Rockaways’ Playland thrilled New Yorkers for nearly a century, then it was gone

For generations of New Yorkers, the Rockaway peninsula was as much a summer destination for the thrill of roller coasters and other amusements as Coney Island is today.

But no other place on the peninsula set the imagination afire as much as Playland, a celebrated amusement park that lasted over 80 years and “symbolized the glory days of Rockaway Beach as a tourist mecca” during the 20th Century. Famed for its Atom Smasher wooden roller coaster, featured in the 1950s film “This is Cinerama,” Playland endured until the early 1980s.

“When I turned 12, my world opened up when I was given permission to visit Rockaways’ Playland, a glorious amusement park on Beach 98th Street,” recalled Edward Rohs in his memoir “Raised by the Church: Growing Up in New York City’s Catholic Orphanages.” “Even the entrance was thrilling — a huge grinning clown face that promised untold joys. Visiting Playland gave me a giddy sense of freedom.”

La Marcus Thompson, who introduced the first roller coaster at Coney Island, established what would become Playland as the L.A. Thompson Amusement Park in 1901. The park was sold to new owners in 1928, who renamed it Playland and brought in new rides including a roller coaster and a 165-foot-long swimming pool that would later be used for Olympic trials.

With the end of direct rail connection to the peninsula in the 1950s, the Rockaways were no longer New York’s “favorite beach resort” and Playland suffered. Demographics changed, and fewer people went to the amusement park each year. An attempt at a turnaround with new owners in the early 1980s was short lived. By 1986, the Atom Smasher had been demolished and insurance rates were so high that the owners felt they had no choice but to shut the park down.

Here are rare photos of Playland from the 1950s to the 1980s, showing the fun and excitement at one of the city’s last large amusement parks — and its eventual razing to make way for a development.