For most of you who park in the city lot and walk down the former amusement park roadway to Rocky Point State Park, you probably think of the Flume when you eventually look to your left. Not me. The park’s kiddieland is engrained into my memory; the first rides I saw upon my initial visit to Rocky Point Park in June 1962.
By that point of my life, I had graduated from the kiddie rides to the big ones, but still, it was exciting as a seven-year-old to see a large kiddieland with a forest of tall rides beyond the tiny trees. My grandmother drove myself, my two brothers, and my cousin cautiously down the roadway in her 1962 Ford Fairlane. All four of us kids were wide-eyed with excitement as we stared at the colorful midway for the first time. As we ascended the hill towards the Cliff House, I noticed the ruins of a long, rectangular building protruding into the Bay. “Nana, what happened to that ride?” I curiously asked. “Oh, that wasn’t a ride, it was a Shore Dinner Hall, Nana responded. “A hurricane wrecked it about ten years ago. Blew most of it into the ocean. I guess they still haven’t removed what’s left of it yet.” This prompted me to think of the next obvious question for a seven-year-old amusement park geek. “Do you think there’s any RIDES in the ocean?” Nana chuckled. “Geez, I don’t know George, let’s just enjoy the ones that are here now, okay?”
Parking in the rear lot, we walked at a brisk pace toward the park. It was like something out of a cartoon. I’d never seen a park with so much vibrancy. The Art Deco trimming and decorations were surreal. The strange twisted white towers served no purpose yet were so important to this magical midway. I wondered if I was dreaming. Right off the bat, I began taking names –those of rides I planned to experience. The park had a Rocket ride similar to Crescent Park’s. I was too short to ride it at Crescent before it was removed there the previous year, but I’d be darned if I was going to get shortchanged on this shiny, multi-passenger bullet that ascended on cables connected to a tower like a majestic mechanical bird! The Wildcat? You bet! Same thing as Crescent Park’s Flying Fish which I’d ridden many times previously. Count me in! The Flying Coaster – a ride that looked like it was coming in for one very painful unhappy landing off a sadistic ski jump — I didn’t measure up to the chart on that one. “Some other day,” I told myself.
As we strolled down the midway toward kiddieland, I hit pay dirt…and sensory overload. I saw a dark ride named House of Horrors that looked curiously like Lincoln Park’s Laff In The Dark. But it seemed as if Rocky Point had slapped a new sign up with some crude façade paintings of “horrors” such as a barracuda attacking a female swimmer.
A fiberglass dragon clutching human body parts contrasted with the cheerful Art Deco overhang it was mounted to. (The sign and the dragon would resurface elsewhere in the park eight years later– I’ll cover all that in a future post.) This conflicting sight was a lot to process for me. But wait, there’s more! Just across the midway a haunted castle was being erected. My head was about to explode!
So to make an incredibly long story short, Nana prodded me along with her flock to kiddieland where I did the right thing and accompanied my brothers and cousin on the rides there. I was still small enough to ride them, and I didn’t complain, knowing that a much larger payoff awaited me just 200 yards away. Truth be known, I was thinking so much about the major rides, I don’t recall much about kiddieland, except that we were short one ticket on the wet boat carousel, so Nama told the ride op that one of us accidently dropped it in the water. He let us all ride just the same. And I thought the mini fire engine ride into the woods was cool.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally got to the House of Horrors which I figured was really Laff In The Dark in disguise. Nana, knowing that I was already a veteran dark rider, had no issues with me taking this one in. Obviously, I was the only one in my party riding, and I got in line eagerly anticipating the adventure. Just as I was got seated in the wooden cart, a burly male teenager grabbed the ride op’s arm. “Hey man!” he protested. “This is exactly the same as Laff In The Dark has always been! No changes! Popeye. Cats. The donkey. Nothing new! No horrors!” The somewhat older ride op scoffed at the teen. “What do you want from me? I just work here!” The angry teen then directed his attention to me, “It’s a rip-off, little kid! Just warning ya! No different than last year!”
