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“Freedomland” looks back at “The Disneyland of the East”

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“Freedomland” looks back at “The Disneyland of the East”

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“Mommy and Daddy, take my hand,
Take me out to Freedomland

I know, I know. That radio jingle may not be familiar to all you Disneyland and Walt Disney World fans. But for kids who grew up in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in the early 1960s, that was the sweet siren song of “The Disneyland of the East,” Freedomland U.S.A.

Mind you, there was a reason that this 205 acre Family Fun Center was called “The Disneyland of the East.” And that’s because Freedomland U.S.A. was built by Marco Engineering. Which (at that time, anyway) was owned & operated by C.V. Wood, the original Vice President & General Manager of Disneyland.

Pat Boone cuts the ribbon at Freedomland amusement park circa 1960
C.V. Wood (L) looks on as Pat Boone and family cut the ribbon at
the grand opening of Freedomland U.S.A. on June 19, 1960.

Copyright 2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

You see, C.V. was the guy that Walt hired away from the Stanford Research Institute to personally oversee the construction of the Happiest Place on Earth. And when Wood and Disney parted ways in early 1956, C.V. took everything that he learned from riding herd on Disneyland’s early days and then set up his own theme park construction company.

Which irked Walt no end. So much so that the Old Mousetro actually had Disney’s attorneys sue Wood in May of 1960 for misrepresentation. With the hope that this lawsuit would then dissuade C.V. from promoting himself as the Master Builder of Disneyland.

Cover of the book Images of America Freedomland by Robert McLaughlin and Frank R Adamo
Copyright 2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

That’s just one of the many intriguing anecdotes you’ll discover as you page through “Freedomland” (Arcadia Publishing, May 2010), Robert McLaughlin & Frank R. Adamo’s photo-filled paperback. Which covers the far-too-short life of this Bronx-based theme park.

McLaughlin & Adamo walk you through the entire history of Freedomland. From the park’s ground-breaking ceremony in August of 1959. Which was presided over then-celebrity Charles Van Doren (who – just four months later – would find himself caught up in the quiz show scandal). And given that this $75 million project was being constructed on the spot where Bronx residents used to dump their trash … Well, it was only appropriate that the local Sanitation Department Band (which, believe it or not, had 60 members at that time) provided musical accompaniment for this most auspicious occasion.

The front cover of the official guide for Freedomland's opening season in 1960
Copyright 2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

As for the park itself, Freedomland had a somewhat clever design conceit. In that this theme park was actually laid out like the continental United States. With each “land” in this park (i.e. Little Old New York, Chicago, New Orleans, the Great Plains, the Old Southwest, San Francisco and Satellite City) paying tribute to a specific region / era in American history.

And C.V. spared no expense when it came to the construction & creation of Freedomland U.S.A. The park’s initial training manual (which was written by Disneyland University founder Van France) boasted that 19 Academy Award-winners had worked on the design & development of this theme park.

The "ore bucket" or skyway over Freedomland's San Francisco area
Copyright 2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

When Freedomland officially opened its doors on June 19, 1960, residents of the Tri-State Region were dazzled by the park’s array of historically-themed rides & shows. Among the attractions they could experience was a period steamship(which had been constructed by the Todd Shipyard Corporation of Hoboken, N.J. The very same corporation that – out at their San Pedro, CA. shipyard – had laid the keel for Disneyland’s Mark Twain Steamboat) which sailed around a 10-acre recreation of the Great Lakes.

Better yet, kids could climb behind the wheel of a gasoline-powered car and then go for a spin on the Satellite City Turnpike. Which – just like Disneyland’s Autopia – featured vehicles & a ride control system that had been built by Arrow Development.

