The recent fire at the FunTown Pier Amusuement Park along the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey brought to mind another devastating fire that destroyed a portion of an amusement park closer to home thirty years ago.
When I came home from school on Wednesday, September 28, 1983, much to my horror, I watched the breaking news on Channel 6 Action News of a fire at Dorney Park. The live television footage showed big plumes of black smoke drifting westward from the historic area of the park. My immediate comment to my mother was "I hope it isn't the Carousel."
Unfortunately, we would learn later, that it was the beloved Carousel that had been engulfed in flames, along with two other rides, several food stands, a game stand and two theaters.
That day, the very heart of Dorney Park had been destroyed when the Carousel was reduced to rubble and ash, for the heart of any amusement park is its carousel. Operating at the park since the 1930's, Dorney Park's ride had been built in 1915-16 by the great Philadelphia Toboggan Company, who also later built the Coaster (1923 - today's Thunderhawk), the former Castle Garden Ballroom (1925) and the former Mill Chute or "Journey to the Center of the Earth" ride (1927).
As one rode around on the Carousel, you would notice the brilliant colors of the horses and paintings, which had a strong military influence. The ride was accompanied by two Wurlitzer band organs, which provided the beautiful music.
Besides the Carousel, the fire affected other rides and buildings that day.
Two rides had been destroyed: the "Bucket of Blood" dark ride, which had originally been built in 1937 as the Devil's Cave Pretzel ride and rethemed as the Pirate's Cove in 1963 by Bill Tracy, the reknowned dark ride designer; and the Flying Bobs, a ride which had been introduced to the park in 1973 and featured cars that undulate up and down around a circle (this ride was similar to the present Musik Express ride at the park.) Several other rides had been damaged, including the Iceberg (the former Cuddle-Up ride), the Sea Dragon and the Paratrooper.
The fire had begun in the Mexican Border food stand around 2 p.m. that day, after a fat fryer had malfunctioned and overheated. It quickly spread to the attached Carousel building and moved its way southward up the hill. In its aftermath, around 10 acres of the park had been affected. Three days later on October 1, the management of the Park thanked the community and declared "We'll be back – better than ever! Opening for our 100th Anniversary Season April 21, 1984!"
Twenty years later, Robert F. Ott, the former owner of the park, commented to me that Dorney Park had not been immune to fires in the past. In fact, two large fires of note were the Zoorama fire on Sat., August 16, 1964 in which the park's zoo building was engulfed in flames and several animals perished, and another fire on Sat. December 23, 1972 that destroyed the Whacky Shack fun house, which had also been built and designed by the legendary Bill Tracy in 1964. Mr. Ott also commented that the fire of 1983 might have been one of the best things that ever happened to the park because it allowed for the upgrade of the infrastructure of oldest section of the park.
And indeed the Park did return in 1984 in its 100th Anniversary year, better than ever. That year saw the introduction of four new rides: the Enterprise, the Musik Express and the Apollo 2000 and the Ranger (later removed). Also that year, the Park brought back its historic 1901 Dentzel Carousel, restored to its former glory (Unfortunately, later this Carousel was taken apart and its individual animals sold to finance expansion of the park.) In addition, new refreshment and game stands were built along a new midway.
After Robert Ott retired in 1985, the park underwent a massive expansion under the direction of Harris Weinstein. This was the time period when the Colossus (later renamed the Laser) double loop roller coaster was installed in the former Zoorama area of the park. Later the area of the former race track (closed in 1986) was redeveloped into the "Flight Deck" area and the giant Hercules wooden roller coaster debuted with a record-breaking drop.
The success of these new rides helped transform Dorney Park into a mecca for thrills in the Northeast.
This success was noticed by the Cedar Fair Company, which purchased the park in 1992.
Today's Dorney Park is a nice mix of the old and new rides. While other parks such as Allentown's former Central Park on the East Side went out of business after a series of fires, Dorney Park arose from the ashes to become a stronger and better park, and has continued on into its 129th operating season this year.
So as we recall the fire of 1983 which forever changed the park, let us also remember that nothing can ever stay the same, that change is inevitable and that the park is still here, 30 years later, for a new generation of thrill seekers to visit and enjoy.
Joshua Arthur Fink
Lower Macungie Twp.