SSoP Podcast Episode 56 — Amusement Parks: Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!

SSoP Podcast Episode 56 — Amusement Parks: Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!

Monday, 17 July, 2023

This is a transcription of Amusement Parks: Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on Earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Amusement Parks. In two truths and a lie, we’ll talk about dress-up day at Disneyland. Then we’ll talk about five books we love.

Melissa: I’m recommending a book that will make you want to time-travel to 1911 Coney Island immediately.

David: I’ve got a book that suggests we should all be having a lot more fun. Which I am in favor of categorically. But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to speed with the Amusement Parks 101.

Melissa: For the 101 today, we’re going take a roller coaster ride through the history of amusement parks.

Melissa: Before I get into that, a quick word about terminology. An amusement park features attractions like games, thrill rides, shows, and other entertainment, usually outside. A theme park has all of that, too, but everything — the visual design, the language, the music, the action of the rides — is unified with a theme. It’s about immersing visitors into a story to create a rich experience.

Melissa: Sabrina Mittermeier is the author of the book ‘A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks.’ She said, themes are about ‘getting away from the everyday and disappearing into a different world. There’s no time to think about your silly little problems when your body is flying through the air against all odds.’

Melissa: The very first amusement park kind of had a theme… if honoring a saint counts as a theme.

David: Maybe…

Melissa: The proto-amusement park is generally thought to be Bartholomew Fair in London. It was first held in August of 1133. And it was a rip-roaring good time, if you were into St. Bartholomew and the cloth trade.

Melissa: By the 1700s, the bolts of wool had been pushed aside, and the fair had everything you could want in a spectacle: tumblers, acrobatics, and tightrope walkers. Exotic animals, boxing competitions, strong men, and puppet shows. Waxworks, dancing bears, performing monkeys, and astrologers. There were also small thrill rides and musical extravaganzas — and a blindfolded pig that could tell the time to the minute and pick out any specified card in a deck.

Melissa: All this eventually was way too much for conservative middle-class Londoners. The fair was denounced as a ‘school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than Newgate itself.’ Newgate was a notorious prison. The last Bartholomew Fair was held in 1855.

Melissa: Meanwhile, in Denmark, two public gardens were adding amusements to their sculpted flowerbeds to create destinations for thrill seekers. The world’s oldest still-running amusement park is Bakken. It started as a hunting reserve in the 16th century, and its spring waters were rumored to have mystical healing powers.

Melissa: In 1756, King Frederick V opened the park to the public and added food stalls and entertaining things like clowns, singers, jugglers, and mimes. Not too long after, when steam power became the sexy new technology, Bakken boasted the first steam-powered carousel. Its wooden roller coaster was built in 1932, and you can still ride it today. Also still there? The white-faced clown mime named Pierrot. He’s been making appearances in the park consistently for more than 200 years. If clowns are your kryptonite, you’ve been warned.

Melissa: Across the city of Copenhagen is Tivoli (TI-vuh-lee) Gardens. It was founded in 1843 with this argument: ‘When the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics.’ Tivoli is equal parts pleasure garden and amusement park. It’s built alongside a lake with lush trees, a Victorian glass hall, a white moorish palace with onion domes, and a Chinese tower that lights up with red and green at night. It’s also home to many roller coasters and a Musical Carousel that is exactly what you want in your old-timey merry-go-round. It looks like a two-layer cake, decorated with plenty of gilded bits and bobs, ornate flowered horses, and a canopy painted with images of Venice.

Melissa: Jumping across the ocean, the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, introduced 27 million people to what a theme park could be. The big innovation was its fun zone called the Midway. There was electric lighting and hot dogs and cracker jack. There were thrill rides, including the debut of the Ferris wheel. And there were pavilions representing countries around the world with costumed performers and music.

Melissa: The Fair was intentionally designed to be immersive and transportive. Scott Lukas, the author of the book Theme Park, says it showed that ‘people could visit other places while staying in one spot — essentially, traveling without having to travel.’ That’s a strong sense of place.

Melissa: We can’t talk about amusement parks without remembering Coney Island. Perched on the boardwalk right next to the Atlantic Ocean in Brooklyn, New York, Coney Island was a little bit seedy and a lot of fun.

Melissa: At its height in the early 1900s, it featured three competing amusement parks — Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park. You could float down a replica of Venice’s Grand Canal, take a submarine ride based on the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, visit an imitation 15th-century German village populated by 300 little people, and ride a Human Roulette Wheel that tossed riders around, and on top of each other — giving men and women an excuse to grab onto each other at time when physical contact was taboo.

Melissa: Not everyone enjoyed Coney Island. The Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, visited Coney Island in the summer of 1906.

