Imagine this: It's 1960 and you take the New York City Subway up to the Bronx. You get out of the train with your family and walk into the blazing summer heat, making your way towards a sign that reads in bold letters, Freedomland USA. Advertised as “The World’s Largest Entertainment Center”, this US-shaped plot of land promised visitors an experience like no other. Unlike Disneyland, Freedomland USA offered families a historically informative and fun-for-all-ages adventure through our nation’s history in the form of rides, reenactments, and faux villages and cities.
Sound interesting yet? This large undertaking was expected to attract 5 million guests per year, and while the memory of the park is still held dear to those who visited, the projected numbers were missed by a mile, and the fantasy world only had a few seasons in the sun. What really was Freedomland? Why did such an ambitious amusement park fail? We at Yesterday’s News have a few pieces of Freedomland memorabilia, and are on the hunt for the history of this mythical amusement park.
A fictitious founder, dumped by Disney
Starting at the beginning, with the amusement park that inspired it all, Disneyland’s ex-General Manager and Executive Vice President, C.V Wood, enters the scene. After earning what many believe to be a fake engineering degree, this fast-talking, charismatic “engineer” was hired by Walt Disney in 1953 to help with Disneyland construction, location scouting, and park logistics. After quickly achieving the role of GM and VP at the park, Wood quickly moved to hire lifelong friends for important jobs at the park. At the same time, Wood undermined Walt on many occasions throughout the building of Disneyland; including blaming Walt for the failure of the park’s initial opening, and trying to claim its success when it finally did well. Finally fed up with Wood’s conniving ways and coup-like tactics, Wood was fired by Walt – his tenure at Disney was over.
Woody’s post-Disney plan
After being fired by Walt Disney, the country’s most beloved and famed magic maker, Wood’s dreams of building and creating massive entertainment parks only grew larger. He quickly formed Marco Engineering Inc., whose main mission was to build other amusement parks throughout the United States. The firm’s first major project came in 1957, with Wood’s vision of Magic Mountain; it was made to be an “educational theme park” based on Colorado history. It financially crumbled. Wood’s next endeavor was Pleasure Island in New England, which had more than a few similarities to Disneyland.
The vision Wood would pitch next, however, overshadowed his firm’s first two accomplishments by a long shot. After pitching the idea to wealthy New York City Elite, Wood and his firm received funding to begin bringing his vision into reality: “Freedomland USA” was to be built in the Bronx, and would tell the whole story of our country in just one theme park. Ambitious as it sounded, Wood got right to work on making his park the best park in the world.
Building America’s theme park
The vision for Freedomland USA was far larger than anything that had been undertaken before. The project would need 80 acres of land, which Wood would acquire in the form of a swampy lot from the Webb & Knapp development company in the Bronx. What was it that Wood expected to fill the 80 acres with? A replica of American history, that’s what. The park consisted of themed areas on a US-shaped plot of land that would take them through American history in an interactive and innovative way.
Upon entering the park, visitors would enter ‘Little Old New York’, which depicted the late 19th-Century city. This section most famously had a replica of the first New York City Macy’s department store, and included horseless-carriage rides through a Faux-New England scenery. Like every other section, old New York used live actors to reenact historic and culturally specific ways of life.
The The park’s second stop took visitors to ‘Old Chicago’, specifically to the night of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, which featured a controlled fire every 20 minutes, and an old-school fire engine that kids could help “pump” to put them out. Next visitors entered the ‘Great Plains’ of 1803-1900, where they met with Native Americans (though often portrayed as the “villains”), cowboys, and square dancing. Next came San Francisco in 1906 – earthquake time – including the ‘Earthquake’ ride and a train stop to Santa Fe.
From San Francisco visitors reached the ‘Old Southwest’ including Tucson and Santa Fe where they could enjoy a mining sky-ride, a ‘casa loca’ spinning house, and a “real” Pony Express station. Next they travelled to ‘New Orleans’, where they could enjoy a Tornado ride through a violent twister scene, or watch a Civil War reenactment.
