Home » The Little-Known Tale of New York’s Disastrous “Disneyland of the East”

The Little-Known Tale of New York’s Disastrous “Disneyland of the East”

Image via the Freedomland Facebook page.

The title “Disneyland of the East” is fairly ironic considering that Freedomland, U.S.A., a large amusement park in the Bronx, New York in the 1960s, is largely forgotten to the majority of the world and even to most theme park fans.

That’s despite the fact that it was a force to be reckoned with near the beginning of the era of the mega theme parks that companies like Disney and Universal Studios have so prospered in. There are so many things theme park history fans need to know about the failure of Freedomland, U.S.A. What connection did the ill-fated theme park have to the Disney legacy? How could a popular theme park crumble so quickly? How could a theme park proclaimed by others as the Disneyland of the East fall apart after only a little more than five years? All of those questions and more are answered for you below.

The man who founded Freedomland and the Disney connection

Image via the Freedomland Facebook page.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood, also known as C. V. Wood or “Woody,” lived quite an interesting life, as a developer of amusement parks and planned communities and even a winner of a chill cook off world championship! His contributions to Disneyland, however, are without a doubt his best-known efforts, and probably his biggest achievement in life. He was a director of engineering at the Stanford Research Institute plucked from obscurity by Walt Disney to be the vice president and general manager of the monumental Disneyland project. He played a big role in its design and creation, and is most responsible for picking its precise location. Walt Disney really cared for C. V. Wood, at one point referring to him as something akin to a son.

However, Wood and Walt had a MAJOR falling out. There are different theories about what caused it. One, probably the most likely given the evidence, is that Walt felt that Wood took too much credit for Disneyland. Another is that Wood embezzled a lot of money from Disney. The most interesting theory is probably that the falling out was due to Wood’s well-known obsession with aliens and UFOs. There’s even a rumor that he chose a specific grove of orange trees at Disneyland because they’d be best for communicating with extra terrestrials! The relationship between Walt Disney and C. V. Wood only grew more strained when some of Walt’s employees left Disney to join Wood on his new ventures. The designer of Main Street was even poached to create something similar for Freedomland. There was a lot of bad blood there.

After working with Walt on the first Disney park, C. V. Wood went on to be a bit of a theme park mogul, just not a very successful one. He hoped that using the title “The Master Planner of Disneyland” would help him along, but the disgruntled Walt Disney sued him for trying to use that monicker. Still, his rocky-but-impressive history with Disneyland was probably a great stepping stone on his path to becoming an independent entrepreneur in the theme park industry.

His first park was Golden, Colorado’s Magic Mountain, today known as Heritage Square, created in 1957. Next was arguable his most successful, Pleasure Island in Wakefield, Massachusetts in 1959. That was sometimes referred to the “Disneyland of the Northeast,” most likely to the chagrin of Walt Disney and his company. His last independently created theme park was Freedomland, commonly referred to as the “Disneyland of the East” even though it didn’t have a fraction of the success had by the Happiest Place on Earth. Keep reading to learn a LOT more about that.

The construction

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C. V. Wood partnered with a powerful New York developer named William Zeckendorf to make Freedomland, U.S.A. a reality. Zeckendorf, owner of properties such as the Chrysler Building and the Hotel Astor, was know for taking risks, and Freedomland was certainly a big one. It was announced in 1959 with a large budget of $16 million. The end cost was actually a staggering $65 million because of the overtime they had to pay after underestimating the amount of work involved in building and landscaping. This huge sum, much more than Wood and Zeckondorf expected to have to shoulder, is one strong explanation for why Freedomland, despite all it had going for it, failed to make a profit in all of its years open.

The debut

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Freedomland, U.S.A. had a very grand debut, not nearly the disaster that Disney’s opening day was. There was a special ceremony for Freedomland with about five thousand people in attendance on July 18, 1960. The place billed as “the world’s largest entertainment center” saw sixty-thousand people through its gates on its first day, and guests seemed to generally enjoy the experience. Freedomland had to stop selling tickets because of all the traffic jams caused by people wanting to go. The Ed Sullivan Show did a feature tour of the park, themselves comparing it to Disneyland. Robert Wagner, the mayor of New York City, even declared the opening day, June 19th, 1960, to be “Freedomland Day.” 

Two million people visited the park in its first year. So, how did things go so terribly wrong, other than the project going massively over-budget?

The attractions

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Freedomland, like Disneyland, made an effort to focus on the history of the United States. Unlike Disneyland, though, Freedomland included very little outside of U.S. history for guests to sink their teeth into. Whereas Walt Disney mixed the historical Main Street with areas like Fantasyland, Freedomland was extremely grounded, more of a place to tour than a park full of rides. Even most individuals of the 1960s were too adventure-seeking for something that served largely as an interactive history exhibit. Many of the adventurous experiences that Freedomland DID offer were direct or indirect rip-offs of what C.V. Wood designed for Disneyland. With all of that said, however, there was still a lot to do at Freedomland, U.S.A. that certain kinds of people DID enjoy. 

