By: John B. Robinson
Conceived at a time when theme parks were still a new concept in the amusement park industry, Freedomland U.S.A. was New York City's first and only theme park. Dedicated to the portrayal of American history, this heavily themed extravaganza sought to tell America's story through seven major themed areas, each based upon a different city or region of the country. Located in the borough of The Bronx, Freedomland would unfortunately last for only five seasons.
When the park opened in June 1960, it boasted four dark ride attractions, an impressive number even back then when such rides were far more commonplace on the amusement scene. Built by the Arrow Development Co., each was themed to such a degree that they were unique from similar attractions found at other parks at the time.
The San Francisco Earthquake Ride was located in the Old San Francisco area. Since it was the intention of Freedomland to teach as well as entertain, while waiting on line people were given a recorded commentary about the great quake of 1906. A painted mural by the ride's loading area depicted the ruined skyline of the stricken city moments after the catastrophe struck.
Guests were transported in antique automobiles. As soon as you got inside you found yourself "driving" on the streets of San Francisco the evening before the disaster.
People could be seen dancing the night away, oblivious to their fate. Next you were in Chinatown and along the Barbary Coast, where an errant sailor was getting tossed from a waterfront saloon near the path of your horseless carriage.
Suddenly, buildings began to shake and quiver in an alarming manner. A two story house slid off it's foundation toward the car you were riding in. Frightened human mannequins could be seen in the windows of the collapsing buildings. It was a thrill to be the "driver" during this adventure as you "steered" around buckling sidewalks and falling concrete columns. The effects were not confined to the visual, either. An alert rider could spot what appeared to be a rotating drum suspended above the street. Evidently the drum was filled with all kinds of objects which added the sounds of breaking glass and falling masonry to the scene of horror unfolding before one's eyes. More painted murals illustrated the destruction in rather graphic detail. At the climax, viewed a fire scene was seen. Somewhat crude by today's standards, the scene none-the-less inspired a touch of fear in youngsters by the use of flickering orange lights and silhouettes of burned out buildings. Architecturally the houses and buildings depicted were faithful to those found in the City by the Golden Gate, sporting bay windows. Many were of the famous Victorian style.
Located in the Old Southwest section was The Mine Caverns. Surely motivated by the preponderance of mining and caverns in this region of America, The Mine Caverns were a junior speleologist's dream come true.
In outward appearance The Mine Caverns resembled the Super�stition Mountain attraction currently in operation at Indiana Beach. This was a ride on two levels, part of which was actually underground! It was also the only attraction out of the four that featured monsters and related creatures.
The opening scenes were of a family of cave dwellers engaging in Petrology. One cave man menaced intruders with a huge boulder, and dragons stuck their heads through crevices in the cave walls. Directly ahead the way appeared to be blocked by a pile of rocks, but these were pushed aside by the mine cart you would be riding in. Thus was revealed a vast subterranean cavern inhabited by giant insects and other weird critters which defied description.
Stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere, illuminated by a variety of colored spotlights. The cart was climbing ever upward through all this, close to the stalactites which suddenly dropped as you passed underneath. Just before exiting another car containing two human figures would emerge from a siding and halt just in time to avert a collision. This last incident was totally unexpected and quite effective, too.
The Old South was represented by the New Orleans Mardi Gras themed section, and was the locale of Freedomland's other two adventures in the dark. The Tornado Ride sought to recreate the experience of being caught up in a real twister and was also quite enjoyable.
Once again riders were transported in antique autos. A strange whistling noise could be heard while boarding and signs warned to hold onto your hats. Entering the darkened chamber the car would execute a sharp u-turn, revealing a placid farm scene.
Suddenly a gusty wind would hit riders in the face as the dreaded tornado was about to strike! Houses spun on end and you could see the terrified residents through the windows. All sorts of objects were flying by as you approached the spinning funnel dead ahead.
At the last that moment the car veered off but soon was traveling through a rotating barrel as the wicked cyclone got you in it's clutches! Next the hapless riders found themselves inside a barn. The din here was earsplitting with cackling chickens, mooing cows, and horses whinnying up a storm of fright themselves. Helpless cows appeared to float overhead, and a huge bale of hay threatened to suffocate riders just before departing this scene of Mother Nature's wrath and chaos
Just across the way, The Buccaneers adventure awaited one and all. This time the method of travel was in a boat-like vehicle adorned with a skull serving as a sort of hood ornament.
Traveling through the opening scenes in the pub lent one a feeling of the forbidden as the pirates here all had a threatening, dangerous look in their faces. An interesting aspect of many dark rides are the mysterious wooden doors which often separate different chambers inside. Your vehicle slams into these doors and they part before you, adding another element of the unexpected to the experience. The Buccaneers Ride made good use of these contraptions. You both entered and exited the pub through such doors, and just when you thought you were safely past the menacing Bucs you found yourself sailing between dueling pirate ships, complete with cannon fire and flashing lights.
