Upcoming regional park book excerpt: Lamar Hunt and Worlds of Fun
One of the chapters in the upcoming park history book focuses on entrepreneurs who took Walt’s concept and found a way to make it happen in their own part of the country. These individuals had the drive, determination, resources, and sheer guts to jump head-first into waters they knew little about. Storms loomed ahead, threatening to capsize many of the parks, but most of them are still humming along, though quite different from the original dreams.
One of these chaps was Lamar Hunt, well-known businessman who spent much of his energy, time, and money on sports. If you watched the Super Bowl this year you surely heard his name more than once in connection to his Kansas City Chiefs, Arrowhead Stadium, and the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Strangely enough he decided to build a park, and so here’s the story:
“I’m so sorry—I’m in the middle seat.” Lamar shoved his carry-on into the overhead compartment and crawled over the aisle-seat passenger to settle in for the flight. Unlatching the catches on his briefcase, he dug in and tried to catch up on a bit of office work, first examining the current playoff standings for his Kansas City Chiefs, then the latest on his attempt to land a major league baseball franchise for the Dallas–Fort Worth area. Instrumental in bringing major league soccer to America a few years back, Lamar Hunt owned the Dallas Tornados while also holding an interest in the money-losing Chicago Bulls. He financed the touring World Champion Tennis operation run by a nephew. This on top of recently merging his American Football League into the NFL after nearly a decade of disrupting that sport.
Business was his game, but sports was his passion. He collected athletic teams while the rest of us pored over our baseball cards. There were a couple of notable failures, such as the attempt to convert Alcatraz into an amusement park and to establish bowling as a major league sport. Legend and myth surrounded him, of course, contending he would spend anything for something he wanted. And he could have, but he carefully picked through his options, using the family oil income as a foundation and spending nearly all of his energies on his sports interests.
Funny thing, though, you’d never know any of this by looking at the man. The unassuming, shy guy with a boyish face was surely the local banker or pastor who stood aside as you reached for the milk in the grocery store. He mowed his own yard, drove a five year old Plymouth, and yes, flew coach. Somebody who could just buy the whole airplane. Or the whole airline. In some ways he was just like his dad, a billionaire who made his fortune in oil and carried his sandwich to work in a paper bag, parking three blocks down the road to avoid the 50-cent parking fee.
Back in the early 60s it had become clear Dallas wasn’t large enough for two pro football teams. Kansas City was interested, it was an easy commute for him, and so off they went. His renamed Kansas City Chiefs, then part of the old American Football League Lamar himself had founded, moved into Municipal Stadium alongside the Athletics baseball team. The situation was less than ideal, and since the merger between the NFL and AFL required a minimum stadium capacity of 50,000, the opportunity arose to do something far better. Lamar wasn’t merely a business investor—he loved the sport, and this was his opportunity to design a facility that catered to both players and fans alike. Most athletic facilities at the time were multi-purpose, shared among a variety of sports. This made economic sense, but Hunt realized that to watch a football game, you really needed a football stadium, not a baseball stadium. The sight lines are different, the field is laid out differently, and so on. The plan called for two buildings, one baseball, one football, and the original concept was to connect both with a sliding roof. The roof idea never made it, but the debut of Arrowhead Stadium in 1972 set a new bar, ushering in a wave of modern facilities that continues to this day.
Lamar became not only a notable sports promoter and enthusiast in that area, but he bought full-tilt into regional economic development to ensure locals didn’t write him off as a meddling carpetbagger. His Mid-America Enterprises corporation purchased a large amount of land for industrial and recreational development; one tract had been the site of a long-running mining operation that dug an immense 1,100 acre underground cave. This was converted into SubTropolis, claimed to be the “world’s largest underground business complex.” It’s still there today in case you want to store your spare space shuttles and Christmas merchandise.
