She has had multiple names, three homes and an up-and-down existence. Before settling into her current fairy-tale life, she took millions of people for a ride in New Jersey, although those who knew her while growing up in Irvington say they scarcely recognize her anymore — if at all. And now, approaching her centennial year, she shows no signs of slowing down.
The oldest ride in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., is not Space Mountain, the flying Dumbos or the Pirates of the Caribbean. It is a classic wooden carousel built outside Philadelphia almost a century ago that, these days, carries the name Prince Charming Regal Carrousel (yes, with two “R’s”), located in a brightly decorated pavilion near Cinderella’s Castle.
But beneath her gussied up horses and re-theming for a Disney princess and her prince, she’s a Jersey girl.
Once known as the Liberty Carousel, the big merry-go-round spent nearly 40 years entertaining kids and their families at Olympic Park, a long-shuttered, nearly forgotten amusement park once on the Maplewood-Irvington border, a world away from Fantasyland.
Decorated in patriotic red, white and blue, the top rounding boards carried paintings of eagles and flags and Miss Liberty, illuminated by thousands of lights. The horses, hand-carved by craftsmen from another era, were painted various colors, saddles emblazoned with Americana. A band organ imported from Italy kept the 90 steeds, harnessed five abreast, prancing in tune on the “spinning lady.”
Fred Bromborsky, who grew up in Irvington and worked as a teenager at Olympic Park, still has fond memories of the old ride, sandwiched between the penny arcade and the Cuddle-Up, in the shadow of the park’s wooden roller coaster.
“It was a magnificent merry-go-round,” recalls Bromborsky, now 70. “It had a great music machine — that’s what blew me away. You could see the drum and all kinds of pipes. You could hear the sound within 100 yards of it. For a little kid, it was magical.”
New Jersey may have been where she grew up, but the Garden State was actually not her first home. According to Irvington historian Alan Siegel, author of “Smile: A Picture History of Olympic Park” (Rutgers University Press, 1986), the carousel was built for Belle Isle Park in Detroit in 1917 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company — which remains in business to this day. Acquired by Olympic Park owner Henry Guenther after Belle Isle went bankrupt, Siegel said she was refurbished and moved to New Jersey some time around 1929.
It was a golden age for the carousel, and merry-go-rounds big and small — built before the Depression — could be found across New Jersey. Brian Morgan, past president of the National Carousel Association, said many were located in weekend resorts and turn-of-the-century parks that slowly disappeared. And over time, most of the carousels — never designed to be mobile — were demolished, or dismantled and moved elsewhere.
Such was the fate of the carousel at the now-defunct Bertrand Island Amusement Park at Lake Hopatcong, which went to Luna Park in Coney Island in the 1930s, according to the association records. The merry-go-round at Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pa., also built by Philadelphia Toboggan, came from Atlantic City in 1932. And the 1928 PTC carousel, now at Canada’s Wonderland Park in Vaughan, Ontario, came from the old Palisades Amusement Park in northern New Jersey.
“They all need riders and all need attention,” says Morgan of the carousels.
Even today, they remain an endangered species in New Jersey. Only a few examples of the old merry-go-rounds can be found in the state. In Ocean City, a carousel, dating from 1926, yet another Philadelphia Toboggan ride, is located at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier. An 1897 carousel built in England has yet to retire, spinning the day away at Six Flags Great Adventure. But a debate continues in Seaside Heights over how to save the historic 1910 Dentzel/Looff Carousel on the boardwalk.
A carousel would eventually become a signature of every park Disney opened.
“It’s part of the Disney thing,” says Morgan. When planning began for Disney World in Orlando, he says, a nationwide search was launched for a suitable carousel befitting the new park. By then, the Liberty Carousel was in sad shape. Declining attendance and changing times took their toll on Olympic Park, which shut down in 1965. The roller coaster was knocked down and other rides sold off. According to Morgan, it was Frederick Fried — author of one of the definitive books on carousels and a consultant to Disney — who recommended Olympic Park’s carousel to Walt himself.
“He was told it was the best carousel in the world,” says Morgan, who does not classify it as the best example of the art because some of the original details were lost to its reimagining by Disney, but agrees it may well have been the biggest. A deal was made, the carousel horses unhitched, the structure disassembled, and the machine packed off for the future park in Florida.
Among those involved in the restoration was Isle Voght, a now-retired Disney artist who worked behind the scenes keeping the Walt Disney World carousel looking like new for more than two decades. Voght, who still lives in Florida, shared snapshots of herself working on the horses in the Disney shops and spoke lovingly of the project that took years to complete.
“The care was there when they made things,” Voght says. “The horses are beautiful. They have the prettiest faces.”
Assembled with wedges and wooden pegs instead of screws to prevent cracking, the horses were stripped and taken down to the bare wood for repairs, new paint and refinishing. The carousel’s main center pole was replaced, as well. Working with famed Disney imagineer Joyce Carlson, the artist and designer credited with creating the “It’s a Small World” ride of singing children, Voght brought the horses back to life. Once a wide variety of colors, they were all painted white, with a splash of colors added to the livery, saddles, blankets and bridles. The tails and manes were painted in various hues as well.
“Walt changed the horses so all went up and down,” she adds. “Most of the outside ones had been just standing horses.”
Molds were made of 18 horses to cast fiberglass copies for a new Disney carousel built for Tokyo, and also to serve as temporary stand-ins when original wood horses are taken down for repairs — an ongoing process because, every so often, a foot or other piece may break and new ones must be carved, says Voght. She also oversaw the recovery of the carousel chariots, lost for nearly 10 years after the ride was disassembled and prepared for renovation. Discovered in deteriorating condition in a Los Angeles warehouse, they were brought back and installed after extensive rebuilding and design by Voght in Disney’s mill shop and paint shop.
Despite the many thrill rides that fill the Orlando park, the carousel at Disney remains a popular draw, and Morgan is not surprised. To many, he believes, it brings back the nostalgia of their childhood, when they were too young to ride roller coasters — and the classic merry-go-round was both scary and exciting.
“It’s amazing when you stand and watch people, they seem to be in a trance, like they have been transported someplace else,” he says. “There is something about the rhythm of the horses going up and down. They remember their childhood.”
The Magic Kingdom carousel still carries vestiges of her days in Irvington.The horses, despite their makeovers, still have their distinct faces and saddle carvings. The lead “Liberty Horse,” resplendent with an eagle and shield and an Indian on the rear flank, is perhaps most familiar.
But Olympic Park is now little more than a fading memory. A light industrial park was built where the amusement park once stood. Other than a one-way street named Olympic Terrace that dead-ends at the former park, a black granite monument is all that’s left to remind anyone of what had been.
“It was another world,” says Bromborsky, who now lives in West Caldwell. “It’s unrecognizable now. No one would know it was there.”
Bromborsky has been to Disney World, but the restored and repainted carousel he saw there held no memories for him at all. “I’m not sure it registered with me that it was the same merry-go-round,” he says.
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