It was 1925, nearly three decades before Walt Disney broke ground on the orange groves of Anaheim, California, for what would become arguably his greatest work: Disneyland.
Disney and his bride, Lillian Bounds, headed north from their Hollywood home to Mount Rainier National Park and then on to Seattle — not to scope out the land for a theme park venture, but to honeymoon in a place of natural wonder that they loved dearly after marrying at Bounds’ brother’s home in Lewiston, Idaho, that July.
Disney would return to Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair, and these rugged evergreen locales would eventually inspire a number of his creative pursuits (including portions of Disneyland’s Frontierland), but Disney never planted roots of his own here.
Today, the American amusement park business is booming — to the tune of $22 billion in 2019 revenues and rebounding from pandemic losses — and the U.S. continues to see fresh theme parks and record-breaking roller coasters debut, like Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay in Florida, the world’s fastest, steepest hybrid coaster.
And while theme parks are scattered across the American Southwest, South, Midwest and Northeast, the Pacific Northwest remains something of a dead zone, with just a handful of small regional parks — meaning very few coasters.
That fact is especially surprising considering Seattle has a rich, if humble, history of amusement parks, dating to the 19th century. Leschi Park Casino operated from 1888 to 1909, while Luna Park — the “Coney Island of the West” — entertained Seattleites from 1907 to 1913. The most ambitious amusement park of them all, Playland, operated from 1930 to 1961. And it’s been more than a decade since the Ferris wheel, bumper cars and all else that remained of Seattle Center’s Fun Forest was dismantled.
Is the Pacific Northwest an untapped market for roller coasters? What has worked in the region and what will the future hold for coaster fanatics here? Let’s take the dive.
The thrill market today
Theme park journalist Arthur Levine, who has been reporting on the industry for decades, agreed that the region is something of an anomaly.
“It would seem that the Pacific Northwest is among the most underserved markets in the U.S. for theme parks,” he said. “Compared to other markets and metropolitan areas, the population density in the Pacific Northwest would seem to warrant the development of a major park. Yet historically, that has not been the case.”
Briefly owned by Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, Wild Waves Theme & Water Park in Federal Way is one of the region’s bigger parks, and the only one easily accessed from Greater Seattle. Just off Interstate 5 northeast of Tacoma, Wild Waves has four coasters, including a kiddie coaster, on its 70-acre property. For reference, Disneyland occupies 500 acres, and Seattle Center sprawls across 74. Most of Six Flags’ 15 operational parks have eight or more roller coasters, headlined by a world-record 19 coasters (and counting) at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California.
At Wild Waves, wooden coaster Timberhawk and signature sit-down coaster Wild Thing will satisfy your G-force fix, and Remlinger Farms in Carnation is good for kids — but not adrenaline.
Idaho’s Silverwood Theme Park — about an hour east of Spokane — is the Pacific Northwest’s largest theme park, with seven roller coasters and other attractions enticing more than 500,000 visitors per year. Still, these numbers are peanuts when compared with other destination parks around the country, like Disney, Busch Gardens and Universal Studios properties and their ilk, which attracted several million visitors even during the coronavirus-ravaged 2020 season.
Nicholas Laschkewitsch, theme park historian and representative for American Coaster Enthusiasts, offered a population comparison.
“Seattle, which has a population of over 720,000, is home to 30% more people than … Kansas City, Missouri, for example, a city in which theme park operator Cedar Fair runs the Worlds of Fun theme park.”
That is: In terms of attractions and sheer size, Wild Waves is a much smaller park than Worlds of Fun, despite servicing a considerably larger metropolitan area.
When it comes to the climate restraints of operating a theme park, Laschkewitsch adds that Wild Waves is just as prepared to handle the weather as other parks nationwide.
“Wild Waves is able to be open for a good chunk of the year, and arguably could be open much more when taking many of the Midwest theme parks into account.”
Success in the Northwest
The Pacific Northwest has not always been the year-round tourist, tech and population hub it’s become in recent decades, able to sustain the crowds that attract large amusement companies, like Disney, Universal or Cedar Fair. But that population growth now complements a history of smaller amusement parks in the region. So what does work in the Upper Left?
Older, historical and quaint family amusement parks that embrace the fabric of the Pacific Northwest remain popular in the region. These seasonal, smaller operations don’t have to financially rely on a large number of visiting guests or staff, nor must they worry as much about expensive ride upkeep.
Portland’s Oaks Amusement Park opened in 1905 and remains one of the longest continuously running amusement parks in the country. With 24 attractions, including the steel roller coaster Adrenaline Peak and a historical carousel, the park functions as a nonprofit, putting everything back into its attractions and the preservation of vintage pieces from the city’s history.
