The Story of Joyland
Disclaimer: Since its closure, Joyland has been plagued by theft and vandalism. Out of respect for the park's owners, the Nelson family, we ask that you look upon Joyland as a treasure to be remembered, not a target to be destroyed. Joyland was good to us for many years. We owe it to the Nelsons to be good to it in return.
For more than five decades, Joyland was Wichita's only amusement park. For many it was not only a part of Wichita's history, but a part of growing up a Wichitan. Joyland closed permanently in 2006, but for those old enough to remember the park in all its glory, they will forever look back fondly on the memories made there. Younger generations will never experience Joyland, as the park has deteriorated to rubble and the owners have demolished and removed almost everything recognizable. Joyland, is gone.
The flashing lights of the midway, the buzz of carnival games, the smell of fresh cotton candy, the music form Louie the Clown's organ, will never be experienced again.
This is the story of Joyland.
The Park Opens
Joyland was founded by Lester Ottaway and his sons Herb and Harold, but this was not the beginning of the family's amusement park endeavors. Prior to opening Joyland, Herb operated a small park called Playland in Planeview, Kansas in the late 1930s to the early 1940s. Boeing had moved a large portion of production to Planeview during World War II, so the town was home to thousands of people looking for entertainment.
Playland was small and featured only a few rides, including a Tilt-A-Whirl, a Ferris wheel, and a merry-go-round. During this time, Herb had also built a miniature steam train. A few years after Playand opened, Lester Ottaway purchased some land in Wichita were he would run the steam engine. Located on Central, on the south side of the street and east of where the Yard Store stands today, this would become the first location for Joyland.
The Ottaways operated both Playland and the Central Avenue location for about a year before moving the Playland rides to Wichita to form the original Joyland amusement park. Over the next few years, the Ottaways accumulated more rides, adding a shooting range, a kiddie ride and a building for a bumper car ride.
Running the park in the 1940s proved to be a challenge, as anything that did not go towards the war was taxed at 20 percent. In addition, the electric company wouldn't provide any service to the park because they didn't feel that it was a necessary use of power, so the park ran on a generator that had to be fired up manually every time the park was opened.
Despite these challenges, the Ottaways persevered and continued to grow. When the Ottaways began considering the addition of a major attraction (the roller coaster), they started looking for a new location for Joyland that would allow for more growth in the future. This is when Joyland moved to the location that most visitors will remember at 2801 S. Hillside. Again the rides were moved. The building that housed the bumper cars was actually cut in half in order to be moved to the Hillside location and many new rides, including a brand new roller coaster were added.
Anticipation ran high in early June of 1949, as preparations had been made to open the new amusement park in Wichita. Only the final touches remained before Joyland would officially open its gates. The park opened for business on June 12, 1949.
"It was considered the biggest amusement park in the southwest when it opened," said Roger Nelson, son of Stanley and Margaret Nelson, who would later own the park. "When they built that roller coaster, that was a big deal. A huge deal. It was amazing."
When Lester Ottaway passed away in the 1950s, his sons continued to run the park as a family business. They did so until their retirement in the mid 1970s, when they sold the park to Stanley and Margaret Nelson, who had both worked in the park and were friends of the Ottaway family. Stanley and Margaret met in the park, when Stan was working in the ticket booth and Margaret manned the skeeball station.
Roger Nelson grew up in and around Joyland, though his experiences were different than those of other park guests. He got his first job at Joyland, and worked in a variety of positions at the park over the years he spent there.
"I spent a lot of time in the park, but I didn't really have time to hang around. If I was there, I was working. That's just how it was," he said.
Though he spent much of his time working, Nelson, like any little boy who grew up in an amusement park, had one ride he favored above the rest.
A Thrilling Ride
"The roller coaster was always my favorite," Nelson said. "It was a lot of fun."
Like Nelson, many of Joyland’s most daring patrons had one primary destination after entering the park, and that was the roller coaster. The wooden coaster designed by Herbert Paul Schmeck and manufactured by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company began its ascent towards the heavens almost immediately after leaving the loading area.
