As with all the thematic destinations I have visited and written about so far, I try to limit my research before arrival. I don’t look at the site on google maps, and I don’t read up on any history which might be new to me. I might not even go to the website or, in the case of a theme park, look at the park’s map or attraction list. I want to go in fresh.
In the case of Valleyfair this led to a similar experience I had at Michigan’s Adventure. I was somewhat underwhelmed. The park was much smaller than I had assumed it would be, and the grounds weren’t even organized into clearly defined themed areas or lands. In short, this was not the park I thought it would be.
Valleyfair is some 25 miles to the southwest of downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, in a town called Shakopee. The park opened on May 25, 1976, just a few days before Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. The property is long and narrowish, sprawling east-west alongside Minnesota State Highway 101, so it feels orientated almost like a golf course fairway. There is no hub-and-spoke or Duell Loop navigation, just a meandering path to the back (west) of the park and back again.
In typical hyperbolic Cedar Fair style, the map above exaggerates the soaring heights of four major coasters—High Roller (1976), Excalibur (1989), Wild Thing (1996), and Renegade (2007). Corkscrew (1980) is rendered here in diminished scale; the ride is actually 15 feet taller than High Roller, but you can barely make it out in this illustration.
From 1925 to 1973, the Twin Cities had their very own Coney Island-style amusement park called Excelsior which was founded by Fred W. Pearce, a noted designer and builder of wooden roller coasters. After Excelsior was closed and subsequently demolished by the Pierce family at the end of the 1973 season, son Fred Pierce Jr. approached local venture capitalists and developers Walt Wittmer and David Sherman about building a new park on a different plot of land in nearby Shakopee.
Construction began in August of 1974 and the park opened two years later. Parts of Excelsior Amusement Park were transplanted to the new site, including its historic carousel. Thus Valleyfair is essentially Excelsior’s descendent.
I was surprised at how difficult it was to track down older park map posters of Valleyfair online. These are pretty poor quality images, but it’s clear that the park was far more lushly wooded and landscaped during its earlier years. The map on the left must be from before 1980, as there is no Corkscrew yet in the park. The map on the right is after, as the Corkscrew is visible just to the right of the middle portion.
The Fair in Cedar Fair
Much like Kings Island, Valleyfair sought to traffic in the “Medieval Fantasy” aesthetic employed by the iconic Disneyland with their wordmark. I’m not quite sure about the exclamation point, which makes you want to shout! the park’s name. The original version from the 1970s has forked “flags” on the swashes of the ‘V’ and ‘f’ which remind me of a snake’s tongue.
At the end of the park’s third operating season, Valleyfair was purchased by Cedar Point in September 1978. Ironically this was to stave off buyout threats from the likes of Taft (Kings Island and Kings Dominion) and Marriott (the two Great America parks). Valleyfair’s acquisition is the origin of the resulting parent company’s name Cedar Fair which was formed in 1983. Because of this connection, I assumed that the park would be somewhat more remarkable than what I actually found.
Sometimes the (!) is used with the logo, and sometimes it’s not. Other times throughout the park’s history the lettering hasn’t been consistent, as seen on the stage above.
At some point in the 1990s, Valleyfair streamlined their mark and removed the forks on the swashes. It’s a cool mark, yet unlike at Kings Island, I unfortunately couldn’t find it honored on any merchandise. Yet it exists in various guises throughout the park, sometimes with forks, sometimes without.
In 2007, Cedar Fair corporate developed a consistent system of park logos and deployed them across all their properties, giving them a common typeface DNA just like the Six Flags chain.
Nearly all the wordmarks are drawn on an arc or path in one way or another, and the key unifying element is a small triangular flag used for the dot on all lowercase i’s. Granted, this isn’t a branding blog, but Valleyfair is now the fourth Cedar Fair park which I’ve visited on this trip, and I thought it was time to mention it.
Amusement Park or Theme Park?
Some two years before he passed away in 2018, David Sherman was quoted in an interview with the Valleyfair official blog as noting that the creative development of Valleyfair was protracted:
It took us four years from concept to reality. As we toured around we knew that this was a smaller park and we wouldn’t have enough money to change themes, so we went for a turn of the century - family get together theme.
