Treasured Island

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: November 2015
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PHM1115PFHIST001aSince 1948, Enchanted Island Amusement Park has captivated with its folksy atmosphere and rides – but now it faces an uncertain future.

People aren’t sure if Enhanted Island Amusement Park is truly enchanted, or even really an island. What’s for certain is that visitors are enamored with the modest-size funfair tucked away in Encanto Park in Central Phoenix. The attraction’s undersize rides, vintage carousel and green parrot mascot tug at the Valley’s heartstrings like few other local creations. “The Enchanted Island Amusement Park is the purest vision of family fun to happen in Phoenix since the Wallace and Ladmo days,” Phoenix cartoonist Tommy Cannon declares.

Although many rides are limited to riders less than 54 inches in height, the park’s charm looms large. “I didn’t go there as a kid, but discovered it as an adult,” photographer Stephanie Carrico says. “Visiting Enchanted Island makes me feel like I’ve emerged from a time machine. I love things that have unusual proportions, like the park’s little train.”

This park spans generations in Phoenicians’ memories. “The park has played a large part in my life,” attorney Peter Spaw reflects. “I am 65 years old and was taken there as a child by my parents and later took my two girls and, later still, my grandkids.”

But a change in operators may be coming to this treasured “island” unless the impasse between Enchanted Island’s current concessionaire and the City of Phoenix is resolved. And shuttering the midway would be a shame given the public’s 67-year love affair with the amusement park.

Enchanted Island debuted in 1948 as Kiddieland, the brainchild of Frank Nelson, a dentist and former mayor from Sheldon, Iowa. “He always used to build merry-go-rounds and swings for me in the backyard when I was little, and he wanted to do something for the children of Phoenix,” June Vance, Nelson’s daughter, said in a 1986 Arizona Republic article. “He had to go before the parks board and prove that he wasn’t a carnival-type person before they would let him build Kiddieland. My dad took care of the outside things, my mom sold tickets in the booth, and I ran the concession stand.”

PHM1115PFHIST02Kiddieland’s attractions included a miniature train that paralleled the park’s perimeter yellow picket fence, a windmill ticket booth, oversized metal clowns, and children’s rides like the Little Dipper, Sky Fighter and a caged Ferris wheel. “Saturday at Kiddieland was every bit as exciting as a weekend trip to Disneyland would be for my kids,” Tom Manos, Maricopa County manager, says. “I remember driving the cars and pretending that we were racing at Indianapolis, or steering the boats and ringing the deck-mounted bell incessantly.”  

Riding the Molina roller coaster became a rite of passage. “It was your first kill, your first realization that life could be mastered, if you could find just six seconds of courage at a time,” Spaw says. Youngsters gravitated to the 1948 Allan Herschell carousel featuring 20 hand-carved wooden horses with aluminum heads, tails and legs. “No matter how cool you were, you learned from the carousel that there was a place in life for art, music, and simple beauty,” Spaw adds.

Birthday celebrations were Kiddieland’s specialty, with often more than 30 daily. Partygoers wore leis that let ride operators know they didn’t need a ticket. But not all the fun at the park was family-oriented. Nearby concerts at the Encanto Park bandshell drew a different audience. “We brought our own enchantment, getting stoned and sulking through the island in the late 1960s,” photo historian Jeremy Rowe recalls. “The place was a nice escape from the concert crowds.”

PHM1115PFHIST04Kiddieland remained relatively unchanged for 38 years, even after ownership shifted twice after Frank Nelson and his wife, Beulah, passed away in the 1960s. But when the city began a $4 million renovation of Encanto Park in 1986, Enchanted Island closed. All 11 park rides were offered at auction.

Phoenicians were heartbroken at the loss, including Athia Hardt and Toni Neary Harper, who started the Encanto Carousel Fund. Hardt was asked on live television how people could help preserve the carousel. “My former husband was at home babysitting our kids,” Hardt, a press secretary for Governors Babbitt and Mofford, recalls. “He was shocked to see our home phone number displayed on the screen. In seconds, the calls came pouring in.”

The fundraising campaign attracted donations ranging from children’s piggybank change to $20,000 from Charles Keating. “I’ve never even seen the damn thing and here I am writing a check,” John Kolbe, the late Phoenix Gazette columnist, wrote to Hardt. “Chalk it up to your brilliant persuasiveness – and a soft spot for anything that runs around in circles, goes nowhere, costs lots of money, and is not government.”

Ultimately, the coalition was able to purchase and restore the well-loved carousel, which sat in a warehouse for five years before Kiddieland was reopened as Enchanted Island Amusement Park on November 5, 1991. The new park featured forest-green buildings with bright-yellow roofs, carnival rides and the famed carousel.  

The park’s friendly vibe, affordability and popularity remain undiminished. More than 350,000 people visit Enchanted Island each year. “We don’t mind that there are no princesses, expensive souvenirs or long lines,” local IT analyst Charles Rathert says. “They let us stand on our tiptoes to make height, give the kids a high five after the ride and the workers are really happy to be there.”

“It’s low-money fun, unlike the State Fair or circus,” Cannon concurs. “The prices are just high enough to keep the place running.”  

PHM1115PFHIST03But change may be coming to Enchanted Island. The city had concerns about the use of extension cords, cracked windshields on a ride, and the storage of materials at the park after a routine safety inspection in October 2014. Concessionaires Kraig and Theresa Lyons quickly addressed these concerns to the city’s satisfaction.

As a result, the city has offered the couple a lease extension to 2020, at which time the city would put it up for bid. The pair, however, may not renew their lease when their current agreement expires in March 2016. “We want to stay here and invest in the park. We know what makes it profitable and what the customers are looking for,” Theresa Lyons asserts.

The owners hoped for the stability of a 20-year contract with the city. “It hasn’t been offered, so what’s our exit strategy if we don’t get the contract?” Theresa Lyons says. “We’ve had offers to move the park to other cities, which we don’t want to do, but we’re considering.”  

Theresa Lyons is unsure why the city didn’t offer a longer contract. “Maybe they think they might find another contractor who is better?” she says. “We know the people in the industry and there aren’t many looking to invest in an amusement park with such a small square footage.”

Whatever the outcome of contract negotiations, the famed carousel isn’t going anywhere. The Encanto Carousel Fund gifted the ride to the city in 1998. The memories of generations of Phoenicians who bonded with Kiddieland will endure too. “Growing up in Phoenix, a lot has changed in 50 years,” Manos reflects. “In many ways, Phoenix has much more to offer than when I was a kid. But... I feel fortunate that I was able to grow up in a time when a simple boat ride or a 12-foot roller coaster made you feel like you were the luckiest kid on earth.”