A Midwestern Magic Kingdom: 45 years of Adventureland

Adventureland’s Raging River ride in 1990. — courtesy of Eric Chicas

Adventureland is hard to miss. Driving down Highway 80 through Altoona, the 235-foot-tall Space Shot rises far above the trees, a beacon to Midwesterners looking for cheap thrills and funnel cakes. With over 100 rides, shows and attractions, Adventureland is the largest amusement park in Iowa.

It began as a pipe dream. Hoping to make Iowa summers more than just sweat and corn, Adventureland founder Jack Krantz began cultivating a larger-than-life idea.

“In the early 1970s, Jack decided he needed something for his kids to do during their summer breaks,” said Molly Vincent, Krantz’s daughter and the park’s current director of advertising. “He felt the state of Iowa was lacking in fun family activities, so he opened Adventureland.”

On June 23, 1973, Adventureland Inn opened its doors to the public, the ribbon cut by Congressman Neal Smith, Altoona Mayor Sam Wise and Krantz. Scheduled a year ahead of Adventureland Park, the inn, affiliated with Best Western, served as a stylish preview of things to come from Krantz’s new company, Adventure Lands of America, Inc. Its climate-controlled courtyard was described by the Altoona Herald as “lavishly landscaped” with a pool, whirlpool and veranda, while its rooms were “spacious and comfortable.” An Iowan Grand Budapest, the 150-unit, Victorian-style motel also included a convention center and nearby campsite.

Bernie the dog, Adventureland’s mascot, greets guests in the 1980s. — courtesy of Molly Vincent

The unveiling built excitement for everything Krantz had yet to reveal — including the park.

“Adventureland worked strategically with many TV and radio stations to grow their audience,” Vincent said. “Company outings also helped grow the business through word of mouth.”

The official opening of Adventureland was marked for the summer of 1974; on Sunday, June 29, its Main Street was opened to the public. The “street” featured a shopping center, souvenir gift shops and a family-friendly theater. Krantz’s idea was to offer education in an environment children felt excited to learn in.

A family poses for a photo on Adventureland’s Main Street in the early years of the park. — courtesy of Molly Vincent

An old newspaper clip from the Des Moines Register detailed the park as an “animated fairyland with castles and a dense jungle.” It was Krantz’s Midwestern take on one of the greatest theme parks in America.

“Disney had a big influence on the building of Adventureland, as can be seen in the Main Street area when you enter the park,” Vincent said. “The rows of retail stores, built to look like a quaint town square, is patterned after Disney World.”

Disney wasn’t the only influence on Adventureland. Riverview Park, an old Des Moines amusement park set to reopen in 2020 as an outdoor concert venue, lent land and rides to Krantz.

The end of one era marked the beginning of another. Adventureland premiered with acquired attractions from Riverview, including a weight-guessing booth, mirror maze (a portion of which is now set up at the exit of the Dragon roller coaster), Skee-Ball and other carnival games, as well as a carousel that has since been retired. A fan favorite of these Riverview acquisitions was the Himalaya, a fast-paced, circular coaster that still spins to this day.

However, the Himalaya wasn’t what brought in crowds.

The Sky Ride was Adventureland’s crown jewel in the mid- to late-’70s. — courtesy of Molly Vincent

“The Sky Ride was the most popular ride when the park first opened,” Vincent said, referring to the ski lift-type ride that gently guided guests over the park, purchased from the 1974 Spokane World’s Fair. “Soon after, the Super Screamer and Tornado took the crown as rides of choice.”

Archives of the Altoona Herald show early advertisements describing the Tornado as a ride to survive. Still standing today, the 90-foot-tall, 3,200-foot-long wooden roller coaster is essential to Adventureland, with plenty of first kisses shared at the cusp of its 76-foot drop.

The coaster’s name has a less than auspicious origin.

“The park opened for a partial season in 1974, but damage from a tornado shortly after caused the park to only be open for a short time that season,” Vincent said. “The Tornado roller coaster was named after that first storm.”

