Old Chicago Amusement Park: An Idea Ahead of its Time
In addition to the abandoned railroad, Route 66, and its two interstate highways, my hometown of Bolingbrook has (had) another gem that piqued my interest as a kid, one that I never got to see, Old Chicago Amusement Park.
Today's blog represents the culmination of the most research and work I've done on anything on this website, mostly because I was attempting to make a book out of this, but I eventually found that I could not discuss much beyond what has already been said about this place. That being said, I believe that a blog is more than sufficient for what has been done toward this project already, so with that in mind, I hope you enjoy today's foray into the nostalgia of Old Chicago!
Like many kids growing up, I was fascinated with amusement parks. One of my favorite places in the entire world was Six Flags Great America, located in Gurnee, Illinois. You can imagine my excitement, followed by my unhappiness, to learn from my mother that my hometown of Bolingbrook, Illinois was once home to a theme park as well; but one that had sadly closed down over a decade before I was born.
As a small child, I found that hard to believe, since the plot of land that housed it was pretty small in comparison to Great America. And why would anyone close an amusement park, especially one in Bolingbrook? My mother told me it was like a mall, and the amusement park was located indoors, which made even less sense to me, as a young child unaware that an amusement park could be within a mall.
It was true though, of course. My hometown was once home to an amusement park! But the only remaining vestige of this place at its former location was the name of an adjacent road to the property: Old Chicago Drive.
Google Maps Street View image of IL-53 and Old Chicago Drive, Sep. 2021.
The story of Old Chicago as an amusement park is an incredibly short one, especially for the amount of capital invested into the project. The time between the inception and closure of the property of the amusement park was less than a decade when it shut its doors for the final time in 1980. Another near-decade of dormancy would follow in the 1980’s before the building which housed the mall and theme park was demolished late in the decade.
The idea for an indoor amusement park in the early 1970’s was, of course, far ahead of its time, and to date has only been successfully implemented in a handful of locations across the United States, most notably the Mall of America. I think to compare Old Chicago to modern-day indoor amusement parks within malls is a bit of a stretch, mostly in how they derive their value proposition. The Mall of America is a mall that has a theme park located within it; Old Chicago felt more like a theme park with a mall surrounding it. This meant Old Chicago had a lot more theming in its site, and while this may be a positive when comparing it to how sterile most retail space in the United States is, it did make the sales pitch for anchor stores more difficult than would otherwise be necessary for a more traditional indoor mall.
Despite only operating for about five years in the late 1970’s, the park has many fond memories among those who were alive to experience it, even over thirty years after its doors closed for the last time. Sadly, its legacy among both malls and amusement parks is lacking, as a decided lack of focus for the project even from its inception probably sealed its fate before it even opened its doors to the public. One of the things that makes Old Chicago such an interesting place, is how little remains of the area. Were a traveler to visit the site today, there is next to no indication that “Old Chicago Drive” was once home to a 345,000 sq. ft mall.
That being said, in spite of its quick demise, the Village of Bolingbrook included it in the background of a mural at the Village Hall, as it remains an interesting piece of the Village’s history.
This blog explores some of the memories of Old Chicago, how this project came into existence, and how it ultimately failed. A special thanks is in order to the Bolingbrook Historic Preservation Commission, who’s collection of photos, stories, and newspaper articles in relation to Old Chicago made this work possible. Most of the items in this blog are used with their permission; the rest are my own photos, or properly cited as owned by their respective creators.
In 1973, a developer named Robert Brindle visited Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Vista, California, and was motivated to create a theme park of his own. His vision would yield a hybrid theme park and mall, themed to the 1893 World’s Fair that was held in Chicago, Illinois, and would be located in a newly-created suburb of that city, known as Bolingbrook. A recurring phrase in regards to the project was that it was to “put Bolingbrook on the map”. Brindle eventually settled on the name “Old Chicago” for the development. This approach would mean that the harsh Chicago area winters, and summer thunderstorms would not hamper operations; or at least, that was the idea.