“The Oaks,” as the locals call it, is valued for its affordable admission price and a key factor that many parks do not possess: proximity to a major city.
“We are quite unique for an amusement park being that we are situated within the major city in the region,” said marketing director Emily MacKay.
Just minutes from downtown Portland, transportation isn’t an inconvenience the way it is for most American parks that operate outside of major metropolitan areas.
Located alongside a protected wildlife wetland refuge, expansion isn’t in the cards for the park. That juxtaposition also highlights the environmental dilemma of theme parks, which require massive amounts of land and resources.
Instead, management at the Oaks is focused on keeping their regulars happy. A 10-year plan is in the works that will improve the layout of the park, with nods to the original concept from the turn of the century. Details are still to be announced.
Location aside, the park depends on multiple generations of returning guests.
“People love the nostalgia of the park — the feeling that they are there experiencing with their children the same thing that their grandparents and great-grandparents experienced as kids gives a special connection between local families and the location,” MacKay said. “Our region is also particularly fond of anything local and one-of-a-kind, and we certainly fit that bill.”
Fresh off its 50th anniversary in the forests just south of Salem, Oregon, Enchanted Forest is perhaps one of the most fascinating parks in the country.
Owner and artist Roger Tofte, now 92 years old, built the entire park by painstakingly hand-sculpting fairy-tale figures one by one for over a decade before its 1971 opening. The fantastical property, with its flagship castle and whimsical lands, was developed in its formative years without taking on any debt.
The park has evolved and expanded over the years, with Tofte bringing his three children — Susan, Mary and Kenneth — into the business. The seasonal park, which typically operates from late March through September, sees several thousand guests per day.
“We know what we are,” said Susan Vasley, Tofte’s daughter and the park’s co-manager. “We are a small theme park compared to the wonderful big parks. You can come and meet a family member out in the park working. My dad may be touching up cement or clipping trees. So, people have built a very intimate relationship with the park.”
“It’s very handcrafted, not plastic, and it’s in the beautiful Oregon forest with natural surroundings,” Vasley said. “I think all of that gives us our own niche, our own place in the world.”
Kenneth Tofte serves as the park’s vice president and is responsible for the animatronics, while Vasley provides the park’s soundtrack, making it the only theme park in America that doesn’t pay music licensing fees, she said.
And though the park has existed quietly on a national level, over the years it has continued to push the boundaries of modern theme park design.
The small park has not only adapted to recent technologies but paved the way, like with the addition of one of the first water coaster hybrids in the world. The Challenge of Mondor, an interactive dark ride, debuted in 2006, introducing a trackless vehicle system — a technology not often used at that time that is now more commonplace in the industry.
Still, the homegrown integrity of the park remains.
“After 50 years, it’s very nostalgic for a lot of people. They are bringing their kids and now their grandkids. There’s history involved,” Vasley said. “I think our park feels like an Oregon product and people feel it’s their own. The gorgeous setting of the Northwest can’t be replicated easily.”
The future for Pacific Northwest coasters
Northwesterners crave an authentic experience, not necessarily the glossy ones provided by many big amusement parks. So what does the future hold for thrill-seekers here?
“There may be hope for those in the region, however,” journalist Levine said. “There is an emerging trend of ‘micro-parks’ being developed. Some of them offer Disney-style ‘E Ticket’ attractions, like roller coasters and other major attractions, but fewer of them. Designed to be experienced in a matter of hours and to cost less than destination parks such as Universal or Disney, they could fill the gap in markets such as the Pacific Northwest.”
Examples of micro-parks include the newly opened Peppa Pig Theme Park in Florida, the in-development Crystal Lagoons Island Resort in Arizona, and Katmandu in the Dominican Republic. These micro-parks aim to bring thrills to an area with less financial burden than a traditional theme park while simplifying issues like parking and staffing. The financial benefits trickle down to the visitors because park admission prices are a fraction of the cost of major theme parks.
Laschkewitsch adds that examples of Seattle-based thrills might be hidden in plain sight.
“What theme park operators in the Pacific Northwest should focus on to differentiate themselves from other major markets is to create experiences that build off of the unique territory and landscape that comes with the region,” he said.
“Wings Over Washington, a media-based aerial adventure on Miners Landing on Seattle’s waterfront, is a prime example of the right way to do this — combining innovative ride technology with an original story that ties into what makes the Pacific Northwest a uniquely beautiful territory.”
“Unique” seems to be the buzzword for amusement parks in the Pacific Northwest. There may not be many roller coasters, but there’s plenty of magic. And while Disney and the major parks never came knocking, it may still be a small (or micro) world after all.