A Magical Place (just around the corner)
by Bob Jandoli
On many summer days growing up in West Orange, NJ, around the time I was twelve years old, my friends and I thought nothing of jumping on a town bus that took us to neighborhood places that were too far to walk to. We would be gone all day and our parents weren’t afraid or worried that we would get into trouble. We were “good kids”, and never did anything wrong…..no not much!!
On the border of Maplewood and Irvington, not too far from West Orange, there existed a magical place called Olympic Park, a forty-acre amusement wonderland and we had the time of our lives there! First stop, as we walked thru the entrance was the swimming pool. Since the park was located in mid-town, we didn’t have a beach like Coney Island, but we had the largest saltwater pool in the country. It was where I learned how to swim, and it was only ten cents admission. There were hot dogs, french fries, waffles and ice cream and all the other goodies that would wreak havoc on our bellies later in the night, but it didn’t matter when we hopped on the Ferris wheel and all the other rides. Olympic Park had two roller coasters: The Rocket and The Jack Rabbit, and the carousel (which stands today in Disney World with a Cinderella Theme). There was a daily circus, motorcycle races, aerial acts, and a dance pavilion with the state’s greatest band lead by Joe Basile. The whole day would cost us less than a dollar. Wow, what kid would want to go home? What a place, and it was practically in our backyard. We were blessed to be kids then.
Olympic Park opened in the summer of 1887. The 1950’s were the best times for us, the park was rockin’ and we were right there, at least a half dozen times in the summer. The park sadly closed in 1965, and although my friends and I didn’t go as often as we used to, we were nevertheless heart-broken. Kids today really don’t know what they missed. It sounds like an old cliché, as my grandfather would say, but It was real. It was hands on, and we were out having fun….real safe fun. For many years after, if you rode by the area where the park was, you could still see the abandoned and rickety roller coaster, which stood as a memorial for a few years, until it was demolished in 1969.
For a long time, Olympic Park remained only a memory for those who walked through its gates. On August 27, 2012, a group of people who cared and wanted to do something in remembrance, gathered to unveil a granite monument in tribute to the wonderland that once belonged to all of us. A fitting “grave stone”, if you will, to a place that died with the times. Olympic Park, if open today, wouldn’t be the same, so it remains with the times it was meant to be a part of. I can still hear the click-clack of the roller coaster as it entered its first climb and the screams as it descended, the toot of the miniature train, the smell of hamburgers and french fries cooking and the memory of cotton candy sticking to my nose. It was great time and for us it was A Magical Place, just around the corner.