Seattle's Fun Forest, a fixture at Seattle Center since the 1962 world's fair, appears to be doomed. The amusement park — in more innocent times called the Gayway — was an effort to inject some fun into a high-minded international science exposition. After the fair closed, the Center emerged as a major regional arts hub, featuring a performing arts district for theater groups, opera and the ballet along Mercer Street. But the fair's thrill rides lived on, a permanent reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.
Middlebrow and upwardly aspirant Seattle, a Scandinavian/Asian city built by civil engineers and populated by Boeing and software engineers, has often needed to be told that it's okay to have fun once in a while. When Bill Gates was asked by his biographers for his memories of the world's fair — where he was likely first introduced to computers — his main memory was of riding the Wild Mouse, a snappy little roller coaster. Even boy geniuses need to unwind.
But the Fun Forest, privately and locally owned, is living on borrowed time. Revenues are down, the company is behind in its rent, and it doesn't have the capital to invest in major upgrades. Meanwhile, the neighborhood is changing. As the city has undertaken a "re-visioning" of Seattle Center, two priorities have emerged. One is to make the Center greener. The other is to add amenities that will make it attractive to the condo communities that are moving into Lower Queen Anne and South Lake Union. Wouldn't upscaling the Center's restaurants and evolving it into a kind of New York-style Central Park be more in keeping with its new urban context? Various draft plans call for clear-cutting the Fun Forest for open space.
Open space has its appeal, but there's not much "fun" in it. Not compared to wild rides, junk food and carny attractions where you can win your girlfriend a plush toy. No fun like bumper car fun. I have argued that while a Central Park is nice, Seattle also needs a Coney Island. That brings us to larger trends that extend beyond Seattle. Coney Island? It's endangered too. Condos are moving in, and the last amusement park there is living on borrowed time, its future beyond 2008 iffy.
Same with the Fun Forest, which looks to close before the end of the year. Then, says the Center's director, Robert Nellams, the Center will be able to move on. "We can't stay in nostalgia," he says.
But is trashy fun merely nostalgia these days? Without it, won't Seattle risk choking on its own self-importance? Can man live by artisanal bread alone, or is there something important about being able to run with the carnies once in a while? One positive sign is the amount of effort that has gone into finding a new home at the Center for the skateboard park, which was displaced by the Gates Foundation headquarters being built nearby on former Center property. Score one for fun.
But national trends also suggest that the Fun Forest is a victim of scale. Like the family farm, struggling to survive against corporate megafarms, small, privately owned amusement parks are giving way to thriving corporate theme parks. It's a world dominated by Disney- and Six Flags-scale attractions. And fueled by expanding markets, amusement parks — small and large — are a big industry. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, they attracted 335 million attendees and had $11.5 billion in revenues in 2006. In short, thrill rides are still hot.
But in this Nintendoized, Xboxed society, it takes more than a village to scare the pants off a park patron. Technology is allowing new generations of rides that are faster and wilder than ever before, like roller coasters with cars that spin in circles — think extreme skateboarding on steroids. Also popular are high-tech rides with story lines. Much anticipated is the new Toy Story Mania ride at Disney's California Adventure, where riders will spin their way in 3-D glasses through a virtual board game. Customers now expect maximum thrills — and a complete vacation experience, something the little guys like the Fun Forest just can't match.
While we locals all have fond memories of the old Fun Forest, public tastes have outgrown what it can offer, especially in the era of cheap airfares and high expectations. That suggests that if we want to keep the fun going — and if Seattle wants to be truly world-class, like London, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Madrid and Montreal — we should consider scaling up its thrills rather than be content to let the genre go extinct.