Opening with the park, the coaster took thousands of riders through an exhilarating series of twists, turns and drops before returning to the beginning of the circuit. Towering above the trees, the highest points of the coaster could be seen from the street outside the park.
Joyland’s roller coaster featured a 2,600-foot track and an 80-foot drop. With a top speed of 50 miles per hour, it offered park guests a thrilling ride. Renamed Nightmare in 2006, the coaster was named an ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) Classic. The coaster remained to become one of the last 33 coasters with this distinction. It was also the last North American coaster that utilized vintage rolling stock and fixed lap bars.
"They ran that roller coaster from one in the afternoon until one in the morning at 25 cents a ride, and it was full every time," Nelson said.
Wichitan Stacy Ivy remembers riding her first roller coaster at Joyland.
“I grew up at Joyland. First roller coaster, first date and even my first kiss were at Joyland. I am sad that my kids and my nieces will never get to experience Joyland the way me and my sister did. I have so many amazing memories with my family there. My sister and I always reminisce about our youth and mom and dad taking us there,” Stacy Ivy said.
In addition to its roller coaster, Joyland opened with a variety of other exciting attractions.
Among them was a carousel, made specifically for Joyland by the Allen Herschel Company in New York. It was beautifully carved and hand-painted with delicate and ornate details. The carousel featured 36 horses and two chariots for riders to choose from.
Located in the center of the park, the carousel would entice many riders, both young and old, with its sweet carnival music.
Much like the roller coaster, Joyland's Ferris wheel also peeked over the treetops. Joyland’s iconic yellow Ferris wheel was a staple for park visitors.
Manufactured by the Eli Bridge Company, the Ferris wheel was an original Joyland attraction from the park’s opening in 1949, though it wasn't always bright yellow.
In earlier days, the Ferris wheel was silver, with its 16 chairs painted in bright blue, red and yellow. The Ferris wheel remained in the park until the early 2000’s, when crews eventually came to remove it.
When it came time to find a new home, the ride's joints were so tight that the removal process proved a challenge. Despite its efforts to stay planted at Joyland, the Ferris wheel was removed and sold.
Today, the Ferris wheel runs at the Ottawa County Fair. The Scrambler and other Joyland components were purchased from the park to run at the fair, too.
Rides & Attractions
Around the Park
Louie and the Wurlitzer Organ
Joyland was home to a Mammoth Military Band Wurlitzer Style 160 organ. Built in 1908, the organ was the largest organ that Wurlitzer ever produced.
Prior to its debut at Joyland, the Wurlitzer was featured at a bath house in Coffeyville, Kansas. Later, the organ was placed in storage where some of its original brass was stripped for scrap metal drives during World War II. It was purchased and restored in 1948, just before it was sold to the Ottaways for use in Joyland.
The massive Wurlitzer organ was beautiful, featuring ornate wood and glass designs. The organ remained in the park until it was the last of its kind available for public viewing and one of just two left in existence.
In 1950, just a year after the park opened, Louie the Clown made his first appearance as the organist playing the Wurlitzer.
Organ music filled the whole park, but few dared to go too close to the source, because frankly, everyone was at least a little creeped out by Louie, who sat smiling at passersby through his mirror as he played.
Louie was well taken care of, and in later years he could be seen sporting new clothes, handmade for special occasions and new seasons by the park’s owner.
The Clown at the Organ
Those who visited the park in earlier generations may remember swimming in its Olympic sized pool. Added in the 1950s, the pool featured high dives and a tall slide, offering the same excitement that was found in the rest of the park. The pool drew large crowds during hot summers, and if you forgot your trunks, you could buy a pair of Joyland swim trunks at the park! The pool was well-loved during its heyday but closed in 1973 when competition with city pools became too big an obstacle to overcome.
“I remember as a little girl getting to go to the pool that was there for years. That pool seemed so big, and the slide was so tall. The diving boards were really high up. There were always a lot of people in and around the pool. My little sister would beg my parents to let us have something from the snack bar and when they did it was a special treat," Angi Amos said.
