The second leg of my thematic travels during the summer of 2017 began at the famed Cedar Point on the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio. I’d wanted to visit this “Rollercoaster Capital of the World” (a title now awarded to Six Flags Magic Mountain, which has nineteen coasters; Cedar Point has seventeen) since I saw pictures of its famous rides in a magazine when I was in the third or fourth grade. So even though my interest is now academic with regards to the park’s history and its design—obviously, I was going to ride all the rides.
To really appreciate The Point you have to see it from the air, and there are numerous opportunities to do so; atop a coaster lift hill, drop ride, or aerial swing ride. The peninsula it sits on is a long narrow finger jutting out into Lake Erie, accessed today by automobile on a causeway from the mainland built in 1957.
Cedar Point is the flagship of the now quite large Cedar Fair company which owns eleven other amusement and theme parks across the United States and Canada, in addition to waterparks and hotels. One aspect all these parks have in common are ridiculously hyperbolic guide maps. All such maps, even Disney’s, distort the scale and proportion of the landscape, but for some reason the ‘playful’ style of Cedar Fair maps annoys me. This look was introduced in the late 90s (the first such map was for the 1997 season, but even then it showed more restraint than more recent versions). Cedar Fairs’ maps are even worse that the Six Flags parks, and that’s saying something.
In studying thematic design and visiting theme parks all over the world, I’ve seen many, many guide maps. The best are tasteful in their fantasy-like depictions, illustrated with care, easy to read and make sense of, and thus charming objets d'art in themselves. As you’ll see below and in future posts, some of best of these are from Cedar Point’s own rich visual history—and they also provide documentation for the intentions of the park’s planners and the ways they wish their property to be viewed by the public. I mention this because especially with regards to how Cedar Point has responded to the popularity of the Disney Model, guide maps are snapshots that chart an evolution in both placemaking design as well as marketing.
The Queen of American Watering Places
Cedar Point opened in 1870 and is thus the second oldest continuously operating amusement park in the United States (Connecticut’s Lake Compounce has been open since 1846). The park has traditionally been known as “The Queen of American Watering Places” (and if you’re interested in an excellent visual history of Cedar Point, there’s a book that goes by that very title). The text on this State of Ohio Historical marker (installed in 2001) as you enter the main Midway area is a bit hard to read in this small photo, so here it is:
Cedar Point became a popular beach resort in the late 1870s, when visitors traveled to the peninsula by steamboat from Sandusky. The Grand Pavilion (1888), the oldest building in the park, dates from this era. Promoter George Boeckling formed the Cedar Point Pleasure Resort Company in 1897 and vastly expanded the resort’s attractions. During the first decade of the 1900s, he built the lagoons, an amusement circle, and several hotels, including the landmark Breakers in 1905. The Coliseum, opened in 1906, became the centerpiece of the park and hosted many of the famous big bands through the Depression and World War II years. In the late 1950s, Cedar Point began its transformation into a modern amusement park.
That closing sentence is very telling. Disneyland played a strong motivator in changing the nature of American amusement places (indeed, popular destinations around the world) and Cedar Point began to add comparable attractions shortly after Walt’s dream opened. In the late 1960s and early 70s, this influence contributed to Cedar Point adding entire themed areas, as well as retrofitting existing buildings to tighten their visual motifs, and reorganizing offerings into “lands.”
Although it’s a long scroll, the following promotional piece from the first decade of the twentieth century (the Boeckling era) is worth it—it’s a perfect distillation of how the park saw itself during those times: a beachfront playground for the relatively well-to-do.
Some structures from this era, such as The Coliseum, still exist at Cedar Point in one form or another. But its status as a waterside resort amid natural splendour for the upper classes would evolve over the coming decades into a day trip for thrill-seeking masses.
The beginning of this transformation was the addition of rides. Here, before their introduction, the early midway structures are well compared alongside the original Hotel Breakers; note that the far west side of the peninsula is entirely undeveloped.
