amusement parks follow-up
Date: August 08, 2009 01:18PM
I noticed there were 210 hits on my amusement park query, and felt bad that I was asking for info instead of providing it.
Here is a copy of the article I wrote that was published Friday in the Joliet Herald News, Aurora Beacon News, Elgin Courier News and the Naperville Sun. It is focused soley on those parks that were the most recent to close. Adventureland is mentioned only peripherally because it doesn't seem to generate the same nostalgia as these other parks do.
Thank you to everyone who got in touch or offered suggestions.
By KAREN SORENSEN For GO
Everybody now: "Kids are KING at Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom! Fun's the THING at Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom!"
If you recognize the jingle and can finish it by adding, "Exciting rides, to make you yell and holler. Any ride a quarter, six for a dollar!" -- a song you'll now have playing in your head for the rest of the day -- you were no doubt a child in the 1970s when the Oakbrook Terrace amusement park was in its heyday. For those lucky enough to have visited the park or its adjoining Castle of Toys, it remains locked away in your memory like a favorite birthday or Christmas morning.
But Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom disappeared long ago, as did Adventureland in Addison, Kiddy-Land in Evergreen Park, Old Chicago in Bolingbrook, Fun Town in Chicago and myriad others.
Now the area's last "kiddie park," Kiddieland in Melrose Park, will shut its gates forever Sept. 27, ending another chapter in Chicago history. For Chicago was not only the city that invented the concept of the "midway" and boasted the world's first Ferris Wheel, both at the 1983 Chicago World's Fair, it was also home to the country's first modern amusement park, Paul Boyton's Water Chute, which opened in 1894. (Boyton would later go on to build New York's Coney Island.)
By 1908, according to the Chicago History Museum's "Encyclopedia of Chicago," the city had more amusement parks than any other place in the United States. Among them were such notables as Trout Park in Elgin, which still exists as a recreation area, and Electric Park in Plainfield.
Unfortunately, Kiddieland's demise is not such a huge surprise, says Chuck Schaden, the recently retired host of the "Those Were the Days" radio show and author of "Riverview: Gone but Not Forgotten." In fact, that it survived from 1929 through 2009 is a remarkable feat, as is the fact that until three years ago, another children's amusement park, Santa's Village in East Dundee, was also still in business.
"These places were the most memorable parts of childhood," he says. "People would bring their families, and then the kids would go themselves when they were teenagers. Later, the kids would bring their families and pass along the tradition.
"But times have changed. So many things -- video games, cell phones, computers -- are competing for everyone's attention," Schaden says. "Everything is demographics-driven now. There are things for 12- to 18-year-olds, 18- to 24-year-olds. Kids are much more sophisticated now."
Which may be why a place like Six Flags Great America, the huge, forever-changing amusement park in Gurnee, appeals more strongly to families than an aging children's park. It may be more expensive to visit than Kiddieland, but it can also offer more whistles and bells in the guise of bigger and scarier roller coasters and a giant water park, Schaden says. Great America's 1976 opening precipitated the closures of Adventureland in 1978 and Old Chicago in 1980.
That said, Schaden believes the memories children today have from their visits to Great America will be as strong as those of people who cherish their memories of Chicago's Riverview and Santa's Village. "What kind of time did you have when you went to this thing? That's what creates nostalgia," he says.
Others are not so sure.
Lisa Cummings, who launched her www.lisawebworld1.tripod.com Web site as a depository for memorabilia she saved from her youth, says what differentiates parks like Santa's Village and Old Chicago from Great America are the "quirky personalities" each had and the feelings of innocence they conjure up. That her relatively obscure Web site gets as many as 30 hits a day from people doing searches for old amusement parks says a lot about the feelings people have for these places, she says. (Even a single mention on the ForgottenChicago.com Web site seeking information for this story received 169 hits in just four days.)
"I'm the kind of person that likes to think back to the way things used to be. I think these people are, too," says Cummings, a Cary native who went to Santa's Village every year for her father's annual company picnic. "I don't know, maybe we wish we were 10 years old again. Most people had pretty happy times when they were that young."
DISPENSA'S KIDDIE KINGDOM
Randy Dispensa's memories are those of an insider, but his nostalgia for Kiddie Kingdom is as strong as anyone whose family made the periodic pilgrimage to the Oak Brook Terrace-based amusement park.
Dispensa, now 46, was raised in a carnival family whose portable business would move from site to site all summer long. In 1967, they built Dispensa's Castle of Toys on Illinois 83 at Roosevelt Road -- a toy store with an eight-story castle facade complete with turrets, drawbridge and soldiers standing sentry in front. Kiddie Kingdom followed eight years later, operated by John Dispensa Sr. and his sons, John Jr. and Nick. Randy Dispensa and his brother, sons of John Dispensa Jr., worked at the park six days a week as did their three cousins.
It was a kid's dream come true, says Randy Dispensa, who loved dispensing free tickets to his friends when they would come to the park. "I liked seeing all of the kids being happy, all of the smiles," he says. "You saw so many different types of people."
The park lives on in people's memories, as captured in notes posted on various Web sites.
"Kiddie Kingdom had the usual array of small-time amusement park rides: the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Scrambler, the Salt and Pepper Shaker," one fan wrote. "Their 'roller coaster' was called the Whizzer and provided just enough excitement for the average kid. The train that circled the property was a slow-moving break from the action and gave you a nice tour of the grounds."
Says another: "My mom used to take us. She'd sit down and let us run around. The biggest ride was a Mite Mouse roller coaster, and they had a great little train that would go out into the parking lot."
Dispensa, who now builds and repairs hospital X-Ray equipment, planned to carry on the family business until he learned his father and uncle wanted to close the park in 1984 (the store followed a year later). Both were demolished to make way for the 31-story Oakbrook Terrace Tower, the tallest building in the state outside of Chicago.
"I was devastated," Dispensa says. "I didn't want to show my dad how upset I was. I thought I'd be working there my whole life."
Dispensa married a woman he met at the park (she performed in costume, first as a soldier and later as Strawberry Shortcake) and their West Dundee home is filled with Kiddie Kingdom memorabilia -- a Ferris wheel seat, a merry-go-round horse, the original ticket booth. He has no theories as to why the park and toy store live on so vividly in people's imaginations, but he knows that for some the desire to go back in time is insatiable. He says he and his son plan to collaborate on a Web site where they'll be able to post the mementos he's saved from his family's businesses.
"If I ever win the Lottery," Dispensa says with a laugh, "(building a new amusement park) is what I'd do with the money."
The only thing that remains of the country's first indoor amusement park is a Bolingbrook street sign for "Old Chicago Drive." But back in 1975, the buzz for the combination shopping mall/1890s-themed carnival was deafening. Two years in the making, the promotion for Old Chicago's opening featured a teenage girl tap dancing on the building's dome, and 15,000 showed up on the first day, creating gridlock on Interstate 55 and the other roads leading to the complex.
"It was the first of its kind," Cummings said. "It captivated everyone's attention."
From the outset, however, there were problems tied to cost-overruns and shoddy construction; newspaper accounts documented problems such as exposed wiring, and a fire sprinkler malfunction only six months into operation closed the building for half a day.
Cummings says her first reaction to the place was disappointing -- "it looked kind of cheap." It had all the amenities of a traditional amusement park -- Tilt-A-Whirl, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, bumper cars, several roller coasters -- but she had no desire to return, she says.
On her Web site, she writes, "Old Chicago seemed like an idea that couldn't fail. In retrospect, however, it's easy to see why it did. The mall didn't have any large chain stores or anchor stores, and without them, it may not have been enough of a shopping mall to attract shoppers. Once the novelty wore off, the rides didn't seem to attract kids and families. Unlike outdoor parks that constantly update and add rides, Old Chicago was confined to the space between its walls, and it got old very quickly."
