(originally published 10/24/19)
Much of what I use for these posts results from research into other related topics. Last spring, I posted two separate pieces, one on amusement parks, the other on the racier side of Waldo’s history, Both of those were recycled research in service of today’s post, an excerpt from The Waldo Story. “Mid-century modern” is a popular style these days, and so too, apparently, is its history, as in this story about a soon-to-be forgotten time when thrills, adventure and danger were just a bike’s ride from home.
There’s something about a place that lives on the fringe of civilization. Such a place will develop habits and customs that straddle the rules, be they rules of state or society. The habits are not always developed out of defiance, though there is always that element. Sometimes, it’s simply that for those on the fringe, there’s so much uncertainty about which rules apply that they tend to make up their own rules. For everyone else, the problems of the city at its edges are remote concerns.
Waldo spent its first one hundred years on the fringe. First it was on the fringe of the frontier, then on the border of the Union, then at the edge of the city. To some this might have seemed a problem, but not for the businesses of Waldo. They saw that there were many markets for a fringe trade. Waldo had already profited in areas other communities would have shunned, like the railroad, the lumberyards and the grain mills. And now there were “amusements.” Starting in the 1940s, Waldo became known as a place to go and have fun. And in this regard, Waldo’s most famous and enduring amusement was Kiddieland Park.
The Kansas City area has had a long love affair with amusement parks. The courtship began in the 1880s, with picnic parks on the outskirts of the city on all sides, from Independence on the east to Shawnee on the west. The trolley car companies created these parks as places where the urban dwellers could take a day trip, enjoy lunch by a pond in the shade and fill their lungs with fresh air and their faces with warm sunshine. But when electricity arrived, the nature of these parks changed and so did their location. They moved into the city, not away from it, close to the sources of power. These parks sparkled with water during the hot summer days and with light on the hot summer nights. Kansas City’s most famous and long lived of these, Electric Park, opened in 1907. At Forty-seventh Street and The Paseo Boulevard, Electric Park was not so terribly far from Waldo, and it was built the same year that Waldo saw its first real development. Fairyland Park was not so far from Waldo, either. Built in 1923 on the city’s southeastern corner of Seventy-fifth Street and Prospect Avenue, Fairyland arrived just two years before Electric Park closed. After that, Fairyland Park became the park for the area until it closed in 1977, after a struggle over the admittance of blacks and years of declining revenue. The revenue had declined mostly because, north of the river, Worlds of Fun opened in 1973, Kansas City’s modern “theme” park. Worlds of Fun obliterated any competition.
But in the late forties and early fifties, in the classic era of returning soldiers and burgeoning young families, another sort of park emerged. The Kiddieland phenomenon was not confined to Kansas City. In fact, the term “kiddieland” is a term of the amusement park industry that specifically identifies small-scale parks designed to attract visitors from a few miles’ radius, and to cater to families with small children. The parks themselves fit neatly in the corners of commercial areas, and at first, they were supported by surrounding merchants because they drew customers to the area. Kiddieland might have been small, but it had all the components of any good park—a roller coaster, a merry-go-round, a ferris wheel and an ice cream stand. There were at least two Kiddieland parks in the area, one in Mission, Kansas, and the other in Waldo at the northwest corner of Eighty-fifth Street and Wornall Road.
Before Kiddieland was built on that site, there had been a combination pony ring and miniature golf course called Vaughn Kearley’s Pony Go-Round. But when Kiddieland opened in 1951, it billed itself as having “every modern ride for the kiddies.” The ponies stayed for a while, but the real draw was the mechanical rides. They were real rides, not miniature, and kids of all ages did in fact ride them. But the size of the property—between five and six acres—meant the rides were scaled down. These attractions might seem tame by later standards, but each ride was designed to evoke childhood fantasies shared by all. You could pretend to ride in a train, or drive a car, or steer a boat. You could ride into the past on the “Prairie Schooner” or into the future on the “Sky Fighter.” And while it was only feet, not stories, above the ground, the Little Dipper roller coaster gave plenty of thrills as it clanged and banged around its tracks.
The good times rarely last, although before it was all over, Kiddieland served Waldo and the area for more than a decade. Ultimately, the park couldn’t compete with Fairyland, which had its own Kiddieland. Zoning ordinances were changing, and parks that were once considered neighborhood assets were now nuisances. These parks were increasingly expensive to operate and more vulnerable to all sorts of liabilities. The day of the small, independent park operation was fading. Kiddieland closed down in 1963, and the property was cleared for a new shopping center.
(Featured Image: It’s a blur as everyone hurries to get a seat on the train ride that encircled Kiddieland Park. Photos courtesy Wilborn & Associations. Note on photos: It’s highly likely these photos of Kiddieland were originally taken by a professional photographer on the occasion of a local Shriners club field trip for the girls of St. Joseph’s Girls Home in a day’s outing. St. Joseph’s wasn’t only a place for orphaned girls, but those whose families who were in need of temporary support for any number of reasons.)