Summer-centric Cinema List: Amusement Parks in the Movies!

Posted by Kells, July 1, 2017 11:17pm | Post a Comment
Greetings thrill-seekers and family fun-loving Amoeblog readers! Summer's officially here for half the planet which means it's amusement park season. Whether you get your kicks at a globally branded monolith of a theme park or bravely risk those rickety rides at your local fairgrounds, I heartily recommend everyone indulge an amusement park interlude before Summer's end. If you can't make it happen, don't let the dog days get you down—let the movies take you there! Here's a fat list* of fifteen flicks featuring amusement park themes and scenes for your Summer-centric movie marathon consideration. Feel free to let me know if you think I missed anything essential and keep in mind that some of these titles may be found in used condition in our stores, perhaps in VHS format for all you tapeheads out there. Check the links to our online store or give us a call to see if we have what you're looking for and we'll do our best to hook you up. Now, hold on to your butts and enjoy ride!

Rollercoaster (1977)

With a story that plays out like proto-Die Hard script with somewhat made-for-TV production values, Rollercoaster is a "disaster movie" era thriller that may have fallen through the cracks of time (which is completely understandable given that, box office-wise, it had the likes of Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit to contend with), but is nevertheless worth watching for the quality and quantity of its amusement park footage. Filmed extensively at Six Flags Magic Mountain (Valencia, CA), King's Dominion (Doswell, VA), and the now defunct Ocean View Park (Norfolk, VA), it's arguable that shot-for-shot this flick packs more visual theme park punches than any other film. What's more, the band Sparks makes a cameo appearance near the end of the movie that lasts long enough to include two songs ("Big Boy" and "Fill-er-up" off Big Beat (1976). Apparently Sparks agreed to appear after KISS turned down the gig, however, fun fact: KISS went on to film KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park at Six Flags Magic Mountain a year later (#choices). Anyway, if you've been to these parks and long for days of yore, or if you fancy suspenseful depictions of thrill ride terrorist acts, and/or Sparks, Rollercoaster is the movie for you!

Little Fugitive (1953)

This influential and critically acclaimed nugget of naturalistic cinema is a wonder in many respects, but the main attraction is Coney Island as captured in glorious grayscale by photographers/directors Ruth Orkin, Morris Engel, and Ray Ashley. Starring an unknown Richie Andrusco in the title role, the little fugitive of Little Fugitive follows the adventures of a runaway described by the film's trailer as a "sportsman, gourmet, slugger extraordinary...the kid who's got a sharp eye for the odd chance, a quick hand for a fast buck" as he wanders out to Coney Island on his own. "From the gasping heights of the Parachute Drop to the secrets that hide under the boardwalk," it's easy to lose yourself in the enchanting spontaneity and bumbling pace of this film as it delivers on it's promises of depicting "a revelation of life and love where there's more of it per square inch than anyplace else in the world" with refreshing and memorable potency. It is the stuff of vicarious, atmospheric, amusement park magic.

40 Pounds of Trouble  (1962)

This is not a Disney™ film, but the vintage Disney footage is without a doubt the main reason anyone should suffer this fluff. Roughly twenty minutes of the film’s running time plays like a dedicated full color commercial extravaganza featuring Disneyland as it existed once upon a dream...of the early 1960s. Though purists will likely be plucked by elements added for the sake of hamming up the park’s presence in the film, and feathers rightly ruffled over certain cringe-inducing aspects inherent to Disneyland attractions of yore, the footage provides a marvelous whirlwind tour of what is arguably the world’s most iconic amusement park, the way it mostly was, for the ages. Oh! Also, during this Disneyland detour there is a movie going on and, eh, it's alright. Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette are looking particularly fine in the film and there are some additional fun-to-see scenes shot around Lake Tahoe and in Harrah’s Lake Club, but as soon as the Disneyland portion of the picture monorails into view be prepared to gag on a grab bag of vintage Disney-flavored visual candy enchantments while the movie’s plot desperately tries to assert its relevance. 

Breaking All the Rules (1985)

This may be a forgotten panties-over-the-fishnets Canadian teen boner comedy with hairstyle continuity issues starring unknown actors like Carolyn Dunn and Thor Bishopric, but who cares when the story is all about two guys and two girls who meet each other's desperation at an amusement park on the last day of Summer (played by La Ronde, Quebec's largest and Canada's second largest amusement park, still in operation today). The aforementioned panties serve as a bit of a plot device, and there is also this Scooby Doo-esque jewel heist subplot the four teens get mixed up in during their couple-swapping misadventures, which maybe sounds lame, but—dammit—it's fun! Plus, the lengthy day-to-night amusement park parts of the film are colorful and chock full of real Canadian mid-80s silhouettes lending the perfect backdrop for the film's mischief-making and Paul Zaza's synth-driven soundtrack and titular theme song.


