Several weeks ago, we took an OpenSFHistory Top Ten look at rides at Chutes at the Beach because this year is the 50th anniversary of the closing of Playland in 1972. As we all know, Chutes at the Beach became Playland at the Beach when George and Leo Whitney took it over in the late 1920s. Some of the Chutes at the Beach rides, such as the Big Dipper, Shoot the Chutes, and others, survived into the Playland years but, inevitably, newer rides were introduced. Herewith is our OpenSFHistory Top Ten look at the attractions at Playland.
The Merry Mix-Up ride is one of the various types of centrifugal force rides that you find in many amusement parks. At Playland, this ride was a chain swing connected to a central stanchion that would spin around. This was similar to the earlier Circle Swing ride. The seats at the end of each of the chains would swing out and up further and further as it spun faster. It moved around the park area during its time at Playland1 and was another of those rides that you probably did not want to go on with a full stomach.
The Ridee-O and Tilt-A-Whirl rides could be found at Playland along the Great Highway between Balboa and Cabrillo near the Dodger bumper cars and Big Dipper roller coaster. The Ridee-O was a rather tame “sleigh” ride. Each sleigh held two or three people and moved around on a short track with a small, gentle hill. The Tilt-A-Whirl cars could hold up to four people. The cars would move around on a circular turntable, but each car would independently spin around depending on a number of factors like weight and tilt.
The Hey-Dey was yet another centrifugal force ride. Each car had front and back seats that each held two riders. It was basically and updated version of the Whip ride at Chutes at the Beach, where the cars would travel around a flat, circular platform, getting whipped around the corners. Reportedly, the back seats of the cars were the best place to sit for maximum whipping effect. It would later be replaced with a newer version with only two-seater cars.
The Diving Bell originated at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939-40. Designed by Edmund Martine, the Whitneys brought it to Playland after the World’s Fair. People would enter the diving bell which was on a large pole above a 30-foot-deep saltwater tank. The diving bell was then lowered into the tank where people could see all kinds of sea life. The Diving Bell lived to the end of Playland’s days and its tank is now buried underneath the Safeway parking lot on the site.
The Barrel of Fun was a simple concept. People had to simply walk through a large rotating pipe. The instructions above the entrance told you to “Face left, stand erect – walk thru.” It was not as simple as it may have appeared. With the rotating pipe, you could not walk straight through. Rather, you would walk against the spin of the pipe making slow, deliberate progress to the other side.
Every kids’ playground has a slide. In the Fun House at Playland, they had a 200-foot long, wooden Giant Slide. It had four lanes so that friends could go down together and had three “moguls,” basically bumps, for a brief feeling of weightlessness as you went down. Sliders had to use a burlap sack for the ride down so as to avoid friction burns or rivets on clothing scratching the slide. Reputedly it was the longest indoor slide in the world during its tenure at Playland.
The Laff in the Dark Ghost Ride had two-seat carriages that travelled through a darkened maze where all kinds of surprises awaited the riders. “Dark” rides like this are staples of amusement parks around the world. One of the surprises was the carriage looking like it would run straight into a wall, only to have to have it break through hard to see doors in the wall.
While the Whitneys had begun ice skating at the Sutro Baths, they didn’t forget the roller skaters. In 1947, they opened Skateland on the north side of Balboa Street at the Great Highway and leased it out. It filled the space that previously held Skee-ball and the Surf Waffle Shop. It was run by Meredith “Red” Shattuck, a well-known local roller skating instructor.
The Roll-O-Plane was a swing arm ride with one of the highest swing arcs, rising 45 feet above the ground. There were two “planes,” one at each end of the swing arm, that could hold eight people. The planes, which actually looked more like rockets, rotated on the swing arm to keep the riders mostly upright, with some rocking.
Of course, we cannot end this review of Playland attractions without mentioning Laffing Sal. She first appeared in the Fun House at Playland in 1940 on a glass balcony above a ticket booth. However, her capacity to scare or amuse visitors led the Whitneys to move her to a more prominent spot in a large corner window on the first floor of the Fun House. Laffing Sal was not unique to Playland. She was made by a Pennsylvania company that sold her and other animatronic figures. Playland actually had several Laffing Sals, so that if one broke down, another was there. Playland’s Laffing Sals can now be found at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Musee Mecanique at Pier 45.
As many of these attractions were at Playland at or near the end of its days, there’s a good chance that some of you experienced one or more of these. Playland is now 50 years gone, but still present in many of our memories.
1. “San Francisco’s Playland At The Beach: The Golden Years,” by James R. Smith, Craven Street Books, 2013.