Pleasure Gardens, Amusement Parks and Theme Parks

The evolution and history of each entertainment arena is complex and not necessarily linear as both pleasure gardens and amusement parks have their roots in the network of leisure patterns that existed in pre-industrial Europe, when pleasure gardens began to spring up on the outskirts of many major European cities. However, in origin and architectural conception the amusement park was truly developed in America with the European model of the pleasure garden occupying a separate but parallel history with greater overlaps by the 1920s onwards.

Pleasure Gardens

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, June 1835Pleasure gardens flourished in Britain in the eighteenth century, due in part to a relatively stable and democratic government and thriving international trade, much of which passed through London. The most famous of these pleasure gardens was Vauxhall Gardens, founded in 1661 and peaking in popularity in the early nineteenth century. Other well-known European gardens included Bakken in Denmark, which opened in 1583 and is the oldest operating amusement park and pleasure garden in the world and the Prater in Vienna which opened in 1766.

Vauxhall Gardens became a model for the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen (1843) and numerous other pleasure gardens around Europe. Argued by some historians to be a forerunner of modern amusement parks, the entertainments on offer in Vauxhall included theatre shows, firework displays, dancing and drinking booths and theatrical entertainment. Such was the success of both Vauxhall and Tivoli Gardens that both names became generic terms for other pleasure gardens in Europe and the United States.

Vauxhall, unlike its European counterparts, fell into decay and by 1859 it had closed, with historians blaming the growth of the railway and holiday excursions as a reason for its declining visitor numbers. However, new-style gardens at the edges of large industrial centres, combining the old-style pleasure gardens with other newer attractions were opening, including Belle Vue in Manchester in 1836 and Crystal Palace in London, which opened in 1871.


Zoological Gardens

Without doubt the most important in terms of longevity and transitional use of space and trends was Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester. For nearly 150 years, Belle Vue was one of the most continually successful entertainment concessions in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1836 by John Jennison, at its peak it occupied over 165 acres and attracted two million people a year. All aspects of entertainment history can be found in the evolution of this hybrid complex of zoological and pleasure gardens, amusement park and exhibitions grounds. In the twentieth century it embraced circus, speedway and greyhound racing alongside classical and popular music.

The park included the third oldest zoo in the United Kingdom, dancing and catering facilities, a racecourse, a boating lake complete with paddle steamers, amusement concessions and the famous King's Hall with a capacity of five thousand. Firework displays and zoological wonders could be found alongside orchestral recitals from both the Gorton and Halle Orchestras. An audience could enjoy anything from brass band competitions to the latest classical compositions. Belle Vue was linked to the growth of Manchester as an industrial giant, the technological advances and industrialisation of the entertainment business itself and the growth of recreation as both a business and a mode of leisure. It was both a link to the earlier pleasure gardens of the eighteenth century, the forerunner of the seaside amusement business and in many ways both an amusement park and proto theme park before the concept was introduced. The original nineteenth century amusements on the park dated back to the 1870s and consisted of a small range of attractions that would have been found at many such pleasure gardens at the time. These included in 1894 a steam powered velocipedes set, shooting galleries, the Ocean Wave Sea on land ride, in 1904 the Helter Skelter and in 1908 the Figure 8 Toboggan ride.

Amusement Parks an American invention

Helter Skelter, Luna Park, Conney IslandThe growth of the amusement park in America was influenced directly by the concept of the "midway", an area of a fair set aside for sideshows and other amusements. Complete with the first-ever Ferris Wheel, designed by bridge architect George Washington Ferris for the midway of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, with its wide array of rides and concessions, was a huge success and dictated amusement park design in the United States for years to come.

Coney Island was developed as a resort by Captain Paul Boyton, who moved there after the success of his Water Chutes on Chicago's South Side. Argued by leisure historians as the first amusement park in the world, the Chicago park embraced the midway concept and used rides as its main draw rather than picnic facilities or a lake for the day-trippers from Chicago. The success of his Chicago park inspired him to open a similar facility at Coney Island resort in New York in 1895, which during its peak was home to three amusement parks alongside dozens of smaller attractions including the famous sideshows. By the turn of the twentieth century amusement parks were opening throughout America. The amusement park industry in America grew tremendously over the next three decades. This new permanently located entertainment venue was open daily all year round with some parks operating seasonally. New innovations provided greater and more intense thrills to the growing crowds. The New York Carousal Manufacturing Company, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, and William Johnson and William Mangels produced roundabouts specifically for parks rather than for touring. By 1919 there were 1500 to 2000 amusement parks in operation in the United States.

