total plywood crappy epicness). Jungle Land had a sound track of drums and natives and all manner of by today’s standards, racist overtones… Except for the cartoonish African natives boiling a stereotypical European/British Man wearing a Pith helmet in a pot… That was just racist. But what did we kids know? There were also hydraulic animals that emerged from the water, flapped their ears, or make some surprising movement. No more so than the king of hydraulic beasts, the worn ape on the top of the entrance hut that beat his chest and dared us to enter the land of the jungle.
“Omanamanum ceekalaka Ubuntu chilly wanna” the deep recorded voice would boom over groggy and buzing speakers as the drums sounded in the fake distance, “ba dunk ba dunk ba dunk ba da dunk.” Clearly this was the best attraction. “Cheeky waka chumbawumba white man come!” and we would wander through the bugs and grass on narrow walkways and swaying bridges. “ba dunk ba dunk ba dunk ba da dunk.” All this was made better by the setting was a swamp. Not a carefully created swamp but a, shitwhatarewegoingtoputhere” swamp someone thought – hey, Jungle Land(tm)!(tm)
The second attraction for my un-socially-responsive self was Ghost Town. Ghost Town was originally built a few years after the park opened in 1954 and it still maintained well into the bitter climax of my childhood those old fashioned views on what would be fun for kids from the Wild Wild West.
First there were the rides. Not one if them had been updated since at least 1964. But, like Jungle Land, for the child mind – wanting new experience yet equally wanting something familiar, to be unchanging and reassuring, this seemed to fulfill both opposing forces.
Chaos occurred twice a day. Noon and 3 o’clock high the cowboy bandits would jump on the stage and take the money bags from the saloon and all would become a huge cap gun shoot em up that then involved the sheriff. The sheriff would come on stage and ask the children to all follow him, to put their hands into a gun form (something children at school go to jail for today) and help him shoot the bad guys and put em in Boot Hill. There was even a Boot Hill mock grave yard. We kids were then deputized with little yellow badges. A shared activity among strangers, mock gun play, the icy if not mocking grave, all topics that in today’s Ghost Town have been replaced as the saloon has been closed, the boots on the hill removed, and the old home made rides removed and replaced them with new shinny rides. The same rides we see in other parks now that this one is under the same chain that spans the majority of the northern lands.
Today the park is familiar and yet has changed into just another facsimile of so many other places. I’m there to chaperone the next generation as they cavort and play away their youth. They don’t see all that has changed and I will not see everything that is to come. They do not have roadside America but enjoy a larger, flashier, zoomier set of rides bereft of all those floor shows and home spun madness of a family business and little roadside in the sandy woods. That is ok since the rides still serve their purpose. To spin us all about and let us be removed, even for a moment, from that direct line we must all in lockstep follow.
Editor’s Note: Imperfections are an indication of authenticity.