While the rest of the country cools off and settles into fall, the Bay Area has a couple of months of warm weather that seem designed for a trip to an old-fashioned amusement park. For generations Bay Area residents have sought fresh air, community and thrills. Many of these parks are gone now, and their ultimate demise was the result of a very Bay Area problem: sky-high real estate values.
A center of culture in Oakland
Oakland was a city on the move at the turn of the century. Still a few years from the automobile becoming ubiquitous, the city bustled with kinetic energy from bicycles, pedestrians and streetcars.
A group of business and property owners who called themselves the Realty Syndicate owned most of the streetcars and the land they ran over. Commuters used the trolleys on weekdays, but on the weekends there wasn’t much happening around Oakland that necessitated a streetcar ride.
The Realty Syndicate came up with a strategy to increase weekend ridership and the value of land it owned in North Oakland — a parcel bordered by Telegraph and Shattuck avenues to the east and west, and 58th and 56th streets to the north and south. There was already a sleepy neighborhood park there, called Ayala Park, but Realty Syndicate had big plans for it.
The syndicate leased Ayala Park to Ingersoll Amusements, who built a beautiful amusement park destination for Oaklanders. They named it Idora Park and opened its doors to the public in 1903. Visitors could conveniently reach it by riding the trolleys owned by the syndicate.
For the price of admission, just $0.10, visitors could access Idora Park’s beautifully landscaped grounds with many attractions and exhibits on display.
“There were a huge number of things that would get people thinking about new technologies,” said amusement park historian TJ Fisher. “They had an experience that showed you what a coal mine was like.” Concessions and some of the rides cost a little extra, and Idora Park had swings, slides, a bandstand, a scenic railway and a pool, which was segregated.
Recounting his life story to the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, native Oaklander and Olympic gold medalist Archie Williams remembered being barred from joining his friends at the Idora Park pool because of a sign that read “No Blacks Allowed!”
After the 1906 earthquake, the Realty Syndicate used Idora Park as a home base to house and support several thousand refugees fleeing the destruction in San Francisco. In the years that followed, the park became an informal community center where demonstrations, performances and political rallies took place.
“It was really a center of culture in Oakland before we had as many public city parks as we do today,” Fisher said. “It was something everybody would have known.”
The neighborhood around Idora Park continued to grow in popularity, and land values in the area started to rise. “At the end of 1928 it was announced that the [Realty Syndicate] was going to subdivide the park, and sell it as real estate,” Fisher said. Idora Park closed and, by the end of 1929, was demolished. Homes quickly went up, the first in Oakland with underground plumbing, and many of them are still standing today.
“There’s no sign there was ever an amusement park there,” Fisher said of the now quiet neighborhood just north of the 24 freeway. “Which is a real shame, because it was an important part of civic life in Oakland for so long."
San Francisco's very own beachside attraction
Ocean Beach was already a popular — though hard-to-reach — destination for San Franciscans at the turn of the 20th century. The Cliff House restaurant and nearby Sutro Baths attracted people with the means to make the trip west, but when the city’s trolleys reached the western part of the city, the makeup of the neighborhood began to shift.
Almost immediately vendors and concessions began popping up on the beach to take advantage of the tourist traffic. Over a decade or so, a small, disorganized amusement park began to assemble at Ocean Beach.
“In 1914 they actually put in the merry-go-round down there. That was the Looff’s Hippodrome,” said historian Jim Smith, author of "San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach: The Early Years" and "San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach: The Golden Years." Other attractions like Shoot-the-Chutes — a primitive log flume ride — soon popped up, and the park gained popularity. Within a few years a businessman named John Friedle stepped in with financial investments and big ideas for the area now known by residents as “Chutes-at-the-Beach.”
“Friedle wanted to make a first-rate park out of it,” Smith said. He expanded the park’s offerings, building the famous 65-foot-high Big Dipper roller coaster. He eventually stepped aside, and in 1926 George Whitney took over and gave the park the name that would stick: “Playland-at-the-Beach.”
Playland-at-the-Beach becomes beloved
Under Whitney, the various independent concessionaires began to work together. “They made it free to get in," said Smith. "There were no gates, and if you had a dime or a quarter, you could put it toward a ride.
Rides like the Skyliner, the Big Dipper, Dodg 'Em, the Scrambler, the Twister and the Diving Bell thrilled guests over the years, but one quirky attraction called the Fun House etched itself into the memory of Bay Area resident Jeanne Lawton, who would often go to Playland-at-the-Beach in the 1960s.
“The scariest thing about going into the Fun House when wearing a skirt was the air holes in the floor,” Lawton said, referring to something pretty unsavory: Seemingly at random, jets of air would burst up from the floor, riffling the skirts of unsuspecting women. One night, Lawton and her friends figured out what was actually going on.
“I happened to look up in the balcony and saw a guy that was working there grinning from ear to ear,” she said. The man would wait until women walked over the air holes, “and then he would hit the button,” she said.
“They made their own oatmeal cookies,” Lawton remembered fondly, “and then put a scoop of vanilla ice cream in between the cookies, dipped it in hot chocolate and handed it to you to eat right away.”
Playland's slow decline
During the Great Depression, many of Playland’s independently owned concessionaires struggled to stay open as attendance at the park dwindled. George Whitney bought up many of those concessions, gaining control of much of the park. He was known as the “Barnum of the Golden Gate,” and his beachside attractions thrived until his death in 1958.
The Whitneys also purchased the Cliff House, Sutro Baths and additional plots nearby for future expansion.
Whitney’s son used his experience at Playland to help Walt Disney design some of the queues on the earliest attractions at Disneyland. He was Disneyland employee No. 7 and has a window bearing his name on Main Street, U.S.A. After his father’s death, he returned to San Francisco to run Playland himself. After a few years of conflict with his mother over how the park should be run, Whitney Jr. stepped aside.
In 1972 a developer named Jeremy Ets-Hokin bought the park, closed it and unceremoniously tore it down. “The developer wanted to build condos up there,” Smith said. “Everyone hated him in the city because, the way they saw it, he stole Playland from them. No one wanted to see Playland go, except the ones who wanted the money.”
Amusement parks still struggle to survive here
Only a few amusement parks remain in operation in the Bay Area today: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Children’s Fairyland in Oakland and California’s Great America in Santa Clara. Cedar Fair, the operator of California's Great America, announced in 2022 that they’ll close the park and sell the land.
Luckily, some quirky souvenirs from Playland still exist. At the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, you’ll find a rare Wurlitzer organ from Playland still in operation. At the Musée Mécanique on San Francisco’s Pier 45, you can still hear animatronic Laffing Sal’s eerie cackle. And a collector named Marianne Stevens purchased the original carousel from Looff’s Hippodrome. At 116 years old, the LeRoy King Carousel, as it’s now known, is part of the Children’s Creativity Museum in Yerba Buena Gardens. There you can still climb aboard a genuine wooden horse, and race to victory with your family and friends.
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