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Balboa Park Carousel Thrilled Generations

The Balboa Park Carousel (San Diego, California) thrilled generations, creating countless fond memories for children of all ages for more than a century. One of an estimated 200 survivors across America, the Balboa Park Carousel remains in pristine condition to this day.

Housed in a 12-sided building (a dodecagon), the Carousel is still powered by the original General Electric motor that was installed in 1910 when the Carousel was built. The rides are five minutes long, with a top speed on the outside ring of 13 miles per hour.The operator keeps track with an egg timer.

Its organ music incorporates drums and cymbals, making it a military band style. According to the Friends of Balboa Park volunteers, 102 of the carousel’s original music rolls are still in service, making fond memories to this day.

The Carousel is a Menagerie Model with hand-carved animals including horses, frogs, giraffes, cats, dogs, camels, deer, ostriches and zebras. All but two of the animal couples are original. The brilliantly hand-painted murals surrounding the upper carousel are also original.

The Balboa Park Carousel is believed to be one of only about a dozen in North America still offering the brass ring game. Riders attempt to grab for the ring as they pass. If they catch it, they win a free ride. At one point, thousands of these existed.

Not surprisingly, the early twentieth-century term, “reach for the brass ring” developed from this game. It means living life to the fullest and doing whatever it takes to reach for your dreams.

Meet The Menagerie

Almost all of the animals on the Balboa Park Carousel are original. The only exceptions are four small horses that were added in the 1960s, according to the Friends of Balboa Park.

Horses are represented on most carousels with three stances. Those with four hooves on the ground and are called standing figures or posers. Prancers have two front legs in the air and two on the ground. Those with all legs in the air are jumpers and they usually move up and down.

The Long Journey Of The Balboa Park Carousel

The Herschell-Spillman Co. in North Tonawanda, New York built the carousel in 1910. It was shipped to the 12-acre park Luna Park (originally called Chutes park) near downtown Los Angeles, California. From 1899 to 1914, rides, animals, theaters, and a ballpark, attracted enormous crowds each day.  Luna Park emulated many of the features of the popular parks and attractions on Coney Island.

In October 1910 a new corporation purchased Chutes and added at least a dozen new attractions for its 1911 re-opening as Luna Park. 

“Luna Park officially opened on June 10, 1911 to an evening crowd of 16,000 people. Besides its 24 attractions, its free daily entertainment included Stanley and Hoxiels’s Congress of Rough Riders and Wild West Show, and a circus performance, twice daily, of Mme. Schell’s ferocious lions in a great iron cage in the center of the lagoon. Shooting the Rapids opened a week late, but by then weekend crowds averaged over 30,000 daily, and there were long lines at Nemo’s Trip to Slumberland.”

The following spring owners made the park more family friendly by adding new attractions. Among them were the House That Jack Built and the Children’s Half Acre full of slides and rides for kids. 

By 1915 H.D. Simpson had purchased the Carousel and moved it to a new home in the summer resort called the Coronado Tent City, on the empty beach just south of the Hotel del Coronado off the coast of San Diego, California.

From 1900 until 1938, The Del’s Tent City (1900-1938) was a popular camp-style destination for those whose budget did not allow a stay in the big hotel. It was designed like a small city, much like its sister tent city on Catalina Island, off Los Angeles. The Tent City was a mini-city with restaurants, soda fountains, a library, grocery store, shops swimming, dance pavilion, arcade and of course, the carousel. 

The Carousel was moved across the bay to The Panama–California Exposition in San Diego’s large urban Balboa Park between January 1, 1915, and January 1, 1917. San Diego was the first U.S. port of call for ships traveling north after passing westward through the newly opened Panama Canal.

Eventually, the carousel was moved to its current home, adjacent to the San Diego Zoo.

Carousels Made The World Go Round For Centuries

The word Carousel is derived from French carrousel and Italian carosello. In Britain they are also referred to as roundabouts and in Australia as hurdy-gurdies. The term merry-go-round is sometimes used interchangeably with carousel as a type of amusement ride that rotates on a circular platform.

According to Painted Ponies, the circular ride grew in popularity and complexity. The Golden Age of the Carousela is generally marked from the late 1800s to 1920s, although some experts place the beginning as early as the 1870s in America.

Approximately 6,000 of these icons were carved around the turn of the century. Approximately 200 survive today. Among the leading companies during the Golden Age were Looff, Dentzel, The Philadelphia Toboggan Company and M.C. Illions. Also on the list is Spillman and Herschell, the company that created the Balboa Park Carousel.

Carousels originated from training tools for combat devised by Turkish and Arabian horsemen in the 12th century. Crusaders carried these games to France in the 13th century and then to England. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the carousel appeared as a popular amusement ride at carnivals and fairs, along with ferris wheels.

 It was a time when art converged with advancements introduced daily by the Industrial Revolution. According to the National Fairground Archive, by the mid-19th-century, the carousel became a popular attraction at county fairs as well.  

The first steam-powered mechanical roundabout, invented by Thomas Bradshaw, appeared at the Aylsham Fair in about 1861. It was described by a Halifax Courier journalist as:

“a roundabout of huge proportions, driven by a steam engine which whirled around with such impetuosity, that the wonder is the daring riders are not shot off like cannon- ball, and driven half into the middle of next month.”

Friends Of Balboa Park Gave The Carousel A Forever Home

In 2017, the Friends of Balboa Park purchased the historic carousel.  As its new owner and operator, they will ensure that it remains an historic park landmark for many more years to come.

Established in 2014, National Carousel Day is celebrated on July 25th. We’re hoping you reach the brass ring on your next trip to the Carousel.

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