Deep into construction of Arrowhead, on August 4, 1971 Lamar Hunt stood before a luncheon crowd of over 200 business and civic leaders and unveiled plans for a completely new venture. This was no sports team, no arena, no athletic initiative of any kind. Phase one was an amusement park, encompassing 140 acres of the 500 set aside for the project. Motels and other commercial facilities would come later, or at least they would have had it not been for the looming gas crisis and economic downturn. Located seven miles northeast of downtown Kansas City, MO, along the bluffs of the Missouri River, the plan resembled many of the other post-Disneyland destinations such as Six Flags, Astroworld, and the currently planned Carowinds and Opryland. The project had been delayed for a year due to “uncertainties in construction labor and the unfavorable money market that developed shortly after our initial announcement,” but things were now on track for “Kansas City’s Worlds of Fun” to open in 1973.
Lamar, who could have simply written the check for the entire project, looked for investors to raise $17M toward building the park. George S. Harkins, of HNC Realty Co, was willing to buy in for $7M, the remainder coming from Massachusetts Mutual. But as was customary for such deals, the lenders were looking for some sort of collateral. Hunt’s offer? His Kansas City Chiefs football team. Harkin’s response? Well, we normally go for tangible things like, you know, buildings and stuff. I need to know more. And so Lamar took him deep behind the scenes of the franchise with the condition that Harkin keep all of it under wraps; if players knew the inside details about the company’s financials it wouldn’t go well for contract negotiations. Harkin agreed, and with a letter of approval signed by Pete Rozelle, commissioner for the National Football League, the project moved forward.
Breaking ground in November of 1971 and opening April 1973 at a cost of $20.5 million, Worlds of Fun was themed after Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days. Jack Steadman, Lamar’s right hand man and in charge of the project, explained to the press “We chose the large, multicolored ascension balloon for our symbol because it represents fun, adventure and travel reminiscent of the movie, Around the World in 80 Days. These are the things we want Worlds of Fun to represent.”
In this spirit, Randall Duell laid out the park to represent five lands: Americana, Europa, Africa, Scandinavia, and the Orient. But the first attraction started at the parking lot, located a quarter mile away from the front gate. Channeling a key design concept from Disneyland, the trams weren’t merely transportation, but served to transition guests from the real world to a faraway adventure. And adventure lay just beyond the ticket booths over the gangplanks of the S.S. Henrietta, a recreation of the vessel from the movie that represented an around-the-world voyage to fun and excitement.
Typically, the centerpiece for a park’s front hub or plaza would be a fountain or statue. Not so here. Following the park’s theme, it was a compass that served as the focal point for families to meet and decide which way to go. Make a note to stop in at the end of the day for souvenirs at Brims ’N Bonnets or Front Street Dry Goods & Electric Company. Or for now grab a bite at Manor Bakers Antique Bread Wagon or Donut Whole, maybe candy from Yum Yum Tree, or perhaps an ice cream at Fairmont Foods Dairy Dock. However, the calling card over to your left was the majestic Cotton Blossom paddlewheel featured in the movie Show Boat. Bought by Lamar for $15,000 at a 1971 MGM backlot auction, it majestically sat permanently docked in its charming pond, offering onboard gifts, shows, and dining at the Paddle Wheel Cafe.
From the hub, the park’s Duell loop design gently guides you to go right, with larger pathways and the Information Center just over in that direction. This is Americana, set in the 19th century with appropriate frontier and barn-like architecture, split rail fencing, and so on. Across from the Vittle Griddle was the 9th Street Incline funhouse; after your head cleared, consider hopping on the Sky Hi Von Roll gondola, a one-way trip over the park to Scandinavia, or instead send your little ones on the not-so-19th-century, kid-sized Crashem Bashem bumper cars.
Up ahead, Union Depot is the sole stop for the narrow-gauge Burlington Northern Worlds of Fun Railroad, which wound its way over numerous trestles and through the beautiful landscape. To this day, Eli, the propane-fueled, steam-powered locomotive manufactured by Crown Metal Products of Pennsylvania, continues to pull its passenger coaches around the one mile journey, in some seasons at risk of being held up by train robbers.
Since it’s early in the day, skip the train for later; walk under the trestle to the left of the station and wander into Europa where the older ones can take out their frustrations bashing each other in Der Fender Bender. Grab the little tikes and bribe them to try the Funicular, a small Allan Herschell kiddie coaster, while you enjoy a drink at La’Mars Libations. Then everybody take the wheel of a taxi on an Arrow Le Taxitour car ride. Hungry yet? The Le Poulet Bone Cafe is across from the cars, and just beyond is La Petite Toy Shoppe. Before leaving Europa enjoy a can-can show at the Moulin Rouge theater.
