There Was Once an Amusement Park Here Part III: New York City's One And Only Disneyland-Sized Theme Park
One question that has been frequently asked was "Why has Disney never built one of their Disneyland parks in New York City?" To date, Disney has theme parks in California, Florida, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. So why not one in New York? Perhaps an even bigger question, why aren't there any theme parks in or around NYC?
Perhaps the answer is that a theme park has been built in NYC, and it was a spectacular failure. Any company, be they Disney or Six Flags or anyone else, would think twice about investing in New York City after the financial disaster that was Freedomland U.S.A.
Or did it fail? Originally beginning as a wild conspiracy theory, some Freedomland U.S.A. enthusiasts claimed that the theme park was built as part of a greater scam to build Co-Op City, the vast apartment complex that eventually replaced it. Before there was Freedomland U.S.A., there was Baychester, a vast wetland along the Eastern shore of the Bronx. For decades developers had been filling in wetlands with debris to turn them into property suitable for building on.
But if the landfill was not done properly then that land will eventually sag, undermining the foundation of whatever building was erected above it. In some extreme situations, vast sink holes opened up pulling homes down into them. To this day, sinkholes open up in neighborhoods built on these former landfill sites. The government stepped in with regulations, and by the late 1950s developers could not use landfill property unless they first proved it's sturdiness with a 25 year survey. They would need to pound iron pilings into the ground, and if they did not move in those 25 years then the ground would be declared stable.
There was, of course, a loophole in this regulation. In already existing neighborhoods built on landfill, all the property owner would need to do is a five year study on any existing buildings of three stories or higher (about the size of a house). If the homes in the neighborhood showed no signs of sinking in a five year period, then the rest of the property would be deemed safe to build on.
This is what the conspiracy theorists believed happened with Freedomland U.S.A. It began when a group of investors called The National Development Corporation filled in 400 acres of the Bronx wetlands which became worthless once the government required a 25 year study before they could build on it.
That is, until they found a way to shortcut that study to 5 years. They did this by building a Disneyland style theme park and using it's many 3 story buildings as proof the landfill had stabilized. And once the study was over, that amusement park would have to go. In more recent years proof of this conspiracy has been found to the point that it could be considered a provable fact that Freedomland U.S.A. had been designed to fail.
The creator of Freedomland was Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood. He was the self proclaimed uncredited father of the modern theme park. He had worked with Walt Disney to design and build Disneyland, and would later credit himself as "The Master Planner of Disneyland". For reasons still unclear, Disney fired him, and would later sue him to prevent him from claiming he designed the park. But his connection with Disneyland got him commissions to design other similar theme parks, including Magic Mountain and Pleasure Island. In the late 1950s he was hired by the owners of the Baychester landfill to design and build a 205 acre theme park that would outdo Disneyland itself.
Here is where the designed to fail accusations get much credence. Freedomland U.S.A. was way too ambitious, nearly twice the size of Disneyland. And would need nearly twice the attendance to recoup the costs. But unlike Disneyland which was promoted on a weekly basis on Disney's prime time network show, Freedomland would not be promoted nationwide. It was not built in a warm weather state, but in a state where it would need to close for the winter. It was built a mile upstream from the closest subway station. And Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood was not beyond being in on the scam.
It is believed his firing by Disney may have been the result of him embezzling money during the building of the Disneyland park. The Disney company has always claimed that Wood had little to do with the actual design of Disneyland, yet for years he claimed most of the design was his. When Disney employee Bob Gurr was asked about Wood, his response was "He was a con-man and clearly behaved that way." But perhaps the most damning proof that Freedomland was designed to fail was it's choice of competition. The 1964 New York World's Fair.
While the fair remained open, it would, in effect, act as a second theme park in New York City, and was sure to dramatically cut down on attendance at Freedomland. They had the option of building the park later and opening after the World Fair closed. But instead both parks competed, and ultimately the owners of Freedomland cited the fair as the main reason why attendance was so low.
You could blame the World Fair on Robert Moses, and perhaps give him credit for ridding the city of one more amusement park. While the idea for the fair originated with a group of New York businessmen, both it and the 1939 World's Fair came into fruition thanks to Moses pushing them through. And he had a reason.
Moses had always dreamed of building a vast park in New York City that would compare with Central Park and Prospect Park. He chose a section of Queens filled with trash dumps, wetlands and the Flushing River. The park was to be an amazing 1,300 acres in size, it would dwarf Central Park by 450 acres and become Moses greatest legacy. While Moses had the ability to size those acres using eminent domain, he did not have the funds to landscape the land and build anything close to a great public park. Both World's Fairs were seen as a way to generate that money.
