A Fated Spin on My Dad’s Old Carousel

On a ride with my son at Disney World, I rediscovered my own New Jersey childhood—and an unmistakable piece of my late father.

olympic park carousel
Illustration by Clare Nicholas

At an early age, my father, the son of immigrants from Liverpool, England, found a job at Olympic Park, an amusement center that straddled the border of Irvington and Maplewood. Established in 1904 by a German immigrant family, Olympic Park was originally a beer garden and picnic destination. It later added a horse track, Olympic-size swimming pool, circus, amusement rides, roller skating and games of chance.

In the 1950s, when my mom and dad took my siblings and me to Olympic Park for a day’s entertainment, it was with great pride that my father counted off all the jobs he had held at the park in his youth: lifeguard, short-order cook, barker at the wheel of chance. He was even the guy who dropped into the dunk tank. Best of all was working as an attendant at the park’s ornate carousel.

Dad was a big guy—his size and skill earned him football scholarships to Notre Dame and Rutgers—so it was easy for him to pick up little kids and place them into their seats atop the carousel’s wooden lions and tigers. After the ride was over, he would deliver the kids back into their parents’ waiting arms.

Sadly, Olympic Park could not compete when more modern parks opened in Keansburg, Asbury Park, Seaside Heights and elsewhere. In 1965, its owners closed Olympic Park. The site would be developed as an industrial park.

[RELATED: An Alluring Childhood Trip to the Atlantic City Boardwalk]

My father died in 1983. Several years earlier, I had moved to Atlanta for a new job, and it was there that my wife and I brought two sons into the world. When we took our firstborn at the age of four to Orlando’s Disney World, I navigated the park thinking about my father. It was a particularly hot day. My wife and son went on all the rides while I stayed earthbound, guarding our stroller.

After a break for lunch, we noticed organ music coming from across the lot. A carousel!

This time, it was my turn to ride. I hoisted my son onto a brightly painted horse and stood next to him to make sure he did not fall. As we circled in what seemed like slow motion, I caught site of a bronze plaque at the base of the ride. It read: “This carousel came to Disney World from Olympic Park in New Jersey and has been restored to its original glory for your enjoyment.”

The ride stopped, we got off, and tears streamed down my face as I told my wife about the inscription. Disney’s Prince Charming Carousel was the very same carousel my dad had worked on so many years ago. I am not a religious man, but I’d like to think my father was watching us that day.

In 2001, my wife and I moved back to New Jersey to raise our boys and reunite with my pals from the years at Irvington High School and Rutgers. Our boys are grown now, but when they were young, we enjoyed our visits to Keansburg and Seaside Heights for the rides and the food. Still, nothing will ever compare with that spin on my dad’s carousel.

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