Al Fresco Amusement Park: Its Place in the Civil Life of Peoria, Illinois

Article excerpt

When Al Fresco Amusement Park opened its gates in the spring of 1905, the city of Peoria and the surrounding communities had never seen anything like it. Peoria had grown into a city, and just like many of the urban areas across the country at the beginning of the twentieth century, an amusement park took root. Peorians came together at Al Fresco and entered an exotic and amazing world inside of its gates. Al Fresco exposed Peorians to the exotic in the form of live entertainment, thrill rides, and its commercialized restructuring of natural settings surrounding the park. All of these forms of amusement detached visitors from the reality of their everyday surroundings. Al Fresco was similar to places like Coney Island in New York or Chicago's White City Amusement Park. In fact, White City inspired Al Fresco's design. While the origins of Al Fresco may be tied to its big city counterparts, its place in the civic life of Peoria differed radically from the roles that amusement parks played in larger metropolises. Studying the Peoria park highlights how early-twentieth-century amusement parks impacted smaller cities.1

At the beginning of the twentieth-century Peoria witnessed the opening of its own amusement park. Chicago developer, and manager, Vemon Seaver, a businessman, officially opened the park on June 10, 1905. Al Fresco opened with great promise, "to the booming of the cannon and the screech of the steamboat whistles...."2 Like Coney Island in New York, Al Fresco was connected to an urban mass transit system. Peoria's Central City Streetcar Company invested in the park and provided a link between the park and the city. Additionally, two steamboats launched from downtown Peoria and transported park guests to Al Fresco.3

From the first week the park was in full operation, it brought in live entertainment that was exotic and extraordinary to Peorians. High wire acts, the "slide for life," high divers, high-wire bicycle acts, aerial whirlwinds, and a revolving ladder feat were all scheduled to perform at the park free of charge.4 The "slide for life" was probably similar to the "Heiter Skelter" at Luna Park on Coney Island, where riders would slide down a twisted slide landing in a body of water or cushioned mats. The slide at Al Fresco was part of an act done by one performer.5 As John F. Kasson suggests in his book, Amusing the Millions, such sideshows billed themselves as exceptional because they defied the rules of urban life. Watching the shows liberated the crowds and allowed them to temporarily forget the monotony of Peoria life and city living in general.6 In fact, people were so interested in the park's potential that hundreds visited the site before it was officially opened.7 The immediate success of the park indicates that people in Peoria were excited and intrigued by the exotic forms of entertainment it offered.

Live entertainment came in many additional forms. Some of it consisted of free musical concerts and vaudeville performances. Al Fresco also had photo galleries, an Electric Theatre, the Fun Factory, and an Exhibit of Wonders.8 Although it is difficult to determine the exact content of these exhibits, the titles themselves offer clues that they drew in crowds with promises of exotic entertainment. For people in Peoria this wide range of leisure activity in one location had never been offered. All of this came at the price of ten cents for every adult and five cents for children. This price included the trolley ride to the park.9

The thrill rides that the park offered were also new to Peoria. Guests could enjoy the carrousel, the Little Railroad, the Observation Wheel, the Flying Air Ships, and the Figure Eight roller coaster. As John Masson argues, visitors were attracted to these types of rides for two reasons. First, thrill rides connected the park patron to new industrial-era technology like railroads in novel ways. Hopping on a roller coaster gave a sense of danger as entertainment. …