Joyland Under New Ownership
The park continued for the next 55 years and, as with any attraction approaching 60 years of service, things were added and changed along the way. When Herb and Harold Ottaway retired in the mid 1960s, they leased the park to Herb's son, Jerry Ottaway and Stanley Nelson. Nelson had continued working at the park, doing bookkeeping while he studied accounting at Wichita State University and working in management.
"My dad realized that he loved the amusement park business, so he decided to go into it," Roger Nelson said.
Together, Ottaway and Nelson built Joyland's roller rink in 1968. They later purchased the roller rink on West Street, located on th south sde of what is now called Carousel Skate Center, which Jerry built later. "In 1973, Jerry wanted to pursue the roller rink business, so he sold out [his part of the park] to my dad," Nelson said.
Stan Nelson worked his way up in the amusement park industry over the years, attending annual conventions for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. After several years, he made it to the top.
“My dad was the president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions,” Nelson said, “and that was a big deal. He was in the business a long time, and he was just a little park operator, but he worked his way up to become the president,” Nelson said.
After serving as the IAAPA president, Stan Nelson went on to serve on the safety board. In this role, he assessed the rides and who could ride on them to ensure optimum park safety.
Well-rounded in the amusement park industry, Nelson's ownership of the park brought about changes including the addition of new rides.
The Whacky Shack
New management was not the only change on the horizon for Joyland. The Nelsons offered a fresh approach to running the park, and with that came park upgrades and expansion.
In 1974, Joyland gained a spooky new dark ride called the Whacky Shack. This ride was the last of its kind built by Bill Tracy, a nationally-recognized amusements innovator, who passed away shortly after the completion of Joyland's Whacky Shack. The two-story ride combined dim light, eerie organ music, strobe lights, scary sound effects and more to produce an overall creepy effect.
The ride took guests slowly through a variety of different scenes with skeletons, cemeteries and even a near collision with a large truck that was bound to make your heart leap right out of your chest.
Joyland's Whacky Shack in 1987
The Log Jam
Built in 1985, Joyland’s Log Jam flume ride was one of the Nelsons’ last major projects in the park.
“That was a really big risk at the time,” Nelson said, in reference to the financial investment it required.
In addition to the risks it imposed, the Log Jam brought with it hard work. The ride was such a large project that the Nelsons built some of it themselves in order to save money. When the work was completed, it had all paid off.
“It was good for the park, it was a good major ride and it made us feel good to do that,” added Nelson.
The log flume ride featured fiberglass flumes that actually resembled hollowed out logs. Each flume seated four to five people. The Log Jam had one drop at the end that was exciting yet small enough that younger guests were permitted to ride. You were bound to get at least a little wet on this ride, making it a popular choice on hot days.
A Shiny New Train
The Nelsons also brought a new train to the park, manufactured by Wichitan Harold Chance.
He delivered his first-ever CP Huntington train, emblazoned with the number one. Just over 10 years later, in 1961, Chance officially incorporated a new business, Chance Rides.
“Joyland’s train really launched Chance Rides,” said Larry Breitenstein, National Sales Director at Chance Rides.
The Wichita-based company would manufacture more CP Huntington trains and other rides over the next several decades.
Today, there are nearly 400 CP Huntington trains in operation, each of them manufactured right here in Wichita.
Porky the Paper Eater
Porky holds a special place in the hearts of many Wichitans. He was the coolest trash can in town. Porky was not unique to Joyland and could be found in several locations across the country.
Porkies came in a variety of designs. Some of the trash cans in other locations were housed in barns and others in brick houses, but Joyland's Porky was quirkier than most, residing in a mushroom.
His head stuck out of the front, and his mouth (which was a vacuum!) stood open, waiting to suck up the trash of visitors.
Generations of children were amazed by his ability to suck the trash right out of their hands!
"Porky was the best thing because the kids would run all over picking up trash," Roger Nelson said with a laugh.
The Park Closes
The Nelson family owned and operated the park until it closed in 2004. Joyland reopened briefly, but permanently closed its doors in 2006.
"The reality was, a lot of people thought we had a lot of money; we didn’t. We were just making a living," Roger Nelson said.
Serving our community with 57 cumulative years of service, Joyland brought good times to generations of Wichitans, though attendance tapered off over the years.
