Playland at the Beach was a San Francisco, CA amusement park in the 19th and 20th centuries. The park, which first featured rides in the 1880s, spanned 10 acres along Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Although Playland at the beach has been closed since 1972, the park has a fond place in the memories of many local residents and has spawned many fan communities online.
In 1884, the former squatter’s village on Ocean Beach built a gravity railroad roller coaster, one of the first in the nation. In the following decades, trolley routes were created to take large numbers of visitors to the amusement park, which came to include the landmark Cliff House restaurant and the salt-water swimming pools of the Sutro Baths. In 1911, another local amusement park was severely damaged in a fire, and many of the rides were relocated to the seaside park. Concession stands began to spring up around the attractions, and the partnership of concessionaires John Friedel and Arthur Looff first envisioned the area as one large park.
Looff and Friedel added ten new rides to the park, and operated it with growing success. In 1926, George Whitney became the general manager, and changed the variously-named areas to Playland at the Beach. By 1934, Playland at the Beach had 14 rides, 25 concession stands, and several restaurants.
One of the most beloved of all the attractions was the enormous indoor funhouse. The Playland funhouse featured a gigantic and occasionally frightening clown at the entrance, commonly referred to as “Laughing Sal.” The interior of the funhouse featured intricate wood carvings and details, considered premiere examples of the carnival style. The attraction contained catwalks, spinning barrels, funhouse mirrors and a three-story high indoor slide carved of highly polished wood.
Another popular attraction was the Laff in the Dark, a spooky haunted house ride. Terrifying features included a cannibal lady, skeletons and plenty of shrieks and frights. In the Diving Bell, riders were dropped into a shallow pool in a replica early submarine. The pool featured fake fish, and was considered somewhat hokey, even at the time. Over the years, Playland at the Beach had several roller coasters and flume-rides, including the Big Dipper and the wild-mouse coaster, the Alpine Racer.
One innovation that came from Playland at the Beach is the popular ice cream sandwich called the It’s-It®. Invented by park manager George Whitney in 1928, the dessert featured vanilla ice-cream sandwiched by two oatmeal cookies and covered in dark chocolate. It’s-Its® were originally only sold at the park, but after Playland closed in the 1970s, the treat became available commercially.
After the death of George Whitney in 1958, the park passed from manager to manager, seeming to lose its sense of success. The area became increasingly known for drug activity, which frightened away the family clientele. On Labor Day Weekend in 1972, Playland at the Beach closed. The park was torn down and condominiums were built in its place. In 1996, San Francisco commissioned a permanent art exhibit honoring the park and its long history with the city. Much to the chagrin of fans, Playland at the Beach can only be visited through commemorative websites featuring photographs and memoirs.