Question of the Day December 9, 2013
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Q:In 1954 there was a amusement park built in Las Vegas called Funland. Do you have any information on it? I am also looking for a picture and have not found one.
A:The story of Fun-Land is both a sad and an eerily prophetic one that might have been looked to, instructionally, by a future generation, but which instead seems to have been consigned to the ranks of those "mistakes best forgotten." Its short-lived history mirrors very closely that of its similarly ill-fated contemporary, the Las Vegas Park race track (see QoD 3/27/13).
So buried and forgotten was this project that it took us no little sleuthing to find anything whatsoever of substance about the attraction and it's of no surprise that you had trouble finding an image of it. We couldn't find any photographs, either, but did luck out on unearthing a conceptual design drawing of the facility (but then, that's our job!).
A link from the Wikipedia page concerning "Abandoned Amusement Parks" of the world took us to page on ancestry.com, titled more specifically, "Abandoned Amusement Parks of Nevada-Oregon-Washington ~and other trivia~". The latter page features internal links to individual page entries about the many locations listed. However, while Reno's early twentieth-century Coney Island facility at least is preserved for posterity with a complete (if short) paragraph, plus a couple of photos, Henderson's Fun-Land entry states simply that: "Nothing more known about this park except in 1954 they had a Roller Coaster designed by Herbert P. Schmeck..."
This tiny nugget at least gave us what we hoped might prove to be an illuminating lead, so we embarked on an online pursuit of information regarding Mr Schmeck and his career. From this, we learned that this native of Pennsylvania was an esteemed pioneer of roller-coaster design.
"The many legacies of Herbert P. Schmeck are scattered throughout America, many of them nearby in his home state...some of which survive to this day," reads a 2009 article in the Reading Eagle. However, while a number of his works are named in the piece, there is no mention of Fun-Land which opened, perhaps with less than auspicious timing, in 1954, the year in which Schmeck died (by which time he had designed -- and in some cases built -- no less than 210 rides, including coasters and fun houses). His Henderson swansong, however, receives no acknowledgement in the designer's Wikipedia entry, either.
Still, we dug deeper and our efforts were eventually rewarded by finding both the design drawing referenced above and an article in a 1956 issue of Billboard magazine, the latter which proved to be the key to unlocking the whole sad tale of the Las Vegas area's first amusement park.
Fun-Land opened in the spring of 1954, at the gigantic cost of $278,000, five miles east of Las Vegas in what had only the previous year first been incorporated as the City of Henderson, boasting a population of less than 7,500 residents. While the attraction's original installations, including Mr Schmeck's roller coaster, were described as being on a "grandiose scale," some inherent flaws in the whole concept of Fun-Land were immediately observed by its critics. These included, on the macro level, the extremely questionable assumption that this outdoor facility would operate year-round. Had its promoters, who hailed from Detroit, ever visited Las Vegas in July, or December, we wonder? We can only assume not, or else they would have realized that no one wants to risk sunburn, or frostbite, riding a roller coaster in the extreme temperatures we experience, at both ends of the spectrum, during several months of the year.
On another level, the park's layout was apparently plagued by some serious design oversights: A baseball field was evidently oriented so that the batters found themselves looking directly into the late-afternoon sun, while the entrance to the park obliged patrons to step over the lines of the miniature railroad, which also also blocked easy access to one of the other rides. Among the other operational shortcomings that hindered Fun-Land's chances of success from the outset included the failure to deliver on promised live entertainment.
If some problems could be directly attributed to mistakes on the part of the attraction's designers and management, other setbacks can more fairly be put down to unfortunate timing or bad luck. For example, the opening of Fun-Land was significantly delayed due to a strike by lumbermen that prevented the on-time completion of the roller coaster, its key attraction.
Whether due to more of the same lack of due diligence and naivety that explains some of the park's other problems, we're not sure, but Fun-Land was already significantly in the hole financially when it opened, due in large part to the process of drilling down for water taking three times longer than anticipated. The construction team may well have stumbled upon the inherent problem of caliche, which plagues builders in the area to this day and is chief among the reasons -- along with flash flooding -- why few buildings here have basements. Still, presumably some timely and thorough surveying of the site would have revealed this, if indeed it was a factor, and/or would have revealed that the water table was much lower than anticipated (they had to drill down 1,000 feet to reach it).
No doubt as a result of its financial predicament at opening time, and an attempt to recoup those losses ASAP, most rides were priced at at least a quarter. That might sound like a steal today but was was considered prohibitively pricey by contemporary standards. The roller-skating rink was one of the few early success stories, attracting some patronage from local teens, but even this was dealt a blow when a real ice rink opened in Las Vegas shortly after the amusement park's debut.
Probably the biggest obstacle to Fun-Land's success, however, was succinctly pointed out in Billboard's obituary to this entertainment misadventure: "Critics of the original plan to cash in on the Las Vegas boom held that the boom was not a result of amusement park elements in the first place, and that the bulk of Vegas transients are adults who hit town for many reasons other than riding amusement devices." Bingo!
When we read that nail-on-the-head line, it brought to mind immediately that other much-lambasted and equally abortive attempt in the late 1980s and early '90s to transform Las Vegas into a "family-friendly" destination. Had only the proponents of that latter scheme read this Billboard piece, perhaps the similarly ill-conceived MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park would never have happened. But those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, as many a wise man has observed, so instead MGM Grand Adventures is commemorated by its own, uncannily similar Wikipedia entry, which reads, "Over the years, the park saw several changes. It opened with a rather steep, by 1993 standards, admission charge of $25 for adults that were not guests of the hotel. Over time this fee was reduced in order to better match the caliber of attractions in the park and to increase attendance. Whereas the park opened as a year-round attraction, its last few years of operation saw the park open seasonally."
To conclude, it was of no surprise to many that two seasons after its delayed debut, Fun-Land was bankrupt and facing a $50,000 foreclosure on its mortgage, not to mention numerous lawsuits from unpaid creditors, and the cancellation of its insurance. While a local firm stepped in and took over the latter, the park's estimated $300,000 in assets were mainly attributable to its rides and attractions, and to money invested in improvements to the same, rendering them worthless other than as a viable ongoing concern, which it wasn't. With even its bar and slot machines failing to make money, Fun-Land was doomed, and its 1956 closure turned out to be permanent, bringing to an end this unfortunate, if well-intentioned early attempt to diversify the city's entertainment base.
Image appears courtesy of UNLV's Special Collections.
UPDATE: 12-09-2013 Just to prove that the lack of photographs don't mean that we made all of this up, here are some recollections sent in by a reader who recalls seeing the defunct site:
"Thank you so much for the information you provided on Funland. During my first trip to Las Vegas, with my late husband, in June of 1991, a piece of Funland's sign was still visible, from the road, in Henderson. The sign remained visible for several years until it was either blown over or removed. Additionally, from what I can remember, several of the wooden railway cars were also visible from the road."
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