Rehoboth's Funland marks 50 years of thrills

Boardwalk institution entertains generations
May 28, 2011

It seems like yesterday to business owner Al Fasnacht, but it was 50 years ago that he and his family purchased the small amusement park on the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk they would call Funland.

They already owned a small park near Harrisburg, Pa., and were vacationing at the Delaware beaches. They stopped into the Sport Center, which the Dentino family had owned since the 1930s. "We were talking to Mr. Dentino, and right of the blue he asked me if I wanted to buy it," Fasnacht said. "Less than a year later it was ours."

There was a catch, though — the famous storm of March 6, 1962, which decimated the Boardwalk and its businesses. "There were Boardwalk timbers and concrete blocks flying around," Fasnacht said. "It really did a number on Rehoboth."

The family went ahead with the purchase and opened Funland before all the repairs had been completed. They eventually bought neighboring properties on Brooklyn and Wilmington avenues.

The Rehoboth Museum on Rehoboth Avenue Extended has one of the original Sport Center trains on display. "It was located at the back of the property so it didn't sustain any storm damage," Fasnacht said.

Today, 29 members of the Fasnacht, Henschke, Curry, Ginder and Darr families are involved in the operation of Funland. They held a pair of private events earlier this month to celebrate the anniversary — one for Chamber of Commerce members and another for police and firefighters.

The celebration will continue throughout the year with commemorative T-shirts for sale and a gallery of photographs located throughout Funland.

The park features 18 rides including the Sea Dragon, Free Fall and Haunted Mansion; 13 midway games such as Skee Ball and Whack-A-Mole; and a rotating cast of arcade games such as pinball.

Funland is famous for rides and games that are safe; those who enjoy high-tech rollercoasters need not apply. "I was working Saturday and someone came in and asked where the flying cages were," Fasnacht said. "We got rid of those 30 years ago."

The flying cages, in which occupants would use their body weight to do a 360-degree spin, were a rare example of a ride that didn't last for the long haul. "The kids never had a problem with it," Fasnacht said. "The older teens would jump around and act crazy, and then there were adults who wouldn't hold on tight enough, and they'd fall all over the place. You can't get insurance on a ride like that, and we pride ourselves on our reputation for safety."

That doesn't mean the classic rides at today's Funland aren't top-notch. Members of the national Dark Rides & Funhouse Enthusiasts group are big fans. "We've been No. 1 on their Top 10 list for nine straight years," Fasnacht said. "They go to Disney World and Six Flags and Disneyland, and then here we are — little, dinky Funland. We're tickled when things like that happen."

Fasnacht credited his summer help for keeping the business attractive to families. "We get a lot of favorable comments about how clean and friendly our employees are," he said.

While there will still be plenty of foreign students working at Funland this summer, they will no longer have free lodging. For the first time in the park's 50 years, a group of second-floor apartments facing Baltimore Avenue will not be used by Funland staff. "The lady who did the cooking and cleaning for them retired, and that made us rethink things," Fasnacht said. "We're going to have the kids live elsewhere this year and see how that works."

Another attraction is the price of tickets, which go for 30 cents a pop — a mere 20-cent raise from when the tickets cost a dime 50 years ago. "I go down the coast every summer and look at the other facilities. There are places in New Jersey charging 66-cents to a dollar per ticket," Fasnacht said. "People always remark on how cheap our prices are compared to those places or the traveling neighborhood carnivals."

Fasnacht, whose family lives in Hershey, Pa., during the winter months, has also seen a number of celebrities pop in through the years. Rock star Dave Grohl, from the bands Nirvana and Foo Fighters, enjoyed Funland when he was a child and now brings his children each year. "Kathy Lee Gifford and Frank Gifford have also brought their kids when they're in town with her parents," Fasnacht said.

Funland is a generational phenomenon, Fasnacht said. "It used to be that people would grow up and then bring their own kids. Now we see grandparents bringing their grandchildren," Fasnacht said. "We're five generations deep."

The support of repeat visitors has helped the business survive and even thrive throughout much of the national recession.

"We've fared well. I have no complaints," Fasnacht said. "We've been very, very fortunate."

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