While doing research for Walt and the Promise of Progress City I was struck at the amount of empirical data that Walt and his team collected as part of the creative process. Walt and his team spent a lot of time in the field studying how others did business. From the book:

It was not uncommon for Walt to be found hanging out at some of the local amusement parks. He would spend hours observing how the children interacted with the activities.

This week, I would like to revisit one of those great, now lost, Los Angeles theme parks that predated Disneyland. These parks inspired Walt Disney. He knew he could do it better. With the help of noted amusement park historian Richard Harris, this is the story of one such park. We are about to visit Chutes Park.

According to Richard, more
streetcar lines in some of the larger cities. The streetcar companies created trolley parks to give people a reason to use their transit systems on the weekends. They usually consisted of a picnic and recreation area and would feature events such as dances, concerts and shows. Some parks also had swimming pools, carousels, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, sports fields and boat rides. The parks were the precursors to amusement parks as we know of them today.

One of those companies was the Los Angeles Improvement Company, who owned the Second Street Cable Rail Road Company, that consisted of 1.6 miles of road. In December 1899, the company acquired the old Washington Gardens site at Main and Washington Streets near downtown Los Angeles, and in August 1900 they unveiled plans to create an amusement park on 12 to14 acres. A Los Angeles Times article reported that the new Washington Gardens would offer fun galore.

The highlight of the plan was to be Paul Boynton's Shoot the Chutes Ride, named for an inventor and world-renowned diver who had built similar attractions on the East Coast. Boynton's toboggan-like boats began their ride from a 75-foot tower and had descended down a 300-foot greased wooden ramp skipping across a lake at the bottom. An on-board ride attendant then pulled the boat back to the ramp.

This is video of a similar Chutes type ride at Luna Park in Coney Island, 1903

J.P. Newberg built the first of this type of amusement ride in 1884 down the side of a hill at Watchtower Park in Rock Island, Illinois. This ride was copied over and over and "Chutes" rides were to be found at many amusement parks throughout America, and even became the name of several amusement parks in the United States. While the original form of the ride is largely obsolete, modern log flume rides like Splash Mountain work on similar principles.

Some of the other attractions in this amusement park were to include a Merry-go-round, Shooting Gallery, Bowling Alley, and a Japanese village and tea house. There would also be a kids playground with pony rides and goat carts, a zoological building, a 4,000-seat modern theater for vaudeville plus fields for baseball and football.

The Chutes Theater was among the first of the new attractions to open when it was used for vaudeville shows (by December 1900). The following summer a fishing pond, a small circus, daily hot-air balloon rides, the Catalina Marine Band and a small railroad that followed the outer perimeter of the park joined the rides and theaters. A newspaper article from September 1901 said 7,000 people had visited the park on Labor Day.

The facility was state-of-the-art for its time period; its merry-go-round was electric powered at a time when most competitors were still using horse drawn equipment. The engine that pulled the boats back up from the lake to the tower was electric.

The name 'Chutes Park' was applied to the baseball park, which opened around 1901, and was the original home of the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League as well as the Vernon Tigers. After the ball games, a gate in the center field fence was opened and the fans were to be allowed to enter the theme park.

By October of 1903, the operators of the park had announced they would spend up to $40,000 to build a steel-framed figure-eight roller coaster. It would replace the hot-air balloon rides on the south side of the park near Main Street and Washington Boulevard. Within three years, the roller coaster and the water slide were in place.

By 1907, the park basically had the look it would carry until its end. Within the 10-foot wooden fence that surrounded the park were the major rides, animal pens (including a seal pond), the two-story Chutes Restaurant, a cigar store, a dancing school, skating park, a billiards hall, and a photo studio. There were other features like Tony Ryder's Monkey Circus. One of his animals was half chimpanzee and half orangutan, which did many difficult feats. Also included was Sheik Hadji Tahar's Famous Arabian Horsemen, Billikin's Temple of Mirth and the Cave of the Winds (in which those who entered met sudden gusts of wind).

On June 10, 1911, Chutes Park had reopened as Luna Park, sharing the name of the hugely successful facility at Coney Island in New York. The most successful new attraction was Nemo's Trip to Slumberland, named for "Little Nemo in Slumberland," a popular comic strip of the time about a boy with magical powers who fights evil through his surreal dreams.

Does that swing ride on the right remind you of anything?

The record shows that 16,000 people had turned out for opening day. They came to see Dick Stanley and Hoxie's Congress of Rough Riders and Wild West Show. Others were likely drawn to see Madame Schell's Ferocious Lions or the diorama of the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac. But it was the 600-foot-long Nemo ride that drew the longest lines. Riders looked out and saw tunnels - anything from panoramic vistas to dark chasms - as they climbed and descended. It could accommodate more then 30,000 people on a weekend.

Other changes came to the park. A diorama depicting the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor (the start the Spanish-American War) replaced the Monitor and Merrimac. On the Fairy Gorge ride, people rode large washtubs down a hill.

The new owners wanted to bring more kids to their park, so they built a Niagara Falls-themed attraction and Children's Half Acre filled with slides and smaller rides. For whatever reasons, it didn't work. Luna went downhill faster than the Nemo ride and the park was sold again in September 1912 to a group who wanted to turn it into an attraction for African American customers, but that new concept never opened. By 1914, all the buildings and rides had been torn down.

The site was sold to British film pioneer David Horsley, who operated a zoo on the site for a time. Horsley built the first movie studio in Hollywood. Today, most of the site of Chutes Park is a parking lot for the nearby L.A. Mart.

Fascinating stuff, isn't it?! 65 years before Walt built Disneyland, a Victorian era theme park was growing in Los Angeles. Would you have had the nerve to shoot the chutes?

This weekend, I'll be hosting a special presentation calledat The Walt Disney Family Museum

Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City Walt and the Promise of Progress City is available today on Amazon.