The name of a residential neighborhood in San Jose, Luna Park, represents the last trace of an early-twentieth-century funfair that once existed on the site. Back then, the United States was filled with Luna Parks. The first was at Coney Island, opened in 1903. Roller-coaster manufacturer Fred Ingersoll didn’t own that park, but he took the theme and ran with it, opening Luna Parks across the country and around the world. The idea of a global-branded entertainment business was new, and intellectual property rights weren’t what they are now. Competitors arose and called their venues Luna Park, too. The term became so ubiquitous that in some languages “Luna Park” became the word for funfair.
Most of Ingersoll’s parks, like most early amusement parks, are long gone—a late-nineteenth-century waypoint in the evolution of urban entertainment. We might view the “pleasure gardens” of the 1700s as their antecedents. London had Vauxhall and Ranelagh gardens, both offering various diversions—an amalgam of popular entertainment forms from medieval times onward, such as acrobats, magicians, fortune-tellers, freak shows, and menageries. The difference was that, rather than being parts of travelling shows that appeared for festivals, they were now fixed attractions.
Vauxhall and Ranelagh soon spawned imitators in the U.S. The pleasure garden represented a new use of urban space: formalized outdoor leisure, for which a rising middle class had the time. Urban populations were large enough to sustain permanent venues. These pleasure gardens were aimed squarely at the adult market; teenagers hadn’t been invented as a demographic. The venues included merry-go-rounds but still aspired to culture, sometimes featuring statues or busts of philosophers and historic figures.
By Ingersoll’s time, electricity was available, and the parks came to represent technological advancement. They were festooned with lights and offered many mechanical attractions, from rides to pivoting clown heads waiting to be fed ping-pong balls. The first Ferris Wheel appeared at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and other venues reproduced the concept. The oldest wheel still in use is in the Prater, a public park in Vienna, featured in The Third Man.
Located close to cities, the evolving venues offered a quick diversion for adults, who could swing by after work, on the weekend, or for an evening out in a time before television. Roller coasters joined the roster of rides, and the trip to a funfair grew to entail not just entertainment but participation. Nonetheless, the target market remained adults: photos of funfairs from the 1920s show them full of men in ties and women in stockings.
One drawback for these sites was their vulnerability to fire, with their flimsy midway installations and tents and all those electric bulbs. They also fell prey to economics. Most disappeared by mid-century as cities grew and their land became more valuable for redevelopment. Some of those lucky enough to cling on are now protected by heritage laws—including the oldest Luna Park, in Melbourne, Australia, which has operated continuously since 1912.
The parks were not only part of the urban landscape but also part of transport infrastructure. Trolley companies set up “trolley parks” at the end of their lines, offering both the destination and the means to get there. This changed with the postwar shift toward automobiles and highways. The parks built since the war reflect a different philosophy. They are destinations—not somewhere you take your sweetheart for a few hours after dinner, but a place to spend the whole day.
Disneyland burst onto the scene in 1955. Quick on the heels of the Magic Kingdom came Busch Gardens (1959) and Six Flags (1961), all built on the assumption of car-driving customers. The target demographic also shifted to children, as it did with much of the culture as baby boomers grew up to become parents.
We don’t have as many such places in cities today and for more reasons than just land values. It’s a question of how we wish to be entertained. In the same way that people no longer want group tours and package vacations, we want our entertainment individualized. People would sooner be using an Xbox at home, with 4K and surround sound if not virtual reality, than taking a ride with strangers.
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