Remembering Tidewater’s amusement parks of yesteryear
Published 4:58 pm Tuesday, September 1, 2020
I sympathize with the young families who have missed out on an entire season of thrill rides at Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion thanks to the COVID shutdown.
Amusement parks in one form or another have been a part of the American landscape since the late 19th century.
Often located on the shores of lakes, rivers and oceans, amusement parks were and are an important avenue of recreation for families.
In our youth and in this region, there were three primary ones: Buckroe Beach, Ocean View and Virginia Beach. Each had something special to offer.
All three parks had the standard amusement park fare, featuring at least some of the following: roller coasters, tunnels of love, bumper cars, miniature train rides, midway games designed to separate you from your money, ice cones and sailors on liberty.
Each of the three parks, though, was unique in some way. Virginia Beach’s amusement park of the mid-20th century was the smallest of the three. It had some rather small rides, a “fun house” and an assortment of games of skill and chance, but the real draw was the ocean, as it still is. Going to Virginia Beach was something of a pilgrimage for Virginians who wanted to be washed ashore repeatedly by wave after wave of Atlantic surf. Stop off at the bathhouse with coin-operated lockers to protect your valuables, change into a bathing suit and dive in.
Ocean View’s park prided itself in being bigger than the others. Its “tunnel of fun” featured scary dioramas in which ghouls laughed and scolded as you rounded the tunnel’s bends. But the park’s signature ride was “The Rocket,” which was, back then, Virginia’s largest roller coaster. It was guaranteed to produce screams from riders. The Rocket became nationally known during the final years of the park when it was featured in two movies and was eventually destroyed for a television show.
Ocean View was and is located on the Chesapeake Bay just down from Willoughby Spit. Swimming at the park was a gentler sport than in the surf of Virginia Beach, but enjoyed by thousands every summer nonetheless.
Then, there was Buckroe. It featured all of the above. The roller coaster was smaller but quite lively. During our youth, the dioramas had been removed from the “tunnel of love” and it was just a boat ride in the dark and with a splashy ending. Depending on the wind direction, swimming conditions at Buckroe could be even gentler than at Ocean View.
Buckroe’s claim to fame was its carousel. Built in 1920, the elaborate carousel had 48 hand-carved horses placed three abreast, an assortment of oil paintings and a band organ.
Amusement parks were favored locations for Sunday School picnics, a popular activity back in the 1950s. Farm families were once a huge part of rural church congregations, and the churches, including Benn’s Methodist, which we attended, scheduled their picnics for the convenience of those families. That meant late summer, when corn crops were ripening and peanut fields had been “laid by.”
It was then that the entire church family would convene under an amusement park picnic shelter. Benn’s, and I believe others as well, favored Buckroe, which seemed to have a bit more family atmosphere than the other two. Ocean View, in particular, catered to sailors stationed in Norfolk and prided itself in being perhaps a bit bawdier than the others. (Let me be quick to add that the rough-and-tumble reputation of sailors during my youth was always a bit overhyped, and since then the Navy’s professionalism has solidly put to rest the old myths.)
The amusement parks of our youth could not survive the mega parks that emerged four decades ago. In May 1975, Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion opened within two weeks of each other.
Even the Rocket couldn’t compete with the Rebel Yell at Kings Dominion or the Loch Ness Monster in Williamsburg. Ocean View closed in 1978 and The Rocket was demolished in the dramatization staged for a television show in 1979.
Virginia Beach’s amusements continued on a small scale until about a decade ago, and a new, small park has since opened near the site of the old one.
Buckroe’s owners struggled to keep the century-old park open until 1985, when they finally closed it.
The beautiful Buckroe Carousel is the only original ride to have survived from the three parks. It was restored after the amusement park closed and now resides on the downtown Hampton waterfront next to the Air and Space Museum, where it operates to the delight of young and old alike.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.