Update: The public can enjoy the rides for free through Sept. 30.
After 66 years, Iowa City’s much-loved children’s train will be making its final run this fall. On Monday, the Iowa City Department of Parks and Recreation announced it is closing down and dismantling the amusement rides in City Park when their regularly scheduled season comes to an end on Sept. 23.
“We understand this has been an important part of our history and we don’t take this decision lightly, but it’s time,” said Parks and Recreation Director Juli Seydell Johnson.
It had become increasingly expensive to repair and maintain the aging rides, Seydell Johnson explained. The amusement rides area also isn’t fully in compliance with the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“As we look at how we can rejuvenate that entire park area, we’re going to move to an inclusive, larger adventure playground instead,” Seydell Johnson said. “It’ll be a change, but we think it’ll be a fun and exciting change.”
Exactly what the new adventure playground will include hasn’t been determined yet, according to Seydell Johson. The city is in the process of hiring a consulting firm to help with its design, and plans call for the new playground to open in early summer 2019.
The city purchased the rides in 1999 from the Drollinger family, who had owned and operated them since 1952.
“My grandparents started it originally, and they ran it for 25 years or so,” Guy Drollinger told Little Village. “Then my dad ran it for about 20 years, and then I ran it for six years starting in 1993.”
“I can understand the city deciding to close it,” Drollinger said. ”It was a really wonderful thing for the community, but there was no revenue in it.”
Times have changed, Drollinger noted, and for many people these days, amusement rides like the ones in City Park are something people see as a bit of nostalgia, instead of a real entertainment option.
“In the ’80s, my father used to say that in 1960, there were about three places [in Iowa City] to go for entertainment: you could go shopping, you could go to the movie theater or you went to the park. So, we had a third of the business. Now, [in the 1980s] there’s a hundred things to do. So, we get one-100th of the business,” Drollinger recalled.
“I think the first year , my grandfather took in $1,000 or $1,200 in a summer, and he thought it was a goldmine,” Drollinger said. “It continued to take about that much,” he added, laughing. “But, of course, as time went on that was less and less and less money.”
By 1999, the cost of insurance for the rides was about the same as the amount of money generated by the 75-cent tickets, according to Drollinger. Before deciding to sell, Drollinger said he realized he’d need to take a loan to keep running the rides.
“At the end of the season, the merry-go-round bearings would need work. Or some part of the train would need to be send to the welder.”
But running the rides was never just about money for the Drollingers.
“There are a lot of memories,” he said. “One thing you’d see every year was young parents would come up with three or four little kids and buy tickets for the merry-go-round, but one of the kids would be too afraid to ride it. But over and over, it seemed like the children who were afraid at first were the ones who came to love the merry-go-round most of all.”
Drollinger said one of his favorite memories of the park involved something that happened in the 1970s — something he wasn’t there to see.
“After my father died, we got a letter from a couple in Scandinavia,” he said.
In the letter, the couple explained they had been graduate students at the University of Iowa, and one night, walking through City Park, they noticed the lights of the carousel. It was closing time, and Drollinger’s father, who was shutting down the ride, was the only person there. The couple asked if it would be possible to ride the carousel.
“My father said yes,” Drollinger said. “But they said [in the letter], he asked if it was okay if he played his trumpet for them, instead of switching on the carousel music.” Drollinger’s father was also a musician, and he was playing at The Airliner later that night. The couple rode the carousel as he played for them.
“They said, ‘It’s a memory that we’ll never forget.’”
Drollinger’s grandfather never intended to start a family entertainment business. He managed a lumberyard, but one day learned “someone had a small train they wanted to sell,” Drollinger recounted. He wanted to buy the train, not for business, but because he’d been fascinated by trains ever since he was a boy in a small town in southwestern Iowa in the 1890s.
He bought the train, which was in poor condition, and repaired it.
“Then someone asked him if he could set it up for a celebration in a little town,” Drollinger said. “The train took in more than he made in a month.”
Drollinger’s grandparents started touring with a major carnival, running the train in towns around the country. By the 1950s, they were ready to settle down and chose Iowa City.
They talked to city officials about the possibility of setting up the train in City Park.
“Originally they were just going to set it up for a Fourth of July celebration,” Drollinger said. But the train proved to be so popular, the city suggested leaving it in place and running it on Sundays.
The next year, the Drollingers added the carousel, and the amusement ride area grew from there.
“My grandparents were so proud of those rides,” Drollinger said. “My grandfather used to have a little journal and he’d do a lot of math in it. I remember one day, he was adding some stuff up, and I asked what he was doing. And he says, ‘Well, we’ve been out to the park now for almost 40 years, and I was trying to add up the number of tickets, of how many children we’ve had on the rides.’”
“I walked away thinking, he wasn’t adding up how much money he’d made. He was adding up how many children had enjoyed the rides.”
The rides in City Park are open from 1-7 p.m. daily through August 19. Starting August 20, the rides will be open from 1-6 p.m. on weekends through Sunday, September 23.