Taking The Playland Plunge

I moved to the Rivertowns five years ago after having spent the last dozen or so years in and around Los Angeles. Throughout my twenties, I was less than an hour away from Disneyland, Universal Studios: Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and a host of other similar establishments. It is, quite simply, the west coast Mecca of amusement parks. Needless to say, I grew spoiled. Travelling carnivals don’t even bother to come out to LA. What’s the point? They’d get heckled.

“You’ve got a Ferris Wheel, a carousel, and something that spins you in a circle? Boring! Come back when you can throw me upside down and blast me through loops with the force of 3 Gs while flying through a virtual reproduction of the Pandora landscape from Avatar!”

When we moved here, I started seeing signs and bumper stickers for something called Rye Playland. I was skeptical. Playland? How could that be any good? It doesn’t even have movie, television, or any other obvious pop culture branding!  It is a little-known secret that I spent a season performing melodramas at Knott’s Berry Farm in the 90’s, and even a third-tier amusement park like that had Camp Snoopy. 

I and my “real theme park” snootiness actually managed to live through four summers without even knowing where Rye Playland was, aside from “somewhere over there.” But eventually, like a fungus eating away at the membrane of my determination not to have anything to do with a smiling green dragon that you can’t find on a Happy Meal, I could hold off a visit no longer. A season-pass-holding friend of my daughter’s was heading over there one day – would we like to come along? My wife and I actually had a conversation about how confused we were because we thought these parents were cool –  could Playland be cool?  Then we found out they would get us in for free. 

SOLD!

With great trepidation, I packed up the kids and sped across 287. To Playland. Rye Playland. Even the name still conjured up images for me of back-country hillbillies drunk on moonshine shoving screaming kids down a rusty railroad track in a dirty mining car with no brakes.

“Y’all hold on now! If the ride tips over on the curve, just push it back on the tracks ‘n the next car coming down the line’ll ram into ya ‘n give ya a shove!”

I expected random shards of glass on the ground, broken safety belts, gum on every bench, and employees with missing limbs. What I discovered instead was a fun, well-maintained, surprisingly large, inexpensive, family-friendly amusement park.

It was a novel experience for me to wander around a park without bumping into a Princess, Smurf, or Klingon. This was an amusement park with no pretentions. No ego. It let me enjoy it at my own pace, and didn’t try to pretend that this 100-square-foot corner was Ancient Rome while that 100-square-foot corner was 1920’s Chicago. The general message of Rye Playland is “Hi. You want rides? We’ve got rides.  Go on them as many times as you like.”

This isn’t meant to be a Playland puff piece, where I extoll the park’s virtues and they slip River Dad a free season pass (Hint. Hint.), but there is something comforting about the simplicity of Rye Playland. I like being able to purchase Carvel without having to eat it out of a Daffy Duck Commemorative Cup. I like taking the kids on The Whip – a ridiculously simple ride that hasn’t changed in generations yet still has us all screaming in a mix of terror and joy. I love that Rye Playland has The Plunge, a massive ride with one very simple, very upfront intention – to get you soaking wet. Here’s the entire ride, in case you’ve never witnessed it in person. A flock of dry passengers climb into a big boat. The boat goes up. The boat circles around 180 degrees. The boat drops down into a pool, sending up a tidal wave that drenches every inch of your body. The boat circles around another 180 degrees and docks. The entire ride takes, like, 25 seconds.

And it’s awesome.

There’s even a 19-hole miniature golf course attached to the park where you just knock the balls into the holes. You don’t try to roll the ball up Mick Jagger’s tongue, or hit it between the legs of a Mastodon. You just try to get it in the holes. Simple. Elegant. Fun.

Now that we’ve been back a few times, we are aware of some of the park’s… idiosyncrasies: They really should make sure that the bathrooms in Kiddyland are always available to the public. Some of their Daily Entertainment acts make Up With People look hip. And you really should avoid Ye Old Mill when the one-armed ride operator with the eye-patch is working (just kidding). But my kids love the place. My son rides the Kiddyland Motorcycle Jump – a simple “ride around the pole” ride that simulates riding a motorcycle over a two-foot jump – over and over again, and he’s Mater the Greater leaping over the Grand Canyon.  My 8-year-old straps herself into Catch-a-Wave, lets herself be shaken and stirred like a human martini, and is in thrill-ride heaven.

A hot summer’s day at Rye Playland harkens back to a simpler time, when fun didn’t come pre-packaged and focus group-tested. These are simply a bunch of rides. Some of them get you wet. Some of them try to scare you. Some try to make you hurl. Most just try to slam you silly six ways to Sunday. It’s an authentic part of childhood that has been more or less erased from our society. In a summer filled with Cars 2 (for which my son’s been counting down the days for about six months) and Harry Potter 8 (for which my wife and I have been counting down the days for at least as long), it’s nice to have something that is timeless and easy and pure fun.

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About the Author: David Neilsen