Melissa: He wrote gorgeous descriptions of Coney Island at night. Here’s a sample: ‘With the advent of night a fantastic city all of fire suddenly rises from the ocean into the sky. Thousands of ruddy sparks glimmer in the darkness, lining in fine, sensitive outline on the black background of the sky, shapely towers of miraculous castles, palaces, and temples. Golden gossamer threads tremble in the air. They intertwine in transparent, flaming patterns, then flutter and melt away, in love with their own beauty mirrored in the waters.’

Melissa: The majority of his essay makes golden-age Coney Island sound amazing! I wanted to time travel there immediately. But then his essay takes a turn. The magic dissipates, and he’s very judgy of the people thronging the boardwalk and the entrepreneurs who created it. ‘Mean panderers to debased tastes unfold the disgusting nakedness of their falsehood, the naivete of their shrewdness, the hypocrisy and insatiable force of their greed… the precaution has been taken to blind the people, and they drink in the vile poison with silent rapture. The poison contaminates their souls.’

Melissa: I feel like maybe ol’ Maxim needed to take a dip in the sea, eat a Nathan’s hot dog, and get in the spirit of the whole enterprise. I will, of course, link to that essay in show notes, because it’s a must-read.

Melissa: Coney Island also featured the Switchback Railway, its first roller coaster. For five cents, brave riders would climb a tower and take a seat on a bench that was pushed off the tower to glide over rolling hills to another tower 600-feet away. The car traveled at just over 6 mph or about 10 km per hour — that’s about half as fast as the average bicyclist.

Melissa: This coaster was inspired, by the way, by a ride designed by none other than Catherine the Great of Russia. In the late 1700s, it was a very popular past time in St. Petersburg to build a massive snow pile and a tower next to each other so you could climb up and sled down. Catherine wanted to be able to enjoy the thrill ride in the summer, too, so she had a version built that used tracks and wheeled carts. She called her coaster the Katalnaya Gorka and had a pavilion built next to it so her guests could enjoy a cup of tea after their ride.

Melissa: Eventually, the golden age of amusement parks declined, thanks to the Great Depression and the advent of TV. Until a man named Walt Disney decided to combine the technology and magic of movies, television, and theme parks to create a universe of delight.

Melissa: On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened its gates to the public. According to reports, Disneyland was not the happiest place on Earth that day. There were unexpectedly large crowds thanks to counterfeit tickets, the park ran out of food and drinks, and it was so hot, the guests’ shoes got stuck in the freshly poured asphalt.

Melissa: But even that couldn’t overshadow the Disney magic. As guests walked through the entrance of Main Street, USA toward Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, they were invited to enter Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Fantasyland. In his dedication, Walt said, ‘Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.’

Melissa: Now we have Universal Studios around the world, Six Flags, Legoland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Pixar Pier, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo DisneySea, and the original Disneyland — plus about 600 or so regional amusement parks across the USA.

Melissa: Shoutout to my old-school summer hangout, Hershey Park, and it’s three roller coasters: the classic wooden coaster called The Comet, which is appropriately rattly and that I rode for the first time with my dad, the sooperdooperlooper, which was the looping roller coaster on the East Coast, and the steel Trailblazer that I rode repeatedly with my best friend Renee.

Melissa: And that’s the amusement parks 101.

David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I am!

David: Let’s talk about the Disney parks. I have spent some time trying to understand how big the Disney Parks operation is. It’s challenging. Let’s start here. Do you know how many Disney parks there are?

Melissa: 12?

David: That’s right! Technically, there are 12 parks in six different resorts. Walt Disney World in Orlando alone has four parks: the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. There are two more in California, two in France, and two in Tokyo. Another in Hong Kong, and one more in Shanghai.

David: Before I did the research for this show, I didn’t know ‘Tokyo Disney Sea’ existed. Then I read an impassioned blog entry titled, ‘10 Reasons Tokyo Disney Sea is Disney’s Best Park,’ and now we’re going to Japan next year. One of the author’s arguments for Tokyo Disney Sea was about how their Americana is better than Disneyland’s Americana. The heading for that paragraph is, ‘It does America better.’ Which. Really? I would like to see that.

David: The Disney parks are shocking in size and scope and attention to detail. Disney World alone is about the size of San Francisco. We’re talking about a corporation owning a piece of land the size of a major metropolitan area. It holds over 25 hotels. The resort is its own municipality, so they control the local liquor licenses, fire departments, and emergency services. It is a corporate city-state. Over 75 thousand people work there, making it the world’s largest single-site employer. 2500 people work in costume design alone. Mickey is said to have almost 300 different outfits.

