Wonderland Is A 65 Year Old Family Amusement Park In Texas
AGELESS AMUSEMENT: Riding Through A Texan Wonderland
Managers Of 65-Year Young Fun Park Discuss Upgrades, History, Innovation & Family Friendly Atmosphere
People scream in delight speeding through a loop at 65 miles per hour, flying over 720 feet into the air while upside down, on the Texas Tornado. The screaming fades into the distance as the five-car coaster train races forward. The sounds of children's laughter takes over, echoing from the Kiddie Bumper Cars just a few yards away. Surrounded by all of the roller coasters, rides and games, it's hard to believe that Wonderland Park had only three rides 65 years ago.
Paul Roads always had a dream to build an amusement park. Dubbed a “creative genius” by his daughter Paula, Roads didn't let any obstacles get in the way of his vision. Roads and his wife, Alethea, came across Amarillo's Thompson Park while searching for land to purchase. There were no trees, just sand burrs. “It was pitiful,” Alethea explains. “But we decided to give it a second look.”
On August 12, 1951 Wonderland opened. Back then it was named Kiddie Land and only had three rides: the Hershell boat ride, the Lil' Dipper roller coaster and a kiddie car ride built by Roads himself.
“My father was a master fabricator and welder,” said Paula. “He could and did build anything.”
In fact, Roads built and designed The Fantastic entirely in house later on. Changes have been made throughout the years, but the original feel of the ride remains.
While Kiddie Land was an “instant hit,” it was still not profitable enough to support the Roads family. Throughout the next ten years, Roads continued to work a day job as a fabricator at the Amarillo Air Force Base. At night and on the weekends he would come back to the park, tired and stressed. In the end, Roads chose the park, which was his passion.
“My brother and I would play on the rides when it was not open,” recalls Paula. “We used them [to play] hide and seek. I [literally] grew up in the park business. Before I was 12, I was running a kiddie ride or selling tickets. Later, I did office work and oversaw food concessions.”
When the Roads added Bumper Cars and other rides, they also decided to rename the park Wonderland, inspired by Lewis Carroll's “Through The Looking Glass.” Wonderland had a reputation for being a clean, safe and fun place to bring kids at a time when most parks were leaning more towards carnival-style attractions.
One theme that has always stayed with Wonderland is family. While the park struggled in its early years, the Roads received some help from their parents, Robert and Ruth Mikesells, who also retired to Amarillo. Ruth actually operated the miniature golf course until she was 90 years old.
However, for the past 40 years, Wonderland has been run by Paula and her husband, Paul, who act as Vice President and President. The two met at the University of Oklahoma. After Paula graduated with a BS in pre-med and Paul with a triple major in naval science, marketing and accounting, the two decided to move back to Amarillo.
Paul spent five years in the US Navy, but resigned in 1969 because he felt working at Wonderland would be a better opportunity. At first, he was unsure of his decision: “It was basically a kiddie park…with the biggest things [being] the bumper cars. It wasn't what I had anticipated [and] nobody wanted to change anything [making me] a little frustrated. Coming from college, I had different ideas.”
While earning a master's degree at West Texas State University for accounting in the 70s, Paul founded an arcade business back when video games were just coming out. He was the first in Amarillo to have that sort of business.
Paul grew up on a farm in Iowa and began to miss being outdoors and hands-on even though the arcade business was booming. He had picked up many electrical and mechanical skills growing up. In time, he started to focus on Wonderland once again, eventually becoming the park's general manager.
One of his first decisions was to add more water rides in the Mid-70s, as well as a few larger rides. “It was tremendous. The mixture of kid rides, adult rides and family rides helped boost our visitor rate [tremendously].”
While Wonderland was a huge hit and a large draw for people in the Amarillo area, the 180,000 guests who visit the park currently each year is not enough to make Wonderland a big enough operation to purchase $14 million rides. The key is to keep adding or updating.
“We are still adding to the park constantly,” said Paul. “We've been around so long that people know I like to buy used equipment and refurbish it. The latest one is a 200 foot drop tower, [which was] made in Italy. I bought it off of a carnival in Florida who couldn't economically support having it anymore because of the storage and amount of trucks it took to move it.”
This ride, named “Drop of Fear” isn't the only ride that Paul has refurbished. The Texas Tornado was originally purchased from O.D. Hopkins in New Hampshire and took 20 truckloads to Texas. The Hornet, another family ride, was purchased through Rides 4-U and came from Houston's Astro World.
All of the rides, after delivery, take around six to eight months to refurbish. Paul also allows a break in period where the park gets familiar with the new ride and how to operate it properly. “We are a hands-on park,” he explains. “We aren't a huge corporation like Disney. We just want to see everyone smiling.”
For Paul and Paula, managing Wonderland is more than just operating a growing amusement park. It's about providing Amarillo families with a place to smile and have a good time, no matter what age. Plus it’s about continuing a family tradition with a vision and dream.
“My heart and soul have been in the park business all my life,” said Paula. “We have raised four beautiful daughters who worked at the park until they graduated from college and got married. Our oldest daughter, Rebecca, is [currently] the park's CPA and controller plus we have several grandchildren who help during the summer season. [it is our] hope [that] they will continue building our dream.”
A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia
has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among
others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.