By “change themes” I take it that Mr. Sherman means they thought that the development of separate themed areas or lands within the park was cost prohibitive. What he then calls a “turn of the century - family get together theme” appears to be what I call “Amusement Park-ness” comprised of various forms of Victorian Gingerbread architecture as I’ve seen elsewhere across the country.
Because of this, I’m reluctant to call Valleyfair a theme park at all. Kings Island and the Great America parks were developed as theme parks from day one. Cedar Point was a traditional seaside resort that eventually evolved to include themed areas and lands due to competition from the Disney model.
But Valleyfair was designed as an amusement park, and for the most part it remains one. Most of the opening day attractions were variations upon standard carnival rides.
Classic amusement park offerings are also represented, such as this version of the Shoot the Chute model called The Wave. What I found curious, however, is that the queue / load building and flume trough is stylistically more turn of the century—it not only operates like an original Shoot the Chute as was once found at places like Coney Island’s Luna Park, it looks like one too. Other such rides at Cedar Point or at the Six Flags parks often have their own unique theming (Cedar Point goes for the Old West) and do not directly reference the historical form of the ride.
The flagship attraction at Valleyfair’s opening in 1976 was High Roller. It’s a modest experience by today’s standards, but in the seventies—after rides like Kings Island’s Racer (1972) reignited the country’s love affair with wooden roller coasters and ushered in a renaissance of the form—70 feet in height and a top speed of 50mph were notable stats. This out and back coaster continued to be a top draw well into the 1980s, but I personally found it to be entirely too rough around the edges (older woodies don’t age very well).
Again, the contours of the superstructure, the white painted boards, the flapping red flags, the roar of the trains going by…the wooden roller coaster is like its own form of nostalgic American architecture, just as surely as Victorian, Art & Crafts, or Googie.
All of this suggests to me that if Valleyfair could be considered a kind of theme park, then its theme is the American amusement park itself, much like Cincinnati’s Coney Island was resurrected at Kings Island as its own themed area. Yet there are still bits of Disneyland scattered about. Somehow by the 1970s, for any aesthetic credibility in the public’s eye, there had to be. But haphazard in presentation.
Here a village square “post clock” or “street clock” (originating in Victorian England and becoming more commonplace in the eastern United States after the Civil War) sits all by itself, with no Main Street U.S.A. to give it any architectural context. It was literally sprouting from the sidewalk next to a bench and a trash can. There’s no nostalgic anchor for its presence.
No park built in the 1970s would be complete without an Arrow Corkscrew model. Valleyfair’s Corkscrew was added in 1980 as the park’s second coaster, and it was the state of Minnesota’s only true outdoor steel coaster until the mid-nineties.
Like High Roller, its ride appeal has faded in the decades since. However, this Arrow model is unique in that it’s the only Corkscrew the company built which contains an upward helix (banked spiral) as the final element. Other than that, it’s essentially the same coaster I rode at Cedar Point.
The Mysterious Park Logo, here in its refined (but pre-rebranded) form atop Valleyfair’s Power Tower.
Standard Fare at the Fair
As I’ve travelled around the United States looking at various theme parks, the design taxonomy and genealogy of various elements has become more apparent. Depending on the region, there’s a pseudo-Victorian Country Ranch Home aesthetic at work. Eateries and retail outlets are fashioned as quasi-domestic spaces, sometimes clearly “down home” houses and sometimes merely “house-like.”
Valleyfair is replete with these kinds of structures all throughout the park; they’re not confined to any one district or land, as Valleyfair doesn’t feature individually themed areas. As such, just like the lone post clock, they stand out. But because there’s at least more than one of them, if you spend a day at the park, they eventually add up to a kind of “themishness.”
Fried chicken is an amusement park/theme park staple. Here the architecture is more “ranch-like” than “house-like.” Columns and trim.
These (admittedly less detailed) Victorian stylings are similar to buildings found at the Disney parks’ Main Street districts, particularly at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
Here is a French-style copper mansard roof, which reminds me of the New Orleans themed areas I’ve visited. Maybe because the outlet is selling French fries, a designer thought this was an appropriate motif? The name “Northwoods Grill,” however, is pure Midwest.
This isn’t the first “Subway-as-Barnhouse” that I’ve seen, and it probably won’t be the last.
Same goes for “Grandma’s Panda Express Cottage.” This is nearly identical to the outlet which I saw at Cedar Point in the Frontier Trail area, just smaller. The fake brick chimneys are a nice touch.
