Disney World, Florida's version of adroitly packaged mousegeist, turned 15 last fall to orchestrated hoopla reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty celebration. No offense, but some of us didn't feel like celebrating. We still blame the Disney people for helping kill off the amusement parks of our youth, places like Palisades Park in New Jersey, Riverview Park in Chicago and Ocean Park in Santa Monica, Calif.
Granted, the old boardwalks were tawdry. Unshaven and unsavory carny barkers ran the midway games. Sullen ladies in dirty aprons sold tickets to the rides. And just as you strapped yourself into the lead car on "the world's largest steel roller coaster," your best friend would recite chapter and verse how 23 people were killed when the cars on a similar ride at another park jumped the tracks and plunged into a lake.
These nostalgic thoughts were triggered by the recent opening in Baseball City, Fla., of an old-fashioned amusement park called Boardwalk and Baseball. Ten miles southwest of Disney World, Boardwalk and Baseball is a theme park—a double theme park, actually. From Interstate 4, it resembles the world's biggest traveling carnival. The 135-acre site is dominated by a giant Ferris wheel and a 3,500-foot-long roller coaster, both of which are remnants of Circus World, which went bust at this location in May 1986. Many other old rides—funky classics like the Calypso and the Double-O—have been restored and upgraded. Flashing lights, gaudy neon signs and amplified carnival music evoke memories of Coney Island and Fairyland Park in Kansas City.
The baseball co-theme makes this park truly different. "We've taken two American traditions and combined them," says Boardwalk and Baseball president Richard B. Howard. In other words, if you like the idea of polishing off a few hot dogs at the ball game and then trying to keep them down on the roller coaster, this place is for you.
Boardwalk and Baseball will showcase the national pastime 365 days a year on a six-diamond complex that is linked to the amusement park by the boardwalk itself. A 6,500-seat stadium is scheduled for completion by the end of the year and will serve as the new spring home of the Kansas City Royals. Starting next season, Boardwalk and Baseball will also be the home field for the Royals' entry in the Class A Florida State League. There is talk that the team will be known as the HBJ Royals, after the theme park's corporate developer, the publishing giant Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Let's hope this isn't the start of a trend.
In addition to professional baseball, Boardwalk and Baseball will offer visitors a steady schedule of all-star games, old-timers' games, college and high school tournaments and baseball fantasy camps. A team of former college and minor league players will fill in the gaps with intrasquad games.
The boardwalk offers several baseball-inspired midway games. Kids can swat at Wiffle Balls to win baseball caps and miniature bats. Pitching whizzes can collect prizes for guessing the speed of their throws, which are clocked by a JUGS radar gun. There are 10 batting cages (including a T-ball cage for tots), two fielding cages with first-base targets and timers to determine if imaginary runners are safe or out, and eight pitching alleys with computerized ball-strike calling and digital velocity recorders. Another concession makes full-color baseball cards on the spot.
The history-minded will enjoy a walk through A Taste of Cooperstown, an exhibit of artifacts on loan from the Hall of Fame. Included are Babe Ruth's uniform, displayed in an authentic Yankees locker, and uniforms, gloves and bats from a host of other stars such as Pete Rose, Hank Aaron and Lou Gehrig.
What you won't find at Boardwalk and Baseball is the sweat and grime of the old amusement parks. Three thousand shade trees and a multitude of flowering plants bear witness to the pristine post-Disney standards in amusement-park decor. For the most part, fresh-faced youngsters run the games. The boardwalk itself is a class act—20-feet wide, more than a mile long and made of dense, reddish-brown jarrah wood brought all the way from Australia.
Unfortunately, Boardwalk and Baseball seems to lack complete confidence in its more traditional attractions. A 40-minute Colorado Riders show, full of horses, cowboys, cancan girls and stuntmen falling off rooftops, is Universal Studios-style wild West hokum at its worst. And there's nothing especially traditional about the park's largest attraction, a four-minute flume ride called the Grand Rapids.
Those quibbles aside, Boardwalk and Baseball renews the smell of cotton candy, the taste of Supercone Sundaes, the fun and clamor of Skee Ball. The daily sound of umpires shouting, "Play ball!" will only add to the magic.
Boardwalk and Baseball is located 25 minutes southwest of Orlando at the Haines City Exit of Interstate 4 at U.S. Highway 27. Admission is $16.95 for adults and $12.95 for people under four feet and those 55 years old and over. Those prices cover all rides and most of the baseball games, but will not include admittance to Royals spring training games. The park opens at 9 a.m. every day and closes at 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday and during holiday seasons. Phone 1-800-367-2249 (in Florida) or 1-800-826-1939 (elsewhere) for more information.