"The unfortunate thing is that a lot of times, what we’d hear from people is 'Oh, you’re closing Joyland down? Gosh, I haven’t been out there in 20 years,’ and we’d go ‘Yeah, we know,’” Nelson said with a chuckle.
“The support was just not there, and that’s nothing against Wichita, it’s just a fact,” Nelson added.
After the park closed, the Nelsons tried unsuccessfully to sell the park twice. The first potential sale was to a former park employee who walked away in the middle of a lease-to-own process. The sale agreement allowed the new owner a period of a few months to come back, so until that time had passed, the Nelsons were unable to do anything with the park. The second sale ended similarly. Despite other offers from potential buyers who could buy the park outright, Stan Nelson wouldn’t sell.
“He wanted to keep it as an amusement park,” Roger Nelson said of his father. “My dad genuinely loved the place and he wanted to see it continue.”
In the process of trying to sell the park, it was plagued by theft, vandalism and even arson.
"There was one particular weekend where they [vandals] came in and just ripped the guts out of the electrical system and that left us absolutely unable to defend the place because we couldn’t leave any lights on," Nelson said.
Things continued in this manner until there was little left to be destroyed.
"It was very hard to watch and very hard to come to grips with," Nelson said.
Incidents like this happened nearly every night, making it very difficult for the Nelsons to maintain or even sell the property. Banks were reluctant to invest in the refurbishment and restoration of the park, leaving the Nelsons with few options.
"Selling an amusement park, well, there’s not that many people out there that are willing to take that on. It takes total dedication," Nelson said. "It’s a tough business. You’ve got six months to make it."
The property on which the park once stood was declared a flood zone by the city after nearby water retention work had stopped, allowing the excess water to pool on the Nelsons' land. This added an additional obstacle to the task of selling the park.
The park sat empty for years and was listed for sale on eBay for a time.
There were efforts by the community to save the park and restore it to what it had once been, including a Save Joyland Facebook group that currently sits at over 5,000 members. But despite attempts to recover what Wichita had lost, the years had not been kind to Joyland.
The Nelson family suffered great loss after the park closed. Plagued with break-ins, burglaries, and vandalism, the park had simply fallen into an irreparable state.
Stolen Louie the Clown Recovered
When the park closed, Louie the Clown was nowhere to be found. Officially reported stolen in 2010, the clown, valued at $10,000, was found in 2015 in the home of Damian Mayes, a former employee who had maintained Louie and the Wurlitzer organ.
Mayes pleaded no contest in the case in October of 2016, though he was already serving a sentence for unrelated charges. According to the Wichita Police Department's Sgt. Nikki Woodrow, Louie was returned to the Nelsons.
Mayes had stolen several things from the park in addition to Louie, including items such as Porky the Paper Eater's face and signs that hung above the Wurlitzer organ. These items were recovered from his basement with Louie in 2015. Today, they sit in a warehouse that holds many of the park's remnants.
Wurlitzer Organ Lawsuit
Mayes was also involved in a civil suit in February of 2016 pertaining to the Wurlitzer organ, which he had agreed to purchase from Margaret Nelson-Spear years before.
Nelson-Spear filed the suit after Mayes failed to pay her the remaining balance he owed on the organ, demanding that he pay her the $9,000 sum or that he allow her to repossess the organ. Further details on the case have yet to be released.
Joyland in Storage
Many of the park's remaining items sit among shelves and boxes in a warehouse, buried under layers of dust. From dozens of original drafts of Joyland posters to ticket boxes and cars from kiddie rides, these pieces were recovered from the park by Roger Nelson. Others kept in the warehouse are those that were recovered from Mayes's residence by WPD in 2015. Some park decorations, like hand-painted signs and backdrops by Wichita artist George Bellis, hang on the warehouse's walls.
Roller Coaster Demolished
The roller coaster remained standing as one of the last Philadelphia Toboggan Company coasters in existence until the spring of 2015 when it was partially blown down by a storm. Shortly thereafter, the remainder of the coaster was demolished.
