Rockaways’ Playland in Queens started life as a resort area in 1876, developed by William Wainwright and James Remsen. This resort included the Seaside House, then the biggest hotel on the coast. Sadly, a fire on 21 September 1892 destroyed eight blocks of Rockaway Beach, among them the Seaside House. Undeterred, Mr. Wainwright rebuilt it at even grander proportions.
In 1901, he retired and left his son in charge. Then, on 1 June 1902, another fire broke out in Kasten’s Hotel, killing four people, injuring four more, and destroying many of the resort’s properties.
Concurrently, George Tilyou, owner of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, bought land in the nearby Seaside neighborhood in 1900. Very unoriginally, he also called it Steeplechase Park.
Mr. Tilyou offered two acres of his new property to roller coaster pioneer LaMarcus Adna Thompson, who’d almost gone bankrupt after being unable to exhibit his Switchback Railway coaster at the 1901 Pan–American Exposition. Mr. Thompson eagerly bought the land, and Thompson’s Amusement Park opened in 1901, 1902, or 1903.
In this era, there were many popular, successful amusement parks in Queens, particularly on Rockaway Beach. Patrons came from the other boroughs via a ferry added in 1903.
Mr. Thompson passed away in 1919, and his family continued operating the park for eight years. In December 1927, they sold it to Robert Katlin’s syndicate. Mr. Katlin proceeded to expand the park with new rides, a gymnasium, a pool, and a new arena.
In January 1928, local lawyer A. Joseph Geist bought the park and renamed it Rockaways’ Playland. Almost immediately, he set to work with even more expansions, including a dancehall and menagerie. Thanks to all these rides, attractions, and the beach, the park remained popular through the Depression.
Who else but the vile Robert Moses got involved in 1937! To build his precious Shore Front Parkway no one asked for, he shut down the park and destroyed many homes and businesses in the way. Mr. Geist lost half the park’s rides thanks to that evil megalomaniac obsessed with unnecessary roads. The bungalows many guests rented were also razed.
Thankfully, his selfish plans to shut down Rockaways’ Playland failed, and Mr. Geist was able to reopen in 1939 after much rebuilding.
Crowds were thinner during WWII, and the lights had to be shut off to avoid enemy detection. In August 1945, the blackout lifted.
Though many local amusement parks suffered in attendance during the postwar era, when people began driving to farther away places with flashier attractions, Rockaways’ Playland regained popularity with the addition of new rides and attractions, including kiddie park Joytown. New lighting systems were also added to modernize the park.
Visitors came not only from NYC itself, but nearby cities like Yonkers, New Rochelle, Jersey City, and White Plains. Boats to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn opened in 1954, and a ferry to Westchester County arrived in 1964.
During these postwar decades, Rockaways’ Playland stayed relevant and successful through many special events and contests, such as children’s contests each Saturday afternoon and a beauty pageant every Monday evening. In July 1953, 600 orphans were treated to a day at the park.
There was an understandable small dip in attendance during the 1964 World’s Fair at nearby Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, but the crowds picked back up as usual soon afterwards. By 1970, 175 million people had visited.
Attendance started shrinking in the late 1970s, since the rides and attractions were increasingly seen as dated. It was difficult to keep up with the new amusement parks, and as more people owned cars, they tended to choose destinations more than a brief distance away.
A. Joseph Geist’s son Richard, now the manager, didn’t want to close his park, but insurance premiums went through the roof and became impossible to pay. He made the difficult decision not to reopen the park for the 1986 season.
Though a housing development was planned in the park’s place, the land stood empty for years. Only in 2003 was it finally developed. The only thing remaining of Rockaways’ Playland today is the Beach 98th St. subway station sign.
Rides and attractions included:
An Olympic-sized pool used for Summer Olympic tryouts
Gravity Wonder (a roller coaster)
A shooting gallery
A 1,000-foot-long bathhouse with 5,500 lockers
A Steeplechase roller coaster
A Noah’s Ark funhouse
The Atom Smasher (a wooden roller coaster featured in 1952 film This Is Cinerama)
A number of my characters regularly visit Rockaways’ Playland and the nearby beach starting in the 1930s.