The late 1920s saw a downturn for the amusement industry in the United States, especially after 1929 when the country entered the Great Depression. Only 400 amusement parks remained by 1935, and many of these were struggling to survive. World War II further affected the industry. Many parks closed and others were unable to afford new attractions. Following World War II the American amusement park industry enjoyed post-war prosperity. Attendances and revenues grew as more parks opened across the country. New ideas were introduced, including "Kiddieland", an amusement park for children that introduced a younger generation in the rapidly growing suburbs to the joys of the amusement park. Unfortunately, this resurgence was short-lived: emerging youth cultures, including rock-and-roll, together with the growth of television took their toll on the ageing, urban amusement park. However, as in the nineteenth century when the industry appeared outdated and old-fashioned, an injection of modernity was needed to entice back the public which arrived with the introduction of the theme park.

Belle Vue Amusement Park

Belle VueBelle Vue developed into a fully-fledged amusement park in its own right in the 1920s from the concept of the American-style amusement park. Although the attractions dated back to the 1870s, it was in the 1920s and the 1950s that the amusement park took shape and became a worthy competitor to British and American counterparts with its array of death-defying attractions and latest technological marvels coupled with the seaside atmosphere of the flea circus, fairground games and side-shows.

With the sale of Belle Vue in 1925, Sir John Henry Iles concentrated on expanding the amusement park and introduced the latest in white-knuckle modernity to the pleasure gardens. Belle Vue Amusement Park would become one of the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom and a showcase for modern fairground rides of the late 1920s including the Caterpillar, the dodgems and the ghost train. The famous Bobs ride arrived in 1929 and in 1931 the children's area was expanded.


Dominating the landscape, the beloved Bobs Scenic Railway opened on Bank Holiday Monday in May 1929. It was designed by Fred Church and built by Harry Travers, two of the greatest names in roller coaster history. Harry Travers also brought two of his own rides with him, the Caterpillar and the Sea Plane Deluxe. However, it was the Bobs which became a fixture at Belle Vue until it was demolished in 1971. Rising to a height of 80 feet and with twisting slopes of 45 degrees enabling a speed up to 60 miles an hour, this wooden masterpiece was acclaimed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's fastest ride. The name Bobs was thought to have been coined after the price of the ride - one shilling, but it was actually named after part of a design feature of articulated couplings of two-seater cars similar to bobsleds which Church had used on other parks throughout the United States. In 1967 the ride attracted worldwide attention when student Vance Sutton completed 325 non-stop circuits on the Bobs.

By the 1940s, the amusement park at Belle Vue was one of the most popular attractions at the resort, with visitors in Easter 1944 reputedly waiting for 45 minutes. The 1947 guide-book describes it as "the Colossal Amusement Park" and in 1954 it attracted over 230,000 visitors, a record attendance on Good Friday. The sale of Belle Vue in 1956 to Sir Leslie Joseph and Charles Forte presented new developments on the site with the construction of the Water Chute in 1957 and the introduction of Louis Tussaud's Waxworks, altering the landscape of the park and replacing the 1936 Centenary Gardens. The amusement park continued to attract good attendances throughout the 1960s but only a few years later the decline of the overall site impacted on the fairground. By 1971 the Bobs had been demolished and the Water Chute was sold to Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1979 a year prior to the park's closure. For much of the twentieth century a ride on the Bobs was a staple ingredient of the continued popularity of the Gardens. Its closure signalled more than just the end of an era but the final nail in the coffin of Belle Vue, the original showground of the world.

Seaside Parks

Seaside entertainment encompasses seaside amusement parks and entertainment, which were born as a branch of the travelling fairground run by retiring showmen and housing shows and entertainers with their roots on the travelling fair.

