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How the Amusement Park Conquered America

From the trolley parks of the early 20th century to the theme parks of today, these spaces of shared pleasure have been both a reflection of urban life, and an escape from it.


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a roller coaster with people raising their arms while hanging upside down

Visitors ride the Tatsu roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, in 2015. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

In November 1965, Walt Disney gave a press conference in Florida. He announced his vision for the new amusement park and resort development he planned to build on an expanse of swampland twice the size of Manhattan near Orlando. Crucial to his project, Disney explained, would be his ability to have complete command over his surroundings."

“That’s the one thing I learned from Disneyland — to control the environment,” said Disney, standing with his brother and company co-founder Roy Disney, and then-Florida Governor Haydon Burns.


Man with a plan: Walt Disney displays a map of Disneyland in Los Angeles in 1954.
Photographer: Earl Theisen Collection/Archive Photos via Getty Images

Disneyland, Walt Disney’s first park, had been open for a decade at that point. Built on 165 acres of orange groves in Anaheim, California, the “Happiest Place on Earth” quickly proved — to Disney — insufficiently buffered from Southern California’s sprawl. The earthly clutter of motels and roadside pit stops, Disney felt, interfered with the spell the park sought to cast. With Disney World, he wanted to create something otherworldly — and beyond the reach of local regulations.

To do this, his company used a century-old feature of Florida state governance: the special taxing district. Created in 1967, the unassumingly named Reedy Creek Improvement District allowed the Disney Company to essentially run its own municipality at Disney World, to determine its own zoning, and to create and operate its own water, trash and fire-safety services.

Disney’s dream of building a utopian quasi-municipality under his exclusive control, unencumbered by American political realities, has recently encountered a new challenge, in the form of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who in April signed a law set to eradicate the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Largely seen as retaliation for Disney’s opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the end of the district’s preferential treatment may or may not stick; the Reedy Creek Improvement District (and five other affected districts) are allowed to apply for reinstatement before the law dissolves them on June 1, 2023.

While the future of Disney World’s special district status remains uncertain, examining the grand designs behind Disney’s drive to create it reveals a lot about the company’s motivations, and the surprisingly far-reaching history of American amusement parks. The first generation of these attractions — the parks of Walt Disney’s childhood — were inextricably linked to urban development: They were born of urban technologies like electrified rapid transit, relied on the patronage of city dwellers, and embodied many of the seductive and liberalizing aspects of urban life.

Disney, on the other hand, removed his amusement parks from the physical space and social realities of cities — instead using vague urban forms to create an enormous “city of tomorrow” that promised to be both a prototype for future communities and a reconstruction of a mythic urban past. In some ways, Disney World represents the best of what a city can be: a pedestrian-oriented space that prioritizes user well-being and showcases innovative technological and transportation solutions. But the municipal ideal seen in the themed spaces that Disney and his rivals pioneered is rooted in a deep disdain for true city living and governance.

The Rise and Fall of the Trolley Park

When Walt Disney was a child, he could hop on a streetcar near his family’s modest home on Kansas City’s east side and reach no fewer than four amusement parks. This wasn’t a rarity: In 1910, the same year that Disney moved with his family from Chicago to Kansas City, every American municipality with a population of 20,000 or more had at least one amusement park.

Chicago had seen at least 15 amusement parks come and go. Los Angeles and Milwaukee had built at least five. In 1909, a reporter lamented that Pittsburgh was "possibly the only city in the country of any consequence that will go through the coming summer season with only three amusement parks."


An 1890s lithograph of an early amusement park ride.
Photo: Bettmann Archives via Getty Images

This explosion of amusement parks in the early 20th century was a byproduct of urbanization. As cities swelled with new residents, young people of different economic classes, genders, ethnicities and races ended up living — and playing — in close proximity. A new era of industrial capitalism created an urban working class able to spend time and money on leisure. And stepping in to meet that demand was an unlikely set of entertainers: electric trolley companies.

These private businesses were major buyers of electric power, and many grew frustrated paying the same high electric costs to power their cars even on the weekends, when fewer people were riding. So they provided these new urban masses with new destinations, using what they already had on hand: electricity and streetcar technology.

To draw passengers, trolley companies — and the occasional beer brewer or entrepreneur with a wild streak — opened electrified parks at the ends of their rail lines. In cities often still lit largely by dim gaslight, these trolley parks lured crowds with towers of incandescent lights and primitive rides, such as “scenic railways” that could hurl thrill-seekers around curves at 45 miles an hour.

At the long-forgotten park that once stood in my home city of Minneapolis, for example, visitors could plunge down the “Shoot-the-Chutes” water ride (second in height only to its counterpart at Coney Island), be thrown about on the “bump-the-bumps” slide, and be hurled around the “Human Pool Table” where, according to a newspaper report from the time, “people are spun around like tops to land at the bottom on a soft mattress with only the loss of dignity.”