The post-World War II growth period, and the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s opened up vast new lands to development across the United States, and people began to relocate from the cities to newly developed suburbs. Combined with the auto industry attempting to develop a more auto-centric environment in the country, these were among the main catalysts for numerous suburban developments. Previously, suburbs were developed around railroad lines, but with the freedom of the automobile, suburbs could be planted just about anywhere there was open land. Social factors too numerous to discuss properly in this historical piece would lead people looking to relocate from the City of Chicago into the open farmland located less than an hour’s drive south. This led to previously unbuilt portions of Will and DuPage counties spurring development of multiple suburbs along the route.
The two most important suburbs for the story of Old Chicago were Romeoville, which had been incorporated in 1895, but experienced significant growth during the 1950’s and 60’s; and Bolingbrook, incorporated in 1965 as a new development from the Dover Construction Company, and what would transform the majority of DuPage Township from the rural area it had been since the 1830’s into a new suburb of Chicago. The first houses in the area began being built in the 1950’s, and incorporation of the village would show a growing population of 7,500 by the end of the decade. Westbury, as the housing development had originally been called, was located north of the Interstate, with the first homes becoming occupied in 1960. Five years later, the Village of Bolingbrook would incorporate with slightly over 5,000 residents, all living north of the Interstate. Romeoville was a mile or so south of I-55, with the area in between unincorporated, and this would lead to the first question for the Old Chicago development; which municipality would incorporate the area?
Both villages vied for the project, but Bolingbrook would incorporate the land, and Brindle promised that the project would put the new village “on the map”.
An early 1970's map of the newly incorporated Village of Bolingbrook. Image by Joe Moore via Bolingbrook Events.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the area surrounding Old Chicago was one of the fastest growing regions for population in the United States, a fact that Brindle would use to entice tenants into signing on to the development.
Interstate 55, which was rapidly replacing its US Highway counterpart, Route 66, was signed in the early 1960’s, using the limited access alignment of the route from Interstate 294 in Burr Ridge to Interstate 80 south of Shorewood, IL. A new Southwest Expressway, that was later named the Stevenson Expressway, would connect the freeway to Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, completing Interstate 55 through northern Illinois in the 1970’s. Route 66 was upgraded to a freeway in the area that would become Bolingbrook in the 1950’s; and would be improved further for the new Interstate upon its completion.
Old Chicago was located immediately south of I-55 at 555 S Bolingbrook Drive, the street name of Illinois Route 53 in the area. It was billed as the “World's First Indoor Amusement Park”, intending to solve a problem that plagues amusement parks to this day: the weather. As anyone who has visited the Chicago area during the wintertime can attest, it is not a great time to be outside. In this regard, Chicago is hardly unique among cities in the northern United States. Additionally, most amusement parks within the United States, north or south, have to close or curtail operations during inclement weather, and seasonally during the winter time. An indoor amusement park could run in all but the worst weather events.
By 1975, Brindle’s vision was a reality, but the park suffered two major setbacks, in addition to numerous smaller issues, that would end the project after just five years in operation. The year following Old Chicago’s opening, Marriot’s Great America would open in Gurnee, Illinois, about 50 miles north, creating a huge competition on the amusement park end. The retail end would also yield disaster, as the complex failed to attract significant anchor stores that would keep local guests coming. These issues, combined with construction cost overruns, some unlucky events, and some avoidable mistakes would doom the complex.
In June of 1973, Robert Brindle brought his idea of “Old Chicago Towne” to the Village of Bolingbrook’s planning commission, complete with a 345,000sq.ft building, in which an amusement park, known as the Old Chicago Fairgrounds, would encircle a mall. With one entrance, the interior was designed so that one would have to walk around and see the shops inside, before you reached the entrance to the amusement park. Brindle incorporated the company known as “Recreational Retail Builders” to act as the corporation for building the Old Chicago Towne site. The land was officially purchased in September of that year, and upon acceptance of an annexation agreement, officially incorporated into the Village of Bolingbrook in 1974. Part of the agreement stipulated that Illinois 53 would be repaved and improved to accommodate the new development, paid for by the company.
Both retail and outdoor amusement parks are cyclical industries that complement each other, which is something that Brindle observed could be capitalized upon in the development of Old Chicago, although this didn’t fully come to fruition as the retail element of Old Chicago was geared toward specialty shops as opposed to big box and retail chains. Between Spring and Summer, retail spending is typically down, while it picks up again in the Fall and Winter time for the holiday shopping season. The opposite is true of amusement parks, which do not attract guests in most of the United States during the cold winter months. Brindle saw Old Chicago as an opportunity to increase the customer base during these slow periods for both of these industries, by having an amusement park open year-round, within a shopping center that one would have to walk through to access the park.