In the United Kingdom the concept of the amusement park as opposed to the pleasure garden or travelling fair was something new and different. Although fairground amusements had been part of seaside attractions, the nature of a themed or separate area where all the amusements were under one control either from a ticketing or concession system, may have been seen as an American model, but was actually linked in many ways to earlier pleasure gardens and international expositions.

The influence of the American amusement park however, transformed the outdated pleasure gardens in Europe with new rides and attractions being commissioned to draw the people in. The Prater in Vienna became home to a large Ferris-style wheel designed by William Bassett which was followed by another in Blackpool in 1900, although not located at the current Pleasure Beach but situated in the Winter Gardens. The advent of the exhibition grounds in London, notably Olympia in 1886, Earls Court for the American Exhibition in 1887 and White City in 1908, also provided successful British examples of this practice. Blackpool Pleasure Beach made feature of the rides brought from these venues over the following decade. However, Earls Court was in many ways the most successful and under the management of the London Exhibitions Ground Company from 1894 produced grand spectacles alongside the Giant Wheel, Maxim's Flying Machine and the Water Chute, all of which in similar forms would also appear in Blackpool either on the Pleasure Beach, or in the case of the Giant Wheel, at the Winter Gardens. William Bean's attempts to regulate and organise the various fairground concessions on the sands under one overall company and to develop the area known as Watson's Estate, was to become one of Blackpool's great success stories.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach - Earls Court by the Sea

General view of Blackpool Pleasure Beach 1930The most renowned British seaside entertainment resort is Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

The founding of Blackpool Pleasure Beach and its subsequent development at the turn of the twentieth century is one of the great success stories of British entertainment history. In Blackpool, fairground rides, sideshows and booths had always been associated with the sands but more as temporary, shanty type structures and nothing like the mechanised electrical wonders that Bean and his companions envisaged for South Shore.
From the very beginning, the ambitions of the founders of the park starting with William Bean and his original partner John Outhwaite and later developed solely by Bean's son-in-law Leonard Thompson, shaped the development of the attractions at South Shore as more than just a collection of rides and attractions that could be found on any pleasure garden, fairground and end of the pier.

What would soon become known as Pleasure Beach was from the start something that was designed, developed and planned to reflect the latest innovations in ride and leisure technology. The latest designers in the fields of architecture and international exposition design were hired who took inspiration from the great American historical expositions as well as the ambitious developments at Earls Court in London. The fledging amusements at South Shore were always intended to be more than just a fairground and were to become arguably Europe's first and greatest American-style Amusement Park.

By the start of the 1906 season, the amusements on the sands were firmly identified as the Pleasure Beach. Among the high-profile, architecturally prominent collection of amusements concessions brought to Blackpool included Vanderdecken's Haunted Cabin, the Sea Circus and the Earl's Court Water Chute. Before 1906 there was a disparate array of stalls just beyond the high water mark. In 1906 Bean and Outhwaite attempted to exert more control over the stall-holders and corralled them into kiosks in a long shed-like building at the same location. The following year the fa├žade of this building was styled as Spanish Street, which could be regarded as the first example of theming on the park. Later, these and other attractions would be situated within a permanent enclosed park under one management paying a yearly rental.

Roller Coasters

The Big Dipper at Blackpool Pleasure Beach 1960New electric fairground rides began to illuminate both the fairground and amusement park landscapes with futuristic designs. The clamour for new and modern sensations saw the advent of exciting rides, with many of the old attractions being superseded by the Whip, the Caterpillar and the Wall-of-Death. On the amusement park, the 1920s onwards saw the dawn of the rollercoasters as seaside resorts across the United Kingdom vied to build the largest, fastest and most spectacular. The pursuit of speed saw the widespread use of rides linked to flight, speed, and technology. Seaside amusement parks followed this transition to modernity with both Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Dreamland (which opened in 1920 in Margate) becoming unrecognisable from their Victorian and Edwardian origins with modern architectural concepts taken from World's Fairs and Expositions reflected in this seaside renaissance. Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Belle Vue both underwent modernisation and investment as did other seaside parks throughout the United Kingdom. Blackpool became synonymous with the greatest white-knuckle attraction associated with the outdoor amusement industry, the rollercoaster.