After the park had suffered years of exposure to the elements with no maintenance and countless instances of vandalism, the Nelson family was simply ready to move on to the next chapter.
Joyland: Gone But Not Forgotten
Today, Wichitans look back on the good old days spent at Wichita’s iconic amusement park. Marta Williamson recalls finding her own fairytale at Joyland.
“My first job as a game girl the summer of 1971 and falling for a cute ride operator. Our fairytale love story began at the employee party the last night of the season. Been married 42 years,” she said. The couple now have three children and three grandchildren. “Lots of fond memories,” Williamson added.
Many others, like Erica Davis, remember the park’s incentive program for good grades.
“I remember when I was in middle school they would let you in free if you brought your report card and had good grades. My parents used to take me when report cards came out. It was an excellent motivator,” she said.
A variety of other park promotions brought guests to the park, too. Jaqueline DeFever remembers visiting the park during a Beech Aircraft promotion night.
“My Dad worked at Beech Aircraft and they had nights where if you brought a can of pop you got in free. We would go all the time! Loved the Tilt-A-Whirl, Log Jam and Whacky Shack! Super scary!”
For frequent visitors, the park held a lot of memories.
“Everything about Joyland has a memory for me! First birthdays for my boys, company picnics, my niece thinking the witch in the Whacky Shack was me, the caboose that I could not get my youngest away from, Louie, the go-karts, the rickety roller coaster! So much more, I really miss that place, great times, great memories!” Rebecca Stevenson said.
Roger Spawn, who runs the Save Joyland Facebook Group, remembers a special community that existed within the park.
“The park itself held a special bond with everyone that attended that park in many special ways,” he said. “The rides were the frosting on the cake, but lives were touched and bonds came together.”
Collette Wenrich Fees, a former Joyland employee, was also eager to reminisce about her days at the park.
“I worked there five seasons. I started when I was 14, in 1979, so they had to let me off by a certain time. There was another guy that also was 14. When we got off, we would get together and run the park. We would get rides, since I worked in the concession stand, I would get a drink that we shared,” Collette Wenrich Fees said. “When they had the company picnics, I would get to work out in the pavilions, giving out drinks. It was a lot of fun! During my 2nd year, I was moved to games and tickets. I got a lot of interaction with other workers, and customers. I loved the ticket booths, they were air conditioned!”
A Couple Enjoys the Park in the 1950s
Remembering Wichita's Iconic Amusement Park
Joyland may be gone, but it will not soon be forgotten. A significant part of Wichita history, the park is remembered in many locations across town. A variety of hand-painted signs from Joyland, including the arcade sign, the swirls that hung about Louie the Clown, and the “Fascination” sign all adorn the walls of Churn and Burn, a Wichita ice cream and coffee shop.
Churn and Burn owner Christian Shomberg came by the treasured pieces of the park in a roundabout way.
“I actually had a dream about opening up an ice cream shop. I woke up at two in the morning and told my fiancée. Then the next morning I typed in Ice cream shop on the internet, and a guy had these [Joyland signs] on the internet under ‘ice cream shop,’” he said. “That afternoon I went and looked at them and put a deposit down before I had even bought any equipment or anything else because I knew I wanted them.”
“One reason I wanted them is because they’re hand-painted. You rarely ever run across anything that’s hand-painted anymore, and all of these signs were hand-painted by local artists,” Shomberg said.
Churn and Burn also has a display case filled with Joyland tickets, brochures, VIP cards, party tickets and more. The cabinets are also filled with dolls from the park, hand stitched by Margaret Nelson-Spear.
“These dolls have names written on them, see this one’s Wanda, because they were part of a game where you would throw balls at them. The ride operators would write the names of their exes on them and then throw balls at them,” Shomberg said.
Taking it a step further, Churn and Burn also features a few flavors that tie into the Joyland theme, including Joyland Dirt, Almond Joyland, Raspberry Tilt-A-Whirl, Whacky Shack and Roller Coaster Roaster.
Members of both the Ottaway and Nelson family have visited to see the shop’s homage to the former park, and many others come in just to reminisce.
“We get a lot, we get people taking photos in front of the Joyland sign” Shomberg said.
