Melrose Park, Illinois, USA
1929 to 2009
A Brief History
A Note from the Park
Real estate. Seems to always come down to real estate. Amusement parks need large tracts of land, and even if they are profitable, the one time profit from a land sale seems to trump the long term income, and jobs, and memories generated by the park.
So it was with Chicagoland's oldest amusement park, Kiddieland, which ceased operation on September 27, 2009.
In 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, German immigrant Arthur R. Fritz's contracting business had just folded. Scraping together what money they could after paying off debts, Arthur and his wife Ann bought six quiet ponies and began offering rides to children for ten cents. They saw their pony rides as a way for parents and their children to forget the troubles of the time; a way to spread some happiness. Over the next two years the pony rides grew to be the County Fair Pony Track. Eventually they bought the land on the corner of North and First avenues, adding little cars, a merry-go-round, and a Ferris wheel, and Kiddieland was born.
Though only 5'4", Art Fritz was a strong, direct man with solid business sense. He knew he had a winning formula - a clean, safe well maintained park geared to children. A family operation geared to families. It's said that in the 1950's, Walt Disney approached Art to discuss his plans for a park in Anaheim. Art said he was busy and told him to go make his own park. Though not as well known, it could be argued that Arthur Fritz's influence on the amusement park was as great as Disney. Kiddieland marked the beginning of a new type of amusement park, one geared to children; smaller, slower rides in a clear, safe, friendly atmosphere. The concept, and often the name, spread across the country. (Although the Fritz's were never able to copyright the name, this was the first "Kiddieland.")
The park grew and thrived. Through the depression, he added a German carousel, two miniature steam locomotives, a whip and a Ferris wheel. By the 1950's the park included a hand-carved wooden carousel and the wonderful Herb Schmeck/PTC junior wood coaster, The Little Dipper. By this time the Fritz's two daughters and their spouces were helping to run the park.
The pony track was finally removed in 1962, replaced with the Scooters, and the park began to expand it's appeal by adding rides for older children, teens and adults -- a transition to a full family park. Yet they never lost sight of their original concept.
The park had 20 rides when Arthur Fritz unexpectedly passed away in 1967, just before his last ride purchase was installed, the Polyp (which ran until the park closed). Although Ann Fritz continued helping with operations, the park passed to their daughters. The park continued to do well. Soon Arthur and Ann's grandchildren came into the business.
In 1977 two of the grandchildren, Ronald Rynes Jr. and Cathy Norini, and their spouces, Mary and Tom (respectively), bought the business. Tom Norini eventually assumed the role of general manager. But the land remained in a trust controlled by Ronald's mother, Shirley Fritz Rynes, and her other son, Glenn. The trust leased the land to the Rynes Jr./Norini families (who only had a minority stake in the trust). The formula for the demise of the park was in place.
The park continued to flourish, not least of which due to a policy of meticulous maintenance and restoration of their rides. The wooden carousels were protected from the weather and even insured as works of art. Many of the early rides survived and looked nearly new at the end of the park's run.
The first family disagreement made it to the level of a lawsuit in 2004. Shirley and Glenn Rynes sued to evict the park, claiming required insurance was not in place and that the fireworks displays the park was putting on were unsafe and contrary to the lease. Both the Cook County court and the Illinois Appellate Court found the suit without merit. At that time Ronald Rynes Jr. and Cathy Norini indicated that they wished to continue operating the park, but had no authority over the land. They may have tried to buy the land.
Alan Sohn, Shirley and Glenn Rynes' attorney, said he was instructed to turn down any offer to buy the land. But at that time he also wouldn't say what would happen to Kiddieland if the eviction was successful, nor would he say whether his clients would renew Kiddieland's lease. Sohn was quoted as saying "We're not trying to break the lease so they can sell the property. Their sole intent is to protect their interest and the public from uninsured risks."
By May 2006, the park's fate was known -- the lease, which would expire in 2009, would not be renewed. At that time, Robert B. Morton, attorney for Ronald and Cathy, claimed Shirley Rynes had already talked about selling the land to developers, and she was also suing to remove Ronald and Cathy from their minority ownership (47 percent) of the property. "We'd reconcile this in a minute and put the differences aside, but we've been rebuffed at every turn," he said. Shirley and Glenn continued to deny they wanted to sell the land
"I'd like to continue operating as long as we can, to keep the memories of the past and alive for the future," said Ronald Rynes Jr., "I take that as part of our responsibility." Said Morton, "It's an intra-family squabble driven only by the personal animosities of the parties."
