Every summer for the past 10 years I've taken my children to Rye Playland for what I call some "nostalgic fun." After all, I used to visit the historic amusement park almost every summer when I was kid, starting with my first visit in 1971.
Playland has always been kind of special to me — not only do I have vivid childhood memories of the place, it also gives off a certain "vibe" that you just don't get with contemporary parks. With its historic, Art Deco buildings and "classic" rides from the 1920s and 1930s (Dragon Coaster, Carousel, Derby Racer, The Whip etc.), this national treasure gives off a certain ambiance, an indescribable energy — as if all the fun the millions of people who came through there over the past 90 years somehow became "trapped" in the wooden infrastructure.
When I ask my kids, now aged 10 and 12, what they like best about Playland the answer has always been "the rides." In fact, in recent years they've complained that there isn't enough variety to satisfy their desires. (They haven't been to a Six Flags, Disney or any of the other major theme parks yet, so I don't think they're seeking bigger thrills, just more choices…)
In recent years I've been aware of a drop-off in park attendance — for example during a visit on a gorgeous Thursday evening this past August the park was pretty much dead, with almost no lines for the major rides. From what I understand the park, which is owned and run by the Westchester County Parks Department, has been running in the red for years now — no doubt getting clobbered by the heavily-marketed national theme parks which offer larger, faster, more thrilling rides and, unlike Playland, with it's National Historic status, have full flexibility to change their site plans and infrastructure as demands change.
But now there are changes in the winds for Playland: A preliminary plan presented by non-profit group Sustainable Playland, Inc. (SPI) — contingent on a formal management agreement with the County — calls for a complete overhaul of the park, dividing it into five major "zones" which would be independently operated, but jointly managed by SPI and the County.
Sadly for us "nostalgic" types, the plan would result in the elimination of about half of the park's rides (thankfully retaining the historic ones), in order to create a "great lawn" with a promenade, picnic areas and "sweeping views of Long Island Sound" along the park's waterfront area. Rides to be eliminated would include the Log Flume, Playland Plunge, bumper cars, ThunderBolt and Flying Witch, among others.
The preliminary proposal, presented in October (see attached PDF), also calls for the addition of a new water park where the beach and pool are currently located, as well as construction of new athletic fields and a field house in the northeast corner (currently the parking lot). In addition the current Ice Palace (which was heavily damaged by Hurrican Sandy) would be renovated and would include year-round restaurants.
While I can see the logic to this plan in terms of providing much-needed recreational resources to Rye and surrounding towns, not to mention reducing the environmental impact on the eco-sensitive coast, I wonder what it means for the future of Playland as an amusement park.
If the "Amusement Zone" is scaled back to half its current size, and a water park is added, what will the impact be on park revenue? I haven't read anything that details the "business plan" behind the changes, beyond the fact that adding ballfields will increase property values. What is the forecast on revenues? With the elimination of a general park admittance fee, what, if any new revenue streams will be generated through this proposal?
As a resident of Greenwich, I have to question how much Playland will still draw families from outside the County as an "amusement park," no matter how historic, if the rides are scaled back by 50 percent (would I go there just for the Dragon Coaster?... maybe, depends on the cost of a ticket...). While I understand the rationale, I liked the previous idea of supporting the old historic rides with newer, more modern ones. Save for the new water park, this plan (one of about a dozen that were considered) feels like the first phase of converting the entire 100 acres into recreational facilities — with the elimination of all rides coming in a second phase.
Although a management agreement between Westchester County and SPI is still pending, the Rye City Council recently passed a resolution to support to the plan, bringing yet it another step closer to fruition.
How soon the changes come (and if they come) is yet to be seen — some of Playland's boardwalk area was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy so, who knows, that may hasten the process.
I'm just happy that my kids got a chance to enjoy Rye Playland in the days when it was still known as an "amusement park."