David: There is a massive underground tunnel system in the park. It’s so large and complex that one writer described it this way: he said that when you’re visiting the Magic Kingdom, you’re really on the second floor of a vast building.

David: And an estimated 58 million people visited Walt Disney World in 2021. For scope, that’s about half again as many people as visited Manhattan that year.

David: We’ve been to and enjoyed Disney World. But I understand not liking Disney, theme parks, the possibly saccharine cuteness of the place, or the rampant capitalism. But also. The Disney parks are an astonishing artifact of our time. If civilization collapsed today, in 10,000 years, the survivors would assume we had a very active religion centered on a mouse.

David: I’m about to tell you three statements about Disney parks. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which is the lie.

David: Statement 1: Doritos were invented at Disneyland. Statement 2: Disney has a plan for a park themed around its villains. The park is called ‘The Dark Kingdom.’ And Statement 3: Both US Disney parks have dress-up days where thousands of people attend in vintage-inspired attire.

David: So… one at a time. Doritos were invented at Disneyland.

Melissa: False!

David: There’s a little controversy about this, but I’m going to go true with it. When Disneyland opened, there was a Mexican-ish restaurant on New Orleans Street called ‘Casa de Fritos.’ That was run by the Frito company. So you can imagine how authentic the food was.

David: The story is that a marketing executive — his name was Arch West — saw they were getting rid of stale tortillas by frying them up and serving them as chips. He took that idea — and he ran with it. Frito-Lay introduced “Taco”-flavored Doritos in 1968, and then, what we consider the classic ‘original nacho-cheese flavor’ in 1974. There have since been over 180 varieties, according to, where I get all my crunchy snack food data. Those variations include the latest, Doritos Hot Mustard, and Doritos Spicy Garlic. Both of which I would love to try.

David: Oh, and when that marketing executive passed — Arch West — his family spread a layer of Doritos over his urn before they buried it.

Melissa: Aw. A little snack for his journey to the other side.

David: Statement 2: Disney has a plan for a park themed around its villains. The park is called ‘The Dark Kingdom.’

Melissa: True! Because I really want that to be true.

David: The internet has buzzed for years about this idea. Almost since there was an internet. In 1989, Tim Berners Lee invents the internet. Ten minutes later, he gets an email: hey, have you heard about ‘The Dark Kingdom’? Historical fact.

David: First, we should say: Disney has a glorious roster of villains. There’s Maleficent — the witch from Sleeping Beauty who’s been played by Angelina Jolie; the puppy-hunter Cruella DeVille, who’s been played by Glenn Close and Emma Stone; Ursula the octopus-lady from The Little Mermaid; Captain Hook; Jafar; Scar; Gaston; Oogie Boogie; the Queen of Hearts; and on and on.

David: And it would be freaking awesome to have a theme park dedicated to those characters. A roller coaster could take you through the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia, finally bringing you face-to-face with Chernabog, the mountain-sized demon. There could be food that looks like poisonous apples and so much good merch. In my head, the store looks like an improved and super-sized Hot Topic. And it would all be set around a ruined castle that darkly mirrors the one in the Magic Kingdom.

David: Disney has played with this idea. They had special ‘Disney Villain After Hours’ events for a while. For a fee, of course, you could stay late at the park. The villains had a special show and a dark parade. They had unlimited refreshments, soda, and ice cream, so you could pursue the monster of gluttony if you wanted. They modified the rides a bit. For instance, there was a live Barbossa over the bridge for The Pirates of the Caribbean. We seem to have lost ‘Villains After Hours’ to covid. There’s hope it’ll return.

David: But. According to people in the know — Disney historians and a couple of Imagineers — The Dark Kingdom is an idea wholly fabricated on the internet. But hope springs eternal.

David: Statement 3: Both US Disney parks have dress-up days where thousands of people attend in vintage-inspired attire.

Melissa: True!

David: It’s true. It’s delightfully true. It’s called Dapper Day. It started in 2011 when a designer from Fargo, North Dakota, landed in LA. His name is Justin Jorgensen. He himself is dapper; he likes dressing up in colorful suits and such. And he was kind of mooning a bit over the old 1960s pictures of Disneyland, where people look sharp while visiting the rides. He wanted to recreate that. So he just picked a day, and significantly, a day when it was a bit chill so people could wear layers comfortably. It was a Sunday in February 2011.

David: He did not dictate a dress code. He’s in favor of people celebrating their own style. Just dress up. And he invited the retired military to attend in their dress uniforms. And that day, about 100 people showed up. Word got out. Instagram pictures happened. People wanted in. He did it again in September. About 450 people made it. They did it again and again. And it grew and grew.

