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Take a Ride Through the Scandalous History of the Tunnel of Love

Michele Debczak
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When two characters are about to get together on a television show, they may find themselves at an amusement park. There they stumble upon the Tunnel of Love—a boat ride that forces passengers to share a snug seat as they float through a dimly-lit enclosure. What follows has become a pop culture cliché: The would-be couple blushes as they squeeze into a swan-shaped vessel built for two. As they drift past cardboard cupids and neon hearts, their hands inch closer to each other’s in the dark. When they emerge from the tunnel several minutes later, the pair looks much more comfortable than when they entered. 

The Tunnel of Love has been a TV trope for decades. Baby Boomers saw it in Scooby-Doo, Gen Xers saw it in The Simpsons, and Millennials saw it in Rugrats. Even younger generations have some familiarity with the concept, with Tunnel of Love scenes appearing in 2010s cartoons like The Loud House and Gravity Falls. The ride is ubiquitous in media, though if you ask anyone under the age of 70 if they’ve seen it in real life, they’ll likely say no. 

You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the attraction is a Hollywood invention, like flying cars or human-sized air vents. But the ride was very real 100 years ago. The Tunnel of Love exploded in popularity in the early 20th century, and after serving an important function for courting couples for several years, it disappeared in what seemed like an instant.

In the Mood for Love

At the turn of the 20th century, Americans with disposable income were eager to experience a new form of entertainment called the amusement park. These venues—which differed from carnivals and world fairs in that they operated at a fixed location—began popping up during the Gilded Age and multiplied through the early 1900s. Innovations in ride technology ushered in a golden age of amusement parks. (Rides at this time were also more loosely regulated than they are today, which led to some perilous designs that thankfully haven’t been replicated since.) In between taking a dark ride to hell and losing consciousness on a looping coaster, guests could have a more relaxing—and more romantic—time in the Tunnel of Love.

The Old Mill at Coney Island's Luna Park, circa 1898.
The Old Mill at Coney Island's Luna Park, circa 1898. / NYPL via via Wikimedia Commons

According to Hopes&Fears, the ride originated as the Canals of Venice in London, but it really took off in the amusement park-obsessed United States. The attraction followed a basic formula: Riders would climb into a small boat and embark on a gentle ride through dark tunnels. The theme of the tunnels varied, and most early iterations had nothing to do with romance. Before it became the Tunnel of Love, the ride was often called the Old Mill in America. Instead of hearts and Greek gods of love, passengers may have encountered fake rocks and stalactites, or murals of mythical creatures like leprechauns and gnomes.

Even if the theming wasn’t overtly romantic, many riders didn’t need an excuse to cuddle close to their seat-mate. Old Mill rides gained popularity at a time when unchaperoned dates between young people were still viewed as risqué. Unless they were married, couples had few chances for privacy. A slow-moving dark ride presented one of the only socially acceptable opportunities for men and women to be alone together on a date and share physical contact. The ambiance in the tunnel didn’t matter—what was going on inside the boat tended to be much more exciting than what was happening outside of it. 

A Useful Purpose

According to a 1950 report in The Daily News, a trip through the Tunnel of Love lasted about 6 minutes on average—and many passengers made the most of their time. At the time, it was the belief of Paul Huedepohl, the then-secretary of the National Association of Amusement Parks, Pools, and Beaches, that “more romances are started in these tunnels than there are syllables uttered in a Congressional filibuster.”

Some riders attempted to prolong the pleasure cruise by grabbing the walls of the passageway and stalling the boat. When this ended up capsizing the tiny craft, dripping and giggling couples would be forced to exit the ride on foot, insisting they had nothing to do with the accident.

Ye Old Mill ride at the Minnesota State Fair, circa 2005.
Ye Old Mill ride at the Minnesota State Fair, circa 2005. / BenFrankse via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

What unwed couples were really using the Old Mill for soon became an open secret, leading many amusement park operators to embrace the ride’s romantic reputation. Palisades Park in New Jersey was the first to name its boat ride the Tunnel of Love, and parks across the country quickly followed suit. Other places were more subtle in how they acknowledged the attraction’s unspoken purpose. If the inside of an Old Mill didn’t look like a cave, a love nest, or a gnome’s den, it likely resembled a haunted house. Embracing the dark and dank atmosphere, ride designers outfitted the tunnels with rubber spiders and cloth ghosts. As The Daily News humorously explained, leftover halloween props were often more romantic than pink-and-red decor. 

“Research has shown that the snarls, howls, and groans of the hideous sights along the way, while palpably phony, will cause the female to precipitate herself into the male's arms,” the 1950 article reads. “Her fright is usually as phony as the hazards of the course, but it serves a useful purpose.”

Other operators were less enthused by the thought of premarital canoodling happening aboard their attractions, and they took steps to prevent it. Some parks posted guards on the catwalks above the rivers to catch promiscuous behavior before it went too far. And if all riders faced was a disapproving stare, they were lucky. Kennywood park in Pennsylvania reportedly equipped its Old Mill employees with plastic bats and told them to whack any bare buttocks that were visible in the boats. Old photographs suggest this method of enforcing good behavior wasn’t limited to one tunnel ride.

Jumping Ship

There were roughly 700 Tunnels of Love operating in the U.S. in 1950, and in the following decades most of them vanished. Today that number is down to the single digits. In the end, it wasn’t bat-wielding guards or scandalized parents who doomed the ride. Ironically, it was the sexual revolution that caused the Tunnel of Love's demise.

As societal norms around sex and dating relaxed, unmarried couples no longer had to get creative to spend time alone. They could go out unchaperoned, or in some cases stay in. A regular date wasn’t as thrilling as fitting a relationship’s worth of pent-up passion into a six-minute boat ride, but it was definitely more convenient. 

Journey to the Center of the Earth ride at Dorney Park, circa 1964.
Journey to the Center of the Earth ride at Dorney Park, circa 1964. / Wikimedia Commons

As America’s attitude towards sex evolved, so did its taste in amusement park attractions. Though they were less likely to engage in hanky panky on rides, mature guests still wanted to feel their hearts racing. In the 1960s, parks moved away from slow-paced, old-fashioned rides like the Old Mill and went all in on roller coasters. Instead of demolishing their tunnel rides, a few parks tried to update them for modern times. Dorney Park in Pennsylvania added fake monsters to its Mill Chute and rebranded it as the Journey to the Center of the Earth. After partnering with famed cartoonist Jim Davis, Kennywood transformed its Old Mill into a 3D black-light ride called Garfield’s Nightmare. (You can learn more about the history of the ride in this video from Defunctland.) 

These revamped incarnations didn’t last long, and the few tunnel boat rides that still operate today stay true to their early 20th-century roots. Most modern amusement park guests have never seen a Tunnel of Love in person, and they may have no idea what made the rides so popular in the first place. But this doesn’t mean the attraction has been forgotten. Its place in American society was so massive that its echoes are still rippling through pop culture decades later. The ride’s legacy lives on in numerous songs, movies, and TV shows. And whether they know it or not, young couples honor the memory of the Tunnel of Love every time they snuggle close on a dark ride—even if they no longer have to hide their public displays of affection.

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