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Art Deco Playland has kept Rye, N.Y., a historic draw

The Whip is a popular ride at Playland in Rye, N.Y. The Whip is a popular ride at Playland in Rye, N.Y. (Photo By Bill Regan for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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RYE, N.Y. - The kids swarm onto the platform and hop into two-seater cars painted with Egyptian Revival wings and lightning bolts, like celestial chariots. Music pumps as the platform, a big wooden disk, begins to spin, and the cars, hooked to metal rods, swivel sharply this way and that. As the disk spins faster, the cars whip back and forth, hence the ride’s name - The Whip. The kids yelp with each bump and bounce, much as children have done on this ride since it was built, in 1928.

Rye Playland is your grandfather’s amusement park, possibly even your great-grandfather’s. Spread over a strand of beach on Long Island Sound, this park is also a work of art. When Westchester County bought the site in the late 1920s, it brought some of New York’s finest design talent to the table, including architects Walker & Gillette, landscape architect Gilmore Clarke, amusement park designer Frank Darling, and ride designer Frederick A. Church.

Today it is the only Art Deco amusement park in the country, and one of only a handful of parks from this era that have operated continuously. Its two wooden roller coasters, carousels created by master carvers, boardwalk, and covered arcade all hark back to the golden age of amusement parks, the 1920s. Also original are the stucco buildings, with castle towers housing concession stands, and the long grassy strip running through the center of the park shaded by towering oaks.

Playland’s original buildings and seven original rides make up a National Historic Landmark. Last year, however, the multimillion-dollar operating cost prompted the county to solicit proposals to “reinvent’’ 100 of Playland’s 280 acres. Guidelines require whoever redevelops the park to maintain and protect the National Historic Landmark features, to run a functioning amusement park, and keep the property as public parkland with the existing public access to the water and boardwalk. After receiving 11 proposals, the county and a citizens’ committee are reviewing them, aiming to choose one by November.

It will take a sensitive reinvention to create an environment as artful as the planned original. Playland’s layout takes advantage of the shoreline’s natural ledge outcrops and crescent of sand beach. The ocean scenery, which melts into a soft blue infinity when viewed from the rides, has transformed many a summer afternoon into a lifelong memory.

“When I was growing up in Manhattan in the 1970s, I probably came here 10 times a summer with the Boys and Girls Club. It was the only time I got out of the city,’’ says Karim Ullah, 45. A fifth-grade teaching assistant in East Harlem, Ullah is here with his class for an end-of-year field trip.

One of Ullah’s students, Christian Dawson, 11, is visiting for the third time. “It’s small,’’ he says, “but the lines are short, so you can go on lots of rides.’’

They saunter off toward the Playland Plunge - one of two rides that end with cars and riders splashing into a pool - while thousands of round light bulbs flash the names of the older rides in garish colors and Deco curves: Music Express, Wipeout, Sky Flyer, Hi-Striker.

Dozens of rides have been added over the years, but the Dragon Coaster, Playland’s signature attraction, may still be the most popular. The entrance of a green tunnel is masked by an enormous dragon’s head with a gaping mouth full of saber-like fangs. Deco wings sprout behind its head and front legs, and its red eyes flash when, midway along the 3,400-foot track, the train rockets into its mouth. The dragon’s fearsome face and the coaster’s big drops can be a little scary for younger kids, who may prefer the Kiddy Coaster, a smaller, gentler version in the Kiddyland area, near the boating lake.

A colonnade frames views of the lake, where people can board a touring boat that putt-putts around the tranquil pond. The lake laps at the shore of the picnic grove, a cluster of tables under a high canopy of old oaks.

Nearby, the boardwalk begins, tracing the edge of a rocky point and past a breakwater, where the music and shouts of the rides are replaced by the clink of cutlery at a seafood restaurant on a long pier. Beyond lies the white crescent of sand and the arcade where Tom Hanks, at the end of the 1988 movie “Big,’’ dropped a coin into a fortune-telling machine and wished himself back to his childhood.

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at janeroybrown@verizon.net.

If You Go

Rye Playland
Playland Parkway
Rye, N.Y.
914-813-7000
www.ryeplayland.org
All rides $30 a day; Kiddyland $20 a day; spectators $10 a day. Parking $5 weekdays, $7 weekends, $10 holidays. Season ends Sept. 11.