With that the op pressed the dispatch button and I plunged through the bump doors into the darkness. And yes, it was your standard issue Laff In The Dark ride with light-up plywood cutouts of a kicking mule, fighting cats, Popeye, and others, accompanied by whistles, buzzers and horns. Same as Lincoln Park’s Laff. But I enjoyed it just the same. (I’ll explain much more about the dark ride legacy of Rocky Point in a future post).
After that, I actually led the flock to the castle construction site. The scene was so impressive, and I defer to the photo essay above for a description. There were lots of workers hammering and sawing away. I finally managed to wave one down, despite Nana’s insistence that I didn’t “bother the carpenters.” Still, I pressed on. “Hey mister! Are you building a spooky ride?” I shouted out to an elderly worker in a short-sleeve flannel shirt, tool belt and tattered blue jeans. “Of course!” he responded enthusiastically. “REAL spooky! Want a little peek?” Well, you know what my answer was. “Now stay with this nice gentleman,” Nana ordered me nervously. “Don’t run off!” Like I was really going to do that! So the carpenter guided me around small piles of plywood to what I surmised was the ride’s exit. He pushed through the hinged double doors and directed me by my shoulder into a long, partially lit corridor. “Now,” he ordered me. “Look up!” I did and they I saw the biggest, creepiest rendition of a bat ever. It resembled a giant ant with wings, and I swore the face looked almost human, as if it was modeled after a real person. The bat was staring directly down at me, suspended by a thin, metal road attached to a motor. “This guy is gonna be flying up and down over your head as your car leaves the castle,” the carpenter proclaimed proudly. “That’s all I can show you. You have to come back next year and ride it to see the rest. Tell all your friends!”
When I emerged from the Castle, Nana and her flock were looking up at the castle’s second level, squinting in the sun, possibly thinking I was up there. “Oh, there you are!” she said seeing me navigating my way towards her. “Did you thank this nice man for the tour?” Of course I had. Many times over after I saw the bat. What a memory!
So to cut the chase, riding the Rocket with the entire flock was glorious. It gave me such a sense of power, flying high over the midway, so very close to the front of the Palladium.
After that, I rode the Wildcat with a stranger: a female teen “single rider” in line with me. The Wildcat was like the Flying Fish, only more terrifying. Loved it!
So I’ve saved the best for last – Salty Brine! He was the day’s guest performer with his collie Jeff, on the midway stage. This we knew from the moment we stepped inside the park. There were posters everywhere promoting his appearance and the time he’d take the stage. Salty was the cool, adopted father of all we Rhody kids. He was the guy who, on his Channel 12 program, showed the best cartoons, displayed the best toys, took field trips to the coolest places in our state. We heeded his advice. You know what it was. And wait, there he was in a booth in front of the stage signing autographs! “Oh, you kids just gotta go meet Salty!” Nana excitedly ordered. The flock stepped it up a notch as we “rushed” the stage. Salty was everything I thought he’d be. Undoubtedly he was the nicest man on the planet; at least to this seven-year-old. After autographing his photos of he and Jeff for all of our flock, he asked Nana with a wink, “So, brave young lady, are you the leader of this rough crew?” “Yes,” Nana responded blushing. “But I almost didn’t get them here. We got lost along the way.” “Well,” said Salty. “I often get lost too. So who’s the oldest here? ” “Me!” I proudly responded. “Ok, so Salty’s giving you an assignment. I want you to wash your grandmother’s car sometime after you get home. I’m sure it got dirty with her driving around trying to find this place for you kids. I’m going to check in with her later this summer and make sure you did it. Deal?” he said extending his hand to seal it with a shake.
So that’s all I remember about my first visit to Rocky Point Park. Don’t recall Salty’s stage show. Meeting him upstaged my memory of it. That along with experiences of a then seven-year-old lifetime.
And yes, I washed Nana’s Ford the very next day.