Tuesday, July 11, 2023
Every summer my parents would pack us up, twothreefourfive or six of us, into the back of the station wagon, and we’d make our annual pilgrimage to Rye, Playland.
There were a few things that filled our calendar like clockwork. Putman Park for swimming in the lake. The Bronx Zoo. A visit or two to Pasta Plus, where they made enormous and delicious mozzarella sticks like nothing you have ever tasted if you have never been to Pasta Plus. And Playland.
Everything about it was exciting. I remember the feeling of pulling into the parking lot behind the roller coaster and seeing those enormous tracks, hearing the clacking of the wheels and the screams, and knowing we’d arrived.
I don’t just remember the feeling, I feel the feeling. Anticipation, expectation, joy. The smell of cotton candy and popcorn, the heat rippling off the asphalt. Knowing we were about to get back on our favorite rides and wondering what we’d do in between.
Every year was both the same and different.
You could always do something new, but you had to do the routine. The Ferris wheel in all its towering glory. The whip that I have it on authority I went on as a very tiny kid and loved, even though my mother thought I’d be terrified.
Bumper cars. The shooting gallery. Ice cream.
We knew exactly where the ticket booths were, so you could go get your little paper tickets and count out the right number to give to each ride attendant. Some rides were two, some three or four tickets.
I believe it’s digital now, and you get a swipe card once you pay for admission, which is kind of a shame. I know it doesn’t sound like much to a generation of plugged-in glued-in kids, but holding a crumpled paper ticket in your cotton-candy-covered hand while you waited for your turn on the Dragon Coaster was part of the magic of the experience.
It was tactile and immersive. Everything about it was real and happening right in that moment as you waited your turn in line, watching the ride spin or loop or rise or swing for someone else, knowing that was about to be you.
Nobody had a phone to scroll Instagram in the in-between moments. Nobody’s head was down face-first in their palm. You watched, you listened, you waited, you were part of the experience. You were the experience.
The only pictures you had were the ones from the camera dad slung around his neck and occasionally pointed at you, in a way that usually cut off most of your body and left your head in a corner.
If I had to pick my favorite rides, the Dragon Coaster would be top of the list. The click-click-click of the slow climb to the top of the first hill, air opening up beneath you as you soared down the other side, the incredible view of the treetops and the Ferris wheel as you rounded the corner until it all suddenly whizzed by in a blur of twists and turns and cresting hills.
Being tall enough to ride was a fantastic accomplishment to begin with. It meant you finally grew enough over the year to hit the height line. Then you’d get to sit in a car with dad and squeal as you roared down a hill, and squeal louder as you went into the dark tunnel of the dragon’s mouth.
With five boys behind me, there were plenty of years to match heads with height lines to see who would make it on and who had to wait another summer. I’m not sure which was more exciting: the trip up that first steep climb or having dad grinning and hanging on beside you.
Dad was to roller coasters what mom was to the little red train. It had grown-up sized seats and puttered around the park in a nice little tour at mom-speed.
I loved that breezy jaunt around the park under the shade of the train canopy as much as I loved the wind whipping my face on the Dragon Coaster.
But the most iconic and magical ride of all, the one that really meant summer and celebrations, was the carousel. I loved everything about carousels. The music, the motion, the gorgeous ornamentation of the horses and animals.
You had to find the perfect one to ride, not just any old horse, but preferably a horse on the outside of the ring so you could wave to mom and dad every time you circled around.
It had to be a horse that went up and down with the turning of the crank at the top of the gilded pole, not a static horse that didn’t move at all.
And it had to be the prettiest, most bejeweled one on the platform.
No ostriches or bunny rabbits for me. I was a horse purist.
I could have ridden the carousel for hours, watching the lights flash by and feeling the gentle rise and fall of the smooth saddle beneath me, feet set loosely in the stirrups, holding onto the reins or the pole like an elegant lady at the fair.
I loved the carousel.
I was terrified of the Derby Racer.
The Derby Racer was the upside-down of carousels. Instead of pretty colors and sparkling jewels, there were just horse colored horses wearing saddle colored saddles. Instead of the mirrored magic of the carousel interior it was under a big, open dome.
There was no music. Instead, there was an announcer who told everyone where to place their feet, which wasn’t into stirrups but onto a raised sort of rail on the outside so your leg was nearly up to your waist, and a lower one on the inside so you rode with a lean to compensate for the centrifugal force as the ride got faster.
This was the part that terrified me. There were so harnesses and no straps, just you on a horse getting whipped around at high speed, leaning sideways and holding on for dear life so you didn’t get flung out of the dome.
This was A Grown Up Ride.
I remember my grown up aunts and uncles riding it, all smiles. I thought they were very brave.
At first I was too small to go on, then too scared. It wasn’t until much later in my adult life that I decided that it seemed very silly to be afraid of a carousel, upside down or not. So I hitched up my britches and got on.
It was terrifying. I followed the instructions to place my feet, practiced my lean, and held on as it picked up speed, faster and faster, the roar of the ride drowning out the monotone reporting of the announcer.
When the ride reached top speed, I realized…
It was just a ride. Not even a very fast one. I think most of the leaning was for dramatic effect, fun for the OTB crowd but otherwise more form than function. It was a zippy carousel, a less pretty carousel, but a carousel nonetheless.
I survived. I even enjoyed it.
It never quite occurred to me that there were kids on this thing who were a third my age and a quarter my size. All that mattered was that I had done it. I finished the race.
It was the one and only time I went on that ride. I wasn’t afraid of it anymore but much preferred the whimsical gliding of the real carousel to the horse colored horses racing around in circles so fast you couldn’t even wave to mom and dad.
To this day I adore carousels even though it’s been quite some time since I was on one, unless you count the Carousel bar in New Orleans, which actually does rotate, even before you’ve had too many Sazeracs. I’ve always said that if I’m ever filthy stupid stinking rich, I would buy two things: a first edition Winnie the Pooh, and a carousel horse.
Until then I will bask in the happy memories.
As a bonus, I found a front-row POV video of a ride on the Dragon Coaster. I highly recommend watching it on a hot summer day with your hands in the air. Don’t forget to scream when the dragon eats you.
And if you’re interested in a death-defying five minutes on the Derby Racer, I found that, too.
Photo: I’m sure there’s a photo of the Playland carousel in a shoebox somewhere, but for now you’ll have to settle for this beauty in Smithville, New Jersey, just outside Brigantine. And that crazy swing thing in the background? Loved it. Never scared me.