By Mike Scott
For countless New Orleanians, Memory Lane cuts right through the old Pontchartrain Beach amusement park and runs roughly the same course as the park’s old Midway. That’s because for half a century’s worth of summers, the old beach was their outdoor playground, with each season bringing new attractions.
It’s striking, then, that there’s no definitive guide map to the old park that shows where the various rides were in relationship to one another. Consequently, my memory of the park consists of scattered mental snapshots, as opposed to a contiguous, linear memory of the park’s layout — and I know I’m not alone. So, back in September, I set out to remedy that, with help from Times-Picayune readers whose memories might be better than mine.
My method: I posted an aerial view of Pontchartrain Beach, taken circa 1957, with numbers labeling various buildings and attractions, then I asked readers to help identify them. Now, I’m pleased to present the fruits of those labors. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s your unofficial Pontchartrain Beach guide map.
Is our reconstructed version of Pontchartrain Beach complete? No, not by a long shot. The locations of some attractions, including the Yo-Yo, the Galaxi, the Roll-o-Plane and the Fly-o-Plane, were difficult to pinpoint, so we held off including them. But this isn’t the end of this project. We’re viewing it as a living document, ready for updates whenever new clues are discovered or someone has something new to contribute.
See something missing? Incorrect? No worries. Just email your thoughts to me at email@example.com, along with any memories you’d like to share, and I’ll make the necessary updates.
But enough of the blah-blah-blah. Go ahead and start humming the jingle, and let’s meet “at the beach, at the beach, at Pontchartrain Beach/You’ll have fun, you’ll have fun every day of the week …”
The difficulty of our task became evident from the beginning, with the realization that aside from the landmark rides like the Zephyr (see No. 15), the park’s rides and their locations changed from season to season.
File photos show that as late as 1949, this particular spot on the Midway was empty but that by 1957 it was the home of a radial ride that appears to be the Rocket ride. By 1964, the Rocket was replaced here by the Paratrooper ride, which was popular in theme parks of the day and carnivals of today. The Paratrooper was also a radial ride but one in which riders were suspended on seats beneath rigid parachute-shaped canopies and raised up and down while being whirled to the point where they were nearly sideways.
It changed again in time for the 1977 season, making room for a spinning ride called The Monster, which The States-Item described as looking “like a giant insect from another planet. It spins you around, up and down, turning you every way but loose. Just the thing to settle your dinner, no doubt!”
THE RAGIN’ CAJUN
Our aerial park photo was taken in the late 1950s, and the Ragin’ Cajun was introduced in 1978 (the last major roller coaster to be added to the park, five years before its closure in 1983), so you can’t see it on the map. But it’s firmly etched in people’s minds for its loop and double-corkscrew features that flipped riders upside-down.
Those who miss it can still ride it, though: After Pontchartrain Beach closed, the ride was relocated to Six Flags’ Great Escape park in Queensbury, New York, which repainted it orange and blue and renamed it the Steamin’ Demon. It is still in operation today.
3. THE FERRIS WHEEL
An oldie but a goodie, no amusement park is complete without one. Pontchartrain Beach’s whisked riders off the ground for an unparalleled aerial view of the entire park.
In 1966, the original wheel was replaced with what was called the Space Wheel, a much larger, 100-foot high ride that had previously been a part of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, which Pontchartrain Beach founder Harry Batt Sr. co-directed. According to Batt, at the time it was installed at Pontchartrain Beach, the Space Wheel was the largest Ferris wheel in the world.
According to reader Glenn Gaudet, the Space Wheel operated at the park for only a year before being replaced by a wheel known as the Skydiver in 1967. Yet another wheel came in for the 1971 season and, according to Gaudet’s research, apparently continued operating until the park closed in 1983.
FUNHOUSE / HAUNTED HOUSE
The theme of this indoor attraction often changed, but it opened in 1941 as The Cockeyed Circus, which in 1948 was retooled and reopened as Circus Daze (perhaps in a display of sensitivity to the cockeyed?), complete with a mirror maze, slides, moving floors and similar features that amusement parks probably couldn’t get away with today, including floor-mounted air jets to blow up the skirts of ladies as they exited.