These thrill rides celebrated a loss of physical composure, defying Victorian expectations of decorum — expectations that were especially oppressive for women. Amusement parks quickly became hot spots for “going out” — a type of public courtship condemned by Victorian middle classes, who had long preferred their courtship to take place under the watchful eye of parents. Sexual exploration was a given in the parks’ dance halls and dark movie theaters. “Tunnels of Love” offered opportunities for total privacy — a luxury often unavailable to working-class people. Adding to the horror of white Victorian sensibilities was the fact that many urban amusement parks drew patrons from different economic classes and ethnicities.


The now-shuttered Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey as it appeared in its heyday. Photo by R. Gates/Archive Photos/Getty Images

But early 20th century amusement parks were not exclusively liberalizing spaces. Many were segregated by race, with white-owned parks often banning Black patrons except on “Jim Crow Days.” (In Chicago and other cities, Black entrepreneurs opened their own parks.) Minstrel and plantation shows were common in white-owned parks; so were shows that sexualized “exotic” women. Even as they challenged some social codes and allowed for a degree of social mixing, amusement parks still reinforced white hegemony.

That didn’t stop “social reformers” and temperance advocates from targeting these unruly new spaces. Amusement parks held the people and the technologies of American cities in microcosm, and critiques of these spaces reflected fears of urbanism itself — with its ability to kick old norms to the curb and blur the lines of ethnicity, class and gender. Across the country, neighbors and religious institutions launched sometimes-successful campaigns to keep amusement parks out of their neighborhoods.

In early 1900s St. Paul, for example, residents complained that a proposed amusement park in the Midway neighborhood would “attract an undesirable class of people to that section of the city.” The president of nearby Hamline University asserted that “the park would be the ruination” of Hamline and nearby Macalester College. “In soliciting pupils we offer them a school free from all contamination in the way of city influences,” he said, “and this we will no longer be able to do if you permit this enterprise.”


Playland Amusement Park in San Francisco, seen here around 1950, was typical of the first generation of streetcar-oriented parks. Photographer: Underwood Archives/Archive Photos

But in the end, the greatest threat to these parks came from the personal automobile. When streetcars fell out of favor, so too went trolley companies’ private pleasure gardens. Those parks that survived the 1920s often didn’t make it through the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, as urban trolley parks faded away, the career of Hollywood animator and film producer Walt Disney was flourishing. And he had a very different vision for the future of fun.

Driving to Dreamland

On a hot July day in 1955, radio and TV personality Art Linkletter hosted the grand opening of Disneyland on live television. Marveling at the 29 cameras and “literally miles and miles of cable” deployed to bring this historic event to the American people, he interviewed guests as they traversed the barely finished Magic Kingdom to fly with Peter Pan and Dumbo, be carried through the world of Snow White, and take a wild ride with Mr. Toad.

Disneyland went beyond merely an amusement park and into being a true “theme” park. The theme, overtly, was the fantasy world of Walt Disney and his characters, which the park subdivided into Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. But Disney’s creation bore a secondary theme out of an ahistorical ideal of an American municipality. “You find yourself in a bygone time, another world!” says the announcer on opening day. “The clock has turned back a half century and you’re in the main square of a small American town.”

Outside the confines of Disneyland, Southern California was diverse and urbanizing. But with “Main Street USA” connecting the park’s disparate nodes of fantasy, Disney and his “Imagineers” created an equally fantastic pseudo-urban form, one that was whitewashed, sanitized and evocative of a time in American history that never truly existed.


Disneyland in 1960. The park was built on a once-rural part of Anaheim, but soon Southern California suburban development encroached on its borders. Photo by Alan Band/Keystone Features/Getty Images

By design, Disneyland was a misfit in the family tree of amusement parks; a straight-laced, conservative child in a family of earthy eccentrics. Park designers scrubbed away the ribald and dangerous allure of the old urban parks, replacing their easily sexualized bodily thrills and motley attractions with milder, family-friendly amusements. None of the high-speed coasters or thrill rides that now anchor the park were part of the original Disneyland. (There was, however, lots of deeply problematic imagery — much of which has since been removed.) The original Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride — which lasted all of 98 seconds — had been toned down from its original design after Disney was told it may not be suitable for young kids and the elderly. (The ride grew more wild in the decades that followed.)

Taming the rides wasn’t the only way the lasciviousness of the small urban parks was curbed. A dress and appearance code was enforced across the park, banning mustaches and beards on employees and prohibiting male visitors with shaggy hair. (In 1964, future Byrds frontman Jim McGuinn wasn’t allowed in due to his Beatles-style hairdo.) Alcohol was out of the question. “No liquor, no beer, nothing,” Disney had said. (A few months after Disney died, the rule was relaxed ever so slightly, for the VIP-only Club 33. Only in 2019 did Disneyland get two publicly accessible drinking locales.)


