Originally published in May 2017 Issue of Salt Lake magazine
THOUSANDS OF KIDS have come of age on the midway at Lagoon, Utah’s biggest and best amusement park. Writer Jeremy Pugh looks back at his own history with the park and the history of the park itself. Along the way we’ll examine the rides, how best to tackle a day at Lagoon and the cultural significance of this Utah icon.
Personal History: I Was a Teenage Goonie
I first went to Lagoon in 1977. I was 5 years old. We were on a family trip from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake City, the Big City back then. The trip was unwittingly timed with an important milestone for Lagoon. Bob Freed, who had been the closest thing to Lagoon’s Walt Disney, died in 1975 and his surviving brothers, led by Peter Freed, set about continuing his work. In 1976, America’s Bicentennial, three important Lagoon icons opened to the public: Pioneer Village, the Log Flume and the Jet Star 2, Lagoon’s first steel coaster. A year later, kindergarten-bound me, who neither cared nor knew any of this, arrived on the scene. I liked cowboys and boy howdy did Lagoon’s new Pioneer Village have them.
Back then there were historical re-enactors in all the shops lining the western town’s faux Main Street, and the big attraction (in addition to the Log Flume) was a thrilling high-noon shoot-out gun battle that stuntmen performed until the ’90s. Please note that 1977 was the year Star Wars premiered, and Lagoon’s cowboys and roller coasters combined with Jedi and lightsabers caused my growing boy brain to very nearly explode. My father, still in his 20s, was as much of a kid as I was, and because my mother didn’t really care for amusement park rides, and my younger brother was back home with grandma, it was just me and my dad. We rode everything I was tall enough to ride and that trip was basically the best thing that had ever happened to me, ever.
Later, after we’d moved to Utah in 1983, Lagoon would become an escape from the humiliations of adolescence, a place where a nerd could just be a nerd. Season passes in hand, my best bud from junior high, Clarence Habovstak, and I would ride the bus south on Orchard Drive to Farmington. We’d take laps on Colossus, perfect our techniques for getting soaking wet on the Log Flume and puzzle over these girls walking around everywhere.
I loved Lagoon so much I got a job there at 15, and the summer before I started high school, I spent nearly every night roaming the midway, trying on different personalities and learning that the world wasn’t limited to the pious jerks I went to school with. I puffed my first cigarette at Lagoon and sipped my first beer. I kissed the first of many girls at Lagoon, plus one guy who really liked me. But I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with that.
After high school, I returned with a job in Lagoon’s Entertainment Division—we mounted the various shows around the park. I was the stage manager of a walrus, a seal and a bunch of Peter Pan professional stunt divers who used to get stoned with the shootout show stuntmen before their performances. I was sort of the backstage kid mascot, listening wide-eyed to their stories of life on the professional diving circuit and JC college-level philosophy; they introduced me to Siddhartha. One of those guys taught me how to shave. The next summer, I worked a song-and-dance review called Music USA and learned the lyrics to every song in the show, which that year was “Music from the Silver Screen.” I passed dead time making out with one of the women in the show under the wooden rollercoaster. That was to be my last summer at Lagoon, college was on the horizon, but for an important stage in my life Lagoon was everything to me.
Lagoon taught me how to have fun, to change worlds and move among them fluidly, and how to be myself, even if I wasn’t quite sure who that was. It challenged strictures and norms and I learned the essential lesson that kids who weren’t Mormon weren’t monsters and that my dad’s record collection had cool stuff in it. The freaks, geeks and misguided weirdos at Lagoon weren’t just better than the squares at my high school; they were, I’d come to find out, residents of the the real world. A place filled with imperfect and brilliantly stupid people just trying to figure out their places in the universe.
I’ve been back to the park over the years. Lagoon, like me, is a little shopworn, despite regular updates. And it doesn’t belong to me anymore, not like it did, anyway. New thrill seekers are giggling in gaggles on line at the now octogenarian Roller Coaster. Still, Lagoon’s twinkly lights and screaming, clattering soundscape will always remind me of my first tastes of responsibility, danger and freedom. Plus, Colossus still rules.
