Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Mississippi

In the 1953 Billboard list of amusement parks, one state is strangely absent. Even when heading back in time to the 1917 Billboard list, Mississippi barely shows signs of life. Only three parks show: Washington Park and Lake Park in Columbus, and Highland Park in Meridian. The National Amusement Park Historical Association doesn't list any of these, but does have an Echo Park in Meridian. Obtaining a copy of "Mississippi: The WPA Guide To The Magnolia State" only created more questions, as it cites the existence of Freeman's Amusement Park in the city of Laurel. So to channel my inner Seinfeld: "What's the deal with Mississippi?"

So let's clear a few things up: Meridian was, up until 1930, the largest city in the state. As such, it shouldn't be surprising that they amusement parks. Echo Park is known today as "Lakemont", and is a residential neighborhood, but the park started as Hamilton's Lake in the 1800s before changing names in the 30s. Lake Park has since become Propst Park, and the lake apparently filled in (or dried up). Washington Park, the "colored" facility in Columbus, was a short distance away, somewhere between 23rd and 27th, likely on the southern end of that closer to 1st Ave N where it would have been in tighter connection to the African American cemetery nearby. Freeman's Amusement Park is noted as being located on Washington in Laurel, however no traces remain. There is no information available about it beyond references to it and it's pool during late 20s in the local newspaper. Looking at aerial photos, it isn't even certain where it might have been placed: Perhaps the location of the Town House Apartments or somewhere in the 11th Ave-13th Ave blocks seem likely. None of those four can be verified to have had a single amusement ride.

One that can be noted as having definitely had a ride and which still has a ride is Highland Park in Meridian. There's a Dentzel 2 row carousel here, one of very few he produced and the only still in operation. But when it comes to classic Mississippi amusements, that's it. Even the hope I had stumbled onto something by finding Canton's Madison County Amusement Park was empty: it's really a horse racing track that seems to be related to the segregation of every form of activity in the state (virtually all the patrons appear to be black; same with the nearby drag strip). There just isn't a lot to talk about. No coasters. No great dark rides. No anything. Mississippi has always had a bit of a reputation as a backwater, but this was surprising to even me.

In more recent times, there have been numerous small parks located near the Gulf of Mexico. Most of these parks were entirely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (4 in total between Mississippi and Louisiana). Fun Time USA is supposedly working on a 2017 reopening and crowd funding to get themselves up and operational in Gulfport, but 12 years have passed and all I can say is that I wish them luck. This has left the state with a single operational permanent coaster, and guess what? It's at a fairground run by a non-profit organization. The Brookhaven Exchange Club Park has the "All American Coaster", acquired in the 1950s, which fires up roughly the first week in August every year. That's it. 8 days.

This may seem a dire situation, and I would tend to agree. Perhaps the lack of stimuli has led people down different paths than we might otherwise expect and do things that seem extremely out of the ordinary. Things like collecting animatronics to use in a recreation of a early 80s Showbiz Pizza restaurant in a rural community miles from anything. Smitty’s Super Service Station should not exist. The creation of one hyper fan who had never left Mississippi prior to being highlighted in a film about Showbiz Pizza fans (he lives about 10 minutes from the Louisiana border, FWIW), it exists and can be booked to be visited. It is there.

What about water slides? Yes! Water slides! Mississippi oddly enough has some kinda interesting water parks. Slip-N-Dip in Columbus, Splash of Fun in Wiggins, and Pep's Point Water Park in Hattiesburg both feature ancient 70s style concrete slides. Gulf Islands in Gulfport features more modern slides including the state's sole water coaster.

Hey, let's talk haunts! The Bailey Haunted Firehouse in Meridian has some presence on the internet beyond its own poorly put together site, but there's also The Dark Zone in Brandon put together by the Crossgates Exchange Club. How deeply dysfunctional is Mississippi that everything has to be run by community organizations? Well, it appears "really deep". There are no AZA accredited zoos in the state after the Jackson Zoo (who have a carousel and train) opted to resign their accreditation due to budget shortfalls caused by city and state cuts. There is nothing appealing about Mississippi at all to almost anyone outside of perhaps an auto parts manufacturer hoping to use cheap labor. And yet, local voters manage to fall for the line that local tax cuts will somehow drive growth out of nothing but swamp land and long decaying mills every single time. Cuts far exceed the anemic growth in the state theoretically derived from them.

I'll step down from the soap box now. I will instead tell you that the (non-accredited) Tupelo Zoo and Buffalo Park has a school bus with monster truck tires you can rid in to see bison. They're really American Bison. Buffalo are European and a whole other thing that just happened to look kinda like them (but not really). By the way: People are dumb.

Now that I've ragged on Mississippi plenty and made everyone act as though they are the devil incarnate, I will offer you something actively different and interesting. I will offer you the Neshoba County Fair, Mississippi's "Giant House Party." What separates this from every other fairgrounds in the world is the existence of family run cabins - 600 of them, with many neighborhoods, streets, and alleys - which occupy most of the grounds. These cabins, often garishly painted, are only in use for the fair itself. The environment is entirely unique to the US and creates a party environment really very...cool. It may not be an "immersive themed environment" but who knows? You also might enjoy yourself a lot more there than riding a virtual banshee.

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