Into the 1910s and 20s, Cedar Point began to add the types of traditional wooden roller coasters that were popular at amusement piers like Coney Island. The vantage here of midway crowds along the shores of Lake Erie looks very much like the classic boardwalks found in New Jersey, New York, and at various spots along the New England coast during the first half of the twentieth century.
The amount of foliage has been somewhat embellished here, almost like the stylized approach used on today’s theme park guide maps—although during this time there were large parts of the peninsula which were undeveloped. The original midway attractions and boardwalk were roughly in the center portion of the land.
As you enter Cedar Point today, you line up directly with the primary pedestrian artery, Main Midway.
The park is a collection of “lands” in a sense, but this appears to be a loose attempt to mimic the Disneyland model of spatial organization—all but two of them are “Midways” of some kind: Main Midway, Lakeside Midway, Gemini Midway, and Millenium Midway.
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on the waters of Lake Michigan greatly affected American architecture in the twentieth century, American amusement parks and boardwalk piers, and indeed the entire genre of thematic design.
It’s at this exposition where the concept of (and term for) the Midway originated, in the Midway Plaisance. Today the word means any long boulevard at an amusement park, state fair, or exposition where rides, games, food and beverages, and other entertainments are found.
Few parks in the world still feature a Von Roll gondola ride, so I was very excited to spend some time on Cedar Point’s Sky Ride (several trips in fact). Von Roll is a Swiss industrial firm which once manufactured over a hundred ‘Type 101’ gondola rides based on existing ski lift technology. The first such ride installed in the United States was at Disneyland in 1956 (closed in 1994) and after many were demolished in the 1980s and 90s due to safety concerns, operational costs, and low ridership, today only eleven of these gondolas are left operating in the country, and not that many more around the world.
The Sky Ride opened for the 1961 season, and only six years later was carrying over 1.5 million passengers per summer. Cedar Point used to feature two separate Von Roll 101s—this one spanning the Main Midway and another which opened in 1968 that transported guests back to the Frontier Town area at the far back edge of the park. When that Frontier Lift closed in 1985, its cars were transferred to the midway Sky Ride and eventually repainted.
For the design researcher, it’s terrific to be able to experience structures from a bird’s eye view. There are many structures along this midway which are difficult to date according to the available sources, but the Disneyland-esque style of some of them makes me think the 1960s and early 70s based on other changes that occured at Cedar Point during that time.
One thing that’s cool about Cedar Point is that there are several restored historic buildings on the property. The Coliseum pictured here was originally built in 1906, and at that time more than 10,000 people could assemble under its roof. In its time the building has housed restaurants, beer gardens, and a skating rink. Beginning in the 1960s it has served as a pinball and video game gallery, a role the first floor of The Coliseum plays to this day.
The exterior spans 300 feet by 150 feet, and the interior of The Coliseum has been remodeled many times, most notably during 1939 when the second floor ballroom was redone in the Art Deco style which was so popular at the time. Today this ballroom is only open a few times a year for private events. The Coliseum also houses various administrative offices.
Using the footprint of The Coliseum as a registration point, I was able to overlay a 1935 map from Cedar Point: the Queen of American Watering Places to compare the layout of the various amusements to the present. During that era two roller coasters named High Frolics (east, at the top) and Leap the Dips (west, below) stretched out towards what is now the main park entrance and parking lot.
The Main Midway today is actually perpendicular to how the park was orientated before World War II, as shown in the both the map overlay and the vintage postcards above.
The original ‘spine’ of pedestrian access ran roughly west to east, as that’s where visitors disembarked ferry boats which came from the mainland.
Present access runs roughly south to north, as most visitors now arrive by automobile from the causeway (completed in 1957, linked to State Route 2 two years later) and park in the main parking lot. This new Main Midway was cleared and enlarged in 1959 and paved in 1960.