Lagoon: An Official History (more or less)
A Park on the Great Salt Lake
Lagoon’s story begins in 1886, 10 years before Utah became a state, with a resort on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, west of Farmington. The Lake Park Bathing Resort, the progenitor of Lagoon, however, soon enough fell victim to a receding lake waterline which revealed unappealing and funky smelling blue mud. It shuttered in 1895.
Bamberger’s project: The Lagoon
That didn’t stop railroad tycoon Simon Bamberger from buying 7 acres of marsh west of Farmington in 1896, where he excavated a boating lake and relocated Lake Park Resort’s abandoned buildings. He called it The Lagoon. Meanwhile Bamberger’s railroad (It ultimately connected Salt Lake and Ogden) delivered Salt Lake crowds to The Lagoon’s picnic grounds. Trees and a dancing hall were added (no dancing allowed on Sundays!) and the first amusement ride was built, Shoot the Chutes—it resembled today’s Log Flume ride. Bamberger tried to start a horse-racing track in 1910 but soon learned gambling would never be allowed. When Bamberger was elected the first and only Jewish governor in 1917, he gave up his stake in the park, to meet the ethical standards of the time.
The Lagoon Dipper
In 1920, the new owner A.C. Christiansen brought the “Thomas Edison of Roller Coasters,” John A. Miller, to Farmington. Christensen had seen on one Miller’s coasters at Kennywood Amusement Park in Pittsburgh and had convinced Miller to build one of his contraptions in Utah. Miller’s $75,000 coaster debuted in 1921 as The Lagoon Dipper. It operates today, still one of the most popular rides in the park, known simply as the Roller Coaster or the White Roller Coaster (although recently, park managers opted to start replacing the coaster’s wood with unpainted brown pressure-treated lumber.).
Simon Bamberger’s son Julian took control of the park in 1928 and Lagoon limped through the Great Depression, but managed to stay open by focusing on its Dancing Pavilion and the touring big bands of the era. Lagoon also had famously built the state’s first filtered-water swimming pool and encouraged Utahns to shun the GSL with its slogan, “Swim in Water Fit to Drink.” Lagoon was forced to close its gates in 1942—there was, after all, a war on.
Meet the Freeds
Bob Freed was in Germany at the end of World War II, when he got a letter from his brother Dave pitching a partnership in the resort business when he returned from the war. When the four Freed Brothers (Robert, Dan, David and Peter) gathered back in Utah they saw an appetite among young people for amusements and entertainments. They signed a 30-year lease with the Bambergers to run Lagoon (dropping the “the”) and the park opened its gates in 1946.
The Great Fire
On Nov. 14, 1953, a massive fire engulfed the amusement park. Firefighters from around the county and 500 volunteers fought the blaze but most of the park including the beloved Dancing Pavilion was destroyed. A valiant effort preserved the still-in operation Carousel (you can still see the scorch marks) and most of the wooden Roller Coaster. Lagoon was rebuilt and reopened in 1954 with the new attractions, includingthe Rock-O-Plane, Roll-O-Plane, the Octopus, the Spook House and Tilt-A-Whirl and the Patio Gardens, an open-air performance and dance hall. The children’s ride area Mother Goose Land was created and remains largely unchanged.
The Golden Age
The modern era of Lagoon began with its resurrection. The Freeds tried to top themselves every year with a new attraction. And Bob Freed developed a knack for getting big musical names to come to the park—Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, the Rolling Stones, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix all played in the The Patio Gardens.
Civil Rights at Lagoon
Farmington City, up to 1965, had Jim Crow laws that prevented African-American’s from entering many areas of Lagoon. This didn’t sit well with Bob Freed, who booked many musicians of color to play Lagoon. He successfully fought to integrate, not only Lagoon, but Salt Lake’s Terrace Music Hall owned by Lagoon.
The Silver Age
In 1976, Lagoon unveiled Pioneer Village, a collection of actual pioneer homes and buildings preserved and filled with artifacts in of the era. That same year they rolled out their first steel coaster, the Jet Star 2, which is still generating sore necks today. The park would go big in 1983 with Colossus, a double loop steel coaster. At the end of ’80s, the” fit to drink” swimming pool was replaced with a water park. The Freed family became the sole owners of Lagoon, making it the largest family owned amusement park in the United States.
