Luna Park, you see, is the Italian term for amusement park. I heard of the mythical place long before I ever visited one. And today, on the day that marks the anniversary of the opening of the first roller coaster ride in America, I have the answer.
On this day in 1884, a ride called the switchback railway became a big attraction at Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York. Reading about it, I learned that by 1904 three large amusement parks had appeared on Coney Island. They were called Dreamland, Steeplechase and... Luna Park.
This third park was the creation of Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, who had worked together at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. There, they had created a popular illusion ride called "The Trip to the Moon." The one they built on Coney Island was a grand, colourful, fanciful attraction that employed 1,700 people by 1907 and was illuminated by over one million light bulbs.
The Luna Park idea was exported overseas. In 1911, over 20 fun fair experts were hired to build one near Melbourne, Australia, and it is still very much alive today. (The photograph in the top corner is of the entrance to the St. Kilda Luna Park. It comes from Mandy Olszewski, who made it available on the stock.xchng web site.)
During the Depression and the Second World War, people had less disposable income and theme parks fell on hard times. But they recovered in the 1950s, when Disneyland was built in California.
In Italy, Luna Park is a more generic term that applies to many different amusement concepts.
Roller coasters and themed experiences seem to have a bright future, as technology and human creativity come together to create thrills that keep luna parks alive and well in the 21st century.