David: In spring 2017, they got an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people, all looking sharp at Disneyland there. Dapper Day has expanded in several ways. There’s a Dapper Day Expo at Disneyland. Vendors sell vintage and contemporary clothing and accessories. Sometimes there are book signings or beauty demos. Swing bands play. It bills itself as the biggest style celebration in California.

David: Dapper Day has also expanded to Disneyworld and Disney Paris. They’ve had events at the LA County Museum of Art, the LA Opera, and the Natural History Museum. If you’re curious, the fall events are coming up. They are going to a vintage amusement park in Paris in September — which looks just fantastic — and the Expo is returning to Disneyland in November. We will put the link in our show notes.

David: Are you ready to talk about books?

Melissa: I am!

Melissa: Before I get into my primary book recommendations, I want to talk about a few of my favorite books set in amusement parks that I’ve mentioned in previous shows.

Melissa: First is Joyland by Stephen King. I talked about this one on an episode of What Should I Read Next with Anne Bogel. [Dave - strong sense of summer] Don’t be put off by Stephen King’s name on the spine if you don’t like horror novels. This is a bittersweet coming-of-age story with an eerie atmosphere. It’s set in an amusement park by the the beach in North Carolina in 1973. A college student with literary aspirations takes a job wearing the furry costume of Howie the Happy Hound and gets caught up in an old mystery surrounding the park.

Melissa: Next up: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. If you’ve never read the book on which the awesome movie is based, please treat yourself. This is a perfect summer read. An amusement park terrorized by T Rex and raptors? Yes, please.

Melissa: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is a thrilling account of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It reads like a novel with tons of suspense and great characterization — and it’s all true.

Melissa: And finally, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. It’s a modern Gothic classic about small-town America and how the lives of two boys are changed forever by a sinister showman and his magical carousel.

Melissa: My first recommendation is Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen and translated by David Hackston. This is a comedy thriller set in modern Helsinki. It’s the funniest book you’ll ever read about accidental murder committed by an insurance actuary.

Melissa: In case you’re not familiar, an actuary has very, very good advanced math skills and uses them to analyze the financial costs of risk and uncertainty.

Melissa: Our hero Henri is an excellent actuary, and this makes him terrible with people. He has less than zero people skills. He is the dark hole of people skills. When someone says to him, ‘You know how it is.’ He replies, ‘I’m not at all sure I do. In my experience, automatic assumptions regarding the proportionality of things often lead us astray.’

Melissa: Numbers and logic are his thing. He says that at the age of 42, he had only one deeply-held wish: He wanted everything to be sensible.

Melissa: He had been content in his insurance company job, but the company had recently moved into a new space. The new office has an open floor plan that brings him into too much contact with his coworkers. And his new department manager has a touchy-feely approach to teamwork. He wants everyone to talk about their feelings and is instituting practices to make them emotionally connect to each other. They reach a breaking point, and Henri is given the choice of accepting what’s basically a demotion or getting on board with the team. He takes a third option and quits his job.

Melissa: And then things get worse. His brother dies suddenly and Henri inherits his brother’s adventure park. It’s called YouMeFun, and it’s got climbing walls, ropes, slides, labyrinths, that kind of thing. There’s a lot of climbing and jumping involved.

Melissa: When he arrives at the park to tell the staff that their boss is dead and he’s now in charge, he finds himself among a quirky crew of employees, in a brightly-colored, noisy, completely unmathematical environment. He pretty quickly figures out that there’s something fishy — and probably criminal — going on at YouMeFun. And he’s got to get to the bottom of it.

Melissa: So much for his wish that everything will be sensible.

Melissa: This book combines elements of a coming-of-age-story, a crime caper, and a workplace comedy — sort of like the relationships of the TV show The Office or Parks & Rec mashed up with the darker crime stuff of Barry. But where Barry is, say, black, this book is pastel-colored. For example, a giant, hard-plastic rabbit plays a significant role in the plot.

Melissa: I loved that this book has the pacing of a crime novel — there’s good forward momentum — and some very exciting action scenes. There are car chases and foot chases and knife fights and very serious threats from some extremely dangerous people. And somehow, even though it’s violent, it’s also silly and gleeful. It’s really brilliantly done. The Times said that the author Antti Tuomainen is the funniest writer in Europe. Funny doesn’t always work for me on the page, but I whooped out loud a bunch of times reading it.

Melissa: But the heart of the story is Henri’s growth as a human. I felt very warmly toward this unusual, accidentally offensive, somehow endearing character. Taking over the adventure park forces Henri to interact with messy, complicated, unpredictable people. He has to TALK to them and consider their FEELINGS. And it’s all so confusing to him.

