I was recently reminiscing about one of the best days of my life. The Joyland Amusement Park–the only one in Kansas then or now–opened in 1949, providing thrills and fun to generations of Wichita kids before closing for good 57 years later. Everyone who spent even a part of their childhood in Wichita has a Joyland story, most likely a positive one just like mine.
Entering the park, you passed an enormous swimming pool full of kids. I always wanted to swim there, but never got to…the rides were always a bigger draw. There were bumper cars; a Tilt-A-Whirl (my favorite); a giant Ferris wheel, the only ride which really scared me; and the Whacky Shack, which opened when I was eight. It’s hard to describe the Whacky Shack. It was a sort of cross between a fun house and a haunted house. It was popular, though if I think about why, it may have had a lot to do with the short list of truly cool rides. Joyland is where I learned to play Skee Ball and peeked into the windows of the strange, large fiberglass shoe to see the old lady and her children. Stranger still was the Wurlitzer-playing clown, Louie, just inside the entrance. I always felt obligated to pay him quick homage…to this day I don’t like clowns. But the piece de resistance was the roller coaster. The wooden structure was large, with a steep hill at the beginning setting the stage for the rest of the ride. By the time I was big enough to ride it, it already needed a fresh coat of white paint, which it never got. That run-down look contributed to the fear you felt pulling the paltry lap bar down over your legs and hearing the click-click-click as the chain’s safety locks pulled your car slowly and suspensefully up that first big hill.
Joyland closed after I moved away, but I didn’t give it much thought until I saw a video on Facebook a couple of years ago. Set to haunting music, it was a tour of the abandoned park, still recognizable through the overgrown weeds. There was the familiar A-frame of the Whacky Shack and the skeleton of the roller coaster, now even shakier but still with a car waiting to take ghost riders on a hair-raising ride. Shortly after that video, a windstorm brought part of the coaster down. A bulldozer took the rest of it when the city sued the long-time owners for not maintaining what had become a public nuisance and again a gathering place for teenagers, now up to nothing good. All that’s left today are the memories and the You Tube videos taken by some of those kids as the place literally fell apart…a slow-motion, ugly death.
As for that best day of my young life, when I was about eight my best friend had invited me to Joyland to her parent’s company picnic. Instead of the normal tickets which always meant we were done riding too soon, we had magic arm bands to ride as often as we wanted. When combined with all of the free watermelon and ice cream and Coke they also entitled us to, we were in kid heaven. I felt rich and important. This was the 70’s, when parents thought nothing of letting two young girls roam by themselves for hours, while they sat out of sight in the picnic area at the back of the park visiting. We were independent and free…it was a magical night. This is my enduring memory of Joyland, not the sad, graffiti-ridden buildings from You Tube. Joyland was truly a place of joy for kids for decades; it will never be really gone until the last of us who visited are no more.
Footnote: A decade after the park closed and he went missing, Louie the clown has been recovered from the home of a former park employee and child sex offender. I don’t know where he is now, and I don’t really want to.