Dispensa, who was living in Westmont at the time, is more kind. "It opened at a time when (my friends and I) had just begun to notice girls, so we went there a lot," he says.
Joe Sterbenc, now a Chicago videographer living in Homewood, commuted all the way from Munster, Ind., to work at Old Chicago as a lighting technician, a job he held for a year and a half.
"I had a lot of very interesting experiences working at that park," he says. "It was the first new theme park in the area, before Great America."
Perhaps the highlight of his time there, Sterbenc says, was the filming of the Brian DePalma movie "The Fury." He and two friends were extras, and he still gets a kick out of seeing the beer garden scene where he can spot his pal clad in a Cubs shirt performing as part of the band. "He the one in the white Pumas," he says with a laugh.
The place was certainly a product of the time in which it existed -- disco dancing lessons were a big draw, as was live entertainment by such acts as Gloria Gaynor, Wild Cherry and Sha Na Na (even punk band the Ramones played a show). Yet the amusement park lasted just five years, and the mall closed a year after that. It was torn down in 1986.
Regardless, people remain fascinated by it, Cummings said, and the Old Chicago portion of her Web site is among the most visited. Do a Web search and you'll find several postings for the defunct park.
"I loved going there," one person writes. "My favorite rides were the teacup-type ride (which I called the 'Wowee ride') and the Four Seasons ride (the heat was blasted in the summer room and it was really cold in the winter room. When you're a kid, that's pretty amazing)."
Another writer is more philosophical: "I have no idea (why), but count me in as one of (Old Chicago's) fans. Abandoned amusement parks, resorts in the off season, hulks of ships ... they're all utterly fascinating to me. Perhaps it's a relatively safe way for us to confront our mortality?"
There were actually three Santa's Villages at one time, the first two in California and the third in East Dundee, built in 1959 on land chosen because developers thought it resembled "the Golden State." The park's concept park was "modeled on what an average child might imagine Santa's village would look like," according to www.santasvillage.net, the Web site dedicated to preserving the park's history (among other things, it includes the biographies of every "Santa" who ever worked there).
Santa- and winter-related features dotted the original park, including the Christmas Tree Ride, the twirling Snowballs, Santa’s House and the Frozen North Pole. The "Polar Dome" ice rink came later, and eventually the park morphed into the "Three Worlds of Santa's Village" -- Santa's World, Coney Island and Old McDonald's Farm. The Racing Rapids water park was built on adjoining property in 1983, but patrons had to pay a separate admission fee.
It was the Santa theme that made the place so memorable for Cummings. "It was like Christmas!" she says. "It was different for kids back then because there wasn't that much to do. This was a big deal."
But as is the case for all of these old parks, the age you are when you first visit solidifies the way you remember it later. Cummings may have been delighted by it, but Sterbenc recalls going when he was older and thinking it was "completely lame."
Lame or not, more than 20 million people crossed its threshold over its 46-year history. One of its biggest fans remains Phil Wenz, the park's last Santa, a job he held for 20 years.
"This park was on par with Disneyland," Wenz told the Elgin Courier News when Santa's Village closed in 2006. "This was a wonderful place."
Wenz went on to write the book "Images of America: Santa's Village" and still harbors hope that the park may yet be resurrected. At the time it closed, Wenz said, he felt very "protective" of the business' legacy. "I want everything intact. The integrity of the park is very important to me."
Many people have documented their love for Santa's Village with entries penned on Web message boards. "Yes, I admit I am a huge fan of the older, more simpler amusement parks," one person wrote. "I realize in this day and age, everyone wants bigger and better. I think more people should stop and remember what it's like just to have fun and it seems like Santa's Village (was) the perfect little fantasy land to do so."
Cummings says she occasionally drives by the old park site on Dundee Avenue.
"I'm still very nostalgic for it," she admits. The rides are now gone, but "it's all still there, all grown over. It looks like a ghost town."