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City unveils plans for ‘Funland’ amusement park restoration project in Idaho Falls

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Silas Wright | EastIdahoNews.com

IDAHO FALLS — Many Idaho Falls residents have fond memories of going to Funland, the local amusement park inside Tautphaus Park by the zoo. For a few years now the park has been closed with many of its attractions seemingly just sitting around.

A committee formed by the city of Idaho Falls to restore the park to its former glory recently launched a website explaining future plans for the park.

Dana Kirkham, president of the Funland committee, says a multiple-phase plan is in place. The city is committed to preserve the historical elements of the park while adding many new features for the community to enjoy, including an entrance connecting the park to the zoo.

“Essentially, this will be Funland at the zoo,” Kirkham said. “The goal is to connect the two with a joint entrance, where passes can be bought to enter one park or the other, or special passes to come in and out of both.”

Funland has been part of Idaho Falls’ history for nearly three-quarters of a century. The city purchased it about a year ago after an overwhelming cry from the citizens to keep it open. It was part of their plan to improve the Tautphaus Park area.

A renovation project will get underway soon. The plan is to have a soft opening in 2021 for the community to see some of the park’s attractions and construction progress. A grand re-opening will happen in 2022, coinciding with Funland’s 75th anniversary.

Kirkham says the ultimate goal with the project is improving safety on the rides and preserving the park’s history.

“Funland won’t open its doors until the city can guarantee certain standards of safety for the park and its rides,” she says.

Preserving history and improving safety

The Eli Wheel is arguably the most prominent piece people recognize. According to the Eli Bridge Company website, W. E. Sullivan, the owner, was inspired to build it after his first ride on the Chicago Ferris Wheel in 1893. He collaborated with machinist James H. Clements to make their own version.

The Eli Wheel was installed in the park in the late 1940s and early 1950s, along with the Octopus, the train, and the carousel.

Park Facilities Supervisor Tim McCammon explained that in this period of time, during WWII, all of the metal went to the war effort.

“To see something this size and this caliber was quite unique,” he explained.

The wheel was said to be assembled with spare parts throughout the country and its purpose was to welcome soldiers home.

The ride with dangling chain swings has parts built from scraps of B-17 bombers. The carts that hang from the chains are made from supplemental fuel tanks that hang from the wings.

The Octopus ride was always known for its jerky motion when spinning. Turns out, that was on purpose.

The Octopus at Funland | Silas Wright, EastIdahoNews.com

Prior to WWII, McCammon says the area had an abundance of workers. After the war began, skilled workers were taken overseas and were replaced by people unfamiliar with machine work. These workers didn’t know how to speed up or slow down the machine, resulting in quick jerks and ‘not-so-smooth’ rides.

This wasn’t a problem for those employees, however. They noticed the jerky motion of the ride was great for knocking things out of the hands or pockets of those who rode it. McCammon says they would pick up whatever fell out and use it to “supplement” their income.

“They would shake it all loose and pocket whatever (fell out),” he says.

Improvements to the Octopus will include making it a smoother ride so people won’t have to worry about losing their wallet and other belongings.

“We are not trying to steal your watch or your change,” Kirkham says.

Some people may have already noticed the park’s mini-golf course is no longer there. Kirkham says it is not gone for good. The committee is hoping to bring it back. They’re asking local businesses to sponsor individual holes.

The miniature golf course originally had nine holes, but later adopted 10 more, with the final hole collecting your ball. The plan is to still involve 18 to 19 holes in the grand reopening, Kirkham says.

The swings are another familiar ride at Funland. Kirkham says she isn’t sure whether it will return.

“The number one thing on our mind is safety,” Kirkham said. “We want to ensure that everything that happens at Funland is safe.”

The Swings at Funland | Silas Wright, EastIdahoNews.com

If the ride is deemed unsafe, she says the swing buckets will be repurposed somewhere else in the park.

The log building where you buy tickets and food is another piece and is part of the reason Fun Land exists today.

The building was constructed in the 1930s as part of the Work Project Administration, a government program created by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. It was originally a bathhouse for a lake that used to exist in Tautphaus park.

The building was sold once the lake was drained and became a chicken restaurant. In order to bring more customers, the new owner decided to purchase rides to attract families. Eventually, the area switched from being a chicken restaurant that had rides to an amusement park that served chicken.

Kirkham says the efforts of the park’s owners over the years has allowed the city to purchase it and begin this restoration project.

A ‘little ray of sunshine’ in Idaho Falls

Donations and sponsorships will be critical to the park’s redevelopment. Kirkham and the rest of the committee are accepting donations now. They hope to raise funds to restore all of the old rides, and possibly even bring in more.

“Funland is an iconic piece of Idaho Falls history,” says Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper. “Not many places have captured the public’s imagination in this way, so it made sense for the city to have purchased Funland a few years back, and now our task is to restore it — something our entire city council was able to get behind.”

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the barrage of negativity in the daily news cycle, Casper says Funland is a “little ray of sunshine” that brings something positive and wholesome for the community.

Eric Bright, Carrie Athay, Shauna Crabtree, Brandon Lee, Jarom Manwaring, Teresa Flannery, and Rebecca Pyper and others with the Restore Funland Committee feel the same way.

“I have the best job,” Kirkham told the city council in August. “I just have always had an affinity for the place. When I knew they were going to do something with it, I just wanted to be a part of it.”

Despite all the work that’s ahead, Kirkham is excited for the future and loves what she does.

“Every minute I spend on (Funland), I enjoy,” she said. “How many times do you get to participate in a project you (love)?”

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