4 Ways Amusement Parks of the Past Were Not So Amusing

Shutterstock/Nana_Studio (stack of photos); Hulton Archive/Getty Images (parade)
Shutterstock/Nana_Studio (stack of photos); Hulton Archive/Getty Images (parade) / Shutterstock/Nana_Studio (stack of photos); Hulton Archive/Getty Images (parade)

You see that photo below of the man who looks like he is experiencing equal parts nausea, pain, and regret?

Author A.J. Jacobs and his kids "enjoying" a roller coaster.
Author A.J. Jacobs and his kids "enjoying" a roller coaster. / Courtesy of A.J. Jacobs

That’s me!

And that pretty much sums up my views on amusement parks. I find them profoundly unamusing—too loud, too many lines, too much motion sickness.

But there’s one thing that makes me less grouchy whenever I go with my kids every summer. And that is the gratitude I feel that I didn’t have to go to amusement parks in decades and centuries past. Amusement parks of yore were far worse. They were bloody, sexist, racist—basically a hellish mess. Let me break that down for you.

1. Amusement parks of the past could be deadly.

While accidents and incidents do happen, in this day and age, roller coasters are generally considered safe. This wasn’t always the case: Early roller coasters and other rides were uncomfortable at best, and dangerous at worst. One precursor to the roller coaster were the Ice Slides—hills constructed of wood and ice—found in Russia in the 16th century. After an arduous climb up a set of stairs, riders would hurtle down the slope on a block of ice with a pile of straw as the seat. Fun! In the early 1800s, a wheeled version made its way to France, making it more akin to modern roller coasters. Except that the wheels would often come off and the cars wouldn’t stop at the bottom of the hill. Less fun!

Coasters only got more dangerous in the next century. Consider the infamous Coney Island Rough Riders roller coaster, which killed seven people in a five-year span from 1910 to 1915 before it was shut down. The coaster was an homage to Theodore Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders,” the soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War. But the coaster was almost as dangerous as Battle of San Juan Hill: According to PBS, in one accident, the speeding coaster jettisoned 16 people, killing four. In another accident, the coaster jumped the track and caused three fatalities. One woman survived the ordeal dangling from a rail with one hand, holding her child with the other hand.

Coney Island featured another coaster that wasn’t fatal, but it was certainly unpleasant. The Flip Flap Railway coaster of the 1890s was one of the first roller coasters to feature a loop-de-loop. But unlike modern loops, which are oval-shaped to lessen forces on the rider, the Flip Flap was circular. This put intense pressure on riders, knocking them unconscious and giving them whiplash. One source estimates that riders experienced a G-force of 12. For comparison, fighter pilots typically experience a G-force of 7. One newspaper declared the Flip Flap and another coaster called the Loop the Loop "the unholy terrors of the beach."

Another great place to get injured was New Jersey’s Action Park, which did its damage from 1978 to 1996 before closing. The park is so notorious, it’s the subject of a fascinating 2020 documentary Class Action Park. The “class action” in the title refers to the numerous lawsuits leveled against the venue. At least six people died at Action Park. One man was electrocuted when he stepped on a live wire on the kayak ride. Others drowned in the (very rough) wave pool. On one downhill ride—Alpine Slide—the cars would regularly jump the tracks, and a rider died when his head struck a rock.

How bad was Action Park? A few years ago, my New Jersey-born wife got an email that said “You know you’re from New Jersey when … you’ve been seriously injured at Action Park.”

2. Amusement parks used to be wildly offensive.

Amusement parks of the past managed to be objectionable in nearly every way: Sexist, racist, ableist, you name it.

Consider what happened to unsuspecting Coney Island customers when they exited a roller coaster in the 1920s. They were forced to walk across a platform nicknamed the “Blowhole Theater.” Under the platform, a machine blasted gusts of wind through blowholes, lifting women’s dresses and exposing their undergarments for an eager crowd of leering onlookers. As a New Yorker article published at the time put it, “The management has thoughtfully provided several hundred seats for patrons wishing to thus observe the newcomers, and the gallery, mostly but not exclusively stag, has a swell time.” But there’s more. As historian Stephen Silverman writes in his book The Amusement Park, the men and women were then “accosted by aggressive small men dressed as clowns, or else tall men in blackface makeup. These greeters were armed with electrically charged pokers, empowering them to zap the hapless fellows in their most sensitive of places.”

Amusement parks in Coney Island featured several attractions demeaning to little people, but perhaps the most elaborate was Dreamland’s “Lilliputia,” a fake city with little people as residents. Silverman describes it this way: “Constructed as an old German village built to half scale, with its own fire and police departments, beach, and standards of behavior, the enclave contained three hundred little people, all for the enjoyment of paying spectators.”

Another deeply disturbing attraction in old amusement parks went by a few names, including “The African Dodger,” among others even more offensive. In this one, white customers would throw baseballs at Black Americans, who would try to move their heads out of the way. A number of people were seriously injured during this “game,” suffering broken noses and teeth when they were hit. Versions of this racist attraction persisted until the 1960s.

3. Amusement parks were cruel to animals.

The 2013 documentary Blackfish exposed the controversial treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld. But long before that, animals at amusement parks were having a miserable time.

In the first few decades of the 1900s, several parks featured diving horses. Which is exactly what it sounds like: Horses being forced to dive from 40-foot-high platforms into tanks of water (and one horse is said to have jumped from 85 feet). Protests from the humane society—and loss of interest—eventually shut down the attractions in Atlantic City in the late 1970s.

Or consider the bizarre tale of Topsy the Elephant. Topsy was employed at what would become Coney Island’s Luna Park, where she made headlines by moving an attraction around the grounds. Topsy was considered dangerous, since she had killed a man (but only in response to him intentionally burning her trunk with a cigar). Eventually, the owners of Luna Park announced she would be executed. Originally they wanted to hang her, but when the ASPCA protested, they instead fed her poisoned carrots and electrocuted her in front of a crowd of more than 1000 spectators. The execution was even filmed. It’s much shorter than Blackfish, but about as disturbing.

4. Some rides at amusement parks were literally hellish.

One Coney Island attraction was called "Fighting the Flames," and featured firefighters putting out an actual blaze in an actual building—which doesn't sound like it'd be much of a fun respite on a hellishly hot summer day.

Also, as Mental Floss’s Erin McCarthy wrote, one ride from the past was particularly infernal. That would be Hell Gate at Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park. Hell Gate, which opened in 1905, was sort of a precursor to Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” but instead of getting to see happy, singing people from all nations, Hell Gate passengers floated by sinners being tortured by demons. For instance, a girl who steals money from a purse is dragged into a ditch, where she disappears amid steam and fake fire. After that, passengers were subjected to a monotonous sermon about the dangers of bad behavior. (Dreamland’s competitor, Luna Park, had its own hell-themed ride: Night and Morning, in which riders stepped into a coffin-like room that mimicked descending into the earth, then took them on a tour of the afterlife.)

For what it's worth, riders seemed to enjoy these morality rides, but Hell Gate lived up to its name by burning to the ground in 1911. The blaze—which was started when some tar from the ride caught fire—razed virtually all of Dreamland amusement park, along with 50 other businesses.

So, in sum, much more hellish than the log flume at Hershey Park. Wish me luck.

Curious what other modern day amusements weren't so fun in the past? Check out previous installments of our Bad Old Days series here.