Finally, visitors ended their trip into the past with a stride into the futuristic ‘Satellite City’. With the 1960s crowd still relatively newly acquainted with the Telecommunications age, Satellite City represented the future of the USA. On the Freedomland “map”, this section was geographically located in “Florida”, tying it to the Rocket Launches of the time, and where the flight simulation rover in the
shape of a UFO was the most popular attraction.
The project would cost 65 million to complete, be designed to entertain 90,000 visitors a day, and 5 million guests per year. Wood’s dreams were big for the patriotic park, so the dollars he dished out had to be bigger. Wood projected numbers that were high, and those numbers would be needed to keep the park alive in its early years. Another projection Freedomland rode on was the idea that the New York’s 1964 World’s Fair would attract people to the area, and would act as a co-dependent attraction for visitors to the city. Unfortunately, it became clear that these numbers and projections were far too high, and Freedomland quickly fell from grace.
The downfall - fast and steady
If nothing else, Freedomland’s opening day disaster set the tone for the years to come and gave its founders an insight into the nightmare laying ahead of them. The exhaustive heat visitors found themselves enduring on Freedomland’s June 19th, 1960 opening day also included partially roped-off sections and non-operational rides. Despite some early stumbles, the park’s first day drew 60,000 visitors, not too shabby. Quickly, however, Wood’s lack of attention to Micro-details, obsession with size, and seasonal difficulties brought the park’s dreamy visions of success to a grinding halt. Unlike Disneyland, Wood was preoccupied with an expansive park, not a detailed park. He was determined to build far and wide, and those construction costs quickly added up and put Freedomland into a hole that their anticipated crowds were supposed to pay for – but they didn’t.
Although the park seemed well-positioned to succeed, it could only operate seasonally, as New York winters were unsuitable for amusement parks. The park’s first season only received 1.5 million visitors, missing the mark needed to dig themselves out of financial troubles by a half-a-million people. When Wood transitioned the park into the hands of another owner, William Zeckendorf hoped that the ‘64 World's Fair, just three seasons away, could save them. But alas – even after trying to extend their season into the spring, Freedomland USA closed its doors in September 1964; with 27 million dollars in debt, they never reopened.
Remembering Freedomland USA today
Although Freedomland was a huge failure financially, the land under Freedomland was still valuable – infamous 20th-Century city planner Robert Moses almost instantly planned and constructed Co-Op City on top of it. The only reminisce of Freedomland is a small portion of Co-Op city that is still zoned for “Amusement Use”. The modern housing projects went up so fast after Freedomland’s fall, that some believe Freedomland was literally built to fail from the start, and that in a classic Robert Moses fashion, scheming and conniving allowed him to take land and do with it as he pleased.
The conspiracy goes on to say that Co-Op city was actually being planned for the swamp-land’s real estate for some time, perhaps even before the conception of Freedomland. Wood was given the real estate to build Freedomland as a way to “hold” the land, so when it inevitably failed, Co-Op city would be ready to build on the empty land, ripe for use. If this conspiracy rings true, Robert Moses might be to blame, at least partially, for Freedomland. He didn’t just take away the Brooklyn Dodgers, or countless neighborhood blocks for his ideations - he took away Freedomland too. Damn.
Today, Freedomland memorabilia and the stories told by those who visited are the only remaining tokens that it ever existed. In America’s collective history, it comes nowhere near as close to the status of the World’s Fair in terms of impact or relevance, despite having been just a bridge away from the Queens, NY exhibition. Despite its lackluster place in New York and American history, its conception, existence, and eventually downfall tell a story of significance about the dreams of those who came before us and the society they wished to see and wanted to be. With the World’s Fair looking forward, Freedomland took a look back at America and told its story through fun, thrills, and landfilled swamps.
At Yesterday’s News, we have acquired some small pieces of the Freedomland experience through memorabilia found throughout the five boroughs. From glassware, ashtrays, shot glasses, and ephemera, you can own a piece of forgotten New York City History, and hold it in the palm of your hands. Check out our latest Instagram post to check out what pieces we have, and shoot us a DM if you want to make them yours!
Written by: Helaina Ferraioli