Robert Preedy in Roller Coasters: their amazing history refers to the Pleasure Beach as 'the roller coaster capital of the United Kingdom'. With its ten extant coasters, five wooden (or woodies) and five steel tracked and the children's rollercoaster the Zipper Dipper from 1934, the Pleasure Beach has always been at the forefront in rollercoaster technology and development. Over twenty different coasters have at one time been part of the Pleasure Beach. The names of the coasters reflect the popular culture of the time in which they were developed.

From the Big Dipper to the Big One, each successive generation of visitors to the park has seen some of the greatest rollercoasters in the world designed by some of the leading names in ride technology. For example, John A. Miller, the father of the modern rollercoaster, designed over 135 of them between 1905 and 1941. Miller was described by Robert Cartmell in his book The Incredible Scream Machine: A History of the Roller Coaster, as the "most innovative and influential figure in the history of amusement parks", yet the Big Dipper was his only design in the United Kingdom and still operates today. Other famous rollercoaster engineers and ride designers associated with Blackpool include L.A. Thompson (Scenic Railway, 1907), William Stricker (Velvet Coaster, 1909) and Charles Paige (Rollercoaster and Grand National, 1933 and 1935). Each architectural development respectively transformed the skyline of South Shore in the inter-war years.

However, despite the investments made in amusement parks in the United Kingdom (including in 1951 the creation of Battersea Park which arose from the Festival of Britain Pleasure Gardens), across the Atlantic another revolution was occurring. In the United States amusement parks were seen as outdated and unwholesome and the arrival of the theme park, one large amusement site under a specific theme, would once again bring new investment into the outdoor leisure industry.

American Theme Parks

The first theme park to open in America was Santa Claus Land in Indiana in 1946, but they were popularised by Walt Disney's Disneyland in California which opened in 1955. Disneyland was intended to be a safe, sanitized and closed environment, unspoiled by the carnival atmosphere of amusement parks like Coney Island. Disney was unlike other parks in that it did not offer a "midway" with freak shows, fortune-tellers and white-knuckle rides, but instead consisted of five distinct themed areas, providing "guests" with the fantasy of travel to different lands and times. Entrance to the overall park and attractions on offer was by way of a one-price ticket, unlike traditional parks where entrance was free but rides and shows were paid for individually. Although predicted to be a commercial disaster, Disneyland was an immediate triumph and imitators followed throughout the United States, Six Flags Over Texas (built in 1961) being the most successful. The theme park era was born and new attractions were opened at major cities throughout the United States. Walt Disney World in Florida followed in 1971. Now known as Walt Disney World Resort, it consists of four theme parks and is now regarded as the most visited theme park in the world. Disney theme park franchises also operate in Tokyo and Paris.

British Theme Parks

The Corkscrew at Alton Towers 1980In England the one-ticket-entry theme park era was introduced by John Broome at Alton Towers in Staffordshire in April 1980 and for the first time in this country, a new rollercoaster attraction "the Corkscrew" was introduced at a venue other than an amusement park or fun fair. The 1980s theme park revolution meant the amusement industry in general entered a new phase. In order to attract the thrill-seeking public, the amusement park industry started to invest in bigger and more high-tech white-knuckle rides. Theme park development slowed in the late 1980s in the United States but saw spectacular growth in Europe as evidenced by the opening in 1992 of Euro Disney in Paris (now known as Disneyland Paris) which, though not an immediate success, adapted its US-style story books to reflect the original European origin of many of the Disney fairy tales. Other theme parks dedicated to local cultures and traditions opened in France, including one based on the comic strip series Asterix the Gaul. The theme park industry in the United States was boosted by the construction of the Universal Studio Tours in Universal City, California, with its innovative Back to the Future ride opening in 1991 which was inspired by the popular film.

Following the growth and expansion of the theme park industry many commentators predicted the end of the more traditional travelling fun fairs and the more sedate, old-fashioned amusement parks. Coney Island, for example, has rapidly declined since the 1970s but its contemporary in England, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, still retains its title as one of the largest visitor attractions in England. Today's outdoor leisure industry consists of enormous theme parks such as those controlled by Walt Disney World to medium-sized theme parks operated by companies such as Merlin Entertainment in the United Kingdom and family-owned businesses such as the Thompson family in Blackpool. Theme parks, amusement attractions and old-style pleasure gardens coexist around the world.

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