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What was Playland at the Beach?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2014
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Playland at the Beach was a San Francisco, CA amusement park in the 19th and 20th centuries. The park, which first featured rides in the 1880s, spanned 10 acres along Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Although Playland at the beach has been closed since 1972, the park has a fond place in the memories of many local residents and has spawned many fan communities online.

In 1884, the former squatter’s village on Ocean Beach built a gravity railroad roller coaster, one of the first in the nation. In the following decades, trolley routes were created to take large numbers of visitors to the amusement park, which came to include the landmark Cliff House restaurant and the salt-water swimming pools of the Sutro Baths. In 1911, another local amusement park was severely damaged in a fire, and many of the rides were relocated to the seaside park. Concession stands began to spring up around the attractions, and the partnership of concessionaires John Friedel and Arthur Looff first envisioned the area as one large park.

Looff and Friedel added ten new rides to the park, and operated it with growing success. In 1926, George Whitney became the general manager, and changed the variously-named areas to Playland at the Beach. By 1934, Playland at the Beach had 14 rides, 25 concession stands, and several restaurants.

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One of the most beloved of all the attractions was the enormous indoor funhouse. The Playland funhouse featured a gigantic and occasionally frightening clown at the entrance, commonly referred to as “Laughing Sal.” The interior of the funhouse featured intricate wood carvings and details, considered premiere examples of the carnival style. The attraction contained catwalks, spinning barrels, funhouse mirrors and a three-story high indoor slide carved of highly polished wood.

Another popular attraction was the Laff in the Dark, a spooky haunted house ride. Terrifying features included a cannibal lady, skeletons and plenty of shrieks and frights. In the Diving Bell, riders were dropped into a shallow pool in a replica early submarine. The pool featured fake fish, and was considered somewhat hokey, even at the time. Over the years, Playland at the Beach had several roller coasters and flume-rides, including the Big Dipper and the wild-mouse coaster, the Alpine Racer.

One innovation that came from Playland at the Beach is the popular ice cream sandwich called the It’s-It®. Invented by park manager George Whitney in 1928, the dessert featured vanilla ice-cream sandwiched by two oatmeal cookies and covered in dark chocolate. It’s-Its® were originally only sold at the park, but after Playland closed in the 1970s, the treat became available commercially.

After the death of George Whitney in 1958, the park passed from manager to manager, seeming to lose its sense of success. The area became increasingly known for drug activity, which frightened away the family clientele. On Labor Day Weekend in 1972, Playland at the Beach closed. The park was torn down and condominiums were built in its place. In 1996, San Francisco commissioned a permanent art exhibit honoring the park and its long history with the city. Much to the chagrin of fans, Playland at the Beach can only be visited through commemorative websites featuring photographs and memoirs.

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historysmith
Post 10

I agree wholeheartedly regarding Playland-Not-At-The-Beach. It has captured the magic and fun.

anon283575
Post 9

The first two posts about the diving bell are accurate. I've been researching it for an upcoming book, "San Francisco's Playland at the Beach: The Golden Years,"

(2013) and along with having been on the ride and speaking to other riders, I know the lady whose folks built that ride. She grew up in Playland and has great stories and photos which she graciously shared.

They couldn't keep up with the fish in later years, but that had as much to do with Playland's water filters (often didn't work) as it did with the fact that it was harder to buy live fish.

anon185896
Post 8

Many artifacts, photos, and other Playland at the Beach related items can be seen at Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, The Museum of Fun in El Cerrito, CA. They are open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 am - 5 pm. In addition to the Playland items, they also have 33 pinball machines on free play, carnival games, displays and live shows. They also host parties.

anon98633
Post 6

My father was vice president of Playland. I remember him not wanting us there because of the gangs in the late 1960's. I remember having "slugs" to play the games and mechanical devices free. I also remember his office in the Sutro Baths building before it burnt down! We had access keys to the whole place. It was in decline. What a experience to see the mummies, Tom Thumb items alone in the dark.

anon91147
Post 5

I never had the nerve to go in the diving bell. I would wait for my brother and dad to spring up from the depths,holding my breath all the while. I just loved the statue of Neptune that surrounded the enclosure. I wish I could find a picture of it.

anon75987
Post 3

The scariest things about the diving bell were the constantly dripping leaks while underwater and the high-speed ascent when the bell would fly up out of the water. Very few online photos seem to exist of this ride unfortunately.

anon55215
Post 2

The diving bell was a bathysphere not a submarine and as anon16966 said, it was a 30 foot deep circular tank with real salt water fish. Boy do I miss that ride.

anon16966
Post 1

Great to see the info on Playland, however, the description of the Diving Bell is very inaccurate. The bell went down thirty feet and I can attest to the fact that there were plenty of large, real fish, including sharks, swimming around the bottom of the tank. Perhaps the bell you describe predated the one I went in numerous times in the 60s....

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