Freedomland started with seven different themed areas. Most, but not all, of them represented a U.S. location during a specific time in its history. Here are those areas, along with some of the attractions offered within them.

The Great Plains (1803-1900)

This area was based on an American setting that included parts of states like Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. Basically, it’s a large expanse of flat land known for cattle ranching and dry farming. A lot of people are fascinated by that area’s history during the 1800s. Attractions at the Great Plains of Freedomland included:

  • A shooting gallery named Cavalry Rifles
  • A log-by-log copy of an Army stockade called Fort Cavalry
  • Fort Cavalry Stage Line, a stage coach that goes past a buffalo herd and through the Rocky Mountains, culminating in a fictional robbery featuring actors playing outlaws
  • A merry-go-round called Mule-Go-Round that was, naturally, pulled by mules
  • A furnished apartment for the Borden Company mascot, Elsie the Cow, called Borden’s Barn Boudoir
  • A working farm exhibit, also sponsored by the Borden Food Company, called Borden’s Farm. It had horses, cows, sheep, pigs, poultry, corn and hay.
  • A ride to the nearby Old Southwest area named the Pony Express

Little Old New York (1850-1900)

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Little Old New York celebrated the incredible diversity of New York City during the mid-to-late 1800s. Food and beverages were a significant part of that. Some of the attractions in Little Old New York were:

  • An ice cream parlor similar to what you would find in the 1890s
  • The old-fashioned Schaefer’s Brewery. Again, this Freedomland, U.S.A. attraction involved a sponsor. This time it was Schaefer Beer.
  • Shuntz’s Delicatessen offered Corned Beef Sandwiches and Patrami, plus a Cheesecake desert. Doesn’t sound like the healthiest meal, but it seems like a great way to experience New York life!
  • The Harbor Tug Boats attraction that went through the Great Lakes
  • A ride in a 1909 Cadillac car through a recreation of New England called the Horseless Carriage, a popular name for automobiles at the time
  • A recreation of the original Macy’s store.
  • The Political Pep Rally was a live street show. It involved elements such as a German band, a gangland robbery of the Little New York Bank and more. It seems like one of the most elaborate attractions anywhere in Freedomland. 

Chicago (1871)

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The Chicago area was one of the highlights, mainly due to the Chicago Fire attraction. Here’s a description of that and other things to do there.

  • The Chicago Fire event was a live street show based on the famed 1871 Great Chicago Fire with fake Chicago buildings burning and actors playing fireman put it out. It happened every twenty minutes.
  • The Great Lakes Cruise, boat rides through the great lakes on sternwheel boats
  • A canoe ride led by a Native American guide called Chippewa War Canoes
  • A teepee village with Northwestern Native Americans that offered handcrafted items for sale
  • The Santa Fe Railroad Station

The Old Southwest (1890)

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The Old Southwest of the late-nineteenth century is centered on Texas and Mexican culture, full of gunfights and Mexican markets and more. Attractions there included:

  • Another live street show, this time with actors portraying shooters in a classic Western gun fight
  • A ride on real burros
  • A souvenir shops known as the Mexican Market
  • A dark ride called Mine Caverns that takes place underground and goes through caves and lava pits and where you face monsters and gigantic bats
  • The Opera House and Saloon, a “bar” that served soda with a stage show that included a band, dancers, singers and Western comedians
  • A herd of Texas Longhorns with a cowboy watching over them

San Francisco (1906)

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The early 1900s were a really interesting time for San Francisco, California. There was a lot of Chinese culture, an emerging entertainment industry and, of course, the infamous 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. This area is also home to one of the biggest rip-offs of an attraction born at Disneyland. Here is what San Francisco at Freedomland had to offer.

  • Northwest Fur Trapper, a boat ride very reminiscent of Disney’s Jungle Cruise
  • A recreation of the San Francisco entertainment district Barbary Coast
  • A recreation of Chinatown with shops and places to eat
  • The Hollywood Arena, added in 1962, was an amphitheater with animal stunts that had TV personalities show up regularly
  • A snack stand featuring an actor playing an “old salt sea man” who told tales of adventure called Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Seal Pool, which had actual Pacific harbor seals to look at
  • The San Francisco Earthquake, a dark ride that recreates the disastrous Earthquake

New Orleans – Mardi Gras

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This is one of just two of the initial areas that wasn’t placed in a very specific time frame. Rather than celebrating a certain period in New Orleans history, it celebrating the whole history of Mardi Gras, carnival-like festivities best known in the United States for taking place in Louisiana. It seems like easily one of the most entertaining parts of Freedomland. This is another area that pretty blatantly ripped off Disneyland, which, as mentioned above, creator of Freedomland C. V. Wood played a big hand in. Here are the attractions.

