The 86-year-old Art Deco landmark north of New York City is the nation’s largest government-run amusement park, and it’s been a money loser for suburban Westchester County for years. It lost $4.3 million in 2013, attendance dropped from 1 million in 2005 to 390,000 last year, and a grand plan to revamp the park is more than a year behind schedule, caught up in politics and opposition from neighbors.
While no one is predicting that Playland will have to close anytime soon, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino — now the GOP nominee for governor — has often said the status quo can’t continue. And officials note that only about 30 percent of Playland’s patrons are county residents.
“Amusement parks aren’t an essential service of government,” said Astorino spokesman Ned McCormack. “If we can’t get it to a point where it’s financially viable, a day could come where it just can no longer go forward.”
The county doesn’t have the space, the money or the inclination to make the 280-acre Playland into a Six Flags-type thrill-seeker’s dream. Its size, old-fashioned feel and lower prices make it more of a family outing, with a boardwalk, beach and picnic tables on Long Island Sound.
The park’s style is evident at the end of the 1988 blockbuster comedy “Big,” in the scene when Tom Hanks’ character makes his wish to return to his life as a child.
One of the most beloved sections is Kiddyland, where the Red Baron airplanes and Crazy Submarine are especially tame. A long mall down the center is given over to shade trees and flowers rather than rides.
At Playland last week, patrons agreed it’s a low-key excursion. But several said the slower pace was part of the charm.
“I do agree it’s a little bit outdated,” said Jeannette Charles, principal of St. Bartholomew’s School in New York’s Queens borough, which brought 170 people, mostly 8- to 13-year-olds, to the park for an end-of-the-year outing. “But for my kids, this is perfect. They’re having a great time and nobody’s complaining.”
But Gershwin Vini, 15, of Massapequa on Long Island, said he’d like to see “a few more rides, maybe one big drop ride. For a high schooler, it’s not that much fun.”
Astorino, who has said he hopes to be “the man who saved Playland,” asked in 2010 for proposals to reimagine the park. He announced in 2012 that he had chosen the nonprofit Sustainable Playland Inc. to turn the park into a year-round attraction as opposed to just a summertime draw.
The plan called for cutting back the area devoted to rides, while preserving such favorites as the wooden Dragon roller coaster and the old Derby Racer carousel. SPI would also add water park features to the beach and pool, create a Great Lawn overlooking the sound, and build a field house and athletic fields. The popular boardwalk — where the “Big” scene was filmed — would remain.
The sports facilities — heavily in demand in Westchester — were considered a key element for income and for expanding the park’s appeal throughout the year.
Astorino said in 2012 that Westchester would get $4 million up front and would eventually receive at least $1.2 million a year. But Geoff Thompson, a spokesman for SPI, said the $4 million figure is no longer being talked about, partly because of the funds eaten up by various delays.
Astorino had hoped that the new operator would take over in 2013, and he asserted that he didn’t need the approval of the full county Legislature. That resulted in two lawsuits. The Legislature also decided to hold hearings, questioning SPI and the unsuccessful bidders.
Meanwhile, some residents of Rye, where Playland is located, began objecting to the proposed field house, which is near a residential area. In response, it was reduced from 95,000 to 82,500 square feet. Then the city government, threatening a lawsuit, claimed that the city, not the county, should be the lead agency in determining the revamped park’s environmental impact.
The state is expected to rule shortly on who gets to lead the review.
Meanwhile, Catherine Parker, the state legislator from Rye, withdrew her longstanding support of the Sustainable Playland plan.
“I’m not saying it’s the wrong plan,” she said. “But it’s doomed because it’s going to be tied up for years with this looming litigation.”
She said the county should start over with “reasonable proposals that don’t involve a field house.”
“Closing Playland doesn’t have to be a possibility,” she said.