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Disneyland: A Reader

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Main Street U.S.A., page 2 of 3

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Coney Island

"...dirty, disorganized, poorly run, garish, honky tonk amusement parks"

Walt Disney's opinion of Coney Island and its amusement parks was intensely negative:
"His most depressing experience was seeing Coney Island. It was so battered and tawdry, and the ride operators were so hostile that Walt felt a momentary urge to abandon the idea for an amusement park" - Bob Thomas, Disney's biographer.

During its glory days, however, Coney Island was a mecca of mass amusement. Raymond Weinstein claims that it was here that the modern amusement park, Sea Lion Park (founder, Paul Boyton), was born in 1895. It was soon followed by Steeplechase Park (founder, George Tilyou) in 1897 and by the first theme park, Luna Park (founders, Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy), which replaced Sea Lion Park in 1903. By 1904, there were three thriving amusement parks operating alongside each other with the opening of Dreamland (founder, William Reynolds), a park designed after the White City section of the Chicago World's Columbian Exhibition. 

The birth of the amusement park coincides with the "birth" of cinema, and this correlation is apparent in the many early shorts filmed on location at the parks, especially the slapstick comedies of companies like Keystone and Comique (Coney Island, Arbuckle, 1917). Lauren Rabinowitz addresses the overlap between amusement parks and cinema, especially Coney Island parks, in "Coney Island Comedies". She claims that slapstick comedies shot at Coney Island drew audiences to the "bodily thrills available in both institutions" and acted as both a coping mechanism for the stresses of modernity and as a kind of mutual admiration society, advertising the pleasures available in both mediums. The comedies, like the mechanical thrill rides of the parks, trained spectators to acclimatize to modernity. Slapstick comedies and amusement parks act as a "safety valve" for the pressures of urban modern living. 

The three parks each differed in terms of the visitors to whom they catered and in their overall design and ambiance. The motto of Steeplechase Park was "Ten hours of fun for Ten cents". It catered primarily to the working class multitudes who rode out to the Island on the nickel streetcars from New York City's  tenements. It featured mechanical rides that offered the thrills of high speed motion with sexual overtones, rides like the Wedding Ring, Barrel of Love and the Dew Drop. Luna Park and Dreamland catered to a more middle-class audience, with foreign-themed buildings and an emphasis on illusion. Although the three parks had different temperaments and appealed to different audiences, they exhibited a formula for the mass consumption of outdoor amusements that has survived virtually unchanged, albeit with new technologies, in amusement parks of today.

This was the heyday of Coney Island. In 1911, Dreamland was destroyed by an accidental fire and never rebuilt. Although Luna Park remained in operation until it too burned down in 1944, and Steeplechase until 1964, the next few decades saw the decline of the island. By the 1930s, which was probably when Disney visited, Coney Island had earned a tarnished reputation akin to that of a crooked carnival. 

Disney's opinion notwithstanding, Coney Island had a good deal of influence on the design and operation of Disneyland. Weinstein points out that despite modern flourishes of technology, the fundamental way of looking at a theme park, as a fantasy realm or a dream world has not changed since the days of Luna Park and Dreamland. Each of the parks has left a legacy that can be found in amusement parks in existence today. From Sea Lion Park came the idea of structuring amusements around sea animals water rides and aquatic attractions, especially its signature ride, Shoot the Chutes, which exists in the form of the modern  flume ride. Steeplechase Park, with its mechanical rides, sideshows, midway and fun houses was the prototype of the modern amusement park, with its emphasis on high speed thrills and mechanical rides not unlike today's thrill rides and rollercoasters. Luna Park and Dreamland, with their emphasis on a park's physical appearance, crowd control, live shows and ambiance is virtually a model for Disneyland itself. Furthermore, Coney Island and its parks, similarly to the expositions and fairs of the early twentieth century, have become rooted in American popular culture. Lastly, Coney Island's close connection with cinema parallels Disney's views on the correlation between his park and television. Disney saw television as a medium through which he could not only sell his film products, but also his ideas on entertainment. As we have seen in Main Streets, Disneyland became the operational centre of Disney in television - a new force in entertainment and merchandising. 

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