Both Night Tide (1961) and Carnival of Souls (1962) possess distinct visual facets that embrace the notion of amusement parks as spellbound centers where the strange and otherworldly congregate, luring impressionable outsiders into their mysterious confines with suspicious intentions. And both films are anchored by powerfully enigmatic leading ladies—one a mythic beauty (Linda Lawson) who attracts an outsider (a smokin' hot Dennis Hopper) to enter her amusement park domain (portrayed by Ocean Park Pier and Santa Monica Pier) and the other, an haunted outsider (Candace Hilligoss) who strays into an abandoned amusement park that seems to beckon to her (actually the crumbling remnants of Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City, also once called the Coney Island of the West). Featuring beatnik jazz, beach bongos, church organ and plenty of screams, consider pairing these together for a reality vs. the unknown battle of dark amusement park movies.

The Even More Fun Trip (2007)

Featured in McSweeney's Wholphin No. 7 (their "DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films"), this animated documentary short directed by Bob Sabiston, the rotoscope animator behind Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, centers around a group of friends making a return trip to Six Flags Fiesta Texas. One of the people in this group, Ryan Power–a young man with autism, is unflagging in his enthusiasm for this excursion and for the duration of the film he  compares this "even more fun trip" to Fiesta Texas with the trip they enjoyed three years prior, verbally marking each difference and similarity relentlessly. Power's focused impressions and tenacious oversharing blends all too well with the amusement park setting and the ever-shifting psychedelic animation Sabiston cloaks this home movie in, making the overall viewing experience feel not unlike a warped thrill ride in and of itself.

The Lost Boys (1987)

For a Peter Pan-inspired vampire biker gang horror-comedy with a cast featuring the Coreys and other 80s faves, The Lost Boys has aged well in accordance with its "never grow old" credo. The timelessness of the film has everything to do with the fictional, sleepy "murder capital of the world" beach town setting created for the movie, Santa Carla, CA (played by Santa Cruz, CA), it's freak magnet beach boardwalk amusement park (played by the amazing and well worth visiting Santa Cruz Boardwalk), and its local comic book store (played by Atlantis Fantasy World which is still in biz btw, ask them for a copy of Vampires Everywhere and you won't be disappointed). Without these innately cool and very real backdrops, the film might drag under the weight of its contrived situations, clunky dialogue, and other absurdities (cue beefy saxman Tim Cappello's greased-up unchained live performance of "I Still Believe" that provides a means for the pivotal boy-spots-meets scene), however, The Lost Boys would probably remain enduring classic because vampires.

My Lucky Stars (1985)

Given all the situations, settings, and support a world class stunt comedian like Jackie Chan has employed throughout his distinguished career, it seems inevitable that an amusement park movie would be among his "been there, done that" accomplishments. The second in a series of five Lucky Stars films, My Lucky Stars follows undercover cop Muscles (Chan) alongside his good buddy Kidstuff (played by director Sammo Hung) and the three others in their "Lucky Stars" gang as they travel to an amusement park in Japan (Fuji-Q Highland, still in operation) to sock it to some Yakuza thugs at the behest of the Hong Kong Police. Culminating in some acrobatic action featuring a ferris wheel and some fun fight scenes involving ninjas and ghosts within the mobster's lair, which happens to be awesomely located deep inside a haunted funhouse type of dark ride, the loose and ludicrous story gives the ensemble cast plenty of fodder for their infamous blend of martial arts and rowdy, raucous comedy which is all anyone could wish for in a Jackie and company production.

The New Kids (1985)

This horror/thriller, the third amusement park movie from 1985 to make this list, tells the tale of teenage siblings (played by Lori Loughlin and Shannon Presby) who, after enduring a family tragedy, move in with their uncle Charlie (Eddie Jones) who operates a homespun Christmas-themed roadside amusement park and gas station in central Florida called Santa's Funland. Sounds pretty great, right? Well, one thing leads to another and the two "new kids" find themselves the targets of relentless harassment by a local druggy hick (James Spader) and his shit-kickin' henchemen (John Philbin and Vince Grant, to name just two). These focused disturbances of the peace eventually involve their family and love interests (played by Eric Stoltz and Paige Lyn Price), culminating in a revenge-fueled, drawn out night fight within the confines of Funland, the lighthearted family-friendly setting thrown in sharp contrast with the "bloodbath" finale. As one of the films' taglines states, "The kids learned three things about southern hospitality, blood, sweat and terror!"


