Is Indiana Home to America’s Oldest Theme Park?
America is full of great theme parks. Six Flags, Universal Studios, and of course, Disney World and Disneyland are the first few that come to find when you think of the term, "theme park." But, when it comes to which one is the oldest, the answer depends on who you ask.
America's Oldest Theme Park May be Located in Southern Indiana
If you Google, "oldest theme park in America," nearly every result on the first page says the honor goes to Lake Compounce in Connecticut, which has the distinction of being the first amusement park in America, opening its doors to the public way back in 1846. However, there's one search result that takes issue with that.
The Google Chrome app on my phone recently found suggested an article from the Saturday Evening Post website (one of those articles Google suggests based on your location and things you've previously searched for). It was written back in August 2022 by Connor Brownfield who argued that wasn't the case claiming there's a difference between a "theme park" and an "amusement park," which Lake Compounce calls itself.
Amusement Park vs. Theme Park
Is he right? Let's dig in and see.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an amusement park as the following:
a commercially operated park having various devices for entertainment (such as a merry-go-round and roller coaster) and usually booths for the sale of food and drink
On the flip side, it has "theme park" defined as:
an amusement park in which the structures and settings are based on a central theme
Based on those definitions, Brownfield argues that the title of "oldest theme park in America" does not belong to Lake Compounce, but Holiday World & Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana.
As those of us who live in southern Indiana know, Holiday World wasn't always called Holiday World. It started as Santa Claus Land.
According to the park's website, Louis J. Koch of Evansville opened the park in 1946 (100 years after Lake Compounce, for what it's worth) after visiting the town of Santa Claus and being disappointed Santa wasn't there. The park was themed around the Christmas holiday and featured "a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, themed children’s rides, and, of course, Santa."
Obviously, the park has grown tremendously in its nearly 77 years of existence to become one of the premiere theme parks in the region. It expanded to include other major holidays such as the 4th of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, each of which features rides, games, and other attractions all themed around their respective holiday section. For example, the Halloween section has The Raven wooden roller coaster, Frightful Falls log flume, and the Scarecrow Scramble while 4th of July features the Liberty Launch, Star-Spangled Carousel, and the Lewis & Clark Trail Tin Lizzies.
Here's a look at that growth in a video the park put together in 2021 celebrating the park's 75th anniversary.
But, what about Disneyland or Disney World? Surely one or both of them have been around just as long as Holiday World if not longer, right? Nope. Disneyland opened in 1955 and its counterpart open in Florida in 1971.
So, is Brownfield right? As a Hoosier and someone who has been to Holiday World numerous times over the years, I say yes. If the question is, "what is the oldest amusement park in America," then obviously the crown would belong to Lake Compounce without question. But it's not. It's "oldest theme park," and by definition and time frame, it seems to me that Holiday World checks both boxes.
You can read Brownfield's complete article on the Saturday Evening Post website.