Imagine growing up during the early 1960s and traveling to a New York City destination for an all-day, fun-filled history lesson. By car, bus, or train, all roads led to the northeastern section of The Bronx.
Freedomland U.S.A. was an American history theme park where guests experienced Old Chicago as it burned to the ground, dodged cannon fire during a wagon ride through a Civil War battlefield and explored the Northwest Passage, as did Lewis and Clark, on a bull boat. Hundreds of thousands of kids entered this time machine into America’s past with their mothers and fathers, cousins and friends, aunts and uncles, and with their grandmothers and grandfathers.
This history theme park was created by C.V. Wood, who, only a few years earlier, had been the chief developer of Disneyland for Walt Disney. To experience Freedomland, park guests traveled – family car trips, boy and girl scout outings, newsboy and newsgirl events sponsored by hometown newspapers, and countless excursions to the big city coordinated by little leagues, department stores, schools, churches and community groups – from Maine to Florida and from as far west as Ohio, Missouri and beyond.
While Freedomland U.S.A. lasted only five seasons (it opened 60 years ago during June 1960 and closed during September 1964), memories remain vivid for those baby boomers who recall their visits to the park. Many of these memories are shared on Facebook (Freedomland U.S.A.: The World’s Largest Entertainment Center), Freedomland’s presence on Instagram and Twitter, and in the new book, Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History (Theme Park Press, 2020).
America’s Theme Park
Anyone in New York City seeking a carnival atmosphere during the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed Brooklyn’s Coney Island and Rockaways’ Playland in Queens. Many people also traveled to Palisades Amusement Park along the Hudson River in New Jersey, or Rye Playland, which continues to operate today in Westchester County. Small neighborhood amusement areas and arcades with memorable names such as Post Arrow and the Lollipop Farm were dotted throughout the five boroughs of the city, in Westchester County and along Long Island.
Freedomland U.S.A., however, was different than any of the conventional large amusement areas and neighborhood attractions featured in the city and throughout the country. Freedomland was a theme park that placed the spotlight, in an entertaining way, on the story of America. More than three dozen attractions were featured in Freedomland’s seven themed areas – Little Old New York of the 1890s, Old Chicago at the time of the Great Fire, The Great Plains with For Cavalry and a farm sponsored by Borden’s that featured Elsie the cow, 1907 San Francisco with its Chinatown and a dark ride that simulated the famous earthquake, The Old Southwest with its saloon shows and cowboy fist and gun fights, and New Orleans with Mardi Gras and the centennial commemoration of the Civil War; for the seventh themed area, Satellite City, Freedomland embraced the present and future of the space race with the USSR.
The research and design team that created and constructed Freedomland consisted of about 200 leading artists and architects. Many were former Disney employees. Others were veterans of the film industry, television and Broadway theaters. Freedomland’s design simulated a studio backlot.
The theme park was located on a 205-acre site at the southern part of about 400 acres of marshland in the northeast section of The Bronx. The park and its attractions were located on 85 acres (by comparison, Disneyland attractions occupy 65 acres and Palisades Amusement Park was just 30 acres), with the remaining 120 acres reserved for maintenance and parking.
Freedomland’s grand opening originally was scheduled for June 1, 1960. The date then was rescheduled for early July to ensure that the park would be ready for the anticipated crowds. Due to the growing excitement generated by aggressive advertising, marketing and the on-air promotion by the city’s popular music radio stations, the official opening date again changed to June, specifically to Father’s Day on Sunday, June 19.
Mommy & Daddy, take my hand
Take me out to Freedomland.
$2.95 is all you pay
At Freedomland today!
You’ll see the great Chicago Fire
Look out the flames are getting higher.
Battlefields and shady parks
You’re right there on the spot.
— Freedomland Jingle
Entertainer Pat Boone, along with his wife and their four daughters, cut the opening day ribbon. He was just one of about 150 celebrities and entertainers to appear over the years at the park. The others included Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Henry Fonda, The Four Seasons, Benny Goodman, The Lennon Sisters, The Temptations and a very young Stevie Wonder.
Unfortunately, Freedomland did not last beyond its fifth season. Bankruptcy was declared during late 1964 and management publicly cited competition from the New York World’s Fair as the cause. Only much later did the actual story emerge that explained the fate of Freedomland. Competition from the World’s Fair did not affect operations of The Bronx theme park, but the fair did become the convenient public excuse for the closing of Freedomland. Unknown to C. V. Wood and his design team, and to the general public that included all those kids, Freedomland had been constructed on marshland as a “placeholder” for five years until variances were obtained to build the world’s largest cooperative housing project, known as Co-op City, on the property.
Co-op City recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and the former theme park property also features a slightly younger commercial area occupied by individual retail outlets and an indoor mall. Though 60 years have passed since the park enjoyed its grand opening, many baby boomers continue to refer to this part of The Bronx as Freedomland.
Photos, from above: Recreations of 19th century sternwheelers and tugboats were among the “water rides” at Freedomland U.S.A. (M. Virgintino Collection); the new book on Freedomland U.S.A. (M. Virgintino/Theme Park Press); Freedomland’s opening season brochure (M. Virgintino Collection); One of Freedomland’s steam trains leased each year from the Edaville Rail Road in Carver, Massachusetts (M. Virgintino Collection).