To Infinity and Beyond!
Starting in 1996, with the Wicked coaster, a custom-designed, whoosh of a ride, Lagoon continued to expand its rides and even got into the coaster design business with its full-inverted and terrifying Cannibal. The old Log Flume got some splashy competition in Pioneer Village with Rattlesnake Rapids. a thrilling rafting ride that runs through a manmade canyon behind the historic pioneer buildings. And the park extended its season with “Fright-mares,” a spooky haunted amusement park. The ritual of going to Lagoon with the family or sending the teen-agers off into the summer night remains a Utah tradition.
Natalie Simpson is a Lagoon Mom. She’s been taking her boys Raleigh, 11, and Crew, 13, to Lagoon since 2006 and, except for 2013 when the roller coaster-loving family made visits to amusement parks in Ohio and Kansas, she always buys season passes. Here are her tips, tricks and tactics for a perfect Lagoon experience.
- Buy season passes The passes pay for themselves with two trips to the park. Plus, with a season-pass, you’re not pressured to commit to a full day. “You can go for two, three hours, get your fill and go home,” Nat says.
- Buy the passes early There are early-bird specials on the passes and even more savings for purchasing four or more season passes. Lagoon opens in spring for weekends only and these pass deals expire when its official summer season kicks off in early June. Nat makes sure to get her family’s passes before school lets out.
- Get the parking pass If you go the season-pass route, shell out $55 for the parking pass, otherwise it’s $10 dollars every time you go. “That’s how they get you.”
- Go north for parking Instead of turning toward the main entrance as you first enter Lagoon’s sprawling parking lot, go further north in the parking lot. Natalie says she often finds closer parking in the rows farther into the lot.
- Dress ‘Lagoon minimal’ “I only ever bring my phone and one credit card,” Nat says. “I don’t wear a hat that can fly off on the rides and we put our sunscreen on at the car.” Also, no open-toed shoes or flip-flops. “There’s a few rides they won’t let you on with the wrong shoes.”
- Avoid weekends Avoid weekends and go when it’s less crowded. Going early and late in the season, when Lagoon is just open on weekends, is also more mellow.
- Ride Cannibal first If the park looks busy, it’s Cannibal first. Lagoon’s most popular coaster is sure to have the longest line, so it’s best to get its wait out of the way.
- Scorcher? Get wet on the Hydro Luge The two most popular water rides, the Log Flume and Rattlesnake Rapids, are busy on hot days. The Hydro Luge, “a waterslide you ride with your clothes on,” has a faster line.
- The Sky Ride is not faster but it’s the best way to cross the park The Sky Ride, which takes its riders from one end of the park to the other like a flat ski lift, is slower than actually walking the midway but it’s much pleasanter to look down on everyone.
- Skip Lagoon-a-Beach The water is really cold at the waterslide and wet amusement park inside the amusement park. “Plus, I don’t like changing my clothes in the middle of the park and if you wear your swimsuit around afterwards you’re the person leaving wet marks on the ride seats.”
A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Rides at Lagoon
You (yes, you in the dad jeans) are not a kid anymore. Nevertheless, here you are here with your landlubber stomach. A guide for the wary.
- What it’s called: Tidal Wave
- What it should be called: Giant Sea-Saw Swing McBoatie
- What it does: It puts whatever food you have in your stomach into free fall.
- Where to sit: The extreme back rows exaggerate the effect.
- Upchuck Factor: High
- What it’s called: Musik Express
- What it should be called: The Spinning Circle Ride Where the Sadistic Kid Operator Plays Nickelback Real Loud
- What it does: Goes in circles, like, really fast over some hills and on an angle while loud, very bad music blares out of speakers creating a Doppler affect in your brain that lasts the rest of the day.
- Where to sit: It’s a circle, sit wherever.
- Upchuck factor: High, depending on the tunes
- What it’s called: Colossus: The Fire Dragon
- What it should be called: The One Where You Scream for 61 Seconds Then It’s Over
- What it does: Climbs up a steep hill, drops you down the steep hill onto steel tracks that rocket you through two loops and then you black out and sort of forget the rest until it stops.