The Flushing River once bisected Long Island from Flushing to Jamaica. It was a prominent enough geographical feature that at one time it was the Eastern border of Queens. ( That changed when Flushing and other towns along it's East bank were annexed into the borough. ) It was actually the size of a creek, but for centuries residents of New York saw it's potential of being converted into a major waterway. In fact, the northern end was wide enough so that docks for ships were built. In the early 1900s plans were drawn up for widening the river, then connecting it via a canal to Jamaica Bay.
However, that was never to be. It was a tidal river where salt water from the Long Island Sound flowed inland during high tide, resulting in brackish wetland areas unsuitable for farming or just about anything else. One use that was found for the Flushing River Valley wetlands was as a dump. And when the surrounding towns began building sewers, it was where there raw sewage flowed. The Corona Ash Dumps came into existence just West of Willet's Point, eventually spanning from North Beach to approximately where the Long Island Expressway is today. It was where millions of tons of coal ash from the factories, apartment buildings and homes around the city was dumped, and it spanned nearly 900 acres at it's peak.
But the river valley had been seen as a potential place for a public park as far back as the Civil War era. When Moses first took power it became a candidate for his legacy defining park. And after much consideration, he realized it was not just the second largest patch of continuous undeveloped land within the city limits, but that Queens, being the leas developed of the boroughs, was the only county within New York City not to have it's own version of Central Park, or anything close to it. By the time Moses had finalized his plans for converting the Flushing River Valley into a park, the world was hit by the Great Depression. There was no money to build such a park. His plans would have to wait.
In 1935 a group of retired policemen formed the New York City World's Fair Corporation. Their goal was to convince the Bureau of International Expositions to hold a World's Fair in New York to help the city during the depression. When they selected the Corona Ash Dumps as a suitable place to build the fairgrounds, Moses saw his opportunity and became involved. With his power and influence the World's Fair Corporation would get the land and permits they needed, the trade of being that a large portion of the profits the fair generated be set aside for turning Flushing Valley into a park once the fair closed. Under his guidance the World's Fair would last longer than a single year, spanning two or more years. This violated BIE rules, which regulated that fairs only last six months, so they did not sanction the New York fair. Moses did not care. He was not going to let a bunch of Europeans tell him what to do. The fair would be built as planned.
The city provided the funds to build the fairgrounds. The vast Corona ash dump was flattened, covered and converted into the main fairgrounds. The river itself was altered into two lakes connected by canals to the remaining section of the river that ran past Willet's Point. The garbage filled wetlands around the river were filled in and became the banks of the lakes. Sewage was diverted elsewhere.
While the IRT had built an elevated subway line through Willets Point to Flushing, and would now include a World's Fair stop, the city owned IND built a spur from their new Queens Blvd line that would branch off from the Continental Ave station through a new tunnel that would emerge along the South shore of Willow Lake and hook North along both lake's shorelines to a depot near where the lake house is today. When finished, the fairgrounds (including both lakes) spanned 1.200 acres. While 100 acres smaller than the park Moses wanted to build, it did give the city a new park. Now all Moses needed was the money to convert the flat fairgrounds into something resembling Central Park.
When the 1939 World's Fair opened, America was just emerging from the Great Depression. Meanwhile Germany had begun invading neighboring countries in Adolf Hitler's bid to rule the world. A second World War was imminent, and would eventually effect the fair. Not only were pavilions closing as their home countries were wiped off the map, but the fair could no longer count on attracting patrons from other countries as the growing war began to make world travel too risky. Inevitably attendance at the fair was low.
During its second year, a decision was made to include more amusements, which did not sit well with Moses. But by this time there was little he could do. For a single year Meadow Lake became a large amusement park with the bulk of the rides existing along it's North shore. Here the Life Savers company sponsored a huge tower that simulated falling from a parachute. The device was initially invented to train soldiers to use parachutes, but when the Army went with less expensive zip lines instead, it was repurposed as a ride. When the fair closed the Tilyou family bought the ride and re-erected it at Steeplechase park. The Parachute Jump has since become the symbol of Coney Island.
When the 1939 World's Fair closed in 1940, it's investors were nearly $50 million in the hole. They soon after filed for bankruptcy. There would be no money for Moses to build Flushing Meadow park. It would have to remain just as it was. While the city removed the IND World's Fair spur, they decided to keep 80 acres on the park's South end for a "temporary" train yard so that the tunnel and bridge over the Grand Central parkway would have a use.
The United States entered WWII in 1941. For the duration of the 1940s there would be no money for a park as all available tax funds went to the war effort, and then after to build affordable housing for the returning veterans. In the 1950s Moses came up with another scheme to finance his park. The city would finance the development of the Northern fairgrounds in conjunction with the building of a major city owned sports stadium in Willet's Point. But the stadium would not be built unless one of New York City's three major league baseball teams agreed to lease it. The Yankee's were satisfied with their stadium in the Bronx, but both the Giants and Dodgers were looking to move to larger stadiums.
