Musical selection: Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin, courtesy of Classical MIDI Archives, © 1999 Pierre R. Schwob


Palisades Amusement Park!

For those of us growing up in northern New Jersey once upon a time, those three magic words meant Heaven on the Hudson, Paradise on the Palisades.

Brooklyn had its Coney Island and California its Disneyland, but all that stood between us and absolute ecstasy was a short car or bus ride -- and our parents' whims. A stern "Behave or no Palisades Park tonight!" kept us in line better than any advice from Dr. Spock.

School, chores, family squabbles -- all traces of dull reality were left behind once we entered those magic gates. For Palisades Amusement Park was truly a delight of the senses.

Take the food, for example. Standard amusement park junk. But when you're surrounded by the lights of the Ferris wheel, the music of the merry-go-round, the screams of passengers on the roller coaster, and the spiel of barkers along the midway, then thick, greasy French fries, candy apples, and ice cream sandwiches made with real waffles become an exquisite gourmet delight. To this day, the fresh lemonade at Palisades Park is the gold standard by which all other lemonades are measured against. I have spent many a summer prowling boardwalk stands along the Jersey Shore in a fruitless search for a cup of lemonade which measures up to Palisades Park lemonade. My own childhood weight problems were caused in no small part by Palisades Park cuisine. Later on, pasteles, batidos, and other Latino treats were added to the menu for the growing Hispanic crowd.

What better way was there to spend a summer day than in the salt-water swiming pool, followed by those death-defying rides? The pool was billed as the largest salt-water pool in the world, filled with water pumped up from the Hudson River. This was certainly no mean feat considering that the park was situated on top of the New Jersey Palisades, several hundred feet above the river. The pool featured waves, a beach at the shallow end, and a waterfall, diving boards, and a wooden sun deck at the deep end. After your admission to the pool, you changed clothes in a dark, cramped dressing room upstairs in the bathhouse. If you didn't have a bathing suit, you could rent one, an ugly, scratchy navy blue garment with a white "PAP" monogram.

Then there was the Cyclone, a rickety-rackety wooden roller coaster which shuddered violently as its cars, filled with screaming passengers, hurtled down the tracks at 60 mph. Many a non-Catholic rider was know to make the sign of the cross as the cars began to make that first precipitous descent.

Years later, I had a neighbor who told me she used to date the guy who operated the Cyclone. She said he warned her not to ride it because the wooden support beams were rotted. Maybe he was just kidding, but who knows? It was stories like this that added to the Cyclone's legendary mystique. Suffice it to say that the Cyclone separated the men and women from the boys and girls among roller coaster aficionados.

The merry-go-round was a work of art. It featured 64 wooden horses hand carved in Germany and a real pipe organ. Sitting at the top of the Ferris wheel on a clear, starry night, with the Manhattan skyline across the river, made you feel as if you could reach out and shake hands with God. Palisades Amusement Park also featured a miniature golf course, batting cages, and a bandstand for aspiring Tiger Woods, Mark McGwires, and Dick Clarks. There were dances, talent contests, beauty pageants, and a Diaper Derby where parents would cheer their babies on to the finish line.

Palisades Amusement Park closed its gates forever in 1971, a victim of vandalism, changing demographics, and rising property values. The terrifying Cyclone, the magnificent merry-go-round, the Ferris wheel, batting cages, swimming pool were sold or torn down to make way for a luxury high-rise condominium and town house complex. After all these years, I still miss Palisades Amusement Park. I'm convinced that the world needs more amusement parks and fewer yuppie housing projects.

Sometimes in my dreams the condo complex miraculously disappears and the Cyclone and the Ferris wheel once again tower majestically over the Palisades. I think about the families who went there a century ago when it was a quiet picnic grove -- the men in their natty straw boaters, boys in knickers, girls in high button shoes, women in pretty hats. I wonder what the place would be like today if it still existed. Some things are best left in dreams and memories.

My family and I have been to Disney World and Six Flags Great Adventure and have enjoyed them immensely. Even as an adult, they are more spectacular than Palisades Park was to me as a kid. But they're not the same. I wish I could have taken my kids swimming in the salt-water pool or treated them to waffle ice cream sandwiches. So I used to regale them with stories about Palisades Amusement Park, like King Arthur at the end of "Camelot" telling the young boy to keep alive the memories of that wondrous kingdom.

But perhaps when I enter the gates into the next life, above them will be inscribed those three magic words: Palisades Amusement Park.

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