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The story of Joyland has often been the story of Wichita

Aerial look at the remains of Joyland’s Whacky Shack

The Whacky Shack, a popular ride at Wichita’s abandoned amusement park Joyland, was destroyed by a fire in August 2018.
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The Whacky Shack, a popular ride at Wichita’s abandoned amusement park Joyland, was destroyed by a fire in August 2018.

The Eagle has been running a series of articles in the past week about the place of Joyland in Wichita’s history. Read here about whether the city will ever get another amusement park and here for a comprehensive timeline.

The articles The Eagle has written about Joyland over the years show how the amusement park reflected the concerns of the times.

Lester Ottaway opened the 40-acre park in 1949 during the beginning of the post-war economic boom as the aircraft industry in Wichita took off and the city’s population was rapidly growing. A total of 1,200 cars filled the parking lot on the day the mayor cut the ribbon on the roller coaster.

Evenings at the park were especially memorable in the days before television and air conditioning were commonplace. The park’s Easter celebration, started in 1949, continued every year until it closed in 2006, and in 1959, it included 1,000 free carnations for the first 1,000 women in addition to eggs for the children.

The first year the park opened, Margaret Heinzman, 15, was fired from her job selling ice cream because, she was told, her presence caused too many boys to linger near the ice cream wagon. Two years later, Heinzman met Stanley Nelson, a veteran who wore a suit and tie to his park job every day. They married that same year. The Nelsons took over the park in the 1970s and ran it until 2000.

The park won an award for its “Moonlight Swim” promotions, and later, Eagle reporters would wax poetically about the events when they brought their own children a generation later.

In the 1960s, before the animal rights movement became what it is today, an 8-month-old lion bit a caretaker at the park and three deer escaped, two of which died. In 1964, the park was sued for $400 when a girl smashed her teeth into the steering wheel of a bumper car, back before seat belts became mandatory for theme park rides.

Travis White, an FAA-licensed drone pilot in Neodesha, Kansas, recently captured new aerial views of Joyland, an abandoned amusement park in south Wichita.

In the late 1960s, the park added a skating rink with “bright colors” and “decorative lighting.” By the time the 1970s were in full swing, it had built The Wacky Shack, a ghost ride that featured “illusion effects” and “psychedelic lighting tricks.”

Joyland also got caught up in the rising boom of consumerism and television advertisements in 1972, when Kellogg featured the park for its introduction of a new brand of cereal called Mini-Wheats, a “small, biscuit-shaped pieces of shredded wheat about two inches in length and covered with either sugar or cinnamon,” The Eagle explained to readers.

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The park always brought in tours to keep its act fresh. In the 1950s, it brought in a 100-foot Ferris wheel, the largest portable wheel available. In the 1970s, it featured a large country music lineup at the Wichita State Fair, an event the owners hoped would be on par with but not detract from the fair. The Nelsons, who bought the park in the 1970s, brought in the “father of Jesus Rock” in 1978 to perform at a two-day festival that included free camping.

By the late 1970s, the first generation of children started returning with their own children. John Roe wrote a column in 1978 about how he always lost his son as soon as they entered the park.

“I walked through the screams, shots, cries, laughter, music, bells, buzzers, rails, rollers, rides, explosions, flashing lights and grinding gears,” Roe wrote. Normally, he would head to the “Silver Slipper Saloon” for a beer, but, on that occasion, he ended up playing a pinball-style baseball game for hours, until his son found him and told him he was ready to go home.

The Joyland Amusement Park has been shuttered for over 10 years, but neglect, vandalism and weather have taken a final toll on the iconic Wichita landmark. (April 20, 2017)

Just as nostalgia for the park rose, so did complaints about the long lines and younger generation. Allen Hardy, who said he served over a million Sno-cones at the park between 1950 and 1980, said the patrons “don’t dress like they used to. They seem sloppier than they used to be. So are their manners. But I guess old folks have been saying that the younger generation is going to hell for the last 3,000 years.”

1977 saw the first of three major tragedies resulting in death at the park. That year, a 7-year-old boy, Monty Stovall, fell from the roller coaster near the end of the ride and died. He had been taken to the park by his grandmother for a school event and was reportedly standing up in the rear car.

In the early 1980s, just as the U.S. prison population was starting to rise, two young men were convicted of stabbing to death a park employee in the parking lot. They had apparently sneaked into the park and were provoking several employees before they ended up finding one to fight.

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The Eagle said that Dwight Sayles, one of the accused, appeared in court in his bare feet. Sayles received nearly as long a sentence (three to 10 years) for stealing a lighter and some tokens a few hours before the stabbing as he did for the stabbing itself (five to 20 years for voluntary manslaughter). Sayles, 21, trembled when he pleaded guilty before the judge.

Then, in 1998, Kevin Briley, a maintenance worker, was killed when he was hit by the roller coaster as he cut weeds underneath it, not hearing the ride coming. The following year, Kansas lawmakers considered requiring state inspections for amusement park rides. But they ultimately decided to just require them to buy insurance. It wasn’t until a state lawmaker’s son died in 2016 on a water park ride that the Legislature passed a law requiring state inspections.

In 2004, 13-year-old Elizabeth Schmitz fell 30 feet from the Ferris wheel and hit another seat on the way down. Although she didn’t die, the owner of the park at the time, David Rohr, got into a dispute with the insurance company. Rohr was already being sued for missing payments on the park that he had just purchased the year before.

Although the park did open up in 2006 under different operators, those operators also ran into financial difficulties.

Even though the park opened during a booming time for Wichita, it was actually the beginning of the end for the smaller, family-owned amusement parks. In the 1950s, Disneyland opened, and by the 1960s, Six Flags had already started to change expectations for what regional amusement parks could be.

By 1974, it was getting too expensive “to build the bigger and more thrilling rides,” said Joyland owner Stan Nelson. “If you wanted to build a coaster today, it would probably cost about $500,000. Timber is real tough to get, especially the size you need.”

By 1981, Stan Nelson was resigned to playing the role of second fiddle to the larger parks: “Joyland doesn’t pretend to be the park to end all parks,” Nelson said. “It’s simply a hometown recreational facility that draws from a radius of about 100 miles.”

Joyland continued to make money. According to court documents, around the time when the park closed in 2004, it was grossing around $1.75 million per year.

As Joyland struggled, the potential profits and trend toward theme parks encouraged local businessman Thomas Etheredge to develop a $24 million Wild West World north of the city. But in 2007, when it failed just two months after opening, neither Wild West World nor Joyland would ever find investors willing to buy into a Wichita amusement park again.

In 2008, paintballers sprayed the Joyland park, weeds had grown into the cracks and “wind whistled through buildings with no windows and through the ghostly skeleton of the roller coaster, now silent.” In 2009, the opera house burned down, and in 2010, Stanley Nelson died.

The group Restore Hope planned a rock concert with a $10 entrance fee in 2011 to raise money for the park. No word on whether the group is still operating.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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