A year ago this past June, a couple of historians of the Freedomland U.S.A. theme park (1960-1964) gathered with a handful of park buffs, a number of casual fans of Freedomland and several young people (who had heard about the venue from their 50-ish and 60-ish parents) to celebrate the park’s golden anniversary. They met at the Barnes & Noble store in the Bay Plaza Shopping Center (adjacent to Co-op City where the New England Thruway crosses with the Hutchison River Parkway) that has occupied the site of The Bronx theme park for more than 30 years.
Organized by radio broadcaster Bob Mangels, the two-hour program included a discussion about the Freedomland book that was published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the June 19, 1960 opening day. Mangels also showcased excerpts of interviews with park employees and vintage footage of attractions that appear on his DVD about Freedomland. The 80+-minute DVD is a thorough history about the park’s beginnings, the history-themed attractions and the park’s eventual bankruptcy,
Read about last year’s Freedomland commemoration at Freedomland celebrates 50th anniversary.
Almost one year later on a Saturday morning this past May, just a few weeks before what would have been the 50th anniversary of the opening of Freedomland’s second season, several of the same Freedomland fans were joined at the site by others who have a keen interest in and significant knowledge about the park.
Using a blueprint of the park, which was arranged into seven themed sections within the shape of the continental U.S., and with the help of GPS, this year’s group studied the layout of attractions and tried to visualize the old park amongst the cars in the shopping center parking lot and the surrounding box stores. They compared notes, verified facts about ownership and management, shuned any misinformation and discussed personal memories from their teen or pre-teen years. They walked the remaining undeveloped land that had been within the park boundaries. They also searched for remnants of the park, including the concrete footprint for the never constructed Freedomland Inn motel.
Mangels was joined by his daughter, Heidi, who is too young to have visited the park but knows it well through her father’s research and memories, and his brother Rich. Originally from the Bedford Park section of the borough, the Mangels traveled to The Bronx that morning from Wellsville, New York (near Buffalo).
Robert McLaughlin, from Massachusetts, also drove to the site that morning to meet the group. McLaughlin co-authored the Freedomland book (Arcadia Publishing) that was issued last year. An updated edition recently was published.
McLaughlin has conducted considerable research about Freedomland and the two other parks from the same era that also portrayed a history theme with Disneyland-like technology — Pleasure Island near Boston (see his website that includes a new Freedomland section and information about the book) and another one in Colorado that was the first such park. All three parks met the same fate by the end of the 1960s.
Though he had never visited Freedomland during its heyday, McLaughlin has been to the site several times and made the May trip to see what he could find on the property and to meet the other Freedomland fans (including the writer of this article who grew up in the residential community adjacent to the park). The objectives of the group outing included sharing cumulative knowledge about the rise and fall of the park, discussing the comparisons of Freedomland with the Boston and Colorado parks, and exchanging details about Freedomland’s connection with Disneyland.
While making his way to The Bronx, McLaughlin was joined by John Bulakowski of Connecticut, who visited Freedomland often when his family lived in Queens. Rob and Sue Friedman from Long Island also met the group. Rob never saw the park, but Sue did, and a few years ago they created a popular Freedomland website tribute.
This core group of buffs and many other New Yorkers who now are scattered around the country have a deep affection for Freedomland. The park was unique. It was billed as “The world’s largest entertainment center!” It opened at a time of peak interest in American history based on Disney’s promotion of Daniel Boone, the many westerns on television and the commemoration of the centennial of the Civil War. For young adults, Freedomland also presented the hottest rock ‘n’ roll and comedic entertainers of the day.
Featured In LIFE
The August 1, 1960 issue of LIFE magazine published a story about the new theme parks that were opening across the country that year, and Freedomland was prominently featured.
Education With Fun And Shivers
Booming amusement parks spike bits of history with lots of excitement.
Having the times of their lives being scared almost to death, the five young Americans above (a picture showed five youth in an automated car during a cave ride attraction that provided a lesson in geologic history)are part of the bigger-than-ever audiences this summer at amusement parks. The surge of customers supports the current emphasis in the fun-spot business toward “theme parks” that stick to one motif – and are generally aimed at being educational….most…have educational pretensions—and a marked absence of roller coasters. Of the big new parks in the U.S., some 50% have adapted the “theme park” pattern. Among them: Disneyland, the granddaddy of the movement, New York’s Freedomland, Africa U.S.A. in Florida, Wisconsin’s Fort Dells with its western setting and the proposed Bible Storyland in California….Freedomland, the latest, largest and most elaborate theme park, opened last month on the outskirts of New York City. It covers 85 acres, is shaped like a map of the United States, and cost $65 million. Visitors can stroll from New York to Illinois, watch the great Chicago fire, ride in a Great Lakes stern-wheeler or a fur trappers’ boat and sample a hundred other thrills connected, more or less, with American history. Freedomland was designed by one of the architects of Disneyland….
The article also contained stunning photographs of attractions at these new parks. From Freedomland, pictures included fighting the Chicago fire, paddling a Chippewa war canoe, traveling through the northwest fur trapper area (part of which was located on the current undeveloped land at the site), looking masked bandits in the eye on the Santa Fe railroad and riding on a Great Lakes paddle-wheeler.
The article ends with a full page photo of several boys standing in Casa Loca, one of the more popular attractions at the park. This “crazy house” replica of a miner’s cabin was built at a 25 degree angle. So, while the boys in the picture are standing upright, they look as if they are defying the laws of physics, as did the water in the cabin that always appeared to flow uphill and the tin can that rolled across a level table and out a window.
The True Story About Freedomland
The Freedomland team that met during May never did find that concrete footprint of the planned motel. However, they did conclude that some of the debris scattered throughout the overgrown vacant field were part of park structures or attractions.
The visit also accomplished a renewing of acquaintances, the establishment of new friendships and a commitment to continue to share newly discovered information about Freedomland. All of this will ensure that the accurate story about the park’s popularity, along with its embroilment with the politics, business and real estate developments and leaders of that time, will continue to be told.
Read a seven-part online series about the history of Freedomland U.S.A. at Suite101.