But in the last years, the suits seemed to dissolve and with them, the animosity. No, the lease would not be renewed, but "There's no anger or animosity," said Tom Norini in May of 2009. "The land trust has been very good to us and given us a very attractive lease rate. It's sad and it's disappointing but it's just a business thing." He went on to say "They're not renewing the lease. That's their right. We're not mortal enemies. We don't want any hostility here. Everybody feels bad about it. We don't want anybody to feel angry about it."
"The truth is we've been notified that there's a pending sale," said Ronald. In the spring, survey crews began performing soil testing. Costco was rumored to be the potential buyer. In October 2009, this was revealed to be true when Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Costco, Dick DiCerchio, said "We are interested and have filed a letter of intent (to purchase) with the current property owners."
The village of Melrose Park will see "substantially higher" tax revenue from a big retailer than they did from Kiddieland, but even Melrose Park Economic Development Director Mike Sicuro Jr. sees the park closing as a loss to the community. With it, 250 seasonal jobs, mostly filled by local high-school students, 14 year-round positions, and the identity 5 generations of a family are gone. Memories of generations past, and to come, are gone as well.
On November 24, 2009, the rides not already sold were auctioned.
"We kind of made a group decision that we were not going to start over." Perhaps there is no bad-blood in the family - newspapers, after all, use controversy to sell product - or maybe Tom Norini would just prefer not to see his family in turmoil. We sincerely hope the former is true, but really, it doesn't matter to us, the visitors to the park. Kiddieland is gone.
Kiddieland, Miracle Strip, Astroland, Erieview, Fun City, Myrtle Beach Pavilion, Whalom Park -- all unique places; all gone for real estate. It's hard to imagine their like will grace our world again.
--John K. Maxwell
© Copyright John K. Maxwell 2010 - all rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author.
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In June 2009 ATRA Historian Pete emailed Kiddieland regarding their closing. This is the text of their response:
Yes, sadly it's true. We have formally announced something that we knew would probably be happening at the end of 2009. The terms of our long lasting lease expire on December 31, 2009. I apologize for sending you somewhat of a generic response, but the responses to my press release have been overwhelming and I simply do not have the time to compose individual email responses. Perhaps as the buzz subsides a bit I will have time to speak with individuals.
I would first like to thank everyone for the outpouring of love, encouragement and support that almost everyone has sent our way. The kind words and the sharing of memories from so many people have been both comforting and nurturing to the entire Kiddieland family. Most importantly, I want everyone to know and understand that Kiddieland's closing has nothing to do with an inter-family squabble as it has been reported so often in the media. As much as our existence is and always will be about family, Kiddieland's closing is purely and simply a business matter. We have enjoyed good relations with our landlords over the course of almost thirty three years now. As part of the third generation of family owners and operators that have owned and operated Kiddieland since 1977, let me assure you that our closing is simply due to the fact that our lease has run out. Some in the media want this to be about fighting and hard feelings, but it is simply a business decision made by the managers of the land trust that owns the property that Kiddieland sits on. There is nobody to blame or vilify about this decision, it just is what it is. All of us here have experienced great joy throughout our tenure as the owner operators of this much beloved and cherished family amusement park and absolutely want to share the love and joy with all of our guests throughout this, our last season in 2009.
I want each of you to know individually how much it means to all of us here to receive your emails telling us your feelings, sharing your memories and offering us your support.
Best personal regards,
Thomas A. Norini
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© Copyright - all rights reserved. Used with permission.
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Kiddieland in ATRA News:
5/20/2009 - Chicago Kiddieland To Close After 80 Years!
9/8/2009 - Beloved Chicago Amusement Park Says Final Farewells!
11/24/2009 - Kiddieland Auctions Off Rides!
Kiddland is featured in
ATRA Tour DVD 12: ATRA Follows the CoasterCon 2005
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Kiddieland Amusement Park
- park homepage (for as long as it remains...)
Emotional ending for Kiddieland - Chicago Tribune
Kiddieland Amusement Park - Wikipedia
Kiddieland: 80 years of fun ends
- a photo gallery on Chicago Tribune.com
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