Melissa: Most confusing of all is the manager of the park. Her name is Laura. She’s really an artist, but life being what it is, she works at YouMeFun to pay the bills. She’s warm and playful, a little bit wacky. In my imagination, she’s played by the actress Jennifer Coolidge. She turns Henri’s world upside down. She makes him THINK about art and feel feelings about art. He is literally dumbstruck by the things she says and does. And shocked by the unfamiliar emotions he’s experiencing. He’s confused almost all the time, and it’s absolutely delightful.

Melissa: When I was doing my research, I learned that Amazon Studios is doing an adaptation of the book that will star Steve Carell. That totally makes sense, and I can’t wait to see it.

Melissa: If you read this and have an affection for Henri like I do, there are two follow-up books: The Moose Paradox came out last year, and the final book The Beaver Theory will be published this coming October.

Melissa: This is The Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen and translated by David Hackston.

David: My first book is ‘Curious Toys’ by Elizabeth Hand. This is a book that’s equal parts coming-of-age, murder mystery, and historical fiction. The story starts in 1915. It’s set in an amusement park in Chicago called Riverview Park.

David: It centers around a girl — Pin is her name. She’s the daughter of the park’s fortune teller. They are barely scraping by, the two of them. Pin has a sister, but that sister has vanished. As a result, Pin’s mother wants Pin to dress as a boy. Because it’s safer that way. And Pin agrees, – in part because she enjoys the freedom. As a boy, she can go where she wants.

David: Pin is a very charming drug runner. She delivers marijuana and hash for Max, who works at the park. Max performs as “Max and Maxene, She-Male.” For his act, he dresses as a woman on his left side and a man on his right, and spins from one side to the other. He talks to the audience in both personas. There were equal amounts of curiosity and horror at this for the audience in 1915.

David: Pin’s job takes her all over Chicago — she visits a jazz club, a university, and vaudeville shows. But she particularly enjoys visiting the movie studios just a short distance from the park. They’re called Essanay Studios. They are a black-and-white film studio, cranking out shorts with printed title cards.

David: And then, one day, Pin is hanging out around the Park, and she sees something. A man and a young girl – she’s maybe 12 – they enter a dark ride called ‘Hells Gate.’ It’s a slightly spooky tunnel of love. Couples used to go in them to get a little time alone. The man and the girl get in a small two-seat boat to enter, the boat floats off into the ride – and then, when it comes out, there is no young girl anymore. There is just the man.

David: And that’s where the central mystery starts for this story. Pin soon finds an unlikely ally in her hunt to solve this crime. His name is Henry Darger. Henry is eccentric. He introduces himself as a protector of children. We’re never quite sure how much we can trust him. Is he dangerous? Or just odd? But he’s also the only adult who believes Pin.

David: So, that’s act one there. Now. Let’s stop and rewind a little bit. Many of the elements of this story are true — they existed. Riverview Park was an amusement park in Chicago. It did have a ride called ‘Hells Gate.’ The park itself existed from 1904 until 1967. There was a movie studio called Essanay. Charlie Chaplin worked there for a couple of years. He invented his character ‘The Tramp’ at Essenay before he moved to LA. And Chaplin shows up in this book, too. Essanay, the studio, is believed to be the first place anyone filmed a pie-in-the-face gag.

David: And then there’s Henry Darger. Henry Darger was an artist who was a custodian at a hospital in Chicago for most of his life. Shortly before he died in 1973, his landlord discovered Henry had been working on a book. It was a 15 thousand-page fantasy story that he had also lavishly illustrated. Hundreds of watercolors go with this work. His landlord – who was himself an artist – decided that people needed to know about Henry and his work. And that’s how Henry Darger posthumously became one of America’s most famous folk artists.

David: This book introduced me to Henry Darger, and I’m richer for it. If you’re curious, Google his work. It’s equal parts beautiful and sinister. There’s also a full-length documentary on YouTube called ‘The Realms of the Unreal.’ We’ll put a link in the show notes. Darger, the real Darger, was particularly fascinated by the murder of a young girl in 1911. And significantly, there are only three pictures in existence of Henry Darger. Two of them were taken at Riverview Park.

David: So. We’ve got a very rich and delicious intermingling of story and fact. The author – Elizabeth Hand – spent about ten years researching the Chicago of 1915, and it’s on the page. There’s a lot in this book to like. There’s a strong sense of Chicago in 1915, and an exploration of that time, which I loved. There’s Pip’s coming-of-age story. She starts out barely visible to others – she doesn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about what she wants – and gradually works to become a person of agency. There’s the crime story, which was well told. This is a dark ride, but, for me, it never went too far down that path. And then there are themes about how the delights of amusement parks and movies relieved the poverty of that age, and brought together people who changed the twentieth century.

