by Paul Ruben
Back in the early ’70s I began photographing and writing about amusement parks because I was concerned they would all soon disappear. Traditional amusement parks were being bulldozed, and shopping malls and condominiums were rising in their place. They’re no fun.
This redevelopment eventually slowed, new theme parks emerged and ride junkies everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. But now I have a new concern. Coastal amusement parks are vanishing, being replaced by either high-rise condominium apartments or, regrettably, by nothing but overgrown weeds.
I recently completed a seven-day, 10-park tour up the East Coast of the United States, visiting venues in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. In the photo here I’m at Trimper’s Rides in Ocean City, Maryland, currently an endangered park. I love travelling along the coast, not only for the seaside parks, but for the great seafood and adult beverages. In Virginia, my favourite restaurant, Captain Skanky’s, had closed so I tried Scales and Tails. I couldn’t believe it when the waitress told me that the evening special was lobster tails for only five dollars. When I ordered one, she sat down at my table and said, “Once upon a time there was this big red lobster…”
Even for those operators of seaside parks enjoying a good season, however, concern for their long-term viability was evident. Rising land values, increased taxes and subsequent lucrative offers for their land are convincing some operators to sell and enjoy their retirement. Oppressive ride regulations instituted recently in New Jersey are giving successful operators there second thoughts. Couple these challenges with rising costs experienced by owners everywhere and the thought of selling and moving on becomes an appealing alternative.
But what of the park patrons? They thrill to these venues each summer during their visit the shore. As the sun goes down, a night at a seaside amusement park is as much a part of the experience as splashing in the ocean or sunning on the beach. During these enchanted evenings, the joy in children’s faces is unmistakable. Shore parks are part of the economic engine that drive these summer resorts. Even prospective buyers of the condos that replace the parks would find their summertime experience diminished by the absence of amusement venues.
I, for one, would like to forbid construction of condominiums on the coast, but that’s not going to happen. New Jersey has embraced the amusement piers as a vital component of the Shore’s cultural heritage; they are enlightened when it comes to building on ocean piers. Residential use is not permitted. I’d like to see that ban extended to the other side of the boardwalk, too, for several hundred feet. And I’d like other states to follow New Jersey’s lead. (Fat chance.)
One of my favourite pastimes while at the Shore is to walk the boardwalk, scanning the beach activity as I go. I noticed one gal carrying a travel bag, going from sun bather to sun bather, especially those with portable radios, and occasionally taking something out of her bag in exchange for money. I finally determined that she was a battery salesperson. She sells C cells by the seashore. Say that five times!