What’s disappointing is that when parks like Great America or Valleyfair opened, they featured home-grown eateries. As a result, such restaurants’ offerings were often more thematically specific. But once larger chains like Six Flags and Cedar Fair began gobbling up such parks in the 1980s and 90s, national food franchises were introduced as a cost cutting measure. Today these franchises are the rule rather than the exception at many parks across the country. So you get rather stark design incongruencies—Chinese fast food being served in a country home like this.
There are also couple of midway games areas in opposite corners of Valleyfair. The design at this one is unremarkable.
But at the other end of the park, the midway presentation is more detailed. And flags! There were more flags at Valleyfair than at perhaps any other theme park I can think of. Which in hindsight kind of makes sense, given the park’s original wordmark.
The Grandest Bandstands
I’m not sure why this is, but a key component of the Theme Park Victorian Gingerbread design language is the use of the bandstand form. They show up at parks as guest services / information desks, ticketing booths, shops, game areas, and food outlets.
Like so much else at Valleyfair, these structures are at opposite ends of the park, with no thematic areas to anchor or further define them. More than once I was reminded of a model railroad set, with a kit of parts. I imagined the design team which developed Valleyfair simply reaching into this metaphorical box and placing all the expected trappings (and Disneyesque touches) willy-nilly on the tabletop.
And flags. Plenty of flags!
File Under Random
Here’s one out of nowhere—an Art Deco-era movie house. Great design, but no comment on its inclusion.
I don’t know what to make of this one, either. Sort of a Versailles-type building with obvious false fronts (you can see the flat mansard roof clearly has nothing behind it). It’s obvious, REAL FAKE, like the kind of backlot presentation you’d find at Universal Studios. But it’s apropos of nothing, and there’s no context for it on either side of the building. It looked to be a private meeting space of some kind. With more flags!
Back on Track(s)
Valleyfair has its own narrow gauge railroad just like the Disneyland standard I’ve found at Cedar Point, Kings Island, and elsewhere. The Minnesota River Valley Railroad doesn’t circle the park, but completes its circuit through about a third of it, with only part of the route on the perimeter.
The train ride was not added to Valleyfair until 1990, which explains why the route is not well integrated into the park’s layout. It has a nice tunnel feature however.
The gauge is unusual: 2 foot 6 inch, smaller than the 3 foot type common to Disneyland, Cedar Point, and many other parks. 2' 6" is more popular at zoos throughout the United States, though it’s the same gauge as was used for the Disneyland attraction Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland (1956–1977).
Valleyfair’s waterpark area (called Soak City since 2008, consistent with similar areas at other Cedar Fair parks) is fully integrated into the main park with no separate gate or admission charge. I’d only seen this once before at California’s Great America, but I’m sure other parks offer this.
The waterpark began gradually, with Panic Falls opening first in 1983. More attractions were added, and the area became Whitewater Country Waterpark in 1992. This incremental development has created some bizarre visual juxtapositions over the years with waterslides snaking in, out, and over walkways which are outside the waterpark area.
Again, probably the most common thematic element at any American theme park (or even amusement park) is the Old West. Kept alive through the Western genre on film and television throughout the 20th century, the thematic Old West has little connection to the real, historical American West. It’s more real to us—well over a century removed from that era—than the real thing will ever be.
Like everything else at Valleyfair, this saloon feels like it fell from the sky fully formed, and has no themed area around it to provide context. Chickie & Pete’s is a regional chain headquartered in Pennsylvania which I also found at Cedar Point, so they likely have a deal with Cedar Fair as a whole. I was unable to find out when this saloon structure dates to, however, so I don’t know if this is another example of corporate cannibalizing an older, more unique eatery.
Another trope that comes part and parcel with the Old West is the “Old Time” photo studio in which guests are provided with historical clothing for their family portraiture to recreate the experience of a 19th century daguerreotype studio. Prints are often available in grayscale and sepia for extra authenticity.
One design faux pax here is the use of “Olde” which is a colonial spelling common to New England but not widely used in the West (much like “Shoppe”). Not to mention the garish and anachronistic type treatment on the sign.
Typography fares better at the entrance to the adjacent wooden roller coaster Renegade which was added to Valleyfair in 2007. This is why I’m unsure how long the saloon structure has been in the park; perhaps it was part of this expansion.
