For Your Amusement (Or, a brief digression about the Sears Wish Book, naked ladies prior to the Internet Age, and creepy abandoned amusement parks)

Photo by Edwin Soto on

I’ve never been to Disney World.

Or Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Coney Island, Cedar Point, Dollywood, or any of the Six Flags amusement parks.

If you think I’m whining about my poor, deprived childhood, let me assure you that I’m not. I’ve been to other theme parks over the years. And if I wanted to go to Disney World now, I could certainly swing it financially. The irony is, now that I can afford it, I no longer want to go. Such is life, right?

I’ll explain why I’m thinking about amusement parks in a moment. There is a theme to this post, and it will all be as clear as mud by the time you finish reading it.

I read biographies and memoirs quite regularly. I’m reading I’m the Man: the story of that guy from Anthrax, by Scott Ian (with Jon Wiederhorn), at the moment. I’m enjoying the book, but I have to admit that I lack the discipline to write a memoir that traces my life from birth to present day the way Ian’s does. The older I get, the more I have trouble concentrating on a single topic for a long stretch of time. My thoughts tend to wander too frequently to control them, and the truth is that I like to let them off the leash occasionally.

I’ve written about my attention-deficit issues before. Not officially diagnosed issues, I should add. My wife believes I’m somewhere on the autism spectrum, and she’s probably a better authority on my behavior than I am. I am a learned extrovert, which means that at my factory default settings I am an introvert. I am also a daydreamer and a woolgatherer. I always have been. Ask any of the teachers I had when I was a youngster. I have the ability to achieve a laser focus but not for an extended period of time.

As I said: undisciplined.

Still, I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I’ve come to believe that we are all the sum product of our experiences and memories. Occasionally, my own memories are triggered by the things I’m currently experiencing. Yes, in the case of past trauma, this can sometimes be unpleasant. Fortunately, I seem wired to recall pleasant memories and experiences more frequently than bad ones. Books I’ve read. Movies and television shows I’ve watched. Music I’ve listened to. Games I’ve played. Places I’ve visited and activities I’ve participated in.

Sometimes I write about these memories or include them in other posts I write when it seems appropriate. In this way, everything I write, whether they are reviews of movies, television shows, books and video games, or seemingly aimless rants or seemingly endless lists of things, is a part of a larger patchwork quilt that forms my memoir. If any of my loved ones or descendents are so inclined in the future, they could conceivably cut-and-paste a complete memoir of my life from the resulting dog’s breakfast of thoughts.

The thing that triggered my memories of amusement parks (more on that in a moment) also led me down a branching path into my childhood.

During the 1970s, The Wonderful World of Disney aired on Sunday nights. I remember watching it with my mom and dad. I was an only child in those days. My first sibling wouldn’t be born until I was thirteen years old. In those days, I would have given anything to go to Disney World.

As an adult, I came to realize that most of WWofD was a commercial for Disney World aimed at children. Things haven’t changed that much. If you watch the Disney-owned ABC television network, you’ll find it chockful of advertisements for Disney-related products, including Disney World and Disney-themed cruise ships. How many ABC television shows have featured characters going to Disney World or Disneyland?

I know this might seem a cynical view of the so-called Disney magic. It’s not intended to be a harsh judgment of the corporation that now seems to own my entire childhood. I think that the Disney execs have, overall, demonstrated a lot of good business sense. I still willingly pay for a lot of their product.

Disney has always expertly pandered to daydreamers and woolgatherers. In their way, they are a lot like the Sears Wish Book catalogue that used to come out every year to promote that company’s slew of Christmas gifts. Especially toys.

After I figured out that Santa Claus didn’t like lower-income children as much as he did those from more well-to-do families, I knew my parents couldn’t afford to buy everything I wanted from the Wish Book. I still had a lot of great toys over the years. My Steve Austin doll (we’re talking Six Million Dollar Man here, not the stone-cold wrestler). Also, Evel Knievel and his motorcycle. Various chemistry sets, magic sets, a Tonka Winnebago large enough to ride on (which I often did). I may not have received as many toys as some of my friends, but I was far from deprived.

I now believe that my parents did the best they could at the time. I also believe that they spent money on me that they couldn’t afford. I wasn’t always properly appreciative. Like that time they gave me a three-speed Huffy bike with upright handlebars (and wire basket saddle bags) instead of the ten-speed Schwinn with the apehanger handlebars I wanted. I’m ashamed to admit that I acted like an ingrate brat at the time, because that’s what I was. What my parents did instill in me was the concept that if there was something I really, really wanted, I needed to save up my money to buy it for myself. I remain grateful for that particular life lesson.

