Ed Sullivan called it “the Disneyland of the East.” Freedomland U.S.A. was the world’s largest entertainment center. The park was located just outside of New York City.
Though very popular at the time, this exciting trip through the history of America is now, itself history.
Before 1960 the area was just swampland in the Bronx. In just one year, over 2000 workers completed the 85 acre park. 15,000 plants were imported to help with this conversion. Once completed, Freedomland had a footprint shaped like the United States of America. This deliberate design was part of the plans produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood. If that name sounds familiar, he’s the same person who helped plan Disneyland a decade prior.
Freedomland USA opened to 25,000 eager guests on June 19, 1960. Admission to the park sold out by noon. In total 65,000 visited the park on opening day.
This historical trip through America was divided into seven themed areas.
Upon entering the park, in Old New York, guests were immersed in Old New York. Set in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, familiar structures included the original R.H. Macy Department store, Schaefer’s Brewery (sponsored by Schaefer Beer), Shuntz’s Deli could be found in the area. Attractions included a horseless carriage, horse trolley, and harbor tug boats to transport guests across the Great Lakes to Chicago. Several times a day the Little New York Bank was robbed; suffragettes might rally; a German band might perform.
In 1871 Old Chicago, guests could enjoy a fine steak dinner at Stockyards Restaurant; grab souvenirs at the Curio Shop or handcrafts at the Indian Village teepees. Attractions included the Chippewa War Canoes, which were paddled by guests; Great Lakes Cruise aboard a paddle boat complete with calliope music; or take a ride on the Santa Fe Railroad.
The highlight of the area, and of the park, was the Great Chicago Fire. Guest would assist in putting out the blaze, which occurred several times a day.
Next, to Old Chicago, the Great Plains brought visitors back in time to experience life during the 1800s. Here guests could visit the Borden sponsored Borden’s Farm where they could meet Bordon’s mascot, Elsie the cow and her calves.
At Fort Calvary, the Army’s stockade, the Fort Calvary Stage Line would depart on a trip through the Rocky Mountains. The coach always managed to get robbed by bandits.
Other attractions included a shooting gallery, mule-go-round (a mule powered merry-go-round); Pony Express ride, and a horse drawn wagon that would travel the fort and farm. Dining options were limited to a milk bar and the Chuck Wagon Snack Stand.
Visitors to 1906 San Francisco would have recognized the Barbary Coast mock up, complete with barking seals in the Seal Pool. The Santa Fe Railroad stops here after traveling around the Great Plains. Other attractions included horse-drawn surreys and the “Northwest Fur Trapper” boat ride that was said to be similar to the “Jungle Cruise.”
In the dark ride, “San Francisco Earthquake” guests experienced the infamous 1906 earthquake ravaged San Francisco.
The Chinatown district offered a very popular Chung King restaurant, Oriental Bazaar, and authentic Chinese junks. Additional dining options included an Italian restaurant and the Fisherman’s Wharf where a “salty old seaman” told tales to guests enjoying their snacks.
On the bottom left corner of the map was the Old Southwest. Like Old New York this area was set in 1890. Texas Longhorn cattle were actually herded through the area throughout the day. An Opera House Old Saloon, featuring live entertainment, provided refreshing beverages. In the Mexican Market souvenirs could be found; a Mexican restaurant was located nearby.
The walkthrough Casa Loca displayed gravity defying feats like water flowing uphill and other mysteriously moving objects.
Gun fights would erupt throughout the day and those not left standing would be tended to by the town’s undertaker Digger O’Toole.
At the Tucson Mining Company, a trip through the Rocky Mountains was offered by way of a two passenger sky ride.
In the Mine Caverns guests encountered giant bats and monsters as they traveled past boiling pits of lava just before the mine exploded.
Pirate and Civil War historical representations, children’s amusements and more were all found in New Orleans.
Several amusements, like The Kandy Kane Lane, play area, with its kid friendly rides; King Rex Carousel; Spin-A-Top tea cup-like ride; and the wire guided ride Danny the Dragon provided entertainment for younger visitors.
For pirate fans, the New Orleans area offered a pirate themed boat ride called “Buccaneers” and the Pirate Gun Gallery.
A history of the Civil War via horse-drawn carriage took riders though battles, burning homes and eventually General Lee’s surrender.
Additional attractions included the very first house of mirrors maze in the world, “Crystal Maze” and “Tornado Adventure” which, complete with flying cow (years before “Twister”) simulated a Louisiana tornado.
Freedomland’s answer to Tomorrowland was Satellite City, representing what might be in store for America’s future. Scientific and Industrial exhibits would make their way into this area of the Freedomland.
Visitors could watch a simulated rocket launch from within the control room at Cape Canaveral at the “Blast-Off Bunker.” The terminal to for a return to Tucson Mining Company sky-ride was located in Satellite City.
The Moving Lake Walk, moving sidewalk trip across the lake; Satellite City Turnpike miniature car ride and the Space Rover, a simulated rocket ride were attractions in this Florida shaped, the futuristic region of the park.
The main draw for Satellite City, however, had little to do with futuristic fancies. Moon Bowl featured a large performance stage and dance floor when it was added in 1961. Big name acts would perform nightly. These included Dick Clark, Paul Anka, Count Basie, Bobby Darin and even appearances by Fred Gywnne and Joe E. Ross from the TV show “Car 54 Where are You?”
Debt and disaster plagued the park. In June, a week after the park opened, a stagecoach accident injured several who sued the park. The park was robbed later the same year. By year two the park was already millions of dollars in debt. Allegedly, competition from the 1964 New York World’s fair forced the park to file for bankruptcy. By 1965, the park was closed and demolition was underway.
Due to the quick turnaround time from park closing and commencement of construction of several large residential structures, some were suspicious of the claimed effects on attendance by the World’s Fair. Today both the housing complex and the Ba Plaza shopping center occupy the area that was once Freedomland U.S.A. The only link to the once grand theme park is a plaque placed on the location that was once the park’s Old New York entrance.
Want to learn more about the short life of this historic theme park? “Freedomland: 1960-1964 (Images of Modern America)” is available on Amazon.
Were you one of the many fortunate visitors to this short-lived theme park? If so, what was your favorite area or attraction? Please share your memories in the comments below.