Great Moments
in Amusement Park History

An Amusement Park History Timeline


Pleasure Gardens begin to appear in Europe. These were the first permanent areas set aside specifically for outdoor entertainment. The attractions included fountains, flower gardens, bowling, games, music, dancing, staged spectacles and a few primitive amusement rides.


Large ice slides, supported by heavy timbers, become popular as a wintertime diversion in Russia, with the most elaborate being in St. Petersburg. Small wooden sleds used iron runners to glide down the slides. These simple amusements were the forerunner of today's roller coasters.


The pleasure garden is exported to America with the opening of Vauxhall Gardens in New York City.  By the early 1800s, it is home to one of the first carousels in the country.


Coney Island is linked to New York City via roadway and the first hotel opens, launching the growth of America’s most legendary amusement area.


The first looping gravity railway is exhibited at Frascati Gardens, in Paris, France. The French called the device Chemin du Centrifuge.


With the completion of the first railroad, Coney Island is fast becoming popular as a seaside resort.

Coney's most popular attractions were located in pavilions built near the water, including cabaret entertainment, vaudeville acts, melodramas, fortune tellers, games, and rides such as small carousels.


LaMarcus A. Thompson introduces his Switchback Gravity Pleasure Railway at Coney Island. This device is recognized as the first true roller coaster in America although several similar attractions had already opened, such as the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway.


The first electric-powered street railway opens in Richmond, Virginia.  Soon hundreds of trolley lines are constructed around the country. To maximize revenue, operators sought ways to attract riders during the lightly used periods of evenings and weekends.  Amusement parks, typically built at the end of the trolley lines, provided an ideal solution. “Trolley parks” spread rapidly throughout America offering picnic facilities, dance halls, restaurants, games, and a few amusement rides.


Lina Beecher of NY constructs America's first vertical looping roller coaster in Toledo. It is later relocated to New York's Coney Island. Some imitation rides, such as the Loop the Loop on Young's Pier in Atlantic City (pictured).


Chicago's Columbian Exposition introduces the famous George Ferris Giant Wheel. A true wonder of the then-modern world, the first Ferris wheel weighed in at over 4 million lbs. and was 264 feet high.

Also introduced at the Columbian Exposition was the first true midway, known as the Midway Plaisance (or White City Midway). The Exposition’s ornate building facades and brilliant electric lights dictated amusement park design for the next 60 years.


Chutes Park in Chicago opens. Built by Captain Paul Boyton, Chutes Park was the first amusement park to be enclosed and charge admission. After relocating in 1896, Chutes Park closed in 1908. The park served as a model for Sea Lion Park at New York's Coney Island.


Captain Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park opens at Coney Island. Sea Lion Park inspired numerous amusement parks throughout the United States, including the three great Coney Island parks: Luna Park (1903-47), Dreamland (1904-11), and Steeplechase (1897-1964).


Thompson and Dundy's Luna Park opens on May 16th at Coney Island. The electrical "Arabian Nights" style of architecture attracted over 40,000 patrons that first evening. Luna Park burned down in 1947.


By this date, more than 2,000 amusement parks are operating throughout the US.


Many parks close, due to the invention of the automobile and interest in new attractions such as motion pictures.


This is the golden age of amusement parks. Many larger cities had as many as six. Competition spawns a building boom that lasted until the end of the decade. Many of the best roller coasters of all time were built during this period by John A. Miller.


John Miller patents his design for the underfriction roller coaster wheel. This new method of holding the coaster to the tracks would revolutionize the roller coaster, safely allowing for steeper drops and faster speeds.


Playland in Rye, NY opens May 26. Designed by a New York architectural firm under the direction of Frank Darling, Playland is the first fully planned amusement park built from the ground up.


The Stock Market Crash and Great Depression cause the closing of many more parks. The number of amusement parks in the US decreases to less than 500 from over 2000 in 1910.


Amusement parks offer a diversion from the Second World War. Rationing and scarcity of supplies hamper the wartime growth of amusement parks.


Baby boomers come of age and a new innovation, Kiddielands, begin to spring up near another post-war phenomenon, the shopping center. Due to rapidly rising property values, the boom in Kiddieland building is short-lived.


Disneyland opens, generally considered the nation's first major theme park. Built at a cost of $17 million, Disneyland represented the largest investment in an amusement park that had been made up to that time. In spite of skepticism over such a new concept, the park was an instant success, drawing 3.8 million visitors to its five themed areas during its first season.


The Matterhorn premiers at Disneyland. Built by Arrow Development, the Matterhorn is the first major steel roller coaster with tubular track, forever changing the face of roller coaster development.


Six Flags Over Texas opens in Arlington, Texas. This was the first successful regional theme park, and in its first full season of operation, 1.3 million visitors passed through the turnstiles.


Arrow Development introduces the first log flume ride at Six Flags Over Texas. The ride quickly became the most popular ride at the park, and soon many log flumes were being built at theme and traditional parks around the world.