Despite noting these trends and creating a symbiotic relationship between the amusement industry and retail; it appeared as though Brindle’s focus was more on the amusement side of the development as opposed to the retail side, with perhaps the idea that a successful theme park operation would sell itself to retail interests in the long run.
An appeal to nostalgia was to be a central theme of the development, as the entire building was designed to resemble Chicago during the turn-of-the-century, and the interior architecture resembled many of the buildings around the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which occurred on Chicago’s South Side and brought dignitaries from across the world into the Chicago. That event would be immortalized on the flag of the City of Chicago as one of its four stars, which is one example of how much the city views its importance.
An artistic rendering of the amusement park, looking remarkably like the finished product, albeit with more light.
Further tying this theme to Old Chicago was the fact that the 1893 Exposition was itself full of amusements; including the world’s first Ferris Wheel.
In the earliest proposal, a hotel, monorail and golf course were to be part of the project as well, but this was dropped before any construction began. Even before the village gave final approval for the project, the foundation was laid, which soured relations between Brindle and the Village of Bolingbrook. Recreational Retail Builders created a newsletter showcasing both the proposal and developments; the first of which is shown below.
In early 1973, the Village Planning commission gave the approval for the project, but this did not mean any permits had been issued for construction.
Nonetheless, in 1973, ground broke on the project, with an elephant holding a shovel on the construction site.
Even in the earliest stages of development, Brindle was not expecting any anchor stores in the complex, "We don’t expect any of the big merchandising giants here”, something that would prove to be a fatal mistake as the novelty of the development wore off among would-be shoppers. While some of the mistakes of the park could not have been foreseen, this one was actually part of the appeal of the property, as Brindle did not want a large anchor store competing with smaller, specialty businesses, something that would make sense in a farmer’s market or festival setting, but would prove itself unworkable in the context of a large development.
The foundation was found not to be within Bolingbrook’s building code, and the village refused to issue any permits for the continuation of the project. This setback had the potential to end the project, as Brindle’s financial backers would not provide any further funding without an approval from the village. At the time of breaking ground, millions had been loaned out to the project, making investors wary of any delays. Brant Construction Company, who Brindle chose for the project, was from southern California, like Brindle himself, and was unfamiliar with the construction practices that were common in other parts of the US.
This would put the village into a lose-lose situation: allow a building with numerous code violations to continue construction, or prolong the process and potentially lose out on significant property and sales tax revenue.
In an effort to attract retailers and businesses to the site, Recreational Retail Builders touted the prime location of the development, right off of a major Interstate highway and in a high-growth suburb. On business bulletins, they noted that the area had seen a 200% increase in growth over the last five years, with a population of 300,000 people within a ten mile radius of the park.
Construction of the building, once permits were approved, was rapid, and completed in early 1975. Building continued into the following year, but would progress slowly during the Winter of 1974. Eyeing a 1975 opening, this inevitably led to oversights in the building that would create numerous technical difficulties in the first season of operations, which would further erode confidence the village had in Brindle and the construction company.
Like with many large projects, cost overruns occurred. And while the exterior of the building was largely completed, the interior construction was lagging behind.
The Old Chicago dome under construction with I-55 in the foreground.
Brindle had proposed an opening date of Feb 28, 1975; however this proved to be far too optimistic given the harsh winter that hampered construction.
This would wind up being the largest building in the village by far, as well as the tallest. Its 160’ dome would still be among the tallest structures in Bolingbrook were it not demolished.
Interior construction showing the Chicago Loop in early 1975.
Jan. 29, 1980: Old Chicago, a shopping center and indoor amusement park, in Bolingbrook. — James Mayo, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 16, 2014
On June 17, 1975, a pre-opening party took place at the Old Chicago building, where the number of invited guests was over 10,000 people. The event caused massive traffic jams on Illinois Route 53, something that would become a recurring theme during the busiest weekends at Old Chicago, snarling traffic as far north as Lisle, about seven miles north of Old Chicago.
