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The Earliest Amusement Parks

"Amusement Park" is the modern name for what is an attraction with a long history, the first of its kind being the amusement park opened in 1583 at Bakken, near Copenhagen in Denmark. This amusement park is still going strong , attracts many visitors each year and admission is free, although the amusement park’s rides are not !

It closes in the month of August for a special reason, dating back to 1669 when the King of Denmark established his hunting ground there. The amusement park  is situated in a corner of a large wooded area and in August the resident deer are likely to become too lively for the comfort and safety of the visitors to the amusement park. It has been said, in a wry amusement park/alcohol analogy, that if the Tivoli Gardens, also in Copenhagen, are champagne in a fluted glass, then Bakken is a pint of beer. No matter, as there are times when beer suits better than champagne!

Vauxhall Gardens, an English amusement park on the south of the Thames, opened in 1661 but is no longer with us, all that remains is an area known as Spring Gardens, the original name of the land. Samuel Pepys was one of the amusement park’s early visitors and wrote about it in his diary. Admission was free and access was by boat from Westminster. To begin with, the main attraction of the amusement park was to promenade along its long avenues, the grandest being the Grand Walk which was lined with elms and was 900 feet  long and 30 feet wide and the aim was to see and be seen. From the beginning, new attractions were added to the amusement park and soon there were arbours, decorated with statues and paintings, in which supper was served. Masked ladies of dubious reputation began to appear as the evening wore on and those of respectable reputations went sedately home.

In 1732, the amusement park was given a more splendid style, with supper  boxes, a Chinese pavilion, a music room and a Gothic orchestra of 50  musicians. An entrance fee to the amusement park of 1 shilling was imposed, rising to 2 shillings in 1792. This was a substantial amount and only those of means – or good credit – could afford to enjoy the delights of the amusement park. Other attractions were added, including a cascade, which ran for 15 minutes at 9pm each day, and firework displays. Complaints were made about the food the amusement park had on offer which was said to be expensive and the ham to be cut so thin "that you could read a newspaper through it".

Nevertheless, visitors likened it to the Elysian fields and this prototype amusement park continued to flourish and to attract those of the highest social standing, including the then Prince of Wales. In 1813, a Grand Fete was held in the amusement park to celebrate the victory of the British army over Napoleon’s troops at the battle of Vittoria in Spain. Admission was two and a half guineas – at a time when the average wage of a manual worker was less than a fifth of that – but patrons did have the spectacle of a tightrope walker added to the usual attractions of the amusement park. The victory at Waterloo was celebrated in a similar fashion.

The narrative of William Thackeray’s "Vanity Fair" would not have progressed very far had it not been for Becky Sharp’s visit to the Vauxhall Gardens, this early amusement park. There it was that she had carefully planned that Jos Sedley was to be brought to the point when he would propose to her and thereby secure for her a prosperous future. Alas, he enjoyed the facilities of the amusement park to such an extent that he had to be sent home dead drunk in a carriage before the proposal was made and Becky had to embark on the adventures that make up the rest of the book.

The amusement park at Vauxhall Gardens was only rivalled by the amusement park at Ranelagh Gardens, also in London which had a rotunda with tiered boxes and a fireplace in the middle and was said to larger in diameter than the Coliseum in Rome. Concerts and firework displays were held there and a series of masked balls that became notorious. This amusement park closed in 1803 and is remembered only in the names of the streets that not cover the area.

Vauxhall Gardens, this exciting, historic amusement park, closed in July 1859. We are told by a contemporary writer that "low prices brought low company" (perhaps the case in today’s amusement parks?) but maybe after nearly 200 years of success, the time had come for the attractions of this historic amusement park to make way for the more exciting ones that were to appear by the end of the century.

Image: Wonderland Ocean beach Amusement park, copyright San Diego Historical Society.

See also:
Tivoli Gardens Amusement Park : a Potted History

Amusement Parks: Disneyland – a Potted History
Amusement parks: Walt Disney World – a Potted History
Amusement Parks: Six Flags- a Potted History
Cedar Point Amusement Park: a Potted History
Amusement Parks: Tokyo Disney Resort – a Potted History
Amusement Parks: Hong Kong Disney Resort – a Potted History

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