Large inner city parks begin closing, reflecting changing times. As turmoil increases throughout large cities, parks feel similar pressures. Notable parks closed in this period include Riverview, Chicago, IL (1967); Euclid Beach, Cleveland, OH (1969); and Palisades Park, Cliffside Park, NJ (1971).


Large corporate-backed theme parks begin growing in numbers with such major corporations as Marriott Corp; Penn Central; Anheuser-Busch; Taft Broadcasting; Mattel; and Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich invest in theme parks.

Many small family-owned traditional parks succumb to competitive pressures and go the way of the mom-and-pop grocery store. Still, other traditional parks renovate and expand to compete with the new wave of theme parks. Examples include Kennywood, Pittsburgh, PA; Cedar Point, Sandusky, OH; Dorney Park, Allentown, PA; Lagoon, Farmington, UT; and Hersheypark, Hershey, PA.


Walt Disney World opens on 27,500 acres in central Florida. Disney makes the biggest investment ever for an amusement resort, a whopping $250 million.


Kings Island opens near Cincinnati, OH and is credited with the revival of the classic wooden roller coaster by building the Racer.  The 1970s is a decade of renewal for the roller coaster and the regional theme park.  Not only are parks seeking to top each other with the tallest and fastest ride, but it is a decade of roller coaster innovation not seen since the 1920s as the looping roller coaster becomes an industry staple.


Canada's Wonderland opens in Toronto, Canada. It was widely considered to be the last theme park constructed in North America as part of the boom that reached its peak in the 70s. With costs up and all major markets apparently taken, experts considered the American theme park market to be saturated.


EPCOT Center opens at Walt Disney World in Florida. Considered a permanent World's Fair, EPCOT is the first theme park to surpass $1 billion in cost.


Tokyo Disneyland opens. Other corporations in the amusement business are now looking to Asia and Europe to expand their operations.

Geauga Lake in Aurora, Ohio, adds Boardwalk Shores, becoming the first park to offer both a waterpark and amusement park for one single admission price.  This begins a major trend for both newer theme parks and traditional parks alike, making the 1980s the decade of the water park.


Kennywood and Playland in Rye, NY are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the first operating amusement parks to be honored. The designation is also a symbol of renewed interest in amusement industry heritage.


Batman the Ride opens at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, IL. The first roller coaster where the cars travel underneath the structure, Batman is an immediate hit, and soon parks around the world are building inverted coasters.


Sea World of Texas opens in San Antonio. The first major theme park to open in North America since 1981, it reinvigorates a slumbering industry. Soon several other new parks are under development, although not at the frenzied pace of the 1970s. Other notable new parks include Universal Studios Florida in 1990 and Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, which opens in 1992.


Superman - The Ride opens at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, CA. This roller coaster breaks previously unthought of records for the tallest structure (415 feet tall) and fastest speed (100 miles per hour).


The roller coaster arms race reaches its peak with over 100 roller coasters opening worldwide and the world record for the tallest and fastest roller coaster changing hands three times from Goliath at Six Flags Magic Mountain (255 feet tall and 85 miles per hour), to Millennium Force at Cedar Point (310 feet tall and 85 miles per hour)  to Steel Dragon at Nagashima Spaland in Japan (318 feet tall and 95 miles per hour).


The roller coaster arms race that started in 1988 seemingly comes to an end with the opening of Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure (456 feet tall, 128 miles per hour).  The growing costs and increasingly narrow appeal of record-breaking rides are the primary factors in bringing the race to an end– for now.


The industry experiences a new wave of park closings driven by the Great Recession and the maturing family entertainment center sector. Among the largest parks lost during this era were Geauga Lake, Aurora, OH (2007), Myrtle Beach Pavilion, Myrtle Beach, SC (2006), Libertyland, Memphis, TN (2005) and Astroworld, Houston, TX (2005).


The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Florida. Reaching a level of detail previously unseen at a theme park, the land caused Islands of Adventure to see an increase in attendance of two million people in its first year of operation.


Six Flags Over Texas opens the New Texas Giant. Built by Rocky Mountain Construction, the coaster is a steel-tracked conversion of the former Texas Giant. RMC sees great success with this overhaul, transforming many more coasters into steel-tracked hybrids by the end of the decade.


The COVID-19 pandemic affects nearly every amusement park across the globe, with many remaining closed or operating at a limited capacity in 2020. Estimated losses for US theme parks reach $18 billion. Recovery from the pandemic remains ongoing in the early 2020s.

Present Day

Today the amusement park industry stretches across the globe.  Several companies are global scale operators with facilities stretching across many countries, as China has been the fastest-growing market for theme parks since the 2010s. As technology continues to advance, visitors continue to receive unprecedented new thrills that promise to reach new heights with the construction of new parks and attractions, including Universal’s Epic Universe, scheduled to open in 2025.