Memories of Playland

Vampire Slayers and Dykes to Watch Out For

When I was a kid there was an amusement park in San Francisco, right down by the beach.  It was called Playland.

I  remember it as huge and magical and fascinating.  I’m sure if it was still there (it was torn down in 1972) it would seem smaller and  cheesier.  The magic would just be papier-mâché.  The grease in the air  would probably make me sick.  But oh, it was fun to go there as a kid.
I  remember a scary monster ride through the dark.  A kid in my school  told me solemnly that it was called The Dummies Moving.  Somehow that  name sounded scarier and more horrible than what it was really called.   (I think it was called “Limbo.”)  It seemed huge inside.  You rode  through the pitch dark in a little car.  There was a smell of oil and  metal.  Suddenly a light in front of you would flash on — there was a  monster!   A roar echoed, then the lights flashed off again.  Just when I  had all the monsters memorized and wasn’t scared by them any more, they  added a new one: lights flashed on, there was a flat picture of a  monster with arms raised – suddenly, with a grinding of machinery, the  arms came down, reaching for you!
I remember a roller coaster called the Mad Mouse, though I can’t find mention of it in the Wikipedia entry on Playland.  They do mention the “Alpine Racer” which is described as a “wild mouse” ride.  The Roller Coaster Database, at,  defines a Wild Mouse rollercoaster as one “using single-car trains on a  track with very tight turns. The cars’ wheels are positioned closer to  the rear of the car than a traditional coaster. The front of the car  travels past the turn before changing directions, giving the sensation  that the car will fall off the track.”  That must have been the one that  we called the Mad Mouse.  I was always either too little or too afraid  to try it out.
I  remember the Kooky Kube, which I only went in once.  It wasn’t really a  ride, it was a house you walked through with a guide and each room was  distorted and weird.  In one room you sat down on a board on rollers and  seemed to roll uphill.
And  I remember the Fun House.  I didn’t know then what a historic treasure  that Fun House was.  All I knew was that I hated the laughing lady doll  in the window.  Great big mouth, bulging cheeks, fat hands, and sounding  like she was choking with crazy laughter that haunted me.  (She was  called “Laughing Sal” and you can watch a video of her at
To  get in to the Fun House, you went through the mirror maze.  After a few  times, I memorized the route and could get through quickly while my  little brother was still lost.  The trick was this: if you walked  directly towards the lights and the noisy Fun House interior, you’d bump  into mirrors and glass walls.  You had to take a passage away  from your goal.  Then you’d go around a wall of mirrors and find  yourself walking out of the maze in just seconds.  (That mirror maze  entered my dreams a few months ago: a couple of the mirrors slid aside  and formed a doorway to another world.)
Inside  the Fun House, they had holes in the floor which blasted air up at you.   I later learned they were for blowing up ladies skirts.  Me, I hated  those blasts of air, they made my heart jump.  But I figured out that  they were controlled by a guy at an elevated bank of levers.  If I  wanted until he wasn’t looking, I could cross the holes in safety.  I  remember one time he saw me hesitating at a line of those holes, and he  motioned me forward.  And blasted me as I came.
I  liked best the tilting walkways because there were no holes in the  floor there.  You walked this pathway and the walkway moved up and down  under you.  There was also a turning tube you could walk through but I  never tried: I would have been flipped sideways.
And  then the giant slides, three stories tall, made of waxed wood.  One  slide went straight down, the other had a hump halfway down which made  me feel I was going to fly off.  I always took the straight one.  You  climbed a stairway up and up and up to a cramped little room at the top  of the slides and they gave you a piece of canvas to sit on.  You sat at  the top of that huge fall and looked down and thought, am I really  going to slide down that?  The teenager handing out the canvas nagged you: “Go or get off and give somebody else a chance.”  And so you pushed off, feeling like needles were going through your crotch.  Your behind heated up even through the canvas as you plunged down.  And then you coasted to a stop, out of breath, triumphant.
They had these great old arcade games, some of which are now at the MuséeMécanique at Fisherman’s Wharf.    My favorite was the baseball game.  You stood behind home plate of a  miniature ball field with metal players at the bases and short stop.   Put in a nickel and a steel ball came up from a hole at the pitcher’s  mound.  It rolled toward a metal bat, which you pressed a button to  swing.  Swing at the wrong time and the ball rolled right past into  another hole.  Connect with the ball and it usually was snagged by a  slot in front of a player.  But if you were really good, you could roll  it into the slot which said “Home run.”
Greasy  fried food, kitchen-sponge-sized bars of pink popcorn, the Fun House,  the scary monsters in the dark.  The smell of the ocean nearby.   Playland is one of those places like the old Nut Tree: a part of my  childhood gone forever.
Here’s a few links if you want to read more about Playland:
Vampire Slayers and Dykes to Watch Out For

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