[In November, I finally visited DisneyWorld for the first time, accompanying my 9 and 8 year old sons. We hit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios in a whirlwind three days—and as you might expect, this AmericanStudier found a great deal of interest in all three places. So this week I’ve DisneyStudied five such details, leading up to this special weekend post on themes parks in America!]
How one New Hampshire site captures three stages in the evolution of American theme parks.
Like two other sites about which I’ve written in this space, Newton (MA)’s Norumbega Park and Charlottesville (VA)’s Fry’s Spring Beach Club, New Hampshire’s Canobie Lake Park began (after its 1904 opening) as an early 20th century trolley park. Designed as escapes (or at least respites) from the period’s increasingly crowded and modernizing urban spaces, a logical complement to the Progressive Era’s City Beautiful movement and its emphases on the need for the pastoral in that developing world, these trolley parks often focused on green and flowering spaces, and Canobie in this first stage of life was no different. For its first few decades, the park was best known for its elaborate botanical gardens and promenades, with visitors often arriving in their Sunday best and with the park’s featured attractions (such as canoeing and picnic areas) fitting nicely into that pastoral landscape and relaxed ambience. That wasn’t the only kind of theme park in this early 20th century moment, of course, but it seems to have been the most common version.
By the mid-20th century, however, Canobie had taken on a significantly more up-tempo identity. That included the 1936 introduction of the first roller coaster, the Yankee Cannonball (please don’t watch that video if you have issues with motion sickness), a wooden beast that endures to this day (this AmericanStudier and his sons rode it last summer!). But it also included a new emphasis on popular entertainment of the musical variety—between the 1930s and 1950s the Canobie Lake Ballroom became a Big Band era destination, with performances by Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and many other prominent acts and artists. The rise to dominance of the automobile and the development of the suburbs had made the escapist quality of trolley parks much less unique or necessary, and so theme parks had to evolve alongside those innovations, becoming less a pastoral alternative to the city and more a combination of high-powered entertainments for which there wasn’t room in any one city space (and which, at least in the case of the musical performances, were unlikely to be found in the suburbs).
By 1957, a number of catastrophes (including a fire and a hurricane) had almost destroyed the park, and the Big Band era was likewise coming to a close. When new owners purchased Canobie and reopened it in 1958, they did so as part of a new era, that of Disneyland and Palisades Park and Pacific Ocean Park, among the many other amusement parks (most of which have long since closed) that were booming in the late 50s. These many theme parks provided both inspiration and competition for a newly revitalized park like Canobie, requiring the park to constantly add new and more elaborate roller coasters and attractions (such as an extensive water park section), as well as specialized entertainments like the Halloween screamfest. Again, the majority of late 20th century theme parks have not survived into the 21st century; but those that have, like Canobie, have grown ever bigger in their efforts to remain a destination. It’s hard to say whether there will be another stage in Canobie’s evolution, but if the enjoyment of my AmericanStudier sons is any indication, there’s certainly still a place for theme parks in the American future.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other theme parks you’d AmericanStudy?
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