This sign appears to be set in Ashwood Condensed which is part of the Walden Font Co. Wild West Press Collection. I recognize the face because I’ve used the collection in my own exhibit design work before.
The queue area winds through the middle of the coaster layout, giving those waiting multiple views of the trains racing by and building anticipation to ride. All the wood is appropriately distressed and aged, the metal fixtures rusted. And I really appreciated that no two signs carried the same 19th century wood typeface. Here is one form of slab serif.
And here is another. It’s the small details like this which Disney’s designers excel at, and which I rarely see at Cedar Fair parks. It was especially surprising at one as sparsely themed as Valleyfair.
Many contemporary coasters offer a souvenir ride photo experience, and here at the Renegade a daguerreotype studio setting is quite appropriate.
Decently rendered wood type, and hand-painted at that.
Unfortunately this red brush script has more in common with The Partridge Family (1970–1974) than the Old West. But at least they tried.
There are a couple other structures around the Renegade which make an attempt to be “Western” but Victorian elements are also thrown into the blender. Again, I don’t know if they predate the addition of the wooden coaster or not.
The river rapids ride Thunder Canyon was added at the back of the park nearby back in 1987, and it carries a loose Old West theme, so these other elements like the Saloon, “Olde Time” Photo Shop and General Store might very well date back to then. I haven’t been able to confirm this either way.
Some river rapids rides are richly themed (Grizzly River Run at Disney California Adventure or Kali River Rapids at Disney Animal Kingdom) and some have practically no theming at all (Grand Rapids at Michigan’s Adventure). Valleyfair’s Thunder Canyon is somewhere in the middle.
Many of these types of river rapids have opportunities for onlookers to shoot water at guests as they ride by. Once nice thematic touch is that here these water guns are fashioned to look like antique cannons. I realize this is more Pirates of the Caribbean than Frontierland, but (again) at least they tried.
Next to Thunder Canyon at the far back of Valleyfair lies something I didn’t expect at all—a rollercoaster called Excalibur with a sword in the stone to match. The lettering is admittedly pretty sloppy, but the sword is wicked cool (and looked quite sharp). Beyond the entrance there isn’t any theming to speak of.
It was a fun ride, but quite short. And, at the far back of the park, completely vacant. It almost felt abandoned.
Yikes! While this mistake is more common at small town Thai restaurants, here we have Adrian Frutiger’s infamous Ondine. Although reminiscent 15th century Italian humanist lettering, his design is actually based on Arabic calligraphic forms. Ondine ("wave" in French) is quite a sad typographic story, as the face is abused and misused all over the place, rarely if ever found leveraging its original Middle Eastern heritage. And here that hard, long drop shadow makes the eyes bleed.
At first glance I thought the coaster’s station was nondescript. But then I looked closer, and the shape of the roof actually has an appropriate medieval tent look.
Ondine yet again, sans drop shadow, and with (oddly) appropriate flourishes.
I wished to conclude my observations with Excalibur because although I think (and the park’s founders have stated for the record) that the overall theme of Valleyfair as designed and opened in 1976 is the turn of the century America amusement park itself—exemplified by the High Roller, pictured above—I think there’s another view here.
The original wordmark lettering, carnival atmosphere, and omnipresent red triangular flags fluttering in the breeze makes me think that the “fair” in Valleyfair might mean “Faire” as in “Renaissance Faire” or “Medieval Faire.” Yet I was unable to find any sources supporting this (online or otherwise).
It’s sort of a lost opportunity, like the failure of Cedar Fair to market Valleyfair’s original wordmark on nostalgic merchandise like they do for their other parks. The irony, of course, is that this logo is still in use in various contexts throughout Valleyfair. Conversely, I couldn’t find the original Kings Island lettering in use inside that park, but they sold it on all kinds of souvenirs.
Perhaps if Cedar Fair decides to reinvest in some thematic design at their Valleyfair park, they might decide to capitalize on this (admittedly on my part, hypothetical) connection, and turn up the volume on some medieval elements throughout, maybe by formally parsing the park into themed lands. Certainly the popularity of the Game of Thrones HBO series and other recent fantasy films suggest that the public has an appetite for castles, knights on horseback, and fire-breathing dragons.