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Five Great Places to Ride Vintage Carousels

Santa Barbara's Chase Palm Park Carousel
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It’s been nearly 90 years since the end of the “Golden Age” of carousels, but thankfully these vintage, wood-carved amusements haven’t disappeared entirely (even though they may be a dying breed).

Fortunately, some antique merry-go-rounds have managed to survive the elements and find their way to Southern California – even if the amusement parks that once housed them have faded from modern memory.

Here are five great places in Southern California to go for the brass ring. These carousels are all such amazing works of art that once you’ve taken a spin around, you may just have to pick a different animal to mount and ride again.

After all, why rush to re-enter a world where horses aren't adorned and pigs don't fly?

1. Griffith Park, Los Angeles

The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round may be the most famous carousel in all of Southern California, thanks to Walt Disney. Legend has it that he was sitting on a bench in Griffith Park, watching the merry-go-round spin, when he first got the idea for Disneyland. Even if reality wasn’t exactly as simple as that, the lore of Walt has been enough to keep this family-friendly attraction running in the park since 1937. Take a ride for the music as much as the 68 carved horses (all jumpers) – the giant Stinson band organ completes the vintage experience by playing a variety of marches and waltzes, at an unbelievably loud volume. Then, head on up to the L.A. Zoo for a spin on the Tom Mankiewicz Conservation Carousel. This modern carousel manufactured by The Carousel Works features a menagerie of wild animals, some of which you’d find right there at the zoo – all carved and painted by hand. Take your pick of a bald eagle, a gorilla, or a lion, tiger, or bear.

Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Disneyland / Disney California Adventure, Anaheim

If what they say about Walt is true, then it follows that Disneyland would have to have its own merry-go-round. Today, the King Arthur Carrousel is one of the few original rides from the theme park’s 1955 opening. Built by Dentzel Carousel Company in 1875, this carousel originally featured a menagerie of giraffes, deer, and other animals that weren’t horses – but since Walt wanted to replicate what he’d experienced in Griffith Park, he replaced them all with horses when he relocated the ride from Toronto (where it had been running since 1922) to Anaheim. Although all these horses are also jumpers, they don't gallop off like they do in Mary Poppins. Across the way at Disney California Adventure, take a "swim" with various sea creatures on the more contemporary King Triton’s Carousel of the Sea, a tribute to the seaside attractions of California's coast, past and present (The Pike, Venice of America, Ocean Park, Belmont Park, and Santa Monica Pier). Under the reign of King Triton (Ariel's father in The Little Mermaid), you get to live out your fantasies on fantastical, bejeweled versions of the Pacific Ocean's finest residents. From humpback whales to dolphins to goldfish, all seven different types of creatures that live "under the sea" are also jumpers, undulating with the waves of music.

Disneyland King Arthur Carrousel (2)
 King Arthur Carrousel. | Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Disneyland California Adventure King Triton's Carousel of the Sea (2)
King Triton’s Carousel of the Sea. | Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Santa Monica Pier Hippodrome, Santa Monica

The historic carousel building on the Santa Monica Pier was once known as Looff's Hippodrome (named after carousel builder Charles I.D. Looff), and the historic structure is a last remaining vestige of what Santa Monica Pier was in its heyday as the “Pleasure Pier,” before becoming its current iteration, Pacific Park. It has actually housed three carousels since it was built in 1916. The third and current one is Philadelphia Toboggan Company's #62 carousel, built in 1922 and relocated from Venice in 1947. You might be disappointed to find out that of the 44 animals on the Santa Monica Pier Carousel, some of them don’t go up and down – only ’round and ’round – but you’ve got your choice of 28 “jumpers” on the inner ring and 16 stationary animals on the outer ring. While this carousel started out exclusively with horses (no two of which were alike), some of the older horses have needed to retire over the years. They’ve been replaced not by new horses, but by new fabrications of other, non-equine wild beasts (like, say, a goat, a rabbit, or a rhino), courtesy of master wood carver Ed Roth of A&E Sculpting. They all gallop along to the sound of a Wurlitzer band organ, spinning forever in circles – at least, until the music stops.

Santa Monica Pier Hippodrome (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa Monica Pier Hippodrome (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Balboa Park, San Diego

The carousel in Balboa Park is a major throwback to the early 20th century, but it didn't start its life in San Diego. It was built in 1910 near Niagara Falls in New York State, and first was shipped to L.A.'s Luna Park. By 1915, it had already landed on Coronado Island in the San Diego Bay and moved to Balboa Park, which had become a popular public open space as a result of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. It wasn't even Balboa Park's first carousel, having more or less replaced a Dentzel that had been installed in 1913 and then moved to San Francisco. On this one, you can ride your choice of a giraffe, a cat, dogs, or a chariot that rocks back and forth like a pirate ship ride. You can even ride a bird -- ostriches, storks, and the like -- under the glow of incandescent bulbs as the original band organ plays on. The animals come in pairs, and all but two of them are original. There’s a whopping 52 animals in total -- though, considering the pairs, there are actually only 17 different species, from camel to zebra. The jumpers include a flying pig and a leaping frog, and the horses sport tails made of real horsehair (reportedly retrieved from deceased horses at the zoo next door). All of these creatures -- both mythic and mundane -- are part of the menagerie made by Herschell-Spillman Company, one of the few built by the company that's still in operation.

Balboa Park Carousel (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Balboa Park Carousel (3)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Chase Palm Park, Santa Barbara

One of three carousels manufactured by Allan Herschell's company between 1915 and 1917 (specifically, this one in 1916), the carousel in Santa Barbara’s kid-friendly Chase Palm Park is one of Herschell's largest, ever. It was designated a national historic landmark in 2000, and it's only been in Santa Barbara since 1999. Before that, it had been placed in storage at San Diego's Seaport Village, which had acquired it from an East Coast amusement park. Compared to some of the other Herschell horses, these are relatively gentle beasts – but characteristic of all Herschell carousels, these horses are shod with metal cast horseshoes, all of which are original. There are also two hand-carved poplar wood chariots with double-bench seating (their cushions long-since removed), though their ornamentation is only on the front-facing side. Even so, this type of deep and intricate carving of chariots was apparently very unusual for a Herschell carousel. Thanks to its most recent restoration, it has a new electric motor – but all of the rest of the machinery is amazingly original to its 1916 design. It's missing one of its 35 horses, and a couple of horses seem to be missing half of their wooden tails, but this thing has miraculously survived neglect, wood rot, improper modifications, and weather. Yet it still showcases the craftsmanship of the "Golden Age" of carousel art in the U.S. – in a lovely, three minute ride on horses that gallop, three astride.

Santa Barbara's Chase Palm Park Carousel (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa Barbara's Chase Palm Park Carousel (1)
Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

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