  • Buccaneers, a pirate-themed ride that bore a LOT of resemblance to Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Spin-A-Top, not at all unlike Disney’s Tea Cups ride in Fantasyland
  • A dark ride that tried to capture the experience of driving through the middle of a wild Louisiana twister
  • The Pirate Gun Shooting Gallery
  • A merry-go-round named King Rex Carrousel
  • A ride called Danny the Dragon, in which people of all ages could ride a 74-foot fire breather
  • Kandy Kane Lane, a play area for kids that had a helicopter ride, a hot fair, a sandpile and swan boats
  • Civil War, a ride where you’re on a horse-drawn wagon going through a remake of aspects of the mid-1800s war including battlegrounds, camps, wreckage and an acted-out battle

Satellite City (The Future)

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This might have been most lively land at Freedomland, even though it wasn’t particularly lively itself until they made some additions to appeal to teenagers. It obviously bore some relation to Tomorrowland as a future city.

  • Space Rover, simulating a journey into space in a theater that looked like the inside of a rocket
  • Special exhibits about then-modern day science and industries
  • Satellite City Turnpike, a ride in futuristic cars
  • Blast-Off Bunker, which recreated the Cape Canaveral control room where visitors could watch a fictional rocket launch
  • Moon Bowl, added in 1961, was a stage and dance floor that spanned 15,000 square feet. It had a lot of celebrities and popular performers of that time period.

In 1962 Freedomland, U.S.A. Also added the State Fair Midway in 1962 which included, among other things, a roller coaster to appeal to the adventure-seeking crowd. Other planned areas included a recreation of the Florida peninsula under Satellite City and a recreation of a Hollywood movie lot below San Francisco, but those never materialized.

The problems

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One early hint at Freedomland’s doom happened only a week after it opened: a stagecoach overturned in the Great Plains, injuring ten people. Three were hospitalized and one attendee broke his spine. The park tried to deny responsibility for the accident, but a photo of the incident didn’t do that argument any favors. The injured guests eventually sued the park.

Then, on August 28, 1960, less than three months after Freedomland, U.S.A. opened, it was robbed. Four armed men stole almost $29,000 (and remember, in 1960 that was a lot more money than it is now – around $230,000 in today’s money) and escaped in a boat. They were caught in two weeks, but it’s not clear if Freedomland recovered the money. Either way, it was obviously a publicity disaster.

At the end of the next year’s season (1961), Freedomland, U.S.A. was a frightening $8 million in debt. That was when management started making efforts to turn Freedomland into somewhere that was more exciting for young people. They added roller coasters, bumper cars, concerts and fireworks displays to appeal to teenagers. But Benjamin Moore, a sponsor of Satellite City, sued them for $150,000 for changing the nature of the park and what he was sponsoring, wanting to void their lease in the exhibit space. The lawsuit was dismissed, but that took more time and manpower away from improving attendance at Freedomland.

The closure

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Freedomland, U.S.A. declared bankruptcy in September of 1964 and started to be torn down in late 1965. Their public reason for the bankruptcy was the 1964 World’s Fair, which Walt Disney was involved with, but a lot of people don’t believe that’s the real reason, since it didn’t even open until AFTER they declared bankruptcy. One theory of why it was that there was a complex master plan for real estate moguls to develop Freedomland with the plan of converting the location to a cooperative housing complex. We’ll probably never know for sure. I think that Occam’s Razor dictates that debt makes the most sense, but it’s up to the people reading this to decide the reason Freedomland shut down for themselves.

The remnants

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Freedomland lives on through a few of its attractions. Its faux Santa Fe Railroad stations went to Clark’s Trading Post in New Hampshire. Within a few years of its closure rides like The Crystal Maze, The Mine Caverns, Tornado Adventure and Danny the Dragon had made their way to The Great Escape and Splashwater Kingdom in nearby Lake George, New York. Two of its most popular rides, Pirates of the Caribbean knock-off Buccaneers and the San Francisco Earthquake attraction ended up at the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio. They’ve both closed, but elements of each live on both in the theme park’s storage and in the park itself.

The legacy

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Despite its very short period as an active amusement park, Freedomland has a lot of love from old-timers and just general fans of theme park history. Multiple websites have sprouted up celebrating all things Freedomland, which is a big reason I was able to write such a long article about a park that was barely open for five years. There was even a New York Times article written about the park almost fifty years after it shut down.In addition to that, a regularly-updated Freedomland, U.S.A. Facebook page has almost 3000 followers, many of whom actively engage with the photos and descriptions posted. All of that indicates that while Freedomland is long gone, it is still far from forgotten.