The Birth of Theme Parks in the Adirondacks

Adirondack Journal

Spring in the Adirondack Park is a bustling time as local residents prepare for a flood of vacationers during the summer season. Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the tourist season for most businesses within the Park.

In an area where tourism is the foundation of economic activity, the amount of time and effort Adirondack residents devote to this season is of no surprise.

As soon as the snow melts and the ice goes out, people employed in the tourist industry busy themselves in various ways; hiring and training new staff, cleaning and opening seasonal camps, distributing advertisements and brochures, and reopening ice cream stands, motels, and marinas.

Thousands of visitors are drawn to the Adirondacks to relax and play in this alluring region. Bountiful outdoor experiences are available such as camping, swimming, hiking, boating, or relaxing in the sun.

Many may not realize that this pristine wilderness region full of opportunities for outdoor recreation, is also the birthplace of the theme park, with a rich history of providing man-made entertainment for visitors and residents alike.

One of the earliest amusement parks in the Adirondacks originated as a picnic area developed by the Fonda, Johnstown, and Gloversville railroad line to attract patrons. F.J. & G. sought ways to revive the Gloversville and Northville line, located in the northeastern corner of Fulton County, New York.

What would become Sacandaga Park, ironically known as the “Coney Island of the North,” began as picnic grounds for hire near Northville, N.Y. In 1888 the Adirondack Inn was built with rooms for 250 guests and an elevator, which was a rarity for Adirondack resorts. Cottages quickly sprung up around the Inn.

After a fire in 1898 destroyed all but nine of the 120 cottages, railroad officials quickly cleared the rubble and transported materials at no cost to residents whose property burned. The railroad men now envisioned redeveloping more than a glorified picnic area. The first additions would be a theater and regulation nine-hole golf course.

Next, the railroad formed the Sacandaga Amusement Company, building a huge midway with a rollercoaster, two carousels, a shooting gallery, and a house of fun. In 1901, a new picnic area was constructed along with a grandstand and baseball diamond that was later home to the New York State Baseball League. There was a miniature train connecting the island where the grandstand was located to the midway. The theater attracted famous talents such as Al Jolson, Zazu Pitts, and W.C. Fields.

However, multiple fires and a decline in railroad use plagued Sacandaga Park. The popularity of this resort was short-lived, with more and more vacationers abandoning railroads in favor of the individual mobility offered by automobiles. Then the midway burned in 1912 followed by the grandstand in 1918.

The final blow to the park came in 1926 when the Hudson River Regulating Board condemned the property in preparation for a reservoir to control flooding on the Hudson River. Much of the land that was Sacandaga Park now lies underneath the Sacandaga Reservoir.

In the 1940s and 50s, a new generation of parks emerged. Not focused on rides, these “theme parks,” designed around a single idea, were the first of their kind in the nation. The very first was the North Pole, located in Wilmington, N.Y. The instant popularity of the North Pole is credited with the development of theme parks throughout the country, including Disneyland.

In 1947, artist and toymaker Arto Monaco was approached by a man named Julian Reiss with an idea for a theme park designed around the beloved story of Santa Claus and his workshop. The North Pole was an immediate success, opening to an unexpectedly large number of visitors in 1949.

The popularity of the North Pole lead to Reiss’s Old McDonald’s Farm in Lake Placid, N.Y. and Monaco’s “Land of Makebelieve” in Upper Jay, N.Y.

Over time there have been a number of theme parks to delight visitors throughout the Adirondack Park, including Frontier Town, a “cowboy town” in North Hudson, N.Y. aimed at preserving the history of frontier life. Attractions such as Gaslight Village, “Ghostown,” Magic Forest, and The House of Frankenstein Wax Museum, all located in Lake George, have added to the entertainment of Adirondack visitors.

While some of these theme parks have closed over the years, there are still a number that continues to attract visitors and provide amusement for kids and adults alike. The Great Escape, a theme park located near Lake George, has incorporated pieces from parks that have closed, such as Gas Light Village, Storytown, and the “Land of Makebelieve.” The Adirondack Park is also home to New York’s largest water theme park. Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge, N.Y. delights guests with an array of water rides and a theme village reminiscent of Monaco’s original creations.

Summer in the Adirondacks draws all kinds of people. From exploring natural wonders to visiting unique man-made attractions, there are many ways to spend time in the Adirondacks. Millions of tourists come year after year. And so, year-round residents work each spring to ensure wonderful summertime experiences for vacationers.

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