When it opened in 1955, Disneyland mixed futuristic amenities with appeals to small-town nostalgia. Photographer: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

And while ease of access for the general public was the raison d’être of the old trolley parks, Disneyland was less reachable for many working-class visitors. The theme park’s then-remote, semi-rural location all but ensured that only car-driving patrons could visit: A vast moat of parking lots marked its borders.

An Unrealized City of Tomorrow

Disneyland did not remain remote for long. The park proved to be a smash, thanks in part to the weekly TV show that helped promote it. And it attracted all manner of rival attractions and related development near its outskirts.

Just four years after Disneyland’s opening, Disney began quietly scoping land for a new resort, and laying the groundwork for a system of governance that would give his company the control he yearned for. By the mid-1960s, he’d purchased a total of 43 square miles (off of 51 different landowners) on a piece of Florida swampland situated amidst a network of roads and a nearly completed interstate. Here, Disney planned to extend his dreams to their fantastical conclusion.

At the heart of this new development would be EPCOT: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Envisioned as a radial, planned environment, EPCOT would be a a self-contained municipal experiment in which “everything,” Disney said, “will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who live, work and play here, and those who come here from around the world to visit our living showcase.”


A monorail passes the geodesic sphere “Spaceship Earth” at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, a park-within-a-park that opened in 1982.
Photographer: Education Images/Universal Images Group Editorial via Getty Images

The project was conceived to demonstrate then-cutting edge urban planning concepts. Transit would connect the commercial core — complete with office parks — to the designated spheres of activity surrounding it: high-density housing, then a recreation greenbelt, followed by low-density residences, all surrounded by a minimally developed natural space.

Walt Disney died in 1966, one year before the special taxing district went into effect. And the EPCOT he imagined was never fully executed: When it finally opened in 1982 it was as the EPCOT Center, an attraction-laden sibling to the nearby Magic Kingdom. But the park took great steps toward achieving his vision: Disney World boasts a monorail system that carries 150,000 riders daily above a network of pedestrian-first roads. The feats of logistics and engineering embedded in its infrastructure would be the envy of any technocrat’s “smart city” scheme. (See, for example, the trash-sucking automatic vacuum system that whisks garbage away through tunnels at 60 miles an hour.)

But equally important in EPCOT’s design was a disdain for existing American cities. And that contempt was not subtle: “No city of today will serve as the guide for the city of tomorrow,” announced the narrator of a short film Disney made about the project before his death. Like Disneyland before it, Disney World too was connected by that mythical American thoroughfare: Main Street USA.

The End of Amusement

Most of the early 20th century amusement parks that hung on long enough to see the rise of the theme park model couldn’t compete. Historic attractions like Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, Chicago’s Riverview Park, and New Jersey’s Olympic Park and Palisades Park closed down in the 1960s. Some amusement parks, like many public pools and beaches, were shuttered after Civil Rights-era protests over their segregation policies.

A few vintage trolley parks, like Pittsburgh’s Kennywood Park, were able to live on but most disappeared as the amusement industry consolidated, with companies like Six Flags and Marriott’s Great America creating a handful of massive spaces built in the image of Disney’s offerings: self-contained, accessible almost exclusively by car, and aggressively family friendly. With their prodigious demand for parking, these parks tended to be sited on cheap exurban land far from urban centers.


Kennywood Park outside of Pittsburgh is one of only a handful of US trolley parks to survive into the 21st century. Photographer: Melissa Ross/Moment Mobile ED via Getty Images

But even as urban amusement parks vanished, many cities took cues from the theme park industry and “Disneyfied” their urban districts, sanitizing infamous but thrilling sites such as the Las Vegas Strip or Times Square into controlled contrivances of their organic urban personas. Cities have sought to rebrand waterfronts or business districts as stages for tourism and family-friendly recreation, flattening the character of neighborhoods into Instagrammable “museums.” The throwback aesthetics of Main Street USA now appear in places like shopping centers and planned communities — a sort of second conquest of American cities by amusement parks, albeit one with very different social consequences than the first.


Visitors wearing protective masks ride on the “Full Throttle” roller coaster at the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park in Valencia, California, in 2021. Photographer: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg

The electric wonderlands that stood at the end of streetcar lines a century ago granted escape from the doldrums of factory jobs, while embracing the technologies and social norms that were driving American urbanization. The Disney-era theme parks that succeeded them were escapist, too, but they posited the city as the thing from which visitors needed escaping. In the wake of this retreat, something important was taken from the urban fabric — easily accessible shared spaces that prioritized thrills and physical pleasure over consumption, available for just the price of a trolley ticket.

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This post originally appeared on CityLab and was published July 9, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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