- Where to sit: The front row. It’s better to look doom right in the eye.
- Upchuck factor: Low
- Bonus tip: As you enter the loops, turn your head towards the midway to watch it flip upside down. This will increase the upchuck factor to High.
- What it’s called: Turn of the Century
- What should be called: Giant Flying Swings That Are Scarier Than They Look.
- What it does: Teaches principle of centrifugal force by hurling you in circles high above that gross lake in the middle of the park.
- Where to sit: On the outside swings—or are you too chicken?
- Upchuck factor: Medium
- What it’s called: Boomerang
- What it should be called: Bumper Cars. It’s just bumper cars. Sheesh.
- What it does: Allows younger brothers to enact bumper car vengeance on older brothers who think they are so cool.
- Where to sit: Car number 8. Eight is your favorite number.
- Upchuck factor: Low
- What it’s called: Log Flume
- What it should be called: Weaksauce Splash Mountain
- What it does: Allows you to fulfill your dream of feeling what timber feels like on the way to the sawmill while getting your clothes soaking wet.
- Where to sit: First two rows get wet.
- Upchuck factor: Zero. It’s just a plastic log that goes down a hill.
- What it’s called: The Samurai
- What it should be called: Vicious Egg Beaters in the Sky
- What it does: Flings you in every direction at once while you inventory everything you’ve eaten in the last hour. You just had to have those churros, didn’t you?
- Where to sit: Not on the Samurai.
- Upchuck factor: You will barf.
- What it’s called: Wicked
- What it should be called: WTF Just Happened?
- What it does: Sorry, it’s way more fun to see the look on your face when you poop your pants.
- Where to sit: Middle, back, wherever, you won’t see it coming.
- Upchuck factor: High
- What it’s called: The Terror Ride
- What it should be called: That Horn at the End Scares You Every Time
- What it does: Subjects you to being stuck on a track in a bad haunted house that isn’t even scary until OH MY GOD!
- Where to sit: Between your mom and dad so it can’t get you.
- Upchuck factor: None.
- What it’s called: The Wild Mouse
- What it should be called: The Impertinent Neck-jerking Machine
- What it does: Jars your neck and back at right angles enlivened by moments of tummy-flipping drops.
- Where to sit: Doesn’t matter. This thing’ll jerk you around real good.
- Upchuck factor: Low
- What it’s called: The Roller Coaster
- What it should be called: The White Roller Coaster
- What it does: Gives you a sense of how boring life must have been in the 1920s.
- Where to sit: Front. Always the front.
- Upchuck factor: Medium
- What it’s called: Cannibal
- What it should be called: They Can See You Screaming on Google Earth.
- What it does: Upside-down twisty thing from, like up way, way, way, way up there and then, WHOOSH it’s over and you’ve lost all the change in your pockets.
- Upchuck factor: Medium
- What it’s called: The Centennial Screamer
- What it should be called: Screamer’s pretty apt.
- What it does: Goes in a circle, fast, and then when you are used to the pain, the angle mixes it up like those things they put the astronauts on to teach them to fear gravity. You’re no astronaut, Claudia.
- Where to sit: It’s a circle. Wherever.
- Upchuck factor: High.
Eating at Lagoon
In good conscience, Salt Lake magazine can’t give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the food choices at Lagoon. It’s not that it’s basically fair food—we like fair food. It’s that it’s not particularly good fair fare. However, there is one shining exception: The grilled buttery corn on the cob at Rattlesnake Grub in Pioneer Village is a yummy summer treat. The Pioneer Village Ice Cream Parlor and Bakery are good bets for sweets. Lagoon has a liberal picnic policy that allows you to pack in your own food (Maybe stop by Caputo’s on the way and pack up a nice cooler of treats and head back to the picnic pavilion area). This policy also applies to adult beverages, which you can drink in the picnic area (and discreetly on the midway). But we don’t advise too many tipples. Lagoon’s rides are designed to jostle your equilibrium—best not to start with an impaired middle ear.