If you’ve never learned that lesson, you were a spoiled kid.

Because I was embarrassed to ride my three-speed around my friends, I saved up money from various chores and lawn mowing jobs to purchase my own ten-speed. I loved that bike and rode it everywhere in town for years. It meant more to me because I purchased it with money I earned. I feel the same way today.

Certainly, my mom and dad wouldn’t have paid for the throwing knives I purchased at the Sky City department store. No good parent would have. I practiced for untold hours until I could hit tree-mounted targets nine out of ten times. To what end, I’m uncertain. Maybe I was planning to run away and join the circus. I taught myself how to juggle as well (three balls only), so maybe there’s something to that.

I also bought my own skateboard, of course. The advent of polyurethane wheels caused a resurgence of skateboarding popularity in the ’70s. We didn’t have skate parks or half pipes in my area of South Carolina, but we were daredevils in our own right. I never broke any bones while skateboarding, but I had my share of bruises, contusions and road rashes. In the ’80s, I would break my left pinkie finger while skating—on roller skates I purchased with my own money— at the Red Wing Rollerway.

The fireworks, cigarettes and alcohol that fueled my teenaged years were bought with my own money as well. Naturally. Underaged kids always find places that will sell illicit items to them, whether it’s the VFW lodge or that sketchy bait shop near Beaver Creek.

In the days before adult periodicals vanished behind the store counters, my friends and I would shoplift Playboy and Penthouse magazines from neighborhood convenience stores, or else would kite them from older male relatives. We would keep them under our mattresses, the first place any mother would look, or in our tree fort in the woods.

Boys going through puberty in the twenty-first century can’t appreciate the trouble that ’70s kids went through in those pre-internet/pre-mobile electronic devices days to see pictures of nude women.

I was going to write that if your adolescent sons have a tree fort in the woods, you can bet that they have at least one skin book hidden there, but that no longer rings true, does it? With the proliferation of personal computers, laptops and other devices, such as e-readers, magazines have become passé. As obsolete as the Sears Wish Book.

This post is about obsolescence, to a degree. Or it started that way, at least.

My wife and I were watching one of those television shows about creepy abandoned places. The perfect sort of show to watch if you’re somewhere between middle-aged and deceased, and if you’re feeling your own obsolescence creeping up on you. To me, the word “old” always describes someone at least twenty years older than I am. When I can no longer point to anyone twenty years older, I’ll admit that I’m old. There seem to be several shows of this type ricocheting around my cable box. Many of them focus on places in the world that I’ll probably never visit. I mean, I doubt I’ll ever go to Pripyat except in a few notable video games. But there it is on television.

When these shows highlight abandoned places in the US, it hits a little closer to home. Literally, in this case. The episode we were watching focused on a now-defunct Arkansas theme park —Dogpatch USA— based upon the Li’l Abner comic strip.

Other than the fact that it’s in Arkansas, we had no connection to the theme park. It opened in 1968 and closed in 1993, four years before I moved to Arkansas the first time. Sharon had never been to the park, even though she was born and raised in the state. Chances are, if you’re young enough, some of you aren’t even sure who Li’l Abner was.

It’s always creepy seeing abandoned amusement parks for some reason. I’m not certain why this is so. Is it because the park was once filled with people and life and purpose? Abandoned hospitals and asylums also give off that creepy vibe. They feel haunted, even to me, and I don’t acknowledge the existence of ghosts. Creepy isn’t exclusively a supernatural thing.

Amusement parks seem to double down on that creepy vibe. Perhaps because it’s easy to imagine them filled with screaming and laughing children. Some amusement parks are creepy even before they’re abandoned. Especially if there are clowns involved.

My immediate family didn’t take many away-from-home vacations. I remember once staying at a campground on Lake Marion, two or three hours away from home, in my maternal grandfather’s Winnebago. We played a lot of the board game Trouble, as I recall, and I abraded my hide raw sliding down a cement water slide repeatedly. Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” played a lot on the jukebox in the rec center, so I’m guessing this “vacation” was in 1975 or ’76.

The only real traveling vacation that I can recall taking with just my mom and dad was a rather elaborate one to North Carolina. Also in the ’70s.

We went to Chimney Rock, North Carolina.

