Many of the beach cottages and bungalows that once filled the town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, have long since given way to modern, multilevel homes that are hulking by comparison. Weekly rentals go for $10,000. At the Tanger Outlets on the Coastal Highway, visitors can pick up bangles at Alex and Ani or Kate Spade handbags, then drive a couple of miles to sip a craft beer at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats.
But just a few dozen feet away from the beach is a living reminder of Rehoboth’s simpler days. Funland, an amusement park and arcade that has been run by the same family since 1962, offers “old fashioned fun” and “a slower pace of life” at prices that have barely budged in more than a half-century.
No tourist trap here, and no come-ons either. Many first-time visitors simply happen upon this collection of rides and games on an acre of prime real estate on the boardwalk between Delaware and Brooklyn avenues. Funland didn’t raise prices for its first 25 years, and its iconic green tickets, which are good for life, have increased in price just 30 cents, from 10 cents to 40 cents, in 57 years.
I should know. I was part of Funland’s staff for six summers — from 1980 through 1985 while in high school and college — and have vacationed in Rehoboth Beach since 1968. While I have visited the park every summer since, I’ve spent much more time at Funland the past two summers — working on a book on the history of the park and the family that runs it called “Land of Fun: The Story of an Old-Fashioned Amusement Park for the Ages” that was published in May.
Change is often not easy for a fourth-generation family business like Funland, but that can be a good thing. Two of the park’s rides — the boats and fire engines, at one ticket each — are the oldest and cheapest operating in Delaware. They date from the late 1940s. That’s the era when small cottages were the houses of choice in this sleepy town founded by a Methodist minister in 1873 as a place to hold religious camp meetings.
Rehoboth today is more akin to an upscale D.C. suburb, and it’s known as the “Nation’s Summer Capital.” Washingtonians of all political persuasions vacation here, and the reasons are plenty: proximity; a wide and pristine beach and ocean; great restaurants; an LGBTQ- and family-friendly culture. And, of course, the old-fashioned appeal of Funland.
The boats and fire engines are two of five rides — the merry-go-round, helicopters and the sky fighters being the others — that Funland’s owners, the Fasnacht family, acquired when they purchased the amusement park Sport Center in the spring of 1962. The rides, gleaming as always, hold special meaning for families who have had three and four generations ride them.
The sale of Sport Center, which had stood on the same site on Rehoboth’s boardwalk since 1939, was completed just a week after the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962, a powerful nor’easter that destroyed almost all of Rehoboth’s boardwalk and beachfront businesses.
That included Dolles, perhaps Rehoboth’s best known landmark after the beach and ocean. Located at the corner of Rehoboth Avenue — the town’s main drag lined with shops, art galleries, restaurants and hotels — and the boardwalk since 1927, the candy shop lost almost everything in the storm. One survivor was an almost two-ton taffy machine, which is still in use. As part of the rebuild, the owners created a large orange-and-white sign above the store that’s in almost all promotional photos of the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, and which draws people from near and far to buy its salt water taffy, caramel corn, fudge and other sweets.
Funland’s games are as big a draw as the rides for many, and like the rides, they are not often replaced. Three games that debuted when I worked there are still going strong. The derby horse racing game is the park’s most popular, which has been true from the day it arrived from England in 1982. Players roll a red ball toward holes with the numbers 1, 2 and 3 next to them with the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background. Get your ball in a hole, and your horse moves that many spaces. All the prizes are plush horses of varying sizes. Good luck getting an open seat between 8 and 10 p.m. on most nights, as the line is often three and four people deep behind each of the 12 seats.
Whac-a-Mole is an amusement park and carnival staple; what makes Funland’s special is the $1 price. Frog Bog is like something out of “Gulliver’s Travels,” as you place a rubber frog on a catapult, which you activate with a mighty swing with a mallet, sending the frog flying in search of a lily pad. Everyone looks like a winner here, including those simply watching the fun.
My favorite game is Funland’s oldest: Skee-Ball, which awards prizes for scores of 250 or higher. While the prizes are good, for my family, earning bragging rights by registering the high score is all that matters. On a recent visit, my wife, daughter, son and I all rolled winning scores, with three of us topping 300.
After Skee-Ball we often walk to the Royal Treat, an old-fashioned breakfast and ice cream place just a block north at 4 Wilmington Ave. for sundaes. The property the Royal Treat inhabits is also owned by the Fasnacht family, and is operated by a longtime family friend from Hershey, Pa., where most of the Fasnacht family lives during the offseason. Not surprisingly, the Treat, as it is called, serves only Hershey’s ice cream.
Then it’s back to Funland to ride the park’s signature attraction: the haunted mansion. We get in a long line, which is almost always the case at Funland’s most popular ride, celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer. The ride was pioneering when it debuted in 1979; it was one of only a handful of “dark rides” — the industry term for haunted or spooky rides — with the track up in the air rather than on the ground. This produces more suspense for riders, as you can’t tell which way you are going next, making the tricks and special effects more impactful.
The black haunted mansion car takes us up to the second floor, where the fun begins. You notice different things in every room, and the ride still strikes a good balance of scary and fun, just as I remembered it doing the first time I rode it 40 years ago. Industry experts such as the Dark Attraction and Funhouse Enthusiasts (DAFE), an organization that documents and supports dark rides, have taken notice. DAFE’s member surveys from 2002 through 2011, the last year it did them, listed Funland’s ride as one of the 10 best in the country. Others on this list included dark rides at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. Those parks have rides bigger than the entire footprint Funland occupies, on which it runs 20 rides and 17 games.
Our night ends with a trip on the Paratrooper, a ride similar in many ways to a Ferris wheel. The view from the top provides great views of the town, boardwalk, ocean and park.
Funland has made some notable changes over the years. One is an increased emphasis on thrill rides. The best example is the SuperFlip 360, which swings riders 360 degrees, and at one point provides an upside-down view of Funland from 40 feet in the air. There’s also a continued emphasis on safety, with gates around all the kiddie rides to prevent kids from getting too close while rides are in motion, and winner-every-time games — lifesavers for parents of young children unwilling to leave peacefully without a prize.
Overall though, I find it comforting Funland has remained so similar in look, feel, sound, smell, pricing, games, rides and fun over the years. It’s like the local old-fashioned amusement park people of a certain age fondly remember going to as kids — most of which are long since gone.
Consider 90-year-old Al Fasnacht, who co-founded Funland with his parents and brother Don so long ago. He has been operating kiddie rides for 90 minutes or longer six or seven nights a week for more than 45 years, and there is no place he would rather be. Consider that he works every day with his three kids, part of Funland’s third generation, and grandkids, who represent the family’s fourth generation, and many other relatives, more than 30 in all, with the fifth generation not far behind. Park visitors talk to Al and take pictures with him on a nightly basis; he symbolizes Funland’s timeless feel and old-school family values, traits he hopes the park maintains for decades to come.
My educated guess: He needn’t worry.