Guests ride the Tornado roller coaster at Adventureland Park. — courtesy of Molly Vincent

Adventureland has always been about more than thrill rides for kids 42-inches or taller. Though big-name rides like the Outlaw and the Monster tend to drive ticket sales, the family-oriented park has aimed to cultivate opportunities for every age since its onset, Vincent said. Adventureland boasts such kid-friendly attractions as the Lady Bugs, Puff Dragons, Red Baron, Frog Hopper and Shakin’ Bacon rides, in addition to more theatrical offerings.

“Adventureland has had many shows throughout the years,” he explained. “Dolphin and sea lion shows were popular in the 1970s, but soon gave way to more ‘cast-driven’ shows, such as high-diving acts, ice skating, acrobatic acts, magic and singing/dancing type shows.”

Long-running circus production shows have also proven successful for the park, as well as aerial artists, quick-change illusionists and motorcycle stunts.

Children ride the Hampton Cars in Adventureland’s early years. — courtesy of Molly Vincent

“Trends in shows have evolved quite a bit over the seasons but currently we are seeing great reviews for our magic show, puppet theater, live music shows and circus,” Vincent said. “Some of our most popular shows in the past have been ice skating performances, as well as a Chinese acrobat troupe from Taipei.”

Not every season at Adventureland has been grander than the last. A fire consumed a portion of Main Street in the winter of 2010; no one was injured, but the old buildings, which lacked fire sprinklers, were quickly destroyed. The area was closed off for the 2010 season, but reopened in 2011 with a revamped arcade and the park’s first indoor ride: the G-Force, a longtime Adventureland ride that was relocated to the arcade.

Adventureland entertainers. Left: A U.S. High Dive member leaps from 85 feet up (courtesy of Molly Vincent); Right: Jake Stigers performs at the former Sheriff Sam’s Saloon in 1986 or ’87. “Our show was a live six-person show sung and danced to recorded background music,” Stigers said. “We shared casts with a big Broadway revue that was in the Palace Theater at the front of the park.” (courtesy of Jake Stigers)

Like many Iowa businesses, Vincent said Adventureland has been greatly impacted by flooding, though the park has avoided flood damage itself.

“Years where the Midwest, and specifically Iowa, have had terrible flooding have been our off years,” Vincent said. “1993 brought a tremendous amount of floodwater to the Des Moines metro area, which impacted pretty much the entire population of Iowa.”

Water has been both friend and foe to Adventureland. In 2008, the park debuted Kokomo Kove, a play area that served as the flagship attraction of the new Adventure Bay waterpark area, by far Adventureland’s biggest expansion in its four decades. Elements were added to the Bay throughout 2010 and 2012, including speed slides, tube slides, kiddie pools, cabanas, a lazy river and Iowa’s largest wave pool.

Additions to the park in recent years make Adventureland difficult to experience fully in a single-day visit. But despite the regular addition of new rides (the most recent being the Phoenix, a spinning roller coaster set to open this June) and the retiring of old ones (everyone’s favorite spinning cylinder, the Silly Silo, was retired in 2013), Adventureland has retained many of its quirks, from its concession stand shaped like a giant pink pig to its beloved mascot, Bernie the dog.

A child poses with Adventureland mascot Bernie the Dog. — courtesy of Molly Vincent

Keeping fun in the family is a priority for the owners of Adventureland, Vincent said.

“Being a family-run park makes it is easier to adapt and make changes in every aspect of our park, from choosing new rides to employment decisions,” Vincent said. “We test every single food item we sell and every ride we install. It truly is a hands-on business.”

Adventureland has spawned plenty of pleasant memories for its patrons and, in at least one case, an obsession. Shirley Beeghly, a single woman in her 70s from Marshalltown and a longtime Adventurelander, fell in love with the Space Shot about a decade after its debut.

In the ensuing years, she would make daily visits to the park and ride the drop tower attraction dozens of times in a row — usually around 70 times a day, once 182. Beeghly would sit silently, purple restraints over her shoulders and lap, legs dangling, waiting to be launched into the air where she could catch a view of the surrounding cornfields, the ribbon of I-80 and the horizon.

