Apart from the numerous Midway areas, the only other cohesively themed “lands” at Cedar Point are the Old West sections, sensibly named Frontier Town and Frontier Trail. Even then, various disparate elements are scattered throughout, and they all seem to be chunks of Disneyland which were beamed here by Scotty on Star Trek.
The Beginnings of Disneyfication
It was only a year or two after Disneyland opened in 1955 when Cedar Point began its great renaissance and started morphing into the “Amazement Park” that it is today. This era from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s was the product of two businessmen, George Roose and Emile Legros. Both were land developers, and once they acquired majority control of Cedar Point their plan was to raze the park and most of its historic structures, clearing the way to built luxury ranch homes with waterfront views of Lake Erie. Predictably there was widespread public outcry, so in June of 1956 Ohio’s governor stated for the record that if the men and their backers tried to close Cedar Point, the State would purchase the land to preserve its operation as a recreational facility. Roose and Emile now needed a new plan.
After purchasing the entire 364-acre, seven mile long peninsula for $350,000, during the 1957 and 1958 seasons these crafty two announced their intentions to transform Cedar Point into—their words—the “Disneyland of the Midwest.” As I detailed in my earlier post, initial changes came in 1959 and 1960 when the Main Midway was realigned with the park entrance, enlarged, and paved. A small scale Monorail ride, the kind common at state fairs, opened in 1959 (it lasted until 1966), and the Von Roll Sky Ride followed in 1961, a year in which over a million dollars had been spent on new attractions and expansions.
The Riverboat Cruises pictured above were clearly a Disneyland derivative, but in some cases Cedar Point also looked to other, newer parks for inspiration. In 1963, the park added the Mill Race (removed in 1993), only the second log flume ride built by Arrow. And where was the first built? At Six Flags Over Texas earlier that very same year, where El Aserradero “The Sawmill” is still operating. Six Flags and Cedar Point were ahead of the log flume trend here—the more elaborately themed famous Calico Log Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm didn’t open until 1969, and Disney didn’t get into the act with their even more elaborate Splash Mountain in 1989.
Not all the new additions were of the themed variety. The Blue Streak (named in honor of a local sports team) was added in 1964, and was the first roller coaster built at the park since the removal of Cyclone (1929–1951). The following season the Space Spiral, a Von Roll gyro tower (a revolving observation tower with a vertical moving platform), was added. Like their gondola rides, these towers were installed at parks all over the country in the 1960s and 70s and a few survive today, from the Sky Cabin at Knott’s Berry Farm to SeaWorld San Diego’s Sky Tower. Some of these towers were built by Von Roll, some by fellow Swiss manufacturer Intamin.
Ridin’ the Rails
When the Frontier Town area opened at the back north edge of the park for the 1967 season, the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad was the only way to get there. It was a personal dream of George Roose to bring an authentic narrow gauge steam railroad to the park (again, aping a key experiential aspect of Disneyland), but his board of directors wouldn’t approve it. To his credit, Roose went rogue, gathered a separate group of investors, and opened his railroad as an independent concession for the 1963 season.
Unlike the Disney parks which feature both custom shop-made locomotives and rolling stock alongside rebuilt equipment, the trains at Cedar Point are all fully restored antiques. By the year Frontier Town opened, the railroad was carrying a million and a half passengers per season operating six coal-burning steam locomotives ; today they run four: the #44 Judy K., #22 Myron H., #4 George R., and #1 G.A. Boeckling.
One clear advantage Disney has is the innovative use of a earthen berm to surround their parks and insulate them from the outside world. A ride on the Disneyland Railroad is an appropriately immersive one because of this berm, and also because of the dense foliage along the route. Here at Cedar Point, it was super weird—nothing but a few bushes and a security fence separating park guests from a service access road and the western shores of Lake Erie.