Other local groups and establishments have preserved pieces of Joyland, including the Donut Whole with a few Joyland items, and the Historic Preservation Alliance, which purchased the Joyland caboose, a horse and buggy ride and a few other items.
Joyland’s iconic 1949 Allen Herschel carousel was donated to Botanica by Margaret Nelson-Spear in 2014. The carousel will be fully restored and displayed in a pavilion in the garden, a project that should be completed in 2018.
The carousel is currently undergoing careful renovation. Wichita-based carousel restoration artist Marlene Irvin is seasoned in her craft, with 40 years of experience with both old and new carousels.
“I have repainted and restored thousands of individual animals and restored complete carousel machines. This one is special to me because it is the carousel of my youth, in my town,” Irvin said. "All through my growing up years I went to Joyland for various outings and always rode the carousel and stopped by the Wurlitzer organ to listen. I imagine I have ridden every horse several times during my lifetime.”
The problem with restoration of decades-old carousels, Irvin says, is that repairs made over the years were intended to keep the ride running, not taking into consideration the value of the ride decades down the line.
Wear and Tear on the Horses
Because amusement operators purchase and run rides as a way to make a living, little thought is given to the historical value of their original rides, not just for Joyland, by for any park. Joyland had a carousel that always looked great. They maintained the ride well, repainting when necessary and tightening loose joints.
“As a whole, the park [Joyland] took care of their machine," Irvin said. "No one was thinking of the possible historical value of the machine 80 years down the line.”
"Every couple of years a new coat of paint was applied over the old resulting in me now having to strip anywhere from 5 to 25 or more coats of paint," she said.
The 36 horses on the Joyland carousel saw tremendous amounts of wear and tear during their 57 years of dutiful service. It takes Irvin 100 hours, at the very least, to restore a single animal. Stripping the paint alone can take between 30 and 70 hours. By the time the process is complete, the result is will be a beautiful, like new piece.
“Finding and bringing back the beauty that was originally there is never boring,” Irvin said.
Post Renovation Horses
Botanica's Carousel Complex
Upon completion of Irvin’s restoration of the 1949 Allen Herschel Carousel, Botanica will house the ride in a Kentucky Derby style pavilion complex, located just west of the Downing Children’s Garden. The pavilion will feature a glass design that allows visitors to admire Irvin’s restoration as they stroll through the gardens.
When Margaret Nelson-Spear donated the carousel to the Wichita Gardens, she hoped to have the carousel fully restored for all our community and future generations to enjoy. Botanica is taking steps to make that possible within the next few years.
“We are currently underway with our Capital campaign and hope to break ground next year, and have an opening in mid-late 2018,” said Craig Davis, Director of Marketing and Communication at Botanica.
Once completed, the complex will feature the fully restored carousel and horses, and a custom design of the organ, which will feature music reels from the original Wurlitzer organ at Joyland.
“Our goal is to create ‘A New Home for Old Memories,’” Davis said.
The Nelson family wanted to see the carousel, an integral part of the park, remain close to home and continue to bring good memories to local families for years to come.
"It’ll be nice to see that merry-go-round stay in Wichita and hopefully run for a long time so kids can enjoy it," Roger Nelson said.
Roger Nelson is grateful to the park's original owners for the work they put in and the risks they took in opening a park like Joyland in Wichita.
"The people that originally started the park were some really special people. The Ottaways were very innovative and very handy at what they did, and I always like to give credit to them. The things that they did, back then, the risks that they took to buy equipment and stuff, not knowing for sure what’s going to happen. They took some tremendous risks," he said. "We did, too. That’s what it’s all about in that game. You spend a lot of money on a ride and you hope like heck it goes, ‘cause man, we’ve got everything riding on it."
True to its name from the beginning, the amusement park brought joy to Wichita for decades, and it will forever hold a special place in the hearts of those who visited.
“It was a place where you could take your kids, it was a good safe place, and it had little kiddie rides,” Nelson said. “It was just a nice, pleasant uncrowded place and it was something that people just enjoyed,” Nelson said, remembering the park. "We lived and breathed the whole thing, always."