Brindle recounted the delays that the previous winter had on the project in the press release below on the opening day:
Karon White Gibson was the manager of first aid and safety at the park, and recalled that one of the first issues of construction that came up was a malfunctioning sprinkler system. She would tell the Chicago Tribune, "Because the sprinklers didn't work, management had to have off-duty firemen all around the park to get it opened," said Gibson. "They tried to get the sprinklers fixed, but those firemen were there for months at the start-and it was a very expensive proposition."
A press release issued the same day announced that Old Chicago would be opening later that week. “Old Chicago, the $40 million turn-of-the-century shopping and entertainment attraction, will officially open its doors on Saturday, June 21 at 10 a.m.
At that time, the public will be introduced to the world’s first completely enclosed amusement ride park, which includes a community of 200 retail stores and eating establishments -- all under the same roof!
Besides shopping, and the Old Chicago central fairgrounds, which features 21 Disneyland type rides and attractions, live entertainment will be featured every day. In fact, more than 100 performers, including street magicians, clowns, banjo and Dixieland bands, ragtime pianists, high-kicking chorus girls, pantomists, singing security guards, high flying trapeze and other thrilling circus acts will be featured daily throughout the 586,000 sq. ft. facility.
Located on 56 acres just south of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55), fronting on Highway 53, about 35 miles southwest of the Chicago Loop, the mammoth building, complete with a $2.5 million domed roof, can be seen from as far as ten miles away.
The objective of building the combination shopping center and amusement ride park in the Chicago area, according to developer Robert R. Brindle, is “there’s a dearth of entertainment activity in this section of the country -- especially during the inclement periods.
“So we decided to make available an entertainment-oriented community, totally enclosed and air conditioned, that will be capable of operating throughout the seasons.”
Brindle, a California developer for the past three decades, calls his concept “recreational retailing”, which is the combining of merchandising with fun.
“Retailing is traditionally down during the summer months,” explains Brindle, “while the amusement business thrives. By combining the two we create crowds during the quiet periods. “There are many months, especially during the winter months, when the amusement park business dies. By enclosing our amusement park, we will eliminate the problem!”
A decade ago Brindle came up with the concept after visiting Knott’s Berry Farm, an outdoor attraction in Southern California. “It was raining and the place was deserted. So I wondered what would happen if Knott’s had a roof over it?”
“There are four cornerstones on which we’ve based the Old Chicago Fairgrounds operation” remarks Bill Orr, Director of Park Operations, “Safety, Courtesy, Cleanliness, and Service. Approximately 400 young men and women have been selected as Fairground hosts and hostesses working in all facets of the Amusement Park operation. Being chosen to work at Old Chicago means that they have the qualification to meet our standards.””
Adult general admission tickets for the inaugural season for entry to the amusement park were $3.95, equivalent to about $21 in 2022 dollars, with free parking and even a parking lot tram to transport drivers to the door. Ride tickets were also $3.95 for a book of nine. For a single admission price of $5.95 (about $30 in 2022), one had access to unlimited rides and attractions. The amusement park was located immediately under the 160’ dome in the center of the building. Admission was only charged to access the amusement park; one could shop in the stores surrounding the park for free.
The sprinkler issues that plagued the park during opening day would also cause issues later in the year.
After ironing out the issues that had plagued the building on opening day and the weeks and months following, the time between 1975 and early 1977 can be considered the best time for Old Chicago. This was despite the fact that shortly after opening, Brindle's company filed for bankruptcy, citing the cost overruns of constructing the park. The development was nonetheless allowed to operate while bankruptcy proceedings took place.
Several postcards of the exterior of the building were made to advertise the area.
The mall encircled the amusement park area as shown in the directory of stores below:
It looked early on like the project might be a huge success, with crowds creating traffic jams on the weekends during this first year. But as you can see, the store selection was mainly specialty shops with little in the way of national brands, and more importantly, no anchor stores.
When opened, the amusement park included 31 rides.
The original rides included the following:
Antique Cars - An antique car ride
Chicago Bobs - A Matterhorn type flat ride similar to Hay Baler at Marriot's Great America
Chicago Cat - A Pinfari Zyklon model roller coaster.
Chicago Log Race - A log flume ride. One criticism of this ride from Paul Drabek was that, as Old Chicago was an indoor amusement park, it received much less sun than your typical outdoor park, making it difficult to dry off after getting wet on this ride.
