The end of Joyland Amusement Park is near.
“We are in the process of tearing it all down,” Roger Nelson, son of Stan and Margaret Nelson, said last week.
The Nelson family has owned Joyland, 2801 S. Hillside, for more than four decades. Generations of Wichitans rode the roller coaster and strolled the midway there.
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“We are trying to do this as soon as possible,” Nelson said.
Several buildings have already been demolished and more are scheduled. The remains of the historic wooden roller coaster – one of a few left in the nation – are being dismantled. The Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County is negotiating to buy a section of the track and some coaster cars.
In recent years, the 50 acres of Joyland Park have deteriorated quickly. Overgrown weeds mask the graffiti on the remaining buildings. Numerous fires have been set inside the park and thieves have stripped away the copper.
The Nelsons recently settled a case filed by city officials last year over the park’s condition.
“We get constant complaints from neighbors and people in the area,” said Thomas Stolz, director of the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department. “We’ve had many instances of fire. We have run the Wichita Fire Department out there on several calls. And a lot of additional calls about graffiti and trespassing.”
Stolz called the park an “attractive nuisance” for teens and the homeless.
“It is actually an open and dangerous nuisance,” he said.
For the past year, the Nelson family and the city have been involved in a municipal court case over Joyland.
The city initially contended the Nelsons failed to maintain the premises in a secure condition so that it was not accessible to children and unauthorized people. The city said that buildings and fences had not been repaired or maintained to prevent entry.
“We have an ongoing nuisance case for the condition of the premises, initiated in 2014, which has been in court since March 2014,” wrote Deb Legge, neighborhood inspection administrator for the city of Wichita, in an e-mail.
On March 31, Margaret Nelson Spear pleaded no contest to failing to keep a premises free of litter and leaving a structure open to unauthorized access. Two other counts – allowing weeds and grass to grow taller than 12 inches and storing residential bulky waste on the site for more than seven days – were dismissed.
Sentencing has been set for June 2. Nelson Spear likely faces a fine for the offenses.
Last month, film crews from Georgia were at Joyland shooting a trailer for an upcoming zombie movie. According to Legge, the Nelsons’ plans were to have all the structures demolished or removed after the filming of the movie was wrapped up.
Roger Nelson said the family plans to make the property available for an industrial park or some other purpose.
“We are trying to do all of this as soon as possible,” he said. “What we are doing is taking down all the buildings. We don’t have much to take down. And we are hauling it all off.”
A creek that runs through the property has made securing it an impossible task, he said.
“It has always been an issue with us,” he said. “It is too big of an area to put dogs in there. We used to have a guard there. But it is a hard thing to manage.
“I read all the time on social media people say they are going to go out there and do stuff. And I think, ‘Wait a minute, that’s our property.’ We are doing all we can to try and secure it.”
History of Joyland
The park’s best days came before television, air-conditioning, video games and other distractions kept people at home.
Joyland began shortly after the end of World War II with brothers Harold and Herb Ottaway and their father, Lester. Herb Ottaway had a miniature train that he could pack up and take to county fairs as far away as Colorado Springs. In 1947, he offered rides in the Planeview neighborhood.
In 1949 and 1950, the Ottaways bought the land where Joyland park sits today. From there, they began building it into a family attraction.
Joyland offered concerts, fried chicken dinners, a swimming pool and steam-powered engine shows. It hosted company picnics and school field trips for generations of students.
In the early 1970s, the Nelsons – who met while working at the park and were married for nearly 60 years – purchased Joyland from the Ottaways. They ran it until a decade ago, when two groups made unsuccessful attempts to operate and buy Joyland. It closed for the last time in 2006.
One of the park’s premier attractions was the roller coaster, a portion of which blew down in the strong windstorm that hit Wichita earlier this month. It was one of the last surviving original wooden coasters designed by Herbert Paul Schmeck.
“We have the original blueprint of the roller coaster,” Roger Nelson said. “But no one wants to take it from here. You might as well just build a new one.”
Two months ago, Louie the Clown – a figure who had played the Wurlitzer organ at the park – was located by Wichita police in the home of a former Joyland employee. Several other items from the park also were recovered from his home.
The Preservation Alliance had previously taken possession of six items it purchased from the park, including the clown sign that greeted visitors at the park’s entrance for decades.
Margaret Nelson Spear donated the park’s merry-go-round to Botanica, which is raising funds for its restoration and installation into a new building.
Roger Nelson said last week that the front of the Whacky Shack building has been purchased by the Preservation Alliance. The alliance also purchased a horse and buggy ride and is negotiating to purchase the 1926 full-size train caboose that used to sit on the west end of the park’s Frontier Town.
“They are all such nostalgic pieces,” said Greg Kite, president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County.
“It may be the end of Joyland as a site but it is not the end of Joyland. The marquee pieces are being preserved. People can still have the memories and enjoy displays reminiscent of the park.”
Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle