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WEEKDAY MAGAZINE – The Connection Between Disney and the Bronx

This piece is by the Travelin’ Cousins, a little blog about the travel adventures of a couple of cousins.

by Elisa Valentino

March 1, 2019

Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood – The Connection between Disney and The Bronx

During my most recent trip to Walt Disney World (a place I visit once a year with my daughters and absolutely love!), I became preoccupied with the idea of there existing some sort of connection between the most magical place on earth and the Bronx. Seemed like a fun topic for a Weekday Magazine article and so with a bit of research, my persistence paid off and I’m pleased to tell you my findings.

So here’s the deal folks. Back in the day when Disneyland California was in the planning stages, a man by the name of Cornelius Vanderbilt “CV” Wood, originally from Texas, actively worked in the planning, construction, and management of the new theme park.

Wood was actually hired by Walt Disney himself in 1953, and one of his biggest contributions to Disneyland was in selecting the orange grove site in Anaheim, California where Disneyland was eventually built.

The two men would become very close over the next two years, but would, unfortunately have a falling out, and by January 1956, Wood had been fired from Disneyland. The reason for Wood’s firing has never been definitively confirmed, however three theories have been speculated. Either Wood was embezzling money from the park; Wood was taking too much public credit for Disneyland; or Wood had betrayed Disney by planning his own amusement parks, effectively stealing Disney’s original concept. In any event, it must have been something that was so egregious to Walt, that, to this day, The Walt Disney Company refuses to acknowledge any role played by Wood in the creation of the first Disney theme park.

Now, interestingly enough, Wood would go on to develop his own amusement parks all across the country. Sadly, for him, they would not have the same kind of staying power as his former employer’s theme park(s), which is still going strong and expanding six decades later. ​

At the age of thirty-six, Wood began to actualize his vision and began planning and building three of his own amusement parks around the United States. The first of these, Magic Mountain, opened in 1958, near Denver, but would close two years later. Next came Pleasure Island in Wakefield, Massachusetts, built in 1959, closing ten years later in 1969. His third theme park endeavor would bring him to the Bronx, four short years after leaving The Walt Disney Company.

The park was called Freedomland U.S.A. and it was an American history-themed amusement park in Baychester, created with the slogan, “The World’s Largest Entertainment Center.” Opening on June 19, 1960, Freedomland was designed in the shape of a large map of the contiguous United States, with guests entering at the approximate location of Washington, D.C.

A few fun facts about Freedomland include:

  • Freedomland was divided into a variety of themed areas based on the history of the United States, and each containing its own attractions, retail shops and restaurants. These included Little Old New York (1850-1900); Chicago (1871), The Great Plains (1803-1900), San Francisco (1906), The Old Southwest (1890), New Orleans – Mardi Gras, Satellite City – The Future, and State Fair Midway (added in 1962).
  • The property was spread out over 205 acres, with 85 acres dedicated to the actual amusement park itself.
  • Wood assembled a research and design team comprised of 200 top artists and architects, including 19 Academy Award nominees.
  • Original music for the park was written byJulie Styne, the composer of numerous Broadway musicals including Funny Girl and Gypsy.

Freedomland included 8 miles of navigable waterways and lakes, 10,000 newly planted trees, 18 restaurants and quick service stations and a parking lot able to accommodate 72,000 cars.

At a cost of $65 million to build, the park officially opened on June 19, 1960 and welcomed 65,000 visitors. Opening day was even featured on the Ed Sullivan Show that evening with a promotional tour of the park, referring to Freedomland as Disneyland’s equal on the East Coast. 

Size-wise, Freedomland was more than three times the size of Disneyland’s 65 acre park and off to an amazing start! In fact, by June 20th, day two of operation, it was forced to stop selling tickets because of traffic jams leading to the park.

So, what went wrong? Well, the signs of trouble began to appear during its first year with a few hard financial hits. 

Only two weeks after opening, one of the stagecoaches overturned in the “Great Plains” section, resulting in ten guests to be hospitalized, including one with a broken spine. Large lawsuits were filed against the park from the accident and then a front office robbery of $28,000+ further depleted funds. By 1961, Wood’s Freedomland was $8 million in debt. 

In an effort to appeal to the teen population, Freedomland expanded with more conventional amusement park rides like rollercoasters and bumper cars as well as hosting music concerts. However, certain big sponsors who were there because of the historic and educational nature on which the park was originally branded, sued to be released from their leases and contracts. 

In the end, on September 14, 1964, Freedomland filed for bankruptcy. Demolition of the park began in the latter part of 1965. 

Today, the large residential development Co-op City and the Bay Plaza Shopping Center now occupy the site of the former park. A plaque commemorating Freedomland was put up near its one-time entrance in 2013.

References
Wikipedia
“Celebrating the Short, Sweet Ride of Freedomland” (The New York Times – June 19, 2010)

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Elisa is co-founder of Travelin’ Cousins travel blog, A native New Yorker, Fordham graduate, and world traveler, she is passionate about The Bronx as a travel destination for locals and tourists.

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