They’ve taken the cars off the Ferris wheel and started re-painting them so that they’ll look good when the buyers from the International Association for Amusement Parks come around. They’ve locked up the arcade booths and junk food concessions. Broken glass, air compressors, and beached plastic whales from Kiddie Land now litter the “funway” between the Scrambler and the Himalayan Carousel. Even “Earthquake,” the 75-foot high, 2,800-foot long roller coaster, stands mute against the horizon, somehow ominous in its shroud of silence. Belmont Park, the old-style amusement park at the end of Mission Boulevard, has closed its gates. After 50 years of service to sailors, tourists, and teenyboppers, it has fallen victim to a modern American malady – obsolete by reason of unprofitability.
Belmont Park was not San Diego’s first amusement park. On July Fourth, 1913, “Wonderland” opened in Ocean Beach to an assembled throng of 20,000, one-third the population of San Diego. On hand to help celebrate the event were mayors, brass bands, and fireworks displays from Italy. Wonderland had the biggest rollercoaster on the West Coast, a giant water slide/boat ride, a Japanese tea garden, a casino that could seat 650, and even a menagerie that included bobcats, bears, ostriches, and 350 monkeys.
Wonderland lasted two seasons. In 1915, the Panama-Pacific Exposition in Balboa Park drew the crowds away. Then high tides in January, 1916 washed out the sand from under the rollercoaster. The ride was closed and the park began a gradual shutdown. The menagerie was moved to Balboa Park where it became a part of the new Zoological Garden.
In 1922 the Spreckles Company acquired extensive land holdings on the sand spit known as Mission Beach. Three years later, they opened a new amusement park out there on the sand. The Mission Beach Amusement Center (Belmont Park) included a new rollercoaster, once again the largest on the West Coast, and the biggest indoor swimming pool. In 1934 the company donated the park to the city via the State Park Commission. They thought it would be a good way to promote real estate and summer rentals in the Mission Beach area. The State Park Commission delayed transfer of the title until 1937, at which point it approved a 50-year lease for the city to run the amusement center.
The city immediately tried to sublease the park to one Ernest Pickering, a concessionaire. But Pickering balked at having to sign a lease that would require spending $1,200 a year in upkeep. In 1938 Mr. Pickering died. In 1939 the Governor signed a bill releasing all state claims on the park, and the city settled out of court with Mrs. Pickering who sold her interest in the unsigned lease back to the city for $10,000. The city then spent an additional $30,000 to upgrade the park before going out to look for another concessionaire. They decided, however, to keep the “plunge,” the larger than Olympic size, heated indoor swimming pool, under city management. For the rest, they found an endless series of managers willing to run the rides and attractions. The city made the lease attractive by offering a hefty percentage of the profits (75-85 percent).
Wayne Dailard won a lease in 1940 which he sold to Larry Finley in 1944. Finley stayed around for the scandal of 1945 when Mayor Knox was accused of being the silent partner of taxi-cab tycoon Joe Green (who owned two restaurants at the amusement center), then sold his interest in the park to Warner Austin in 1947. In 1954 James Mitchell and John Ray got hold of the lease. That was also the year that the rollercoaster caught fire and had to be closed down.
In 1955, Ray sued the city to compel them to make improvements in the park; the city countersued charging Ray with failure of upkeep. The following year the Grand Jury recommended that the city take control of Belmont Park, but everybody managed to ignore that suggestion, and, after agreeing to drop their suits, Ray and the city sat down to discuss new ways of raising revenues. One suggestion was to turn the Mission Beach Ballroom into a roller skating rink.
In 1957, unable to make necessary repairs after three years, the Mission Beach Coaster Company, owners of the rollercoaster, declared bankruptcy and it was sold to Ray’s Mission Beach Amusement Company. Shortly thereafter, Ray announced its opening. In 1963, Ray got a new 15-year lease sans James Mitchell. He announced in 1967, a $100,000 expansion program for the south parking lot area, bringing in a dozen new rides and attractions. Two years later, he died. His widow sold the lease to William D. Evens.
“We had five codes on the PA system,” recalls Mark, a college student who spent one summer working as a relief man in the park. “Code One was a call for the manager. Code Two was for the ride supervisor. Code Three was for a relief man. Four was the emergency call-up for the two security guards, and Code Five meant Mr. Evens was on the property. That meant everybody jumped.”
Bill Evens is the owner of the Catamaran and Bahia hotels as well as numerous other properties in San Diego and around the state. Originally, when he purchased the Belmont Park lease in 1969, he’d hoped to tear it down and put up a new hotel. “It would have been a great location for an ocean-site, bay-frontage hotel, of which there is not one on the Pacific coast,” he recalls wistfully. “Unfortunately there was just too much opposition. People didn’t want it.”
Faced with the ownership of an amusement park he didn’t want, Bill Evens did the best he could. He started cutting costs. One of the first things he did was to get rid of the individual concessionaires and the old midway carnies who had been hustling there for years, and replace them with young students, ex-cons and transients. He aggravated the high rate of turnover among his hundr3ed or so employees by providing them with long hours on short pay. “Weekdays we worked ten hours, twelve on the weekends for two dollars an hour,” says Sol, who worked the park two summers ago. “We spent most of our breaks either getting drunk at La Cantina, which is a bar just outside the north gate, or otherwise toking up under the rollercoaster or behind the bumper car pavilion. There were3n’t a whole lot of ride operators who were sober all the time that I recall.”