Freedomland hosted shows and various types of entertainment througout the life of the park.This is the Opera House and Saloon
Copyright 2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

There are all sorts of parallels between Disneyland & Freedomland. Both theme parks featured elaborately decorated saloons that presented live stage shows daily. They each had a Santa Fe Railroad. And (back then, anyway) both Disneyland & Freedomland had a Skyway attraction that would ferry Guests back & forth across the park (Though, to be fair here, Freedomland did call their Skyway attraction the Ore Bucket and then based this ride out of the Tucson Mining Company in that theme park’s Old Southwest section).

But at the same time, Freedomland had some pretty ingenious attractions all its own. Take – for example – the Old Chicago Fire. Where kids would be recruited to help man the pumps as 7 foot-tall flames (every hour on the hour) leaped up and then threatened to consume a structure right at the center of this theme park.

Children line up on either side of the pumper to help put out the "Chicago Fire" in Freedomland amusement park
Copyright 2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

Now where this gets interesting is – while Freedomland U.S.A. was still under construction – a fire consumed the 200 foot-long show building that was to have housed this theme park’s “Pirate” ride. But C.V. – seeing an opportunity to turn a negative into a plus – just had all that twisted wreckage hauled over to Freedomland’s Old Chicago section. Where it then served as additional theming for the park’s Chicago Fire attraction.

That’s pretty typical of the sorts of stories that McLaughlin & Adamo serve up with “Freedomland.”  These two have a great eye for amusing anecdotes & colorful details. Take – for example – what happened back on August 27, 1960. When three men actually robbed this theme park. This trio of crooks made off with $28,000 in cash and then made their escape via water. Climbing into a motor boat and then put-put-putting their way down the Hutchinson River.

The Three Stooges perform at Freedomland stage
( L to R) Curly Joe Derita, Moe Howard and Larry Fine
entertain guests at Freedomland U.S.A.
Copyright
2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

But as I mentioned towards the top of this book review, Freedomland U.S.A. had a relatively short life span. Though the owners & operators tried mightily to keep this place open (often flying in celebrities like the Three Stooges in an effort to lure additional Guests into the park), in the end, that just wasn’t enough. Which is why – in September of 1964 – Freedomland closed for good.

Ironically enough, Walt Disney sort-of kind-of had a hand in the closing of “The Disneyland of the East.” In that Freedomland’s owners cited as one of their main reasons for closing their theme park was the popularity of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Which (as you’ll remember) featured super-popular Disney-designed rides & shows like “it’s a small world,” “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” “General Electric’s Carousel of Progress” and the “Ford Magic Skyway.”

An "astronaut" greets guests to Freedomland's Blast-off Bunker attraction
Copyright 2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

Anyway … Once all of the attractions & equipment had been auctioned off, the 248 buildings that made up Freedomland U.S.A. were flattened to make way for a brand-new project:  Co-op City (35 high-rise towers which provides housing for 50,000 residents) as well as Bay Plaza (a shopping center that is now home to 50 stores & restaurants).

And if you’re a theme park history buff and just happen to be in the Tri-State Region this coming Saturday … Well, you might want to consider swinging by Bay Plaza. Where – in the Barnes & Noble that now sits where “The Disneyland of the East” used to be located – Frank Adamo (along with Bob Mangels, the creator of the Freedomland U.S.A. DVD) will be signing copies of this terrific little paperback from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The Freedomland Logo
Copyright 2010 Arcadia Publishing. All Rights Reserved

And if you can’t make it to this Saturday’s event (which – FYI – is being held 50 years to the day that Freedomland U.S.A. officially opened to the public) …. Not to worry. You can always pick up a copy at your local bookstore and/or order one off of Amazon.com.

And if you’d like to learn about the other “Disneyland of the East,” you should probably pick up a copy of Robert McLaughlin’s other book, “Pleasure Island.” Which does a terrific job of summing up the history of Marco Engineering’s earlier attempt (i.e. June of 1959 versus June of 1960) at establishing a Disney-type theme park in the Northeast. Only this time around, the park was built right outside of Boston. Rather than in the Bronx.

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