Are you team Robotic Cowboys or team Dinosaur Clones? Watching these two together may be the only way to find out. Both Westworld (1973) and Jurassic Park (1993) come from the brilliant, twisted mind of novelist (and suspected theme park junkie) Michael Critchon, and both stories focus on fantastic yet somewhat plausible amusement parks that seem too-good-to-be true in the eyes of both their guests and hosts until a series of tragic malfunctions renders each a trap zone of localized crises with no possibility of escape? No spoilers, but if you haven't seen both of these bonafide blockbusters yet what are you waiting for? 

Big (1988)

Arcades n' games have always been part and parcel of any great amusement park experience, and Big makes big use of that fact to inject an essential dose of fantasy into this Tom Hanks-driven comedy that remains as fresh and endearing as the day it hit theaters. The film begins with a young Josh Baskin (David Moscow) enjoying a night out with his family at a carnival style amusement park until he spots Cynthia Benson, an older girl he fancies, in line for a thrill ride called Ring of Fire. With a spurt of sudden desperation to ditch his folks and impress his crush, he attempts to board the same ride only to be told he isn't tall enough. Humiliated, he puts a coin into a creepy antique fortune teller game called Zoltar Speaks (the real star of the film?) and makes a wish to be "big." From there the story sets off with Hanks takes the wheel, encountering memorable performances by Robert Loggia, Elizabeth Perkins, and Jon Lovitz along the way. Games and amusements further figure into the picture by the film's resolution with pivotal scenes featuring Rye Playland Park (Rye, NY).

Adventureland (2007)

Depending on your tolerance for "cool" soundtrack comedies featuring overgrown adolescents and any connections to either Jud Apatow, SNL, or The State, Adventureland is likely one of those movies that, at first glance, is immediately embraced with interest or completely dismissed by those who consider themselves in the know, or whatever. While it falls into the "cool" soundtrack movie zone, it is hardly a comedy and, as far as the overgrown adolescents go, the heart and substance portrayed in the film's relationships are surprisingly relatable. More importantly, the film takes place at the titular amusement park (played by Kennywood of West Mifflin, PA) and enjoyably explores the sights, sounds, and social structures of such a place as a shitty but fun work environment. The decidedly 80s tint may be heavy-handed, but the music (not always for the sake of the "cool" soundtrack—folks of a certain age may recall that one Summer ruled by Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus") and the fashion (obviously hip kids getting to work the Music Express while the freaks thanklessly man the Games) works pleasantly well for the flavor of this film rendering it palatable compared to others like it.

National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

As far as amusement park movies go this one is an essential, maybe even the quintessential, example. It’s got everything: a John Hughes script packed with memorable quotes, first-rate comedic actors serving white-bread, middle-America family realness under Harold Ramis’ direction, Lindsey Buckingham’s hit soundtrack jammer Holiday Road," and, of course, a story that anyone can relate to—the excitement and anticipation of a road trip to a mega-theme park, in this case Walley World (a Disney-inspired fictional park played by a heavily embellished Six Flags Magic Mountain).  It's a "what could go wrong?" gone so right kind of movie.

Personally speaking, there are two crystalline moments in this film that ring too real with me: the slo-mo, “Chariots of Fire” sprint to the entrance of Walley World, and Clark Griswold's (Chevy Chase) fun-bully freak out retort, “This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you're gonna have fun. We're all gonna have so much fucking fun we're gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You'll be whistling 'Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah' out of your assholes!” Perfection. 

*I hope you've enjoyed the ride! Please note: this post isn't a "top" or "best of" list ranking movie picks from good to greatest. Of all the Summer cinema themes that come immediately to mind, amusement park movies rate below Summer camp movies, beach movies, and party movies (pool or otherwise), and you don't have to dig very far into amusement park film fodder before things begin to get barely watchable (see: Beverly Hills Cop III. Or, don't see it). As such, I referred to my inner theme park junky and chose enjoyable films that I feel successfully capture the vibe, light, motion, and overall appeal of amusement parks showcased as a setting or story (while trying not to overthink things too much).

Relevant Tags

The New Kids (1), Coney Island (2), Wholphin (1), Lost Boys (1), Mcsweeneys (1), Rollercoaster (1), Carnival Of Souls (1), The Even More Fun Trip (1), Michael Crichton (1), Westworld (2), Jurassic Park (2), Big (1), Amusement Parks (3), Theme Parks (2), Fun (2), Summer (17), Films (5), Movies (57), Magic Mountain (1), Disneyland (16), Six Flags (1), Vacation (1), Breaking All The Rules (1), La Ronde (1), Little Fugitive (1), Night Tide (1), Adventureland (2)