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The History of Amusement Parks, Told in Pictures

The History of Amusement Parks, Told in Pictures

Amusement parks inspire magical memories and offer adrenaline-pumping rides. Their evolution is a sight to behold, and we know what that looks like thanks to historical photography.

What started as medieval religious festivals eventually evolved into high-speed thrill rides. Yes, amusement parks—as we know them—have been around for centuries. Obviously, they’ve changed a lot over the years.

First, though, what exactly makes an amusement park? It’s an enclosed area full of entertaining rides, shows, restaurants, and shops.

Theme parks, on the other hand, take things a step further. Theme parks are more immersive, bringing a theme or fantasy to life throughout a visitor’s experience.

This means that all theme parks are amusement parks, but still, not all amusement parks have themes. Because of this, we’ll use the phrase “amusement park” throughout this blog, for simplicity’s sake. 

Amusement parks have their roots tied to ancient and medieval festivals. This is similar to the origins of fairs, but amusement parks have deviated to forge their own paths.

What began as simple gardens for visitors to stroll through has evolved into white-knuckle-inducing destinations for thrill-seekers.

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So how did we get here? Let’s take a look at pictures that tell the history of amusement parks. Buckle up.

Illustration of a Swiss woman dancing with a bear

Medieval Fairs, Zoos, and Pleasure Gardens

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Similarly to state fairs, the earliest origins of amusement parks can be traced back to festivals held on holy days throughout the Mediterranean. These events provided special entertainment for visitors, and you can read more about them in-depth at Shutterstock’s “A History of the State Fair, Told in Photos.” 

Skipping ahead to the 12th century, London’s Bartholomew Fair was where we see the first real divergence of amusement parks emerge.

This carnival was a spectacle of pure entertainment. It offered a variety of shows for visitors to watch, including wrestling, fire-eating, dancing bears, performing monkeys, and tightrope walkers. 

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Around this time, menageries and zoos also became destinations for people seeking amusement. As early as the 1200s, the Tower of London contained a zoo that housed lions, tigers, a polar bear, and an elephant. This was a result of medieval European royals exchanging rare and wild animals as gifts.

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Pleasure gardens expanded the idea of amusement parks even further by including animals, flower displays, and live music within their grounds.

Bakken, located in Denmark, offered guests these exact experiences. It’s now recognized as the world’s oldest amusement park. It began as a simple pleasure garden and still attracts nearly three million visitors every year, offering roller coasters and other modern rides. 

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Illustration of a merry-go-round ad circa 1865

Thrilling Technology Ushers in a New Era

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Early amusement park rides were powered by humans or animals. Carousels were operated in this way too, with bicycles even powering them for a few short years.

This changed in 1861, though, with the invention of a steam-powered carousel in England. Soon enough, steam-powered rides like trains, swings, and even haunted houses cropped up all over the United Kingdom. 

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The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago upped the thrill-ride ante even more. This event gave the world its first ferris wheel.

Around the same time, New York City gave the world another groundbreaking amusement park ride: the roller coaster. Coney Island’s Switchback Railway was a gravity-powered coaster that pushed the limits on high-speed thrills.

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Illustration of a couple meeting at Dreamland Coney Island circa 1905

Electric-Powered Parks Attract City Dwellers

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Speaking of Coney Island, it first developed as a trolley park, when electricity became more commonplace.

These types of parks were located outside major population hubs, at the end of electric-powered train lines. Street cars would carry visitors out to these parks, often near bodies of water. Many of these parks, like Coney Island, offered swimming and water sports as attractions alongside rides.

Some spots, like Atlantic City, marketed themselves as resort getaways and alternatives to day-trip destinations like Coney Island.

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During the emergence of trolley parks, electric-powered rides and entertainment began to proliferate. Electric light festivals became exciting events.

Some of these, like Blackpool Illuminations in England, are still running today. New rides of this electric-powered era included bumper cars and the Tilt-A-Whirl.

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Person making a funny face while riding a rollercoaster

Cincinnati Changed the Roller Coaster Game

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The 1920s are known as the Golden Age of Roller Coasters. Huge advancements in coaster technology happened during this time, giving thrill-seekers epic rides like the Scenic Railway and Big Dipper.

This all changed with the Great Depression though. People were unable to afford park visits, and priorities shifted away from pleasure-seeking.

Later, the advent of the television gave Americans a new and primary source of entertainment right in their own living rooms. 

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Amusement parks needed to host new rides, unlike anything visitors had ever seen before. Kings Island in Cincinnati, Ohio was up for this challenge. 

In 1972, Kings Island opened the Racer for guests. This coaster was the first of its kind and changed the definition of what a roller coaster could be. Famous coaster engineer John C. Allen came out of retirement to build it, and construction lasted two years.

The Racer topped out at a speed of 53 mph and a height of 88 feet. Its multiple tracks pitted two trains against each other in a high-speed race to the finish line.

The ride was so beloved that it inspired designs for several copycat coasters. . . . And it was even featured on an episode of The Brady Bunch.

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Cincinnati’s biggest amusement park continued pushing the envelope for thrill-seeking guests. In 1979, they opened the Beast, the world’s tallest, fastest, and longest wooden coaster.

King Cobra was the world’s first standing roller coaster. Vortex held a world record for the most inversions.

And, later on, Son of Beast was not only the world’s newest, tallest wooden coaster, it was the only one with a flip.

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Scene of the Country Bear Jamboree attraction at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, 1971

A Look at Today’s Niche Theme Parks

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Of course, we can’t have a conversation about amusement parks without mentioning highly specialized theme parks.

Disneyland has long been regarded as the penultimate theme park, immersing guests in all the magic and storytelling the Disney brand has to offer. Within the Disney theme park family, though, are parks with highly specific themes.

EPCOT, for example, is a theme park that celebrates human achievements in technology and teaches its visitors about international cultures. 

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Depending on your interests, theme parks can get just about as niche as you’d like!

Dollywood is one of Tennessee’s most popular tourism attractions, and it highlights the beauty of the Smoky Mountains and Appalachian culture.

Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana sticks to celebrating America’s favorite holidays throughout the year. Theme parks now exist that focus on wine, chocolate, religious history, and specific cartoon characters.

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With themes becoming increasingly specialized, and rides being all the more thrilling, we can’t wait to see what amusement parks will look like in the years to come.

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