This is a huge, three-hundred-foot granite spire that looks more like a penis than a chimney. It probably gets more tourists being called Chimney Rock, though. I’ve been back a couple of times as an adult. The movie Dirty Dancing was filmed at nearby Lake Lure, if I remember correctly. Last of the Mohicans was filmed, in part, at Chimney Rock, I think. Beautiful area.

We also drove to Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

This quasi-theme park may still be in operation. Back then, it was promoted a lot by Fred Kirby, a singing cowboy who hosted a television show I used to watch, which showed Little Rascals shorts and Deputy Dawg cartoons. Tweetsie was definitely a park that appealed to folks who liked cowboy shows. There was a daring train robbery staged and a showdown in the western town main street. Back in those days, American Indians weren’t referred to as Native Americans and they were definitely treated like bad guys during my time at Tweetsie. I’m wondering how things have changed in this new century.

Grandfather Mountain, with its mile-high swinging bridge, was another attraction on this particular tour.

There were bears there as well. We were warned not to feed or pet them. Don’t be fooled by their good PR. All bears are scary, including those red ones in the Charmin commercials.

The main attraction of that particular vacation, however, was a theme park called The Land of Oz.

The amusement park was in full operation from 1970 to 1980. I’ve never been a huge Wizard of Oz fan. My opinion is that the movie would have been better without all of the singing. I feel the same way about Elvis movies. I know, I’m in the minority here. Still, the park was impressive, and I still remember the way you went down into the cellar of Dorothy Gale’s house because of the tornado and when you came up through another exit you were in an exact duplicate of the house, only in the Land of Oz. The house, of course, had landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, and her legs stuck out from beneath the structure.

I never knew that the theme park had ceased full operations more than four decades ago until I saw an on-line video about creepy abandoned places and The Land of Oz was featured. There are still some events held on the site part of the year, and you can go to their website here, but the park’s heyday is long past.

Years later, after I graduated from college, I accepted a job offer in North Carolina. While I was living there, I visited a theme park in Maggie Valley called Ghost Town in the Sky.

It was another Wild West-themed amusement park built on top of a mountain. I remember riding a long chair lift up the side of the mountain. The various rides were typical, such as the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Scrambler, bumper cars and the like. But its roller coaster was a thing of beauty. I believe it was called the Cliffhanger. What was particularly memorable about the roller coaster was that there was no long, clanking ride to the top of a steep incline before going into adrenaline-pumping freefall. Instead, the roller coaster cars just went immediately off the side of the mountain and into its assorted loops, twists and turns. I used to love roller coasters and this one was a beaut.

I hadn’t thought about Ghost Town in the Sky for years until my wife and I were watching another of those abandoned-places shows and I recognized some of the images of the park. As with the Land of Oz, I wasn’t aware that the park had ceased operations, let alone become worthy of the “creepy abandoned places” title. It’s not the only reason I’ve accepted that I’m getting old, but it is one of them.

Seeing The Land of Oz and Ghost Town in the Sky as creepy abandoned places made me think about other amusement parks I’ve visited during my lifetime. I think these all still exist, but I’m not going to research this because I don’t need further proof of my own mortality.

Carowinds was the theme park located closest to me, geographically, when I was growing up.

I remember going to the park a couple of times with my parents. It had a great roller coaster called Thunder Road, and a monorail and a revolving sky tower. I think I went there once after I moved to North Carolina. The theme park straddles the North Carolina-South Carolina state line, with an official Charlotte, NC, address.

After six years or so, went to work for another company in Virginia. While in Virginia, I went to both Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion.

My memories of Busch Gardens, located near Williamsburg, VA, are the tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, with its almost overwhelming smell of hops and free samples, and the way the park was divided up into international themes. There was a lot of beer flowing, as I recall, and I spent a lot of time in the Bavarian Germany section of the park at Das Festhaus.

Kings Dominion—known as Paramount’s Kings Dominion in those days—was about twenty miles north of Richmond.

I believe I went to both of the Virginia amusement parks more than once, but I can’t swear to it. Kings Dominion had a Days of Thunder motion simulator attraction, and a section of the park devoted to the movie Wayne’s World, with a wooden rollercoaster named The Hurler. So, this means I was there sometime in the mid-1990s. Since I would move west to Arkansas in 1997, this tracks. I would relocate to Memphis, Tennessee, during the winter of 1999, but would return to Arkansas just three years later.

Now I have lived in Arkansas longer than I have in any other state. Since becoming an honorary Arkansan, I’ve done a few of the things that Arkansans do for amusement, including going to the horse races at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, visiting Eureka Springs and the Crescent Hotel, and touring the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. While I would never call myself a hunter or fisherman, I’ve taken advantage of much of what the Natural State has to offer, including various state parks and lakes such as Norfolk and Nimrod.