“I like to stay on it and I like to take it as many times as I can,” Beeghly told KCCI in 2014. “I feel as young as springtime.”

For thousands of Iowans drawn to the park over the decades, enticed by high-flyin’ rides or the prospect of a corn dog and a show, Adventureland feels like summertime.

No matter how far Meggie Gates moves away from Iowa, a part of her still lives at Adventureland. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 264.

Adventureland’s original carousel, purchased from Riverview Park, was retired in 2000. — courtesy of William Fare

Take a Ride

You’ll find your typical carnival rides at Adventureland — Lady Luck, Teacups, Tilt-a-Whirl and a Ferris wheel, to name a few — but its more distinctive attractions, current and former, speak to the character of Iowa’s largest amusement park.

1974 – Silly Silo

“I watched a dude puke on the Silly Silo and it came back and hit him in the face,” Little Village reader Payton R. shared. “Great lesson in centrifugal force for a young kid.” That infamous cylindrical ride — which spun rapidly then dropped its floor, leaving riders (and whatever they might expel) stuck to the walls — was one of Adventureland’s first. After the Silly Silo’s manufacturers stopped producing parts for it, the ride was replaced by the Storm Chaser in 2013.

Adventureland’s Silly Silo in 2007. — courtesy of Claire McGranahan
1974 – River Rapids log ride

Another of Adventureland’s original attractions, this beloved log flume dampened guests for nearly 42 years before it was replaced by the Monster in 2016.

1976 – Super Screamer

This white-boned, classic roller coaster rattled until 1999 — perhaps overstaying its welcome, according to Adam P. on Twitter. “The last few years of the Super Screamer’s life were SCARY,” he wrote. “I can remember riding in it when I was 5 and ducking down beneath the leg compartment because I was so scared, and seeing the grass below from the holes in the metal.”

The Tornado. — courtesy of Molly Vincent
1978 – The Tornado

Named for the twister that threatened the park ahead of its opening, this long-standing coaster debuted on the Fourth of July and was quickly recognized as one of the top 10 wooden roller coasters in the world, according to Adventureland.

A clip from the Des Moines Register, May 22, 1988
1988 – The Rainbow

Adventureland’s most ephemeral attraction, the Rainbow was only around for the 1988 season before it was replaced by the Falling Star.

1990 – Dragon

The first roller coaster in Iowa with inversions — two, to be exact — the Dragon was also Adventureland’s first steel roller coaster.

1993 – The Outlaw

The Outlaw may be a creaking, rattling wooden coaster, but it takes its many winding curves confidently and damn fast.

1996 – The Underground

Arguably the strangest ride in the park, the Underground is an immersive, Pirates of the Caribbean-esque roller coaster that jerks riders through tunnels and past animatronic figures inspired by Iowa’s coal mining history and the fictional legend of “Bad Bob.”

An map of Adventureland from 1997
1999 – Space Shot

Adventureland’s skyline forever changed with the erection of the Space Shot, which shoots its riders straight up at around 60 mph, before gently lowering them back down to earth. A fitting ride for the cusp of Y2K.

2010 – Kokomo Kove

The jewel of the new 180-acre Adventure Bay, this “virtual splash factory” was the first major water feature of the new waterpark area to debut.

2014 – Storm Chaser

Possibly the most thrilling swing ride in the Midwest, the Storm Chaser stands taller than the Space Shot at 260 feet and spins its pairs of riders at speeds around 35 mph.

2016 – The Monster

Adventureland’s largest investment — $9 million — and the first of its kind in the U.S., this neon green Gerstlauer steel roller coaster goes up to 65 mph at its fastest point, and includes a corkscrew, five inversions and hundreds of synchronized LED lights.

2019 – The Phoenix

Coming soon to an Adventureland near you: The Phoenix is promised to reach speeds up to 40 mph and heights over 50 feet, as well as complete a full 360-degree rotation. The new coaster will “rise from the ashes” of former rides the Super Screamer (removed in 1999) and the Inverter (removed in 2017).

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