The other reason the trains at most Disney Magic Kingdom-style parks make for a more immersive ride is that their routes completely encircle their respective properties. All except for the Western River Railroad at Tokyo Disneyland. As I observed years back, their train does not go all the way around the park because with only one stop, a train is considered a “ride” under Japanese law, so it doesn’t have to be regulated like their rail system. Also, the Japanese consider steam trains very “Western” as opposed to American, so it makes perfect sense to only circle the exotic “wilderness” areas of Tokyo Disneyland. The Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad functions exactly the same way; it cordons the “Western” themed area off from the rest of the park, and given that this is Ohio, the Old West is indeed an exotic environment.
The train’s route is well integrated with the various lagoon waters in and around Frontier Town. In the background is the park’s runaway mine train ride, a standard Arrow model.
This is Boneville, a small diorama of settler shacks. Animatronic skeletons were added to this area in the 1990s as part of the park’s October HalloWeekends.
The Frontier Town Railroad Station takes its cues from Disneyland, and from any small town railway depot you’ve ever seen in an old movie. This design is common enough to be sort of the Western version of “Theme Park Gingerbread” Victorian stylings.
The locomotive I arrived on was the #22 Myron H. Narrow gauge trains are interesting; when you’re riding in one of the cars, it seems like a normal size railroad. But then when you see the locomotive and the engineer inside it, the whole thing feels like a toy.
I haven’t seen much evidence of forced perspective here at Cedar Point, but this railing is a good example—it appears to be about two-thirds scale.
George Roose and Emile Legros were clearly not dummies. They wanted to capture the same kinds of middle class families that were Disney’s bread and butter. The questions for Roose must have been, what popular elements would best translate to Cedar Point that were a.) appropriate to the natural setting of the peninsula, b.) appropriate to the long history of the resort, and c.) affordable?
The Fantasyland elements were clearly out. Castles and elaborately designed dark rides are expensive, and Cedar Point had no intellectual property like animated films to draw upon for subject matter anyway. The Sci-Fi trimmings of Tomorrowland likewise probably sounded both costly and inappropriate for the location. Main Street U.S.A. would be appropriated in bits and pieces for the Main Midway and other areas; that left the Old West of Frontierland and the exotic jungles of Adventureland. Both those latter categories would be employed; for years there were safari attractions with live animals and even a pirate-themed dark ride at Cedar Point. Yet only the Old West theme remains today.
Roose had wanted his narrow gauge railroad so badly he resorted to outside financing to open it in 1963, so it seems like a Frontier Town themed area was the natural way to go. He probably looked at Disneyland and at the other popular theme park destination in Southern California, Knott’s Berry Farm. Six Flags Over Texas had opened in 1961. Which means my impressions of Cedar Point’s Frontier Town felt exactly right—a mix of Disney’s Frontierland, the Calico Ghost Town at Knott’s, and the design of the Western areas of the Six Flags parks I have been to.
The signage varies in quality and authenticity throughout this section of the park. In some instances, such as this at the Emporium shop, the lettering is actually routed wood, which is not something even Disney does all the time. The typefaces are your classic grab bag of custom lettering and commercially available fonts. They’re usually the most obvious choices, like Adobe’s Juniper here.
Just like Hidden Mickeys and other such easter egg references at the Disney parks, the recurring “1870” (the year Cedar Point first opened) I saw on the Main Midway shows up again here in Frontier Town.
Lusty Lil’s Palace Theater is a direct lift of Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Saloon and perhaps the even older Calico Saloon at Knott’s Berry Farm. It’s not like Disney or Knott innovated here; they were appropriating a popular 19th century entertainment venue which had already been wrested from any historical roots as an amusement anchor for the kind of tourist Old West town like Dodge City, Kansas or Deadwood, South Dakota which I’d recently been through on my way to Ohio.
Again we see the concept of Baudrillard’s simulacra. Just like Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. is not a “simulation” of Marceline, Missouri where Walt Disney spent part of his childhood, Lusty Lil’s Palace Theater is not simulating a historic example of a theater revue house in any given town. Both are simulacra but there is a difference. While Main Street U.S.A. is a Hollywood art director’s half-remembered / half-imagined vision of “small town main street-ness,” the designs here at Cedar Point (coming as they were in 1967) are directly referencing the theme park representations that proceed them. We are at the levels of copies of copies, in which case any sense of original source material becomes completely obscure; the original doesn’t exist anymore.