Most notably, though, it was also the home of the giant smiling clown head that was prominently featured on park advertising, smiling out onto the midway at the front right corner of the building.
In 1960, Circus Daze would be rethemed and renamed Adventure in Space, which saw the clown head repainted a purplish hue to evoke a space alien. The giant head would be demolished altogether in the mid-’60s as the attraction was converted to a beautifully themed Haunted House ride that debuted in 1968.
5. FLYING HORSES
According to frequent Beach-goer John DeMajo, who has a number of old Pontchartrain Beach photos at his treasure trove of a website, www.pontchartrain-beach.com, most of the attractions at Pontchartrain Beach were clustered at the eastern end of the park in the early days.
“My first time out there was in 1950 when I was 4 years old, and the whole (west) end where the Haunted House ended up (see No. 4) was just makeshift wooden buildings, with a firetrap building that housed a hall of mirrors being the major attraction.”
Eventually, however, this is where the park’s old carousel — better known to locals as “the flying horses,” which DeMajo’s website says dated to the late 1800s — would be located.
6. SKOOTER CARS
Also known over the years as “the Auto Skooter” or simply “the Skooter,” this ride is probably better known as “the bumper cars.”
Pontchartrain Beach’s version featured cars powered by vertical poles that contacted an electrified mesh mounted overhead. Reader Russ Copping of Covington recalled them thusly: “(They) were on an oval track and I can remember the crackling and arcing of the electrodes on the ceiling and the smell of ozone in the air. You couldn’t have such a ride in these days.”
In 1970, the old cars were replaced with 24 new Italian-made cars that could go forward and backwards, doing away with the need for the directional island in the middle of the ride floor that was used to enforce a one-way rule — and making the whole thing much more of a free-for-all.
7. THE SKYRIDE
Although not pictured on our 1957 aerial photo, the SkyRide, a ski-lift ride inspired by a similar attraction at Disneyland, and which cost $200,000 to build, debuted in 1970.
Ferrying visitors between stations located at each end of the park (marked “7a” and “7b” on our map), it offered a bird’s-eye view of the park as it ran along much of the half-mile-long Midway, the paved promenade that ran through the middle of the park and which over the years had also been referred to as the Gayway and the Gay Midway.
8. PENNY ARCADE
The original Penny Arcade burned in a 1944 off-season blaze that, in addition to destroying scores of games, destroyed all manner of concessions equipment being warehoused inside.
The building that replaced it featured distinct stacked discs on the roof, which dazzled when illuminated at night and which were the product of a 1954 contest among Tulane architecture students. (The winner: James W. Hopkins of New Orleans. The prize: $25.) In it were a collection of classic games, many of them vintage devices collected by park owner Harry Batt Sr.
People could play to win tickets redeemable for prizes including ceramic trinkets in the early days, and stuffed animals later on. But that wasn’t all.
“The arcade was filled with noise from the countless games like skeeball, Shoot the Bear, claw machines, even fortune telling machines,” reader Dianne Foster remembers. “But in the corner was a booth where you could make your own record. This was in the early ’50s, so this seemed like quite a marvel. I was 5 years old, and I sang ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ Out popped a real black vinyl record with my voice! That record was played and enjoyed almost every Christmas after that, and it always sounded like the day it was recorded. It was lost in Katrina, but I still remember being in that booth with my mom and dad. It was amazing to hear my 5-year-old voice so many years later and relive my Pontchartrain Beach memories.”
9. WILD MAUS / MAGIC RAINBOW
If the Zephyr (see No. 15) was the park’s most iconic ride, the Wild Maus has to be its most notorious.
A compactly built roller coaster based on a German design and which began operation in 1959, it would whip riders around on sharp turns and steep drops that felt so dangerous that urban legends piled up about the ride’s body count over the years. It was retooled and reopened in 1968 as the Super Wild Maus before eventually being replaced in 1976 by the Magic Rainbow, a rotating ride in which “riders experience the wonders of centrifugal force for themselves as they are strapped in a horizontal position and spun in circles at various angles,” according to a write-up in The States-Item.
