Fantasia Island originally opened as a small children’s oriented theme park in 1961 in western New York. An expansion in the 1970s and 1980s with adult-themed rides and a water park made Fantasia Island a reliable summertime destination. Economic conditions caused the amusement park to close in 1982 and again in 2020, although plans are in place to reopen Fantasia Island in 2021.
The amusement park industry experienced a development boom in the late 1950s and 1960s because of entrepreneurs scrambling to construct amusement parks of all sizes and types, all hoping to emulate the success of Disneyland which had been completed in California in 1955.
In 1959, real estate developer Lawrence Grant was plotting out a new subdivision along the Niagara Thruway and was inspired to develop a theme park on vacant land nearby. 1 In December, Grant formed the Fantasia Land corporation hired co-financier and local jeweler Gerald Birzon to design the theme park. The ground for Fantasia Land was broken in October 1960 and the new park, constructed by Milton Milstein & Associates, opened to guests as Fantasia Island on July 1, 1961. The park name change was prompted by the similarity to Fantasyland in Disneyland.
The central area of the Fantasia Island was anchored by a Happy Birthday house shaped like a cake surrounded by five themed areas: Action Town, Animal Kingdom, Garden of Fables, Indian Village, and Western Town. 1 The Animal Kingdom was anchored by a petting zoo while Garden of Fables featured re-creations of fairy tales, including Jack and the Beanstalk and Jonah’s Whale. Indian Village featured Seneca Indians that demonstrated their customs, while Western Town was a replica of an Old West town, which included a saloon that provided live entertainment. The majority of the park’s ten rides were clustered within Action Town, which included a train, merry-go-round, and “antique” automobiles.
Despite attendance numbers were below projections, Fantasia Island was expanded upon with a riverboat and stagecoach rides in 1962, followed by the addition of the Space Whirl, an outer-space-themed spinning ride that had been acquired from the World’s Fair in Seattle, and the Magnetic House, a walk-through illusion attraction, in 1963. 1 A 2,500-seat outdoor arena was built for French lion tamer Jean “Tarzan’ Zerbini’s circus in 1965. The Blue Goose, a historic circa 1930 attraction that featured 14 wooden birds on which children sat, was added in 1971.
A five-year, $10 million program was launched in 1974 to broaden Fantasia Island’s appeal to adults. 1 Additional land was acquired and $1.2 million was spent on new attractions for the 1974 season alone. The new features included a new 3,500-seat arena for the circus, and bumper cars, Paratrooper, Scrambler, Tilt-a-Whirl, and Trabant rides. The Wildcat, a 45-foot-tall, 1,500-foot-long steel coaster, was also added.
Lower attendance numbers and financial difficulties because of the region’s rust belt economic decline caused Fantasia Island to not operate for the 1982 season. 1 2 The amusement park was acquired out of bankruptcy by Charles R. Wood Enterprises in November 1982 and the park reopened for the following season. 2 It was proposed to add several new rides, upgrade the children’s area, and add new high-diving, western, and circus shows. Water World, a water park, was added in 1984. 1 Surf Hill, a kiddie water slide complex, opened in 1987, followed by the addition of paddle boats and kiddie bumper boats in 1988 and kiddie bumper cars and a Balloon Race spinning ride in 1989.
Fantasia Island was sold to the International Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) in April 1989 for $36 million. 1 IBC saw the amusement park industry as complementary to its ownership of the Ice Capades and Harlem Globetrotters. Continuing along with improvements under Wood Enterprises, IBC added Splash Creek, a river ride in the water park, and the Flying Bobs, a spinning ride. The improvements, while needed to remain competitive, added to IBC’s already high debt load.
Attendance began to dwindle after concerns were raised over the park’s safety record during IBC’s ownership tenure. 3 In June 1990, Michael Murach was paralyzed from the head down while performing a high diving act at the park. It was revealed that the dividing board had been installed an improper distance away from the edge of the pool. 4 In August 1991, Kenneth Margerum fell to his death from the Ferris wheel after his seat dropped from its axle. One or two seats had been removed from the ridge each day to prevent the ride from moving about in high winds during off-hours. The seats were bolted back onto the frame of the ride each morning. Investigators discovered that only one side of the victim’s seat had been bolted properly. 3
By 1992, IBC was in bankruptcy, and Wood Enterprises reacquired Fantasia Island in October for just $14 million. 1 To give the park a fresh, new identity, the name was changed to Two Flags Over Niagara Fun Park, reflecting its location close to the Canadian border. Some improvements to the park were made over the 1993 season, including the addition of the Sea Dragon swinging ship.
