After Eighty Nine Years, Rye Playland Is Still Open

Rye Playland

Photo: By ChangChienFu at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While most people in the New York Metropolitan area are well aware of amusement parks such as Six Flags Great Adventure, and Long Island’s Splish Splash water park, there is an entire generation of New Yorkers under forty that may have never heard of Rye Playland. Of course, if you are a Westchester County resident, you are probably aware of the park. However, many Long Islanders, Northern New Yorkers and New York City residents are simply unawares of the parks’ existence. That’s a shame, because the park will be celebrating its 90th year anniversary soon. Yes, that’s right, it’s still open!

Rye Playland Amusement Park is located in Rye Beach, New York. The park officially opened on May 26, 1928. Amusement parks flourished in New York during the early to mid 20th century. Starting in 1902 with Rockaways’ Playland, and in  1903 with Luna Park in Coney Island New York, the metropolitan area has been home to famous amusement parks such as Palisades Amusement Park, Astroland, the short-lived Freedomland U.S.A. and so many more.

Rye Playland Amusement Park is a fun-filled theme park that is rich in history. With the Hudson River on one side and the Long Island Sound on the other, there’s a beach and boardwalk as well as rides that have remained much the same as they have been for decades. Just about everyone’s favorite ride is the “Dragon Coaster,” which through the years has remained the park’s most popular ride as well as part of the logo on advertisements for Playland. The Dragon Coaster is quite tame in terms of speed by today’s ride standards, and totally antiquated when compared to Six Flags or other more modern amusement giants where the park rides seem to defy the laws of physics. The Dragon Roller Coaster opened in 1929, less than a year after Playland Park officially opened in 1928. The coaster is wooden, so it makes a “clickity rickety” sound when the car starts moving uphill. Then it’s a small swerve of a turn and just when you think “this isn’t so bad” you plunge straight down into the dark mouth of the dragon at (what was then considered) terrifying speed. Then, if you kept your lunch down, you could go ride the steel “Monster Mouse” roller coaster or opt for a ride on the “Derby Racer” instead.

The “Derby Racer” is one of Playland’s most unique rides. It’s an action-packed version of a Merry Go Round.  You chose your horse and then competed with other riders to be the winner.

“Laff In the Dark” is a brilliantly insane fun house ride that folks go on again and again, even though you know the spooky ride by heart. You can still float along in a boat on the “Ye Old Mill” ride where the scariest thing you can see is a goofy gnome standing on a log. “Ye Old Mill” and the “Mind Scrambler” two of Playland’s classic rides, will be the source of controversy and heartbreak in recent years, but for almost eighty years before that the rides operated without tragedy.

One of the reasons the park had not changed much over the years is that it is government owned. Rye’s Playland is the only amusement park in the United States that is owned by its County Parks and Recreation Department. In the  mid 1920s, the suburbs surrounding New York City were booming. People were clamoring for fun so amusement park Designer Frank Darling was hired to coordinate the plans for a thrilling way to use government-owned park land. The architectural firm of Walker and Gillette were hired to execute Darling’s vision and Rye Playland opened with a flourish of publicity. The county-owned most of the rides and some were placed there by outside vendors. Admission was free at the time, and you bought coupon books to spend on different rides and contest booths.

Not everyone was happy about Rye Playland. Although the amusement park provided seasonal work for many county residents, complaints about noise, vandals, and traffic have been brought for decades to the attention of the county government. They could hardly dismiss the complaints as they owned the property and ran the park.   That remained a sticking point for more than one reason.

Throughout the years, the park began losing money. Being essentially taxpayer funded, residents accused the Rye Parks and Recreation Department of misusing funds. For while it looked like Playland was going to go the way of Freedomland in the Bronx, which was torn down to build a condo project, Co-Op City. One big difference is that Freedomland was just a “test” project, a placeholder for Co-Op City but Rye Playland was intended to stay part of the county’s park program. The county held their ground and in 1987, Playland was listed as National Landmark.

Rye Playland’s boardwalk gives the park a  carnivalesque  atmosphere, both whimsical and a bit mysterious.  In 1988 Playland’s boardwalk was used as the location for the creepy fortune teller “Zoltar” who grants Josh (Tom Hank) his wish in the   blockbuster movie, “Big.” Penny Marshall directed “Big” and as a Native New Yorker, she is a huge fan of everything New York, so choosing the Playland Boardwalk in Rye New York was genius.

The previous year 1987, the Dragon Coaster was craftily employed in “Fatal Attraction” for the famous scene where Glenn Close, playing the role of mad stalker Alex Forrest, kidnaps the object of her affection, Dan’s (Michael Douglas’) child and takes her on a creepy roller coaster ride.

In 1995, Mariah Carey showed off her talent as well as Rye Playland in the iconic pop video for her hit song “Fantasy.” The brilliantly shot video has a quintessentially “New York” feel.  The viewers go along for the ride as Mariah roller skates on the boardwalk tours the park and then the camera swoops in on Mariah zooming down on the Dragon Coaster, hair flying, wearing a big, beautiful smile.  Ms. Carey grew up near Rye Beach so it was the perfect place to shoot the video.

The park, unfortunately, has also been home to tragedy. In the years 2004 to 2007, three fatalities occurred at the park. The first was in  2004,  when a 7-year-old unbuckled her restraint to wave to someone and fell out of the car of the “Mind Scrambler” ride.   In 2005, a little boy boarded the “Ye Olde Mill” Ride alone. He got up out of the boat, somehow fell, and was killed by a conveyor belt. The “Mind Scrambler” claimed another victim in 2007 when an adult employee was still securing guests when the ride started up.

These deaths led to court actions, suing the county and lots of negative publicity. One news show, Richard French Live produced a special report entitled “Ride at Your Own Risk.” The special detailed the tragedies with a bias undertone that clearly editorialized that government managers are not equipped to run a theme park and that Rye Playland should be basically torn down or sold to a private agency.  The show did give the county officials and park managers a chance to respond, but then they discounted just about every comment offered in Playland’s defense. The odd thing about the accidents is that they were not caused by mechanical failures, just human error. The officials talked about how much they have improved training and have made changes to the rides.

The “Ye Old Mill” now has a cover on the conveyor belt, there are more safety warning signs and security cameras pointed at the riders, and “The Mind Scrambler”, owned by S & L Amusements has been removed. The makers of the documentary were eager to know where the “Mind Scrambler” ride went, who it was sold to, and if it is still “out there” somewhere in operation. Just about all amusement parks have had their share of tragedy  during  the years, including Disney and Six Flags. The point that critics harp on is that the county owns and runs the park.

This past year, some changes were made in Rye Playland’s management operations. In 2016, Rye County entered into a 30-year agreement with Standard Amusements to run the Playland. The idea of new management on the scene may make some opponents happy, but the county will still own it and plans to invest $32 million of taxpayer money  to improve the park. Standard Amusements will kick in $30 million of private investment capital. So Rye Playland has no plans to shut down anytime soon  and will continue to weather the storms and the good times as it has for almost 90 years.

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