Pontchartrain Beach fans were able to relive the fun briefly at the short-lived Jazzland (later Six Flags New Orleans), which operated from 2000 to 2005 and which featured its own version of the Wild Maus, along with reimagined versions of a handful of other Pontchartrain Beach rides, including the Zepyhr and Yo Yo.
The unmissable centerpiece of Kiddie Land, a section of the park for younger beachgoers, was the old Milneberg lighthouse — or, properly, the Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse — which used to stand in open water before land was reclaimed by the Levee Board for beachfront amusement purposes.
Kiddieland opened in 1949 and featured a collection of gentler rides, such as a boat ride, fire truck ride and a hand-cart ride. (“You would push and pull on a handle to make the car move as fast as you wanted to go along a long railroad track with various curves and a tunnel,” reader Howard Davenport remembers. “However, there was always someone who would go very slow and cause a jam and hold everyone up. An attendant would invariably have to come out and help.”)
Later additions would include the Zephyr Junior, a tamer version of the park’s landmark roller coaster, as well as, beginning in 1965, a Smoky Mary train ride, in homage to the real-life rail line that used to bring people from New Orleans to the old Milneberg amusement area; Snoopy’s Red Baron Ride (versions of which are still in operation at numerous U.S. amusement parks); and a Jungle Jeep Safari Trek.
It’s worth noting that the Milneberg lighthouse still stands today, one of the few remaining vestiges of Pontchartrain Beach.
11. BALI HA’I / GAMES
Reader Howard Davenport remembers there being more arcade-style games here at one point, including between building No. 11 and Kiddieland. Alongside them were a classic “strongman” game in which guests would swing a giant mallet to try to try to ring a bell, as well as a person who would try to guess a guest’s age and weight. (Other activities and games available at various points along the Midway included a fishing pond, skeeball, shooting galleries and the like, he remembers.)
Starting in 1958, however, this was also the location of Bali Ha’i at the Beach, a South Pacific-themed restaurant and tiki bar that is still fondly remembered by locals. (It originally opened as the Beachcomber, but the name was changed after just one year. Legal reasons. Long story.)
After the park closed for good in 1983, the Bali Ha’i continued to operate, including for a time as a special events hall, before burning in an early-morning fire in May 1990.
12. BATH HOUSE
From 1940 to 1942, shortly after the amusement park moved from Spanish Fort to the old Milneberg site, and after the Orleans Parish Levee Board dredged the lake to create a new beach area, the federal Works Progress Administration got to work on a number of improvements to entice bathers to the newly built beach.
They included light towers for nighttime swimming, restrooms, and a monolithic concrete bathhouse and locker room with a ramp leading over what would become the Pontchartrain Beach Midway and on to the beach.
MINI-GOLF COURSE/LOG FLUME
In a nod to the Oscar-winning 1956 film “Around the World in 80 Days,” Batt in 1957 opened a mini-golf course dubbed Around the World in 18 Holes, with each hole featuring a figurine representing a different country. (For example: The Holland hole featured tulips. The England hole featured a facsimile of Big Ben. An Australia-themed hole featured a kangaroo. Standing over the final hole was the Statue of Liberty, representing the United States.)
For the 1974 season, the park replaced the mini-golf course with a log flume, located right across from the Zephyr, one of the park’s other major thrill rides.
14. FRONT GATE AND SIGN
Situated at the traffic circle at the end of Elysian Fields Avenue, the sprawling Pontchartrain Beach sign greeted visitors for years, magnificently illuminating the night sky.
Even after the park closed for good in 1983, the front gate stood as a reminder of the fun that had played out there.
15. THE ZEPHYR
When the park relocated from its original site at Spanish Fort to the old Milneberg area, Batt figured he needed something big to herald the arrival of his “new” park. Something impressive. Something eye-popping.
It came in the form of the $50,000 Zephyr, the iconic wooden roller coaster that would become the centerpiece of the park and a local landmark. “It’s a gravity ride,” the New Orleans Item wrote in 1939 after a press preview, “but Sir Isaac Newton never visualized anything like it.”
