MELROSE PARK, Illinois (Reuters Life!) - One by one the Kiddieland amusement park’s 27 rides were shut down forever on Sunday, giving the highest bidders in an online auction a final spin, splash or crash on their favorites.
Memories at the park that opened in 1929 flowed like the free soft drinks at the suburban Chicago attraction.
“We’re just going to take it one ride at a time. I think it’s going to be tough when we get to the end of the day,” said Mary Rynes, a member of the family that has operated the park since it began.
A tearful Bonnie Parker, of nearby River Forest, who paid $100 for her family of four to take a final spin on the Ferris Wheel, had been coming to the park for 40 years.
“I just had to be here the last day,” she said.
Ironically, small, family-owned U.S. amusement parks like Kiddieland, have done a booming business during the economic downturn, said Craig Burda of the National Amusement Park Historical Association.
Reasonably priced and often close to home, the parks are an alternative to a vacation trip for recession-hit families.
But these family-owned businesses can fall prey to family squabbles, said Jim Futrell, the association’s historian.
In the case of Kiddieland, one faction of the founder’s family owned the land and declined to extend the lease to family members operating the park.
“Kiddieland has always been a successful business,” Futrell said, adding the park and its vintage rides were “impeccably maintained.”
By contrast, larger theme parks like those run by Six Flags Inc, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June, have higher admission prices and are geared to an older crowd.
Six Flags’ Great America, now the only full-fledged amusement park left in Illinois, has cut its 2010 season pass price to an 18-year low of $64.99 - just $10 more than a one-day ticket.
Sandra Daniels, a Six Flags spokeswoman, said several other company parks are also dropping prices.
“We’re sensitive to the economy,” she explained.
The United States is home to more than 400 amusement and theme parks, which generated an estimated $12 billion in revenue in 2007 on attendance of 341 million, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. While the majority of the parks are small, the big parks generate most of the revenue.
Overall, parks nationwide had an attendance slump earlier this year due to the economy and bad weather.
Clutching a poster with photos of three generations of his family at Kiddieland, Mike Schrage, 62, of Palatine, Illinois, bemoaned the park’s closure before he and his wife Barbara climbed aboard the steam-powered miniature train for their $270 last ride.
“I‘m sad that they’d put up condominiums or another shopping center,” he said.
For years, the Kiddieland site at a busy intersection across from a horse-racing track was considered ripe for development. No plans for the 17-acre property have been announced.
The last ride to be closed was a merry-go-round, with intricately sculpted horses. No music played as the carousel with mostly adult riders galloped into amusement park history amid cheers and tears.
“It was a lot of fun, lots of memories,” said Valerie Mayr, 30, of Stickney, Illinois, who rode the last ride. “It’s extremely sad.”
Reporting by Karen Pierog; editing by Patricia Reaney