I’m not saying that there are no longer any amusement parks in Arkansas. There may be. But I’ve never been to them if there are, unless you count the zoo in Little Rock. Like most Arkansans, however, I have been to Branson, Missouri. After my first visit to Branson, I said—to everyone I knew—that I saw no reason to ever go back. I’ve been back at least three times since then, I think.

Branson also has a theme park called Silver Dollar City, and, yes, I have been there. This time was different. My wife and I took a couple of our grandchildren there. We didn’t ride any of the rides. We just paid for everything.

You see, the thing is that, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m not as strong or as healthy as I used to be. After two spinal surgeries, I can’t handle getting jostled around as much as I once could, which nixes most of the good amusement park rides such as my beloved roller coasters. Also, going around in circles tends to make me nauseated, which eliminates pretty much everything else, including the carousel.

I know, I’m a party pooper. I used to make fun of my father (behind his back, of course) because he would get sick on the tamest of carnival rides. This is my karmic punishment.

I think this brings my brief digression here full circle. I now understand what this post is about. Television shows about abandoned amusement parks remind me of other things, such as the Sears Wish Book and nudie magazines in tree forts, that have become obsolete and exist now only in my memory. There’s also the subtext—or perhaps it’s all textual since I’m talking about it now—about getting closer to death and viewing moments in my life from that particular vantage point.

I like to say that the current trend suggests that I will live forever, since I haven’t died every single day of my life. However, I don’t really believe that. Still, I’m in no hurry to take that long dirt nap, so I try to get my amusement and entertainment where I’m able to.

Unfortunately, most amusement parks no longer fit that particular bill for me.

That said, Sharon and I are planning a trip to Los Angeles, California, in March. We’re staying in Hollywood and doing all of the touristy things, such as visiting the Walk of Fame and the Chinese theater. You know, all the greatest hits. We’re even planning to take the TMZ bus tour.

Disneyland is not on our itinerary. We have the means, just not the desire since this is an adults-only trip.

We have booked a tour of Universal Studios, though. I’ve seen it on various outlets for decades and would like to see it in person. It seems to be more our speed.

I’ll let you know how things turn out.


5 thoughts on “For Your Amusement (Or, a brief digression about the Sears Wish Book, naked ladies prior to the Internet Age, and creepy abandoned amusement parks)

  1. Be it as it may, Disneyland is an amazing achievement and worth every dollar of the entrance fee. I cannot say that same thing about Universal, which, because of the opening of the new Mario land, is as busy as it has ever been in its history. But that is just me. Enjoy your visit to our city.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Somewhere between middle-aged and deceased…” How elegant. I’m going to put that in the next form I’m asked to fill out! But what a wonderful dissertation on things gone by. I give an occasional thought to writing a memoir as well, but that concept always ends with “as soon as I do something memorable!”

    I think my equivalent of the Disney shows was the Beach Boys. Growing up in the 60s in a little California beach town, I found over time that, from Surfin’ Safari to the psychedelic albums, and on through the more adult “memoirs” they wrote later (Wouldn’t it be Nice, Do it Again, etc.) they were writing the soundtrack of my youth, and I embraced them like they were the score of my personal movie. The Beatles and the Stones and all their followers were great, but the Beach Boys were personal. To this day, with the surf, the schools, the cars, the girls, the buddies, first love, later loves, I can hear Surfin’ U.S.A. or 409, and I’m back on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, care-free, happy, and looking up the crew for the next adventure.

    BTW, growing up in SoCal, my aunt and uncle took me to Disneyland I think a year after it opened. Pretty sure I was nine, and I loved it. Took my own kids back later in life and was bored out of my mind. There’s a point there somewhere, but I’ll leave you to trip over it yourself. All this rambling aside, I just wanted to say, what a great article. Covering your own memories, you’ve unearthed a number of mine. Perhaps you have written your memoirs, and this is they…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of my bosses when I worked for Radio Shack during college was a huge Beach Boys fan. I learned to appreciate their music through him. No huge childhood memories of the BB, but I think about my old boss every time I listen to them now. Since I liked him, that’s a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not much compares to a good boss! I’ve had a couple and know just what you mean. And the Beach Boys… In an age when rock & roll could be described by the three “R”s — rough, raw, and raunchy — no church choir ever harmonized better. Yes, their lyrics were juvenile, but then, so was I. Good times!

        Liked by 1 person

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