Both refused to move their teams to Flushing, preferring to stay in their home boroughs near their fans. For the rest of the decade Moses used his power to prevent the owners of both teams from building new stadiums in an attempt to force them to accept the Flushing offer. This ended up backfiring when both teams ended up leaving New York for California. When the Mets agreed to move their team to Flushing a few years later the city had downgraded development plans for just the stadium and a large surrounding parking lot.
So when a group of Businessmen founded another World's Fair corporation in a bid to bring a new exposition to the old fair grounds, it became Moses last chance to build his dream park. Now approaching his 70s, he was past the accepted retirement age and knew his reign of power would soon be at an end. Once again a bid was made to the BIE for New York City to host a 1960 Expo, and once again Moses insistence that the fair span for more than a single year resulted in the BIE turning New York down. And once again Moses went ahead as planned.
This time Moses insisted on running the fair himself, which required him to step down as the head of the parks division. Plans were in place for his dream park to be built after his retirement. With a few exceptions, the 1964 World's Fair would be set on the exact same acreage as the previous fair. While 1939 fair rules had required that all participants remove their pavilions when leaving, two state owned pavilions had not been torn down due to the lack of funds to do so. The New York State pavilion was repurposed into the home of the United Nations, where they would remain until their move to their current site on the East River.
The Aquatheater was repurposed into a public swimming pool. Both would be used for the 1964 World's Fair. This gave Moses the idea of having other pavilions built that would remain in place after the fair closed as park amenities and museums. Once again, profits from the fair would finance the completion of Flushing Meadow Park. It was now a generation since the Great Depression, and there were no World Wars to get in the way. This World's Fair seemed destined to generate millions in profits. That is until Freedomland was announced, and it would be competing against the fair.
Freedomlad U.S.A. opened up first in 1960. Conspiracy theorists insist this deliberate opening date was picked so that the park would not close until four years later, allowing the buildings on the site to exist for the required five years and not a day more. Losing attendance to the World's Fair was supposed to be their excuse for going bankrupt. Whether or not Freedoland U.S.A. was a scam to ultimately build Co-Op City, or was legitimately an attempt to build a Disneyland in New York City, it would result in a clash of the titans.
On the one side Freedomland, the greatest achievement in the amusement industry to date. On the other side amusement park killer Robert Moses who was hinging his legacy on a World's Fair. Would the fair draw attendance from Freedomland causing it to go bankrupt? Or would Freedomland win out and draw attendance from the fair, causing Moses career to end in failure. Or would both annihilate each other?
Freedomland U.S.A. was 85 acres. (The other 120 acres on the park's property were set aside for parking and future expansion.) It was shaped like the map of the United States, and divided into seven themed areas. Old New York, Old Chicago, The Great Plains, Old San Francisco, The Old South West, New Orleans-Mardi Gras and Satellite City-The Future. Each section featured historical reproductions of streets from long ago, similar to Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. Much like Disneyland, the emphasis was put on educational attractions rather than rides. But that would change during the 1962 season.
A new section, State Fair Midway, was added. Here standard carnival rides, and a roller coaster, were added to complement the few historical rides the park had. About the same time the park began booking celebrities to perform at their main stage, beginning with Louie Armstrong, followed by the likes of Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and The Three Stooges. It did seem as if the owners of Freedomland were making an effort to attract more patrons. But then again they did raise the admittance fee for no reason, pricing out millions of working families.
In 1964 it was Robert Moses turn. With the prospect of opening up against a Disney style theme park, many of the pavilions included amusements. Some were walk through, some ride through, and some, like U.S. Royal's giant tire shaped Ferris wheel, were amusement park style rides. Four pavilions even hired Walt Disney himself to design their exhibits. For the Illinois pavilion his company designed an audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln who recited the Gettysburg Address. For General Electric his company created the Carousel of Progress. For the Ford Motor Company, Ford's Magic Skyway where visitors rode in actual Ford Mustangs along a track past animated dinosaurs. And for the Pepsi pavilion, Disney's company created the It's A Small World ride.
While most of the pavilions had amusement elements to attract visitors, Moses made sure the fair had no actual midway. What it did have was the reprisal of the lakeside amusement area from the 1939 World's Fair. All the other participants in the fair insisted on including amusements, so Moses reluctantly included the section. But unlike 1939, the fairgrounds were now bisected by the Long Island Expressway. The only access to the amusement area, and to the lake itself, was via a long bridge. Moses refused to allow the lakeside amusements to advertise, so most fair-goers had no idea the amusement section existed.