Riders would board through a station shaped like a locomotive, then the ride would zoom them up a reported 80 feet in the air — the height of the tallest hill — and down to a low point of just 6 feet off the ground. In 2000, a new version of the Zephyr was built at the Jazzland theme park in New Orleans East (later Six Flags New Orleans), but that park closed for good after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
Locals can still visit with the original Zephyr today, even if they can’t ride it: The crest of that tallest hill, which was topped with an airplane beacon visible from all around, was preserved and is on display at the city of Kenner’s Veterans Park.
16. CONCESSION STAND
Just in front of the Zephyr’s locomotive-shaped entrance sat an art deco concession stand, lit up in neon and advertising Jax beer, “Coney Island franks,” “tasty hamburgers” and the like.
Consequently, litter would frequently accumulate on the Midway in front of it, prompting Batt in 1964 to install three talking, vacuum-powered trash cans at various points on the Midway, including one shaped like a giant pig named Porky (different from the Looney Tunes character).
Elsewhere was a clown named Pepe the Paper Eater, and the third was Leo, a lion in a circus wagon who would roar followed by a recording that said, “You know what that means, kids! It means I’m HUNGRY. But I won’t eat little children. What I like best is paper. And when I’m real hungry, I even eat beer cans. Won’t you please feed me?”
Then, you’d just hold your trash to its mouth and fwoomp! It would be sucked in, delighting parkgoers and keeping the park tidy. According to Batt, the vacuum cans reduced litter throughout the park by a third.
GAMES, GAMES, GAMES
It wasn’t quite the Fair Grounds, but it was close, offering games with a more grown-up flavor, including a bingo-type game located along the perimeter of the building and a horse-racing game in the middle.
Photos also show a sign on the outside advertising a bowling game of some sort. “Only in New Orleans!” said reader Howard Davenport. “In (building No. 17), there was a big board with about 25 to 30 different-colored, lighted racehorses that would make jumps across the board to the finish line. Contestants would sit around a square area in the middle of the big room. There were about 25 to 30 seats with a glass counter in front of you.
“There was a placard with a number and the name of your horse. You would put your money on the glass to enter the race. A worker would collect all the money. When the bell rang, the horses would race to the other side of the board. A recording of an announcer would call the race, which could be heard from speakers both inside and outside the building. I don’t know what you won, but it was like playing roulette. Your odds weren’t good, but it was a lot more exciting. Sometimes a horse would make about 5 to 6 quick jumps at the end to nose out 1 to 3 other horses.”
18. LAFF IN THE DARK / GHOST TRAIN / KOOKY KASTLE
Combine a fun house and a haunted house and what do you get? You get the Laff in the Dark, an indoor dark ride in which guests rode in two-person carts past various spooky scenes illuminated by blacklights.
The ride, versions of which appeared in amusement parks around the country in the early part of the century, was in operation by 1932 at the original Pontchartrain Beach at Old Spanish Fort. A new, air-conditioned version was built for the “new and greater” park when it moved for the 1939 season. It was apparently renamed the Ride ‘n’ Laff upon the move from Spanish Fort, according to some newspaper reports, but park operators later reverted once more to Laff in the Dark.
Around 1963, it was retooled and redubbed the Ghost Train before becoming the Kooky Kastle in 1970.
19. THE TUMBLE BUG
One of the park’s most enduring rides, it came over from the original Pontchartrain Beach when the park relocated from Spanish Fort in 1939, and it remained a local favorite for years.
It was an outdoor thrill ride that spun riders around and around — and around and around. Picture a roller coaster on a circular, undulating track in which the cars are attached to a central hub via long arms.
Built by Traver Engineering, the Tumble Bug was once a popular ride at theme parks around the country. Today, at least two of the original rides still operate, both of them in Pennsylvania: at Kennywood (where it is branded The Turtle) and Conneaut Lake Park (see below).
20. THE WHIP, THE WIZARD, TILT-A-WHIRL, CATERPILLAR, ETC.
This area of the park saw regular churn, with new Carnival-style rides coming in and replacing older ones on a regular basis over the years. Pictured here is an unnamed ride taken from the Midway by Times-Picayune photographer G.E. Arnold in 1971.
