Big turnout for Kiddieland's last day
T.J. Pleva chokes up when she reminisces about her decades' worth of trips to Kiddieland in Melrose Park.
"We have a lot of sad memories of saying goodbye to this," she said, motioning to her two children, Haley, 8, and Nolan, 6. She came when she was young and brought her own kids to the amusement park four times this year, Pleva said, but "we're looking forward to a great last day."
Kiddieland opened its gates to the general public for the final time today, and hundreds waited outside in bright sunlight for the chance to buy tickets. At one point, more than 400 stretched in an hourlong line around the chain link fence, listening to the screams of those riding the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Little Dipper. The park, open since 1929, will host one final celebration next week for those who won bids to be among the last on rides like the train and roller coaster.
About 6,000 people came to Kiddieland today, according to park estimates, with a line about 1,000 feet long at its peak. The adults wore T-shirts with farewell messages and openly admitted to nostalgic motivations, but the kids lived only in the moment.
Nicholas Martorina, 9, of Chicago, is the first one to arrive a little before 9:00 a.m. at Kiddieland in Melrose Park, Ill. on Sunday. The park is closing at the end of the day for good, 80 years after it opened its doors to the public. (William DeShazer/Chicago Tribune)
Nicholas Martorina and his father, Sam, were near the front of the line, and the 9-year-old ran full-bore for the bumper cars when the gates opened at noon.
"It feels awesome," said Nicholas, a third-grader at Andrew Jackson Language Academy in Chicago. "I've never been first in line for anything."
Among the morose, though, were park owners, who expected a day of mixed emotions.
"It's certainly going to be bittersweet," said Tom Norini, one of the owners. "We're trying to be as upbeat as we can."
He said the part of the family that owns the property Kiddieland sits on didn't allow a lease renewal, so closing was the only option. The park's future, Norini said, is unknown.
"Nobody's been able to find out," he said. "There's all kinds of rumors."
The family drama, though, was the last thing on the minds of those waiting to enter the park.
They instead relived their own Kiddieland memories, of which there were legion.
Kisha Lipscromb, of Bellwood, said that as a child, she rode the steam train, the Kiddieland Limited, over and over while her mother studied for nursing school on a nearby bench. Denise Javers, of Chicago, brought her daughter, Amanda, 11, and told her stories about her own childhood, when a day of Kiddieland would be followed by barbecue at a nearby Russell's restaurant.
"Everybody has wonderful memories, and everybody has a story," said Mary Rynes, another one of the owners. She said they've heard of people meeting on rides, then winding up married. Those who worked at Kiddieland said the park was just as important to them. Before the doors opened, they began the day doing the "Cha-Cha Slide" dance together. They say that's the kind of relaxed environment they've come to cherish.
"You meet a lot of new people, friendships that I'm sure will last forever," said Diana Lopez, 17, who works in the park's arcade. The last day is "going to be a lot of fun. ... It's going to be a sad day, as well."
For many, sadness at times overshadowed the day's pleasures. Pleva, who said her kids cried as they watched a news program Sunday morning about the park's closing, fondly remembers trips to Kiddieland with her parents when she was 4 years old.
"It's really sad that they couldn't have grown up and have their kids come here," she said, tears in her eyes.
-- Georgia Garvey, Steve Brosinski