More scenes were to follow depicting pirates sailing by lighted buoys, digging for treasure beneath palm trees, and various evening island scenes. The action exploded in rapid order as skeletons frolicked about and a hapless pirate was hung. In the last scene a sea serpent reared it's ugly head while emitting a bone chilling shriek. In later years Disney would introduce the Pirates of the Caribbean adventure to it's famous park, and it was to closely follow the gist of Freedomland's earlier version. Disney's ride was more technically advanced, and it is interesting for those who have experienced them both to compare the differing results that a few years of technical development could bring about.
Freedomland's dark rides were immensely popular, and riders almost always I had to endure a wait in order to enjoy them. Because of the theming involved they were indeed one-of-a-kind. Perhaps it was fitting that three of these rides found a new lease on life after Freedomland closed following the 1964 season. The Tornado Ride made it's way to Kennywood Park in Pennsylvania then to The Great Escape at Lake George in upstate New York.
The Earthquake and Buccaneers were transported to Cedar Point in Ohio, where The Buccaneers was renamed The Pirate Ride. Lasting until very recently, even the mock-up ship facade, including the crow's nest, was reassembled outside the entrance of The Pirate Ride. The Earthquake Ride would succumb around 1983 or so, and I was fortunate in being able to travel to the Point to enjoy this ride shortly before it's second and final demise.
I dearly loved these rides as a child, and was overjoyed upon learning that they survived, albeit far and wide from their original location. I made the trip to Cedar Point just to experience these rides again! I was to travel more than once to avail myself, considering myself fortunate that this was still possible years after the closure of Freedomland. It sure was great, however, when they existed all in one place only ten minutes from my home in The Bronx!
By: Jim Abbate
If DAFE existed 40 years ago I'm sure members would have made Freedomland a convention destination since the park had no-less than six walk-thrus and darkrides.
The San Francisco-1906 themed area, was home to the Earthquake darkride. Here you safely saw the April 18, 1906 SF earthquake and fire recreated in harrowing detail. You rode past buckling sidewalks, open fissures and collapsing buildings. You also saw houses slide sideways and crack in two, then burst into flames!
In the Old Southwest-1890s area we found the Casa-Loca (Crazy House) Magnetic House. Visitors appeared to be toppling over in this miners-cabin which was built at a 25 degree angle.
During this walk-thru a water display appeared to flow uphill while tin cans rolled mysteriously across a level table and out a window!
Another attraction in the Old Southwest was the Mine Caverns. This mine-train carried passengers through a fantastic underground world where you would gasp at giant bats, beetles and other insects, shriek at the bubbling lava-pits and cower in the face of the cave monster!
The New Orleans-Mardi Gras themed section featured the final 3 DAFE-type attractions including the Crystal Maze, a transparent house of mirrors. Moving along we found the Buccaneers darkride where a longboat took you through scenes from the age of Jean Lafitte, the New Orleans pirate! Here you were caught in cannon-fire between two pirate frigates and finally you witnessed a pirate hanging. The sixth attraction was the Tornado Adventure. In this dark-ride you saw the whirling cone of a wild tornado bearing down on you as you were snatched up in the swiftly, whirling storm while wreckage of a whole countryside revolved dizzily around you!
After Freedomland closed, two amusement parks pretty much bought the bulk of the walk-thrus and darkrides. Of course Cedar Point purchased the Buccaneer and renamed it the Pirates Ride. They also purchased the Earthquake darkride and left the name the same. I remember riding the Earthquake at Cedar Point in the 70's for the first time and while standing in line, as cars exited the attraction, riders were hollering that the "bat" inside looked awfully real. Sure enough, it was a real bat and the ride operators closed the ride until maintenance men were able to get the bat out of there.
The other park to purchase some of the rides was the Great Escape in New York. While I have no information on what happened to the Casa Loca (it was probably demolished), Great Escape secured the Mine Caverns and used part of the ride for their (Ghost) Train ride. The Crystal Maze was also relocated and ended up as a stand for funnel-cakes and a small office. Finally, the Tornado Adventure was relocated and renamed the Tornado!
Editors Note: In addition to the above attractions, Freedomland was home to a great illusion attraction: the Braniff Airways spaceship. This unusual ride simulated a trip into space. Created by Otis T. Carr, this is one of two such attractions know to have been built. The other was at Frontier City USA in Oklahoma City, OK.
This article ©2002 John B. Robinson and used with permission.
Photos ©2002, Rick Davis, Jim Abbate, John B. Robinson, Kennywood Park, ©2001 Ron Shurr, Brochure images courtesy of Jim Abbate and are used with permission.