Versions of this classic rudder-controlled aerial ride, which debuted at Pontchartrain Beach in 1947, were popular at parks around the country and are still in operation at a number of them, including at Atlanta’s Six Flags Over Georgia, where it’s branded as the Wonder Woman Flight School.
Russ Copping of Covington remembers Pontchartrain Beach’s version particularly well. “Of a certainty, as it was my favorite ride, (No. 21) was the Flying (Scooter), which seemed to remain throughout the life of the place. A circular ride, it had a two-seater cockpit, maybe three, with a chain and snap link closure across your hips, a large stationary vertical wing on the rear and a L to R (yaw) steerable vertical wing forward. If you steered it right and slowed it down rapidly at the bottom of its range near the ground you could cause the steel cables to slack and then make a noisy jerk in all the cars, scaring all the girls on the ride.”
Remarkably, the old Pontchartrain Beach Flying Scooter is reportedly still in operation, at King’s Dominion amusement park just outside Richmond, Virginia. It purchased the ride from Pontchartrain Beach and currently operates it as The Flying Eagle in the “Old Virginia” section of the park.
22. BUBBLE BOUNCE / THE ROTOR
Although home to a type of Ferris wheel early on, by 1958 this was home to the Bubble Bounce ride, which was described as operating “on a compressed air and hydraulic lift principle.”
By 1970, it had been replaced by The Rotor, a ride in which guests stood inside a giant cylindrical contraption which was then spun around, pinning them to the inner walls via centrifugal force as the floor dropped out beneath them.
23. THE CALYPSO/SEA DRAGON/MUSIC EXPRESS
At the far east of the park, along the beach side of the Midway, were a collection of rides that included the Calypso, added in 1964 and one of the featured rides at Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair co-directed by Batt.
It would be joined in later years by the Musik Express, which The Times-Picayune described as “like sitting on an Alvin and the Chipmunks record,” and in 1981, just two years before the park closed, the Sea Dragon, a swinging ride similar to those operated in other parks under a variety of names including the Pirate Ship or Viking Ship.
A number of parks still feature the Sea Dragon, including the Galveston Pier in Texas and Michigan Adventure. In addition, a version of the Musik Express operates at the Carousel Gardens amusement area of New Orleans’ City Park.
For those who didn’t want to swim in the lake, the park in 1957 opened its three-pool complex, dedicated in the memory of one-time local swimming champion Thyra Damonte, who had died three years earlier.
Of the three pools, the biggest was 200 feet long, 85 feet wide and ranged in depth from 3 to 5 feet. It was complemented by a diving pool measuring 75 by 50 feet that included three diving boards and underwater lighting for water shows; and, finally, a wading pool for children that featured a fountain in the middle, located near a first-aid station and refreshment stand.
25. THE BEACH
This was the attraction around which the whole park revolved, made up of land dredged from the lake bottom by the Orleans Parish Levee Board and topped with white sand by the WPA, giving locals a dose of summertime sand without having to drive to the Gulf Coast.
26. THE BEACH STAGE
It might be best remembered for the rides, but Pontchartrain Beach also hosted a constant stream of live entertainment, from aerialists and daredevils to beauty pageants and music acts.
Ground zero for such live entertainment was this elevated stage, situated smack in the middle of the beach and which over the years hosted a litany of noteworthy performers, from Elvis Presley, who performed there in 1955, to Fats Domino, who played there on the park’s last day in operation in 1983.
27. THE HARD ROCK
For its 1977 season, Pontchartrain Beach added two new major rides, the Monster (see No. 1) and the Hard Rock, which looked like a giant boulder, with the name of the ride chiseled on the front a la “The Flintstones.”
A description in The States-Item said that “inside it’s a disco-type lounge playing hardrock music.” What that article doesn’t mention is that the ride also spun riders around in circles, earning it a reputation as a good place to lose your lunch.
While it added a new thrill ride to the park, the Hard Rock drew criticism for its location, which some saw as cutting off the Midway from the beach. That, however, didn’t stop park operators from adding the Ragin’ Cajun roller coaster (see No. 3) right next to it just a year later.
This story was original published in November 2018 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.