Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Nebraska

The 16th largest and 37th most populous state, Nebraska is another place generally associated with agriculture and little else. Those who have traveled across its vast interior are probably trying to get somewhere that isn't Nebraska, and the reputation of being void of substance has carried almost anywhere I've ever gone. It wasn't always that way: In the early 1900s, the Henry and Robert Jenner created a zoo and amusement park in the small town of Loup City and filled with things they had acquired from travel abroad. There was an egyptian themed building filled with mummies, samurai armor, and of course live animals. Valva Park, now known as Tuxedo Park in Grand Island, offered mechanical rides and vaudeville performances to entertain crowds from all around. Harry King built a substantial full size wood coaster at King's Park in Norfolk which operated during the 20s and 30s, but didn't make it to see the post-war era.

The most famous park to have ever existed in Nebraska is Peony Park of Omaha. It had opened for business in 1919, and while it never had any huge wood coasters or dark rides, it's location in the biggest metro area of the state made it the most recognizable attraction. The park slowly fell victim to poor capital expenditure choices and maintenance issues, as well as the most insidious killer of urban parks: post-segregation racial sentiments. It wound up closing in 1994 as the family members it had been left to pulled the plug on further spending and attention, leaving the state with, at that point, no real amusement park.

Now taking the void it left, Fun Plex isn't much more than a glorified family entertainment center, but it probably has a similar number of attractions to Peony. The coaster here, named "Big Ohhhh!" also happens to be a similar ride to Peony's largest coaster, but is actually a bigger model identical to the rides formerly present at Daytona's Boardwalk Amusements and still at El Paso's Western Playland. North Platte is where one can visit Cody Go Karts, a small fun park with a smattering of small rides, and that pretty much concludes the Nebraska "amusement parks".

And yet, like Kansas to the south, Nebraska has a surprising number of permanent rides at fairgrounds, as well as other unexpectedly big attractions. Nebraska as a whole is surprising when more broadly viewed: the western tail of the state is pockmarked with small glacial lakes and rolling hills. There's mountains and cliffs on that far edge, while there's the mighty Missouri River running along the east border. There's variety here, you just have to drive awhile to find it.

During research to do this piece, 4 counties were identified as having their own county-owned carnivals:

Dundy County Fair: Rides here include a Tip-Top, Kiddie Boats, Eli Wheel, Bumper Cars, old style Simulator attraction, 1942 Herschell Carousel, Tubs of Fun, and Go Carts.

Furnas County Fair: Eli Wheel, Super Slide, Tilt-A-Whirl, and a few other smaller portable style attractions.

Gosper County Fair: a 2009 article lists, "kids' Ferris wheel, electric cars, swings, a carousel, a miniature steam train and an octopus ride."

Saunders County Fair: Their website lists: "Ferris Wheel, the Casino, the Scrambler, a roller coaster, and the Octopus along with a various selection of kiddie rides."

While there a many municipal aquatics facilities, the most worthwhile attraction in the state that's non-profit run/operated is Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Having received plenty of money from local monster corporation Berkshire-Hathaway, it is one of the nation's best zoos. In addition to the animal exhibits, there's a steam-powered train with a 1.8 mile loop run, skyride, and carousel. For those looking more into the nature side of things, the domed-desert climate is among the world's largest, and also contains the largest nocturnal animal exhibit (Singapore's Night Zoo being exempt from this, as it is an entire separately ticketed zoo). Speaking of trains, there's a Chance CP Huntington in use at Stolley State Park in Grand Island.

Of all the state funded projects to cost a lot and aspire for much, few went as far as the Great Platte River Road Archway, often simply called "The Archway." Towering over I-80 in the town of Kearney, it has been rumored to have been built on contract with the Walt Disney Imagineering, though no specific names seem to be tied to the project. It's an audio/visual tour of the history of this part of the great American west that's been done with impressive detail, but most don't know precisely what the gigantic structure above the freeway actually is.

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