Africa is next with the park’s headlining coaster, Zambezi Zinger. This Schwarzkopf spiral lift model dominated the back corner of the park, following Duell’s design principle of locating major attractions far from the entrance. The idea is to draw people deep into the park, ensuring they see everything along the way. It also provides more room to build these larger structures. Shop at The Diamond Mine and Bwana’s Bargains, grab a quick burger at Congo Clearing, then cross over the bridge to ride The Safari. The park’s second Arrow car ride featured safari-style jeeps that meandered back into the woods past menacing fiberglass African wildlife.
Now as we pass under yet another railroad trestle we come to Scandinavia, the park’s largest land. The major icon here is the Victrix, another full-sized vessel purchased by Lamar from MGM. The four-masted schooner featured small cannons you could shoot at floating targets. This area was also home to Tivoli Playhouse, the park’s major theatrical venue. Scandinavia offered numerous rides, shops, and shows, including the receiving station for the sky ride, Ski Heis. There were flat rides, such as Finnish Fling, Scandia Scramble, and Kopter, as well as the Seitz Viking Voyager water flume and Schussboomer, a compact Wildcat-type coaster from Schwarzkopf. The Alpine Animal Village petting zoo was in the back corner alongside the Baltic Bazaar, featuring artists demonstrating their craft. The park had a back gate here as well, closer to the parking lot and intended for buses.
Crossing over the scenic bridge past Schussboomer and over a stream we find ourselves in the last section of the park, the Orient. This small land had a single gift shop, Rickshaw Richard’s Exporters Ltd, the Pagoda Soda and Rangoon Refresher, the Oriental Octopus flat ride, and the Fins & Flippers dolphin show.
And that’s it. The Cotton Blossom looms ahead and draws us in for a final show, perhaps dinner, and then we’re back at the front entrance for a last souvenir and tram ride back to reality. Worlds of Fun was a relaxing, beautiful escape in a natural environment. Duell’s design team made good use of the existing landscape with extensive wooded areas, streams, and elevations perfect for railroad trestles and foot bridges. Unlike the fate befalling some regional parks, much of the natural areas remain intact, not quite overtaken by attractions, shops, and other additions over time.
Sold to Cedar Fair in 1995, Worlds of Fun has continued to survive over the years. Oceans of Fun, a tropical-themed water park, opened in 1982 on the other side of the railroad tracks from Europa and Africa. Lands evolved, such as reimagining part of Scandinavia into International Plaza and adding Planet Snoopy. But the big change came at the end of the 1998 season when the unique front entrance was closed forever. The parking lot trams had been retired, not uncommon among parks over the years. But in this case it brought up an interesting conundrum—the parking lot wasn’t located near the main gate. The whole reason for the trams was to convey guests the quarter-mile from the lot, so when the trams went away you couldn’t very well force people to walk that far. So the back gate was upgraded to the main entrance and the original entry was demolished, including most of the S.S. Henrietta (along with the original “gangplanks,” which are still in use as footpaths, a section of the concrete bow remains, buried like some forgotten time capsule).
Practicality and guest consideration must prevail, but the original design intent of the entrance, from the tram transition, the sailing vessel inviting you to begin your journey around the world, and the scenic Cotton Blossom sitting majestically off to the side was lost forever. As with the other Duell parks much of the vibe and sense of historical placemaking has faded with layers of paint, IP, and management changes. Worlds of Fun isn’t considered a growth property for the company, so it doesn’t see much in the way of big rides and attractions. But at least Kansas City still has their park.
Lamar Hunt, famous for his Chiefs, for transforming professional football, for bringing pro soccer to this side of the pond, and for being inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, would always claim he was in the entertainment business, a notion further cemented by the nickname “Phineas T. Hunt” someone stuck on him along the way. His Barnum-esque, childhood dream-come-true was certainly fodder for a larger-than-life public persona. But that never seemed to change the man who would continue to cut his grass and fly coach.
More information: www.rivershorecreative.com/imagineering-an-american-dreamscape