David: If that sounds like something you’re interested in, this is ‘Curious Toys’ by Elizabeth Hand.

David: I also want to mention: the author, Elizabeth Hand has a series of murder mysteries featuring a photographer who covered the punk scene in New York City in the 1970s. People have compared her detective to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. I would like to give those a try.

Melissa: My second recommendation is Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau.This is a historical mystery set in 1911 at the Dreamland amusement park in Coney Island. If you like stories about terrible rich people and plucky heroines, this is the book for you.

Melissa: Our heroine is 20-year old Peggy Batternburg. And our introduction was love at first sight. She’s working at the Moonrise Bookstore in Manhattan. She’s an assistant clerk, which means she’s mostly relegated to paperwork on the second floor. But every once in a while, she’s invited to the main floor, where she can mingle with the customers and walk among the bookshelves. She says, ‘To descend those narrow stairs… was as thrilling for me as a sashay across the stage would be for a newly-cast Ziegfeld showgirl. Each click of my heel on those steps sent my heart racing…’ A bookish heroine after our hearts!

Melissa: Soon we learn that Peggy is the heiress to a prominent robber baron family. She’s the granddaughter of one of the richest men in America. He’s in the same class as, say, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and the Vanderbilts. These terribly rich — and just generally terrible — relatives of hers have plans for the summer.

Melissa: Peggy’s sister Lydia has been engaged to her wealthy beau for far too long. She needs to lock down that relationship. The family’s master plan is to decamp to the posh Oriental Hotel on Manhattan Beach for the summer with all hands on deck, including Peggy. The two families will sun and swim and dine together. They’ll form familial bonds, the fiancé will swoon, and a wedding date will be set. Lydia’s future, and the legacy of the Batternburg family, will be secured.

Melissa: What could possibly go wrong?

Melissa: As it turns out… plenty. Starting with Manhattan Beach being terrorized by a serial killer. On Peggy’s arrival, she practically stumbles on the first victim, a young girl found strangled under a pier.

Melissa: Although Peggy doesn’t set out to be an amateur sleuth, she’s soon caught up the crime — and she has quite the summer.

Melissa: Peggy is my sweet rebel princess! In no particular order, she falls spectacularly in love, defies her family, tangles with the police, and mingles with Coney Island’s underworld. When she’s too hot in her bathing costume, she cuts it up to expose her legs! She scandalizes her family by drinking Coca-Cola from the bottle. And she routinely sneaks out unchaperoned — during the day and at night. Unheard of!

Melissa: The author Nancy Bilyeau was a magazine editor for Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly before becoming a historical novelist. She keeps the pace moving and does a great job of weaving period details into the story without dumping all of her research on the page. There’s a lot of interesting history about the contrast between the fancy hotels on the beach and the seedier amusements of Coney Island. Major events of the day like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the heat wave of 1911, and futuristic art all play a part in the story. And some of the characters are based on real people, but I won’t spoil the fun by name-dropping them. The author’s note at the end of the book is a treasure.

Melissa: There’s also a very strong sense of place. I want to read you the opening paragraph:

‘The phantom city vanished an hour after midnight. The one million lights of Dreamland darkened as they always did, with a clang as loud as a cannon shot, followed by a long, wheezing gush. The rides, the attractions, the sideshows, the restaurants, the dance hall, the entire fifteen-acre fairground stretching from the Canals of Venice to Lilliput — all of it had been shut down for the night. Once they’d thrown the switch on the light panels, it didn’t take long for the heat created by the electric bulbs to dissipate, replaced by the cool, salt-flavored ocean breeze. But the smell of the fairground hung on. Nothing could drive away the scent of stale popcorn, roasted peanuts, taffy and coton candy, fried crab, boiled corn and beer, mingling with the odor of greasy machinery and rank human sweat. That was the fragrance of Coney Island, and no one ever forgot it.’

Melissa: I mean. That makes me want to time-travel back to 1911 immediately, even though I’d have to wear a corset.

Melissa: This is an excellent summer read with an endearing heroine and a few characters that you’ll love to hate. The murder mystery is resolved in a satisfying way, and I enjoyed the way it’s interwoven with Peggy’s coming-of-age story. Plus, there’s a big reveal at the end that I didn’t see coming, and it hit me in the feelings. It’s Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau.

Melissa: I want to quickly mention another novel that would be an excellent pairing with this one. It’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. It’s also set at Coney Island in 1911 and tells the story of Coralie, a mermaid in her father’s boardwalk freak show. It’s a very atmospheric story that weaves romance, mystery, and magic.