Another historic structure on the Main Midway is the Pagoda Gift Shop. It was built during the Boeckling era sometime between 1907 and 1914 (one of several such pagodas, according to some accounts) and once served as post office, rental lockers, and (later) restrooms.
In the 1960s, Ellie Roose—wife of land developer George Roose, who had bought Cedar Point with his partner Emile Legros in 1956—converted the somewhat tacky “pop-Asian” temple to the park’s first major souvenir pavillion.
The Pagoda still serves as Cedar Point’s most well-known gift shop today. The Wonton lettering (also called “chopstick” or “chop suey” type) definitely dates this signage to the 1960s.
Today, the design of The Pagoda is more than tacky; some might call the architecture and the signage in particular offensive (or the softer accusation, “culturally insensitive”). There’s a long tradition of this kind of stuff over the past 150 years, going back to the presentation of non-Western cultures as exotic ‘product’ at World’s Fairs and Expositions—but it does beg the question, why does Panda Express, for example, still get a pass?
In any case, the question of whether thematic design can be racist is a notion I’ll return to in future posts as I look at other parks.
One style that no one seems to have a problem with is the generic Victorian look which I’ve seen elsewhere on my travels; I call it “Theme Park Gingerbread.” Unfortunately, the obnoxious SUBWAY sign is a very Six Flags / Cedar Fair approach to corporate sponsors and vendors—this is something you won’t find at a Disney park, at least not today.
Walt Disney was indeed once desperate for paying “participants” to provide much-needed capital to open his park (and provide the very attractions to populate Tomorrowland), so in the early days signage was more garish. These days, vendors like Starbucks sport signage and graphics that are period-accurate and highly detailed.
But perhaps I spoke too soon, because right next door to the Subway outlet is a classy, historic-looking, hand painted Cadillac sign for a motor car attraction.
The Sky Ride gondola was again very useful for examining the interconnected nature of the various themed facades. The collaged nature is tied to the actual development of small town Main Streets across the country, yet the contemporary nature of their common roofs and back of house areas was begun at Disneyland in 1955.
Things get even more mixed up, or amalgamated in my phrase, elsewhere along the midway. The Jack Aldrich Theatre appears to be from a nondescript small town, maybe Midwestern, maybe Old Western. Originally named the Centennial Theater, in 2006 it was renamed in tribute to Jack Aldrich, the father of the modern era of live entertainment at Cedar Point. In the Disney fashion, the street numbers also have meaning; Cedar Point opened in 1870.
This is a step panoramic that I assembled of this particular “block” on the west side of the midway. There’s some French chateau rooflines which then connect to a New Orleans French Quarter Creole townhouse, and then connect to the small town theater. You won’t find a block like this anywhere in the United States except at a theme park—architectural amalgamation beyond imagination.
Some areas lack not only this sort of conflict, but also any design sense at all. These midway games feel like an afterthought.
On the return trip towards the main entrance gondola station, you can see two distinct thematic croppings to the left and the right; a farmhouse and some kind of warehouse / farmer’s market space. I’ll elaborate on this “pocket theming” in a future post.
But it’s not all Six Flags garish grossness, and that’s due to the number of historic structures on the park grounds. This step panoramic depicts the west-facing portion of the The Grand Pavilion (1888), now part of the Cedar Point Convention Center. By the late 1960s it appears to have been rebuilt in the Georgian Colonial style seen today.
The Bay Shore Hotel (1899) was the first, and the fifty-five rooms of the White House were next (1901), which were eventually all absorbed by the larger Cedars Hotel (1915). But the grandest was surely the Hotel Breakers, which opened in June of 1905 and was perhaps Broeckling’s greatest structural triumph at Cedar Point. Here were six hundred rooms which, by resort standards of the early twentieth century, were pure luxury; most had running (hot) water, and some even had private baths.
The hotel faces the east shores of Lake Erie, and for its time was quite extravagant. Services included the usual barber, beautician, and manicurist; also a doctor, stenographer, and tailor. Concessions were also state of the art—not just a newsstand and souvenir stand, but also an ice cream parlor and even photographic dark room.