In the fall of 1964 Freedomland U.S.A. closed, claiming that the World's Fair was the final straw. But that was little comfort for Moses. He had just discovered that the accountants for the fair had mismanaged the money. They had included advance ticket sales for 1965 as part of the 1964 gate, giving the impression that attendance in '64 was higher than it was. Once this was factored in, the new projection had the fair closing at millions of dollars in debt. As an act of desperation to boost attendance, Moses began allowing more amusements in the minuscule lakeside amusement area. But a few more amusements did not make up for the lack of a decent midway. Even with amusement inspired pavilions, the World's Fair was seen as educational without being entertaining. A last minute boost in attendance was not to be, even without the competition from Freedomland for the 1965 season. The fair closed in bankruptcy. There would be no money to finish building Flushing Meadows Park.
Just as he predicted, Robert Moses fell out of power not too long after 1965. Fed up with public projects that drove families out of their homes with eminent domain, public officials like Robert Moses were precieved as tyrants who abused their powers. Laws were inacted that made it harder for the government to envoke eminent domain, or for large scale projects to go forward without the publics permission. Moses was pressuerd into resigning as the head of various departments, and the ones he refused to vacate were disolved. In 1968 he proposed one last major project, a bridge that would connect central Long Island to Rye New York, and would, predictably, run right through Rye Playland, most likely requiering it's demolition. With no money for Flushing Meadows Park, it remained undeveloped. To this day it is mostly an open field with none of the Central Park style landscaping Moses wanted. And, ironically, it is no longed larger than Central Park. A recent survay of the park downgraded it from 1,200+ acres to 897 acres. The surveyers deducted areas no longer accessible to the public which included the now permanent MTA subway yard, but also included areas that Moses built his highways through, including the Union Turnpike interchange, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Long Island Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway which was widened in 1961 for the 1964 World's Fair, and all the large clove leafs where these highways meet.
Freedomland U.S.A. was kept standing for a few months after it closed, so that the standing buildings could be measured at their 5 year mark. While some of the property did settle, the entire 400 acres were given the green light for development. The great theme park was removed with no trace of it's existence remaining. Co-Op City was built on Freedomland's vast parking lot, while the footprint of Freedomland itself became the Bay Plaza Mall. While the perceived financial disaster of Freedomland U.S.A. may have deflected future theme park developers from building in New York City, it did not deflect Walt Disney himself. Walt had agreed to participate in the World's Fair mainly because he saw Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood as his nemesis. Walt did not appreciate Wood claiming to have designed Disneyland, nor his attempts to build theme parks that were called "The Disneyland Of..." whatever region they were built in. Building Disney exhibits at the world fair would help draw attendance from Freedomland, which Walt would have been happy to see fail. Once the world fair closed, Walt expressed some interest in using the site as a east coast version of Disneyland. But the parks department was still loyal to Robert Moses, and was told in no certain terms that Flushing Meadows Park would not be open to private development. Perhaps Disney could have built on the abandoned Freedomland site, but his interest in New York only went as far as retaining the pavilions he had helped to create. If they needed to be moved, then they may as well be moved to Disney's new property in Florida where he was planning Disneyworld.
What Moses tried to do to the amusement park industry in New York City, time nearly accomplished. The amusement parks that managed to escape his wrath on South Beach and the Rockaways gradually closed since his demise, as did the '50s era kiddie parks. In 2006 Brooklyn's Nelly Bly Amusement Park closed, leaving Coney Island as the final neighborhood in the entire city where an amusement park could be found. And even Coney Island was in danger. That same year Joe Sitt, who had bought a huge chunk of the amusement district, and seemed close to working with the city to acquire what was left, admitted the resort he wanted to build on what was left of the amusement zone would be residential, with perhaps some room for upscale amusements on the ground floors. Already he had forced one of Coney's last remaining amusement parks to close, and had the final three in his cross hairs. It looked as if New York City was within a year or two of having no amusement parks at all. But then an interesting trend happened. New York politicians seemed to be anti-amusement industry from the late 60s onward. But a new generation of parents in the early 21st century began to realize that there was virtually nowhere to bring their children. They remembered their parents taking them to the last of the amusement parks when they were children. Noe their kids had nothing.
More and more there was a demand for politicians to do something to bring back amusement parks. This was easier said than done. Attempts by politicians to bring amusement parks back to Staten Island and the Rockaways failed when local residents who would live near these parks protested. The turning point came after Nelly Bly closed. Instead of the property reverting back to the parks department, it was leased to another amusement vendor and reopened as Adventurer's Family Entertainment, run by the same company that operated Adventurer's Inn. Part of Central Park was leased to Zamperla for Victoria Gardens, an amusement park that opens during the summer season. And the latest, Fantasy Forest opened in Flushing Meadows Park. Coney Island's future may still seems in doubt, but thanks to this current trend, there may be more city amusement parks opening in the future, this time on park property where they would be protected against developers, and far enough away from residential homes that no one can complain. The same parks that Robert Moses built. The very public parks he had hoped would replace amusement parks, will now help restore the amusement park industry to the city. Moses must be turning in his grave.