Fifty-three years ago this month, Freedomland U.S.A. was entertaining tens of thousands of visitors each day during its fourth season of operation.
When it opened on June 19, 1960, this theme park was called the “Disneyland of the East.” It was larger than Walt Disney’s dream park and it was built by the same man, Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood, who created the home of Mickey Mouse. Freedomland also was known as “The World’s Largest Entertainment Center” and later “The World’s Largest Outdoor Entertainment Center.”
Freedomland was located on 205 acres in the northeast section of The Bronx in New York City. The park, with more than 60 rides and attractions, was created in the shape of the United States on 85 acres, with the remaining land reserved for parking and operations.
Wood’s Freedomland was divided into seven-themed areas: Little Old New York (1850-1900), Old Chicago (1871), The Great Plains (1803-1900), San Francisco (1906), The Old Southwest (1890), New Orleans: Mardi Gras and Satellite City: The Future. Each section of the park contained rides and attractions pertinent to the themed section and the era.
The park also attracted the most popular entertainment of the day:
- Swing bands - Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the Glenn Miller Orchestra;
- Singers - Eydie Gormé, Steve Lawrence, Pat Boone, Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett;
- Stars from the early days of rock - Paul Anka, the Four Seasons, Dion & The Belmonts and Chubby Checker;
- Movie and television stars - Henry Fonda, Hugh O’Brien and Lassie;
- Comedians - The Three Stooges and Charley Weaver.
For the long-term, the property owners, along with developers and city politicians, had other plans for the land. Freedomland was closed after five seasons to make way for the largest cooperative housing development in the world. Today, Co-op City occupies part of the site of the park while a shopping center covers the rest of the park land.
A Commemorative Plaque
This year, on August 17, friends of Freedomland gathered to unveil a plaque dedicated to the park. With the support of the Riverbay Corporation (Co-op City’s management company), Freedomland fans and former employees paid tribute to the memories on a sunny summer day that would have been perfect for a fun time at the theme park more than 50 years ago.
The program was hosted by Bob Mangels, who has long championed the creation of a fitting memorial to Freedomland. Among the speakers were local politicians, former park employees (Frank Adamo, who was in maintenance management, and entertainer and wild west marshal Ben Rossi), and fans who remember cowboy fights, the ride through a Civil War battlefield, helping firemen douse the Chicago fire, and rides on sternwheelers and canoes.
Special guests included Lynn Lavalette, the daughter of children’s television show host Claude Kirchner. Lavalette recalled fond memories of her father’s performances at Freedomland and she brought along her father’s puppet sidekick “Clownie.” The audience also heard a pre-recorded message from Chuck McCann, another fondly remembered children's show television personality, who paid tribute to the great days of Freedomland.
Learn the entire story behind Freedomland in a seven-part Examiner.com series and on Mangel’s Freedomland website. Freedomland fans and all fans of theme parks can continue to relive the park’s magical five years on Facebook.