By the Roaring Twenties a wing had been added to both the north and the south.
The hotel has undergone numerous renovations and expansions over the decades, and its grandeur still impresses (even if hot running water is no big deal these days). The design of the Breakers is very typical of resorts of the Victorian era built all along the Eastern United States (especially seaside in places like Atlantic City and South Florida). Notable examples in great condition today are the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, and the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California.
The central rotunda is the heart of the hotel, and very much of style of the times in which it was constructed. I’ve read that President William Taft took his dinner here in 1913.
I have to commend the Cedar Fair organization for the incredible shape that they keep this hotel in. Others from the same era have fallen into disrepair and out of landmark status. Unfortunately, these renovations have not come without a cost; more recent work had been extensive enough to cost the Hotel Breakers its designated status with the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
When Cedar Fair has added on to the complex, they have done their best to keep the architecture and associated trimmings at least ‘feeling’ authentic. These are the 300 rooms of the $10 million Breakers East wing addition which opened for the 1995 season.
At a glance, it works. And really, that’s what theming is all about. A trained eye can definitely spot the “nineties-ness” of the construction and especially the materials usage.
The resort area also attempts to keep the setting of pre-World War II “Queen of American Watering Places” intact via graphics and signage. Although I can’t claim this is a great example of period-accurate graphic design, they’re at least trying.
This billboard from just inside Cedar Point’s side entrance which connects to the Hotel Breakers resort property is much, much better. The illustration style and color pallete are correct for the early 1900s, and even the typeface choices are appropriate (the work of the Letterhead Font Foundry, which Disney also employs throughout their parks).
The Disney Version
As I wandered around the Hotel Breakers and back into the Cedar Point park proper, I was reminded of this genre of Victorian era resort which Disney has replicated all over the world (some call it “Micktorian”).
The first was the Grand Floridian (1988) which was designed largely in-house by the company’s imagineers and then executed by the firm Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo. It’s probably the most “authentic” representation of this resort style, based on the aforementioned Mount Washington Hotel and Hotel del Coronado, with inspiration also taken from the (now sadly demolished) Belleview-Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida.
The second iteration of the Disney Victorian Grand style is the Disneyland Paris Hotel (1992). Again, the design leadership was in-house, in this case Wing Chao (Executive Vice-President, Master Planning, Architecture, and Design) and imagineer Tony Baxter, and again execution was by the Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo.
This hotel is a much more fanciful, storybook interpretation of the Victorian style, owing to the fact that it serves as the entrance to Disneyland Paris and thus needed to visually rhyme with both the Main Street U.S.A. and the Sleeping Beauty’s Castle of that park. In addition, the hotel is painted in bright pink and red hues which are far more saturated than even Disney usually dares attempt (in order to contrast the oft-dreary gray French skies).
The third “Micktorian” opened at Hong Kong Disneyland in September of 2005 along with that park. Here Disney returned to the more traditional stylings of the Grand Floridian with the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel, and set as it is among verdant and dense jungle Southeast Asian foliage, the design takes on a pointedly Anglo-Colonial vibe. Oddly, Disney consulted extensively with their Chinese partners on the Hong Kong resort project (everything at the resort was even planned according to feng shui principles), so if this is what was designed and built, it’s what the Chinese pointedly requested.
The most recent iteration of this design is the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel (2008). In order to harmonize with that park’s entrance plaza and World Bazaar, again (as in Paris) the most fantastical Victorian elements were dialed up, and the color scheme was shifted to gold and blue (which, I think, makes the hotel look more French than Victorian).
The Hotel Breakers at Cedar Point is the genuine article, instead of the Disney Version; these stylized copies after copies. It’s ironic that what struck me as the best thematic design on my first day at the park wasn’t theming at all—it was just a really old hotel with a nice coat of paint. Here, the real seemed fake.