The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, April 20, 2001, Columns

Kiddie Park in San Antonio has entertained millions of children. Several generations of Texans have enjoyed the pint-sized rides at the oldest continuously operated amusement park in the U.S. geared toward tykes 12 years old and younger.

Bob Aston, the second owner of the park since it opened in 1925, meets people everywhere he goes who say they visited Kiddie Park when they were kids. "I bet I have heard that 10 million times," Aston says with a laugh.

After 76 years, the noisy little acre of clanging bells, organ music, and laughing children still packs the rides every weekend. On a recent spring Saturday, the park had 19 birthday parties scheduled. Despite having rides old enough to be used by their grandparents, the park has something that kids like even in the age of computers and video. Aston says there just aren't a lot of entertainment facilities dedicated to pre-teens.

And the little people love the place. The rides are challenging without being frightening. For the parents the prices are easy on the pocketbook and produce a bundle of joy that sleeps all the way home. "There is nothing like having happy kids around," Aston says. "Everybody comes here to have a good time."

The centerpiece of the 10-ride amusement park is the 1918 Hershell-Spellman Carousel. It is the only ride that adults can ride, and they ride for free. The park's original owner, P.W. Curry, brought the merry-go-round to San Antonio in 1935. Each of the 36 jumping horses and two chariot seats are made of hand-carved wood. Of more than 5,000 of the carousels of this type built, fewer than 100 remain in operation.

The newest ride in the park is the helicopter and flying saucer. Built in 1962, the metal compartments take the riders in a big circle. Next to it is one of the park's most unusual rides, the Hodges hand cars from the 1930s. Chain-driven with a hand crank, the little cars go around the track by kid power. Parents complained when the chains broke faster than Aston could repair the machines, forcing the ride's closure.

The oldest ride in the park is a set of little cars, fire engines, and locomotives that goes in small circle under a faded canopy. "The kids now don't recognize the race car as such, but that's what they looked like in the Thirties [when the ride was built]," Aston says. Bright yellow with a dorsal fin in the back, only the older parents recognize it as a pre-NASCAR racer. Aston built one of the train engines using junk from his barn. That car is the one with a Chevrolet hubcap and a red lens cover on the front.

The airplane ride with its mock machine gun was built in the 1940s. The Ferris wheel with fully enclosed baskets, the school bus that follows a square-shaped track, the Little Dipper roller coaster, and the wooden ponies pulling little carts in a circle were all made in the 1950s.

When it opened, Kiddie Park was on the outskirts of town at the end of the trolley line. Aston's mother remembers going there and riding live goats. Rufus Walker owned the lot after the city gave it to him when they ran short of funds to pay for construction projects he had completed. Curry moved his kiddie park in Austin's Zilker Park to the property on the edge of San Antonio's Brackenridge Park.

At one time there was a second amusement park next door where the convenience store now stands. For older children, that park was owned by the San Antonio Roller Works, who used it as a testing ground for the amusement park rides it built. The company is now Carousel U.S.A. of San Antonio, and they make carousels with cast aluminum horses.

Aston's parents owned four motels along Broadway Street, including the one next door. Like lots of San Antonio kids, Bob grew up visiting the park. "We came over every Wednesday for nickel ride day," he says. His mother says when Bob was about four years old he asked his father to buy the amusement park.

The Astons knew Curry because he came to their home at the motel next door to watch television. When Bob Aston was in his mid-twenties, Curry hired him as manager of the park. When Aston decided he couldn't work for him, Curry talked the young man into buying the place. On Jan. 1, 1978, with a seven-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, Aston took possession of the keys to America's oldest kiddie park.

With both of his children grown, Aston is looking forward to being a grandparent. "I'd be the greatest grandpa in town," he says. What kid wouldn't love to have an amusement park in the family, especially one this cool?

Kiddie Park offers birthday party specials that include cake, drink, and unlimited rides for each guest with a minimum of eight. Reservations at least two weeks in advance are recommended. To ride all day the price is $5.99 plus tax. Individual tickets cost 70 cents. The park also has a snack bar that makes a great root beer float among other concoctions and treats.

The park opens daily, year-round except when it's raining or the temperature is below 50 degrees. A couple of blocks from the Witte Museum, Kiddie Park is at 3501 Broadway at Mulberry Street. Parking is available behind the park. For information, call 210/824-4351.

Coming up this weekend ...

Butterfly Day at EmilyAnn Theatre in Wimberley at 1101 RR 2325 celebrates spring with a release of Painted Lady butterflies raised by local students along with art contests, puppet shows, and more, 3-6pm, April 21. 512/847-6969 or

Cotton Gin Festival in Burton -- the most intact of the old gins -- is fired up along with live music, games, demonstrations, and lots of food, April 20-22. 979/289-3378.

Coming up ...

Art Car Weekend in Houston is a nonstop crazy weekend culminating with the Art Car Parade on Saturday beginning at 11:30am through the International Festival site downtown, April 26-28. 713/926-CARS or

Arts & Jazz Festival in Denton presents more than 1,000 performers along with artisans at Civic Center Park, April 27-29. 940/565-0931 or

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