Baudrillard found all this “problematic” which is just an academic theorist’s way of saying “this stuff is probably driving us insane” but at least in a theme park setting, it’s more charming and puzzling than anything else.
Adjacent to the theater and saloon was a restaurant serving burritos in a cafeteria line setting. The stereotypical wagon wheel chandeliers are to be expected, of course, but I found some surprises inside as well.
It would appear that Cedar Point has an appreciation for its own long history, especially it’s graphic history. Imagine my delight as a designer and typography aficionado—the entire space, floor to ceiling, was covered with vintage signage spanning over a hundred years, easy.
Here’s an interesting thought: I like theme parks that are clean and well-maintained. But at what point does this attention clash with the perceived historicity of the structures? I’m not sure there’s an answer. The generic nature of the design probably doesn’t help, though. This could be a boot store at an outlet mall outside of Las Vegas, or a fried chicken restaurant just about anywhere.
Conversely, this building is well-maintained, but has natural-looking weathering. I call this “distressed with care” and Disney are masters of it. The bits of rust, the ratty edge of the roof, the irregular contours in the wall planking, the slight water damage to the wood. All of these add to the integrity of the story. The problem with a place like Cedar Point (or any Cedar Fair or Six Flags park) is that you’re not sure if this look is intentional or a result of neglect.
As a turned the corner and continued to walk into the rest of the Frontier Town area, things started to get creepy. My initial thought was, as I said, Scotty had just beamed this stuff in. But the closer I looked, the more it reminded me of The Twilight Zone instead.
These buildings, along with their trimmings and signage, are starting to depart from the Old West and become a much more generic Small Town Americana. Very Main Street U.S.A.
I mean, look at this arcade entrance. Straight out of Disney central casting, so to speak. Complete with Independence Day bunting (though I was visiting in the middle of July). The signage is definitely newer, as it employs the very same Letterhead Font Foundry type which Disney started using about ten years ago.
This Coke sign really irks me. I’m fine with advertisements and product placement within themed environments if they are done subtly, with class, and are appropriate to the setting (time and place) of the design. The Coca-Cola script is a moderate pass here (I could see a building that old having Coke signage on it at the turn of the century), but the “freestyle” tagline in contemporary sans serif ruins it for me.
Adjacent is a General Store / Trading Post building which—given its length and orientation—really seems like it used to be shooting gallery attraction (again, something Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland had featured prior). This pioneer fort design of roughly hewn logs feels more like Knott’s to me.
Here’s a trope which you’ll find everywhere from fast food chains to theme parks to the state and county fair—when feeding people in the Old West, do it in a setting in which you’d feed livestock. Here the queue for ordering is fenced to resemble the kind of perimeter enclosure commonly attached to a barn.
Numerous quick eatery stands around this area share the same design, and the same cute names, like “The Roundup.”
The Cedar Creek Mine Ride was the third such Arrow coaster ever built, after the model debuted at Six Flags Over Texas and Over Georgia. Several of these are still in operation around the country. Based on the innovative work the company executed for Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds in 1959 (the first roller coaster to feature tubular steel track), this Arrow model was wildly popular by the late 1960s and eventually reached a thematic ‘peak’ with the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland and subsequently at other Disney parks.
Cedar Point’s coaster is somewhat more unique than other similar Arrow models as it has a steel tubular track atop a wooden frame structure. To my eye this adds to the design and feels more “authentically Old West” despite the fact that there is no other theming, no rockwork, no elaborate water features, etc. The rickety old wood skeleton reminds of a railway trestle bridge and looks like it might collapse at any moment. Here very little actually goes a long way.
