America's Rarest Old-Fashioned Amusement Rides
For well over a century, Americans have had a tireless love affair with amusement rides, from New York's Coney Island to the piers of Southern California. Few things seem to affirm the joy of being alive better than a machine designed to flip, twist, tumble, and heave a body into giddy peals of delight.
But America is also a culture obsessed with the latest and greatest mass-market diversions, and favor can fly away as fast as the newest roller coaster. As our preferences shifted from local parks at the end of trolley lines to corporate-run resort campuses of mega coasters and computer-generated visual gimmicks, the rides that made us love rides have often been abandoned to decay and demolition.
Still, hidden in corners across the nation, you can still find stragglers from a more bespoke age. Maintaining these one-of-a-kind attractions requires dedication; the businesses that manufactured them are long gone. These pioneering thrills are kept alive by the fans who value them—devoted caretakers are still hand-machining replacement parts, repainting and waterproofing century-old wood, and hoping that, despite mounting financial pressures, these irreplaceable artifacts of American leisure can maybe, just maybe survive to supply at least one more season of happiness.
The rides are too big for museums but too precious to lose. The next time you're traveling near one of these survivors, stop by and lend your support by giving them a scream or two.
Pictured above: The Kangaroo at Kennywood Park in 2011
The concept of a roller coaster was new when this ride was built in 1902, so the name had to explain itself. Gravity Railroad, as it was called, hoisted cars to the top of a hill, then let them go speeding down and around tight bends on a repeating figure-eight track. Back then, the ride was thrilling because it was newfangled. Today, it's thrilling because it's so old—there's no dispelling the sense of peril when you're hurtling along on timbers that were cut down when Teddy Roosevelt was president.
In its heyday, Gravity Railroad was one of around 400 similar rides built across the nation to amuse tired workers on their days off. Long ago renamed Leap-The-Dips, this holdout is now the last one standing, making it the oldest roller coaster in the United States. Lakemont Park, the Altoona pleasure grounds where the ride stands, has undergone many changes over the years, but no matter the generation, the community has always rallied around the ride when it needed rescue or restoration.
Leap-The-Dips is open on Satudays and Sundays.
This unusual merry-go-round was built in 1924 for traveling carnivals and fairs by New York State's Herschell Spillman Company. It's thought that fewer than 10 of these carousels were ever made, and Little Rock has the lone survivor. What makes the ride unique is also what doomed its mass appeal: Instead of rigging the horses to go up and down poles, the machine causes the entire floor to bob along an undulating track, like a wooden wave. The added complexity made this model hard to repair, preventing it from going mainstream. But the galloping mechanical herd charmed locals at the Arkansas State Fair, and fans purchased the carousel so they could cherish it. You can do the same at the Little Rock Zoo, where Over-the-Jumps has pride of place by the entrance.
The concept is adorably simple: A continuous circular train travels over a gently rolling track. That's it. A twist, though, makes the ride rare. A few seconds after your trip to nowhere begins, a canopy deploys, encapsulating the cars as they cycle around and around (pictured above). From the outside, it looks like a caterpillar. From the inside, it feels like you're speeding down the intestinal tract of one.
There used to be many more of these kid-friendly flat rides around the world—this one made its debut at Coney Island in 1925. When the canopy's fabric gets damaged, parks find it simpler to remove than replace, turning the ride into what's traditionally known as a Musik Express or Himalaya. The Caterpillar at Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire, is one of the last examples in the United States that retains its original canopy.
Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, is held in high esteem by ride geeks for its dedication to rescuing great attractions once thought lost. In 1984, Knoebels saved a world-class 1947 coaster from a derelict Texas park and rebuilt the ride, plank by plank, for a new generation. Phoenix, as it's now known, routinely ranks among the best wooden roller coasters in the world. In 1999, Knoebels faithfully re-created a 1964 coaster that had been abandoned in Colorado.
But what the park did with Flying Turns became even more mythic to coaster nuts. Using memories and photos alone because no blueprints were available, Knoebels reconstructed a type of trackless wooden bobsled ride that was popular 70 years earlier. The original designers, World War I aviator John Bartlett and coaster pioneer John A. Miller, only made eight iterations, and the last one met the bulldozer in 1974. But the engineers at Knoebels decided to bring the concept back. It took seven long years to get it right. Since 2013, the resurrected version flies down the chute—made of cypress wood and assembled by hand using tongue-and-groove methods—at 25 miles per hour.
Perhaps no ride will make you feel like your laundry as much as Looper, a diabolical contraption first developed in 1942 by the Allan Herschell Company. With a motion this brutalizing—you get strapped into a hamster wheel that somersaults over and over in a stomach-turning circle—you'd think it was invented to nauseate our enemies into submission during World War II. There aren't any other known (human-sized) examples of this spinner in operation. You'll find it preserved for the manufacture of future regrets next to Flying Turns at Knoebels. Bring a buddy—because each car's weight must be relatively balanced, you can't ride alone.
It may look like a normal carousel, but don't be deceived. This thing goes up to three times faster and there are no poles to hang onto. Patented in 1917—an age when lawyers didn't exist, apparently—the Derby Racer was made to put wind in your hair and add beats to your pulse. While you're frantically looking for something to grasp, the horses (all carved by long-forgotten artist Marcus Charles Illions) move up, down, forward, and backward in their individual slots.
At least, that's what it's like when things work properly. As one of the nine remaining rides that were present on the opening day of Playland in 1928, the Derby Racer is a high-value target for preservation and, like most of these rides, it needs constant attention. In 2019, the high-octane carousel was awarded $5 million in restoration funds to return it to full functionality; those funds were no sure thing, given that the local government now owns the ride. There's only one other example of the Racer in America, but that one, at Cedar Point in Ohio, has been slowed down to make it more family-friendly.
Kennywood is the finest surviving example of the early 20th century's "trolley parks," which were local amusement centers usually found at the end of public transit lines. Starting in 1899, the mill workers of Pittsburgh took the trolley to Kennywood to blow off steam. To this day, the park remains the caretaker of some of America's oldest rides. Since many of the manufacturers of these attractions are no longer in business, Kennywood works with a machine specialist who can make replicas of any elements that need replacing.
The Kangaroo, added in 1962, is the last of its kind: Eight cars travel in a circle, jumping off a metal ramp midway through and making slow descents back down to give riders the sensation of repeated hopping.
Another last-of-its-kind ride at Kennywood: 1930's Auto Race, which gave kids the chance to drive a car decades before Walt Disney conceived of Autopia at Disneyland. Powered by electricity that's conducted along metal strips, the old-style vehicles travel the course along winding wooden slots.
If you have your heart set on riding any of these vintage thrillers, make sure you check ahead to see if they're open. The parks holding onto these antiques often operate with limited seasons and curtailed hours. Plus, the machines are old, so when they break down, they sometimes require time and ingenuity to restore to working order.