David: My second book is Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. This book presents an idea that I love. The idea is that delight is an essential driver of historical change. Play is a key to progress. If you want to see the future, go where people are having fun.

David: So, for instance: The first chapter is about fashion. Johnson tells the story about how, before about 1500, Northern Europeans wore clothes of wool and linen. Thick, scratchy, plain wool. You can imagine what wool underwear was like. Now, some civilizations had discovered cotton. And Indian dyers – after thousands of years of experimentation – had realized that you could dye vivid colors and patterns into cotton. They invented chintz and calico.

David: And in the late 1400s, Vasco de Gama brought some of that back from the West Indies. Can you imagine? Seeing cloth with patterns on it for the first time? Holding cotton to your face for the first time after a lifetime of wool? What strange magic is that? And there it is: that moment of delight.

David: At first, some people complained a bit. ‘You can’t wear this in our hearty weather!’ But then someone realized you could wear the cotton on the bottom, the wool on the top. And now it’s essential. At the height of the calico trade, the fabric was 80% of the East India Company’s imports. 80%. Throw the ivory and gold over there; we’ve got calico to load!

David: All of this has an unintended consequence. Wool dropped in favor. And now the wool trade is in danger – big yarn is angry. Pamphlets and essays were written, denouncing those calico madams. That’s what they called cotton supporters: calico madams. Songs were written. One of them had the lyrics: ‘None shall be thought / a more scandalous slut / than a tawdry Calico madam.’ Rioting weavers marched on Parliament. Laws were written. There was a ban on imported dyed calicos. Every generation has its variation of ‘Video games will ruin our children.’ In the 1500s, it was calico.

David: But. Other people thought: what if we made the calico here? And from that, we get a generation of mechanical tools that mass-produce cotton. Including Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and the early steam engines. From there, we get industrial machinery and trains. The delight of cotton and fabric patterns leads England into the industrial revolution, which reshapes the world. Not always for the better, of course. The industrial revolution brought its own set of problems. For instance, we’re still walking with the racism the cotton trade brought to the United States.

David: But the rise of calico also brings with it the rise of fashion. Which pattern are we wearing this season? – I was shocked to read that the annual fashion cycle started in the 1780s. And that, too, was a threat to some. How can we tell the middle class from the aristocracy if they’re wearing the same thing?

David: This book goes through six different subjects. Fashion, Music, Food, Illusion, Games, and Public Spaces. And talks about how they developed, how they changed the world, and how they all start with people being delighted.

David: There are so many lovely stories in this book. Johnson writes about how every clove on earth started from a chain of islands off the coast of Indonesia, and how, in 1700 BCE, a trade network had transported those cloves six thousand miles. This is before maps. And compasses. Johnson takes us to Baghdad at the height of the Islamic golden age to describe the fantastic toys they made there: robotic elephants and singing fountains and the like. And he draws a line from there to the invention of computers. Which, itself, was the home ground of video games and amateur robotics and artificial intelligence. He introduces us to a 16th-century Italian gambler and rake who figures out the fundamental laws of probability and how that influences insurance and airplane design today.

David: This book is not specifically about amusement parks; he only spends a little time talking about them. But the chapters describe many parts of an amusement park: Fashion, Music, Food, Illusion, Games, and Public Spaces.

David: I enjoyed what it did to my head, too – thinking about delight. What if we lived in a world that globally recognized delight and play as a critical, significant part of life? Not just a pastime, but a worthy pursuit. What if you turned on CNN and the reporter said, “100,000 people were suddenly delighted today when a beautifully painted zeppelin floated over Minneapolis.”

David: Why can’t we have that world? I enjoyed this book very much. It is rich with great stories about innovation and fun. And I found the central premise kind of thrilling, really. It’s Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson.

Melissa: My final recommendation is Fantasticland by Mike Bockoven. This is a disaster novel set in a modern theme park in hurricane-ravaged Florida. Before I get into the setup of the story, we need to talk about the setting.

Melissa: Welcome to FantasticLand, a massive theme park that’s competitive with Universal and Disney. It’s divided into six different areas: the Golden Street, which is like Main Street USA at Disney, Fairy Prairie, Fantastic Future World, Hero Haven, World’s Circus, and Pirate Cove. Everything is themed to the max: the food in each area is different, the music, the uniforms on the workers, even the smells. In the Pirate Cove they pipe in the smell of seawater, and Fairy Prairie smells like cotton candy. Every detail has been thought through for a totally immersive experience.

