Southern Stories
Jan 27/17

Awaken Your Grubby Little Inner Child at Arkansas Amusement Parks Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments

When was the last time you spent the day white-nosed, visored and aquasocked, belly flopping into a wave pool or floating face up in a sea of inner tubes? What about screaming obscenities on a roller coaster or turning green faced because the snaggle- toothed carnie won’t let you off the Scrambler?

Face it: for all the bad memories — like when I realized that kid next to me was peeing in the Lazy River at Wild River Country — we made as kids spending our summers at amusement parks, there are just as many good ones — like when that mortified bully’s swim trunks came down the Vortex a solid 15 seconds after he did. Summer is almost here, and if you’re not too proud to join the kids on your old stomping grounds, we salute you. If you are, you’re welcome to live vicariously through this tribute to Arkansas’ amusement parks.

Funland (North Little Rock)
Across the train tracks from Burns Park, the rainbow shutters are swinging open at tiny, tawdry Cozy’s Snow Cone Shack, and the sound of ice grinding signifies sweet relief from the semi-permanent heat wave. As a child, trips to Cozy’s were part of a Burns Park summertime ritual that included the rickety rocket slide, the knee-skinning waterslide and Funland, a miniature amusement park where the high-school-age carnies took pleasure in giving extra-long spins on the tilt-a-whirl. Sadly, the waterslide crumbled into history, and the rocket slide was upgraded from blistering metal to blistering plastic. Funland, however, lives on as it always has; and though most of the rides — like, 90 percent of them — have seats too tiny for the average adult’s ass, we at least have the scrambler and the tilt-a-whirl.


Magic Springs and Crystal Falls (Hot Springs)
Without a doubt, the god of all Arkansas amusement parks is Magic Springs, where water rides, thrill rides, family rides and (mostly) country music concerts combine to form an endless vortex that sucks you in and makes your forget how long you’ve been baking in the sun and how much money you’ve spent on trough-sized beverages to keep from shriveling up. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a hell of a time. Outside of county fairs, it’s pretty much the only place in Arkansas where you can ride legitimate roller coasters. And Splash Island opens this spring; from the illustrations on the Magic Springs website, it appears to be a multi-million-dollar jungle gym on steroids that dumps 1,000 gallons of water every 10 minutes … because a cold shower of that magnitude may be our best defense against the Arkansas heat.

Willow Springs Water Park (Little Rock)
Visit Willow Springs Water Park on a summer day and you’ll likely find the Little Rock oasis overflowing with children; but the whole park can be all yours for the right price. That’s right. Water slides, water trampolines, log rolls, water sports, volleyball, “beaches” and all your buddies on one side and Little Rock’s disappointed youth on the other. Just slide on over to their website, visit the “corporate” tab, check out the pics of shirtless dudes playing tug of war and start dreaming up a fake company name as a front to your exclusive big kid party.

The Park at West End (Fort Smith)
It’s not much of a park, but it’s amusing. One carousel and one Ferris wheel constitute The Park at West End, a mini carnival in downtown Fort Smith. Sure, there are only two rides, but they’ve got pretty neat stories. The Ferris wheel was featured in the 1935 World’s Fair, and the carousel was built and hand painted in Treviso, Italy. Sticking with the retro theme, Boom-a-rang Diner operates out of a vintage Pullman railcar on the park grounds. The Park at West End’s prices are even somewhat retro; unlike the jacked-up prices you’ll find at most theme parks, rides here are just $1. A buck for a Ferris wheel view across the Arkansas River into Oklahoma? We’ll buy that.

Wild Wilderness Drive-through Safari (Gentry)
The only pool at this park is home to a hippopotamus, and you’d be insane to swim in it. But we bet you’ll feel refreshed just watching him splash in the mud from the comfort and safety of your air-conditioned vehicle as you drive the four-mile route through Wild Wilderness Drive-through Safari. With big cats, canines, primates, farm animals, birds, rodents, reptiles, deer, antelope, zebras, bears and more, it’s the wildest menagerie you’ll find in Arkansas outside of the Little Rock Zoo. And when your butt falls asleep from all that car riding, wake it up with a walk through the petting zoo and a camel ride — or a pony ride if you don’t bust the weight requirement. Don’t take it personally. We’re just looking out for the ponies.

Wild River Country (North Little Rock)
There really is nothing quite like the surge of a mechanically engineered wave pounding your chest, sucking you under the Wave Pool’s surface and leaving a questionable taste — is that pee? — in your mouth. Or the beating of your heart in your throat as you race on your back down the pitch black, disorienting Vortex. Or the pain and humiliation of smacking your head on the giant toilet bowl they call Vertigo and getting flushed down like a, well, you get the picture. Or the shit-your-swimsuit terror of that vertical drop off the Cyclone, when you accidentally shout the F-word in front of your 10-year-old niece. Who am I kidding? Wild River Country was and still is my 82nd favorite place on earth.

Photos courtesy of

Stacey Bowers has a dangerous obsession with travel and regularly flings herself headfirst into situations any levelheaded person would avoid. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking, climbing and exploring her home state of Arkansas and (poorly) planning her next adventure. She is currently the associate editor at Little Rock-based AY Magazine.



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