Two Flags Over Niagara Fun Park was listed for sale at the end of the season and it was sold to local carnival operator Martin DiPietro on February 23, 1994. 1 DiPietro changed the park’s name to Martin’s Fantasia Island, which was followed up with $500,000 in repairs to the buildings and grounds and $4.5 million to replace 75% of the park’s rides with more modern models. 1 5
Some rides, including the Devil’s Hole, Magnetic House, Paratrooper, and Trabant, were removed, offset by the addition of the Patriot, Super Sizzler, and a 90-foot-tall, $750,000 Gondola Wheel. 1 The children’s area was renovated and all but two rides were replaced. The merry-go-round was refurbished and relocated to a landscaped area in the center of the park. The Little Dipper roller coaster, Arto Train, and Roto Whip gave way to the Dragon roller coaster, Rio Grande train, Granny Bug, and Red Baron.
The improvements led to dramatic attendance increases and more than 200,000 had visited Martin’s Fantasia Island by the end of DiPietro’s first season as owner. 1
In 1999, the Silver Comet, named after The Comet from the defunct Crystal Beach Park, was added. 6 The 2,800-foot wooden coaster, with a coaster station that was a replica of the original’s Comet’s, boasted a height of 95 feet and a top speed of 55 MPH. 1
In 2001, the Daredevil, a 120-foot-tall launch tower, was added. 1 The Nitro, a multi-axis spinning ride, replaced the Flying Bobs in 2003, and Jack and the Beanstalk, a bouncing tower ride, took the place of the Dragon roller coaster in 2004. In 2005, the Wildcat was sold to an amusement park in Russia and replaced by the Crazy Mouse, a $2 million spinning coaster.
On May 14, 2016, DiPietro sold Martin’s Fantasia Island to STORE Capital, with the amusement park leased to the Apex Parks Group. 7 11 12 For the 2017 season, the park was renamed to Fantasia Island Niagara’s Amusement & Water Park.
During the 2018 season, the Garden of Fables was revamped and became Fairytale Forest, which included the addition of Oakley The Talking Tree and If The Shoe Fits shows and Cinderella’s Midnight Magic Wheel, a small Ferris wheel. 7 Additionally, Water World was rebranded as Splashaway Bay, the former Raging Rapids slides were renovated and renamed Double Dare Falls, and several cabanas were constructed.
On February 19, 2020, Apex Parks announced that Fantasia Island would permanently close because of shrinking attendance and that the rides would be sold off to operators of other parks or dismantled for potential use at other Apex facilities. 8 9 11 12 On July 1, Empire Adventures, a collection of local investors, announced plans to reopen Fantasia Island for the 2021 season. 10 The park would be thoroughly renovated through a five-year, three-phase plan that includes beautification efforts to the park grounds, reopening Fantasia Island in mid-2021, and introducing new rides and attractions on an annual basis starting in 2022.
- “Martin’s Fantasy Island.” Amusement Parks of New York, by Jim Futrell, Stackpole Books, 2006, pp. 157–166.
- Usiak, Richard S. “‘Youngsters need those summer jobs’.” UPI, 23 Nov. 1982.
- “Boy Killed in Fall from Ferris Wheel.” Associated Press, 12 Aug. 1991.
- Gryta, Matt. “Paralyzed Ex-Diver Awarded $58.6 Million.” Buffalo News, 4 Dec. 2003.
- Robinson, David. “Area Firm Buys Two Flags Over Niagara Grand.” Buffalo News, 18 Jan. 1994.
- “Silver Comet keeps thrill alive for fans of the Crystal Beach roller coaster.” Buffalo News, 10 Aug. 2013.
- Fink, James. “Fantasy Island bought by California company.” Buffalo Business First, 14 May 2016.
- Licastro, Troy. “Multiple reports say Fantasy Island rides are being sold.” WIVB, 18 Feb. 2020.
- “Fantasy Island confirms it has closed.” Buffalo News, 19 Feb. 2020.
- “Reimagining, Revitalizing, REOPENING.” Empire Adventures, 2020.
- Hernandez, Sunny. “Fantasy Island amusement park closes after almost 60 years of summer fun.” New York Upstate, 20 Feb. 2020.
- Austin, Larry. “Fantasy Island closes, ending 59-year ride.” Island Dispatch, 21 Feb. 2020.