Melissa: The book opens with a faux author’s note explaining that on September 15, 2017, Florida was hit by the most powerful hurricane in its history. The storm and subsequent flooding took out power grids, destroyed inland businesses, and left thousands of people homeless. The National Guard and the Red Cross were called into action, but there were so many crises throughout the state, they had to prioritize who and where they helped.

Melissa: According to the FantasticLand management, there was a solid disaster plan in place for the park. Guests were evacuated, and 326 employees stayed behind to monitor and protect the park. They’d been trained and were prepared for every eventuality — except… they weren’t.

Melissa: So, this is the story of how social order and friendships and humanity completely broke down at FantasticLand in the aftermath of the storm. There’s plenty of food and water in the park — enough to last everyone for a month — but because of a series of mishaps, trust is destroyed among the employees almost immediately.

Melissa: Soon, they all retreat to the areas of the park where they worked before the storm and they form tribes. The employees of Pirate Cove turn into actual pirates, the crew from Hero Haven become the DeadPools, the girls who work in the stores on Golden Street dub themselves the ShopGirls and transform into a tough girl gang… that kind of thing.

Melissa: And they’re all left to their own devices because everyone outside thinks they’re safe. The National Guard and the Red Cross have been assured they have supplies and a plan. So the rescue teams go elsewhere, and FantasticLand devolves into a war zone.

Melissa: The story unfolds through a series of interviews conducted well after the crisis has passed. Each interviewee tells a different part of the story. They each have distinct voices and sometimes they seem a little unreliable.

Melissa: The first person we hear from is a historian who lays out the background of FantasticLand to put the whole thing in context. Then a representative of the Red Cross explains how everything went so wrong with the storm predictions and rescue efforts. There’s a dad who talks about evacuating with his family.

Melissa: It gets really gritty when the testimonials from employees start. These are kids — college students and high schoolers during their last summer of freedoms.

Melissa: They way these young people are transformed from normal teenagers to armed renegades is chilling. It’s also very compelling — it’s got a strong ‘can’t look away’ energy. Some of it is pretty gory, and it’s also very entertaining and unsettling. It’s so well done, I had to keep reminding myself it’s a novel, not an actual nonfiction account.

Melissa: The way decency unravels and tribalism takes over is shocking and it also made me go, ‘Oh, yeah. Of course it could happen that way.’

Melissa: It probably goes without saying that this is a pretty dark ride. But I loved the format so much. The author Mike Bockoven (BOCK-uh-vin) does an amazing drop managing a lot of characters. Each interviewee feels like a real person — the variance in their speech patterns and vernacular is so good. There are a handful of recurring characters in their accounts of what happened in the park, so we get some very well-drawn villains and a few sympathetic characters.

Melissa: I read this on the page, but a bunch of reviews recommended the audiobook. It’s performed by two actors, and according to reports, the voice work is excellent. If you like true crime stories, or you were super into Lord of the Flies in high school, you will love this book. That’s Fantasticland by Mike Bockoven (BOCK-uh-vin).

David: Those are five books we love, set in Amusement Parks. Visit our show notes at for links and details. We’ll show you the work of Henry Darger, we’ll point you to Dapper Day.

Melissa: I’ve got a video of the top 10 theme parks in Europe and that amazing essay by Maxim Gorky.

David: This is the last episode of the season. Thank you so much for coming along with us on our adventures. We’ll be on a break for a little while to prepare for Season 6. If you want to influence the destinations we cover next season, join our patreon. For just $3 a month you can boss us around.

Melissa: During our break, we’ll be releasing The Library of Lost Time very Friday. And I’ll send my weekly newsletter filled with book chat, recipes, and other stuff that catches my fancy.

David: Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you soon!

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Ethan Hoover/Unsplash.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

The gate of an amusement park is an invitation to a magical world where you'll careen down a track, soar through the air, play games of chance, meet magical creatures, and eat the junkiest food with gleeful abandon.
This story has the ideal elements for a King horror tale — a creepy carny, a haunted ride, a fortune teller, and an unsolved murder — it's really a coming-of-age story that captures that breathless ache of summer.
This weekend, we recommend a getaway to the lush landscape of Costa Rica: glorious sunshine, azure-blue water, and dazzling foliage. Pay no attention to the many ravenous, angry dinosaurs roaming the jungle.
Treat yourself to a recipe for homemade Chicago-style hot dogs! It's an all-beef dog 'dragged through the garden' with colorful toppings for a taste explosion, inspired by Erik Larson's brilliant romp through history.
The enticing aroma and salty-sweet crunch of caramel popcorn is literally the taste of the circus. You can easily make a batch in about half an hour — plenty of time to escape into the magic of 'The Night Circus.'

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.