The Cedar Fair company is efficient at recycling material; having retrofitted, remodeled, or otherwise repurposed countless buildings on the peninsula since the 19th century. Here the original queue building for the White Water Landing log flume ride (1982–2005) has been refashioned into a queue / ride photo / retail space for the Maverick roller coaster which opened in 2007.
It’s a subtle touch, but one I really appreciated; if you look carefully on the corrugated metal roof you can see the stylish (and very 1982-esque Western) original hand-painted logo for White Water Landing. They could have removed it, but they didn’t, and this is the kind of ‘extinct attraction tribute’ I usually only see at Disney parks.
Another device commonly used extensively—but not exclusively—in Old West settings are fictional businesses. There is a mythology of The Proprietor which means that many buildings with functional amusement purposes (queue buildings for rides, for example) take on the persona of a wood products company.
Snake River Falls is a shoot-the-chutes of the classic variety, but they’ve really taken care with the theming. Along with the signage on the queue building suggesting that lumber is being processed, the industrial features are carried through the ride experience and environs. It looks, sounds, smells, and feels right.
My descent into The Twilight Zone reached its most extreme at Village Square, which is not a separate land or themed area, but considered part of Frontier Town. Except that it’s totally not, design-speaking. Wait, is that the courthouse from Back to the Future? Nope, no clock. But the Town Hall Museum features the very same Colonial Georgian / Federal-style architecture which has no place on the Western Frontier.
Village Square was at the heart of a 1969 expansion of Frontier Town which included the Cedar Creek Mine Ride as well as other attractions. While I was visiting the park, the Mean Streak wooden roller coaster was being transformed into a steel/wood hybrid of the I-Box variety, and reopened as Steel Vengeance for the 2018 season.
I do want to commend Cedar Point for this museum. It was an absolute treasure trove for a park guest like myself doing research. There are several coaster models commissioned from famed coaster miniature craftsman John A. Hunt. This is his model of the Blue Streak (1964).
And here is Hunt’s model of the original Mean Streak (1991–2016). This museum was a real treat overall, from these models to vintage park maps, antique photographs, and tons of ephemera from the park’s long history.
Here the park again demonstrates a talent for reusing structures. This sort of half-Georgian Federal / half-Old West restrooms building was actually the Frontier Town station for the Frontier Lift Von Roll gondola (1968–1985). You can clearly see the access ramps on either side, and the symmetry of the windows suggest the openings where the gondolas would come and go. I’m not sure about the clock, though. Maybe they wanted to make up for the one missing on their Back to the Future courthouse-esue Town Hall Museum?
Again, half-Georgian Federal / half-Old West architecture, with a bit of plantation style thrown in.
It’s the same old setup as the original Autopia at Disneyland, complete with the guide rail to make sure younger drivers don’t stray from the road. I do think it’s rather charming that Cedar Point is so literal with their attraction names, though. Cadillac Cars. Antique Cars. Any questions?
This is odd. Antique advertisements of a somewhat appropriate vintage for the automobiles, but with the wood type from the Emporium reproduced (unbelievably). And that Next to Train Station wavy type is something else indeed. But these touches do add to the experience of driving in the 1910s.
This grouping reminds of the thematic pockets I saw out on the Main Midway. The park guest in me goes “neat” but the designer in me goes “meh.”
However, I did stop to admire this beautiful, router-cut wood type on a hand-painted sign shingle. Again, as with Disney, Letterhead Fonts are used, so this graphic treatment is very recent.
The Engine Company No. 3 brick firehouse building is a beautiful piece of design on its own, but in the company of the rest of the mismash in this part of Frontier Town, not so much. I don’t know what the opposite of Gestalt Theory would be, but this is kind of what I mean—the whole is less than the sum of the parts, and each individual element actually detracts.
I think trying to incorporate “town square” and “main street” aspects of the Disneyland experience (not to mention the Colonial Georgian / Federal-style architecture) was a mistake at Cedar Point’s Frontier Town. Fortunately the Frontier Trail area proved to be far more cohesive.