Chicago Loop - The signature attraction at the park - An Arrow Development Corkscrew model roller coaster with two corkscrew loops, making it one of the first modern coasters to feature an inversion. As the signature ride, it is easily the most photographed in the entire park.
The Chicago Loop had a life after Old Chicago as well - being briefly relocated to the Alabama State Fairgrounds as simply Corkscrew, and later to Canobie Lake Park as Canobie Corkscrew, where it operated until 2021. The coaster was only the second modern coaster to feature an inversion, following the success of Corkscrew at Knott’s Berry Farm, and further tying the park to southern California. Canobie Corkscrew originally sported a yellow and black paint scheme at the park, but it was repainted different shades of blue in 2012.
It is believed that with its closure in 2021, there are no more operating rides that once called Old Chicago home.
In addition, a Chance Toboggan roller coaster with an eponymous name also operated at the park, but it is unknown when it was added to the ride lineup. You can see it in the above photo of the Chicago Loop as it was located close to the inversions.
Dodgem Cars - A bumper car ride
Rock-Spin ‘N Roll
Additional attractions included an on-site theater, arcade, shooting gallery and other various carnival games.
In addition to the numerous rides, Old Chicago hosted a number of shows and events, such as when Ray Orbison came to town.
Some of the restaurants inside Old Chicago were:
The Columbian House
The First Mr. Submarine
Time for Pizza
Old Chicago Beer Garden.
In the first year of Old Chicago, 1975, two million people visited the park, which dwindled down to just 900,000 three years later.
While part of the decline can be traced back to some of the operational issues which plagued Old Chicago throughout its life, it would be remiss to ignore what is perhaps the largest reason that Old Chicago wouldn’t survive; and that is simply competition.
In February 1977, Old Chicago set a weekend record for its attendance, but this would be the high point of operations for the park.
Robert Brindle was not the only one who saw the potential use for an amusement park in the Chicago area. The Marriott Corporation in the early 1970’s was looking into expanding into the amusement park industry, and by 1972 had settled on an idea to emulate the Walt Disney Company’s building of both Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida, by building three nearly identical theme parks in more northerly markets: the Washington, DC Metro Area, Chicago, and the Bay Area in northern California.
Following resistance to such a large project from locals in the Laurel, MD area, Marriott chose to instead only build two of these theme parks, each of which would be named Marriott’s Great America.
In 1972, even before Brindle’s Old Chicago project had broken ground, Marriott purchased 600 acres of land in suburban Gurnee, Illinois adjacent to the Tri-State Tollway, in anticipation of building the theme park.
Unswayed by the Old Chicago proposal that would attract guests from nearly the same area, Marriott broke ground on their theme park in 1974. On May 29, 1976, Marriott’s Great America would open to the public in a much larger plot of land, and with more thrilling rides, meaning Old Chicago had less than a year of operation as the largest amusement park in the Chicago area.
Much like Old Chicago, Great America was designed with an Americana theme in mind, but had several different themed areas, as opposed to the near total focus on Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. The sheer size of the park, and without limits to the height of rides imposed by a roof on the park, it was quickly able to build a much larger park with more thrilling rides than Old Chicago ever could.
Marriot's Great America in Gurnee, IL c. 1976. Image via Pinterest.
As the park has matured over time, the Americana theming has also slowly dwindled away, replaced with pop culture icons, superheroes, and more cultural theming beyond the US.
Old Chicago was nonetheless still the only amusement park in the area, and indeed the United States, which could accurately say that it could operate year-round and regardless of the weather. But this appeal to the Chicago weather turned out not to be the saving grace that Brindle had bet it would be.
The weekend traffic jams to go to the park were gone, and the lack of a true anchor store to shore up the mall side of the development meant that as the amusement park’s popularity began to dwindle, it put the entire property in jeopardy. This would prove to occur much quicker than anyone had anticipated, as by March 1980, the amusement park would close permanently. The mall stayed open for about another year, but by this point it was clear that the project was in trouble.
Initially, only the amusement park closed, leaving an empty husk around the shopping mall. However, with no anchor stores, or anchor park to attract guests, the mall would close just a year afterward, leaving the entire structure dormant by early 1981.
In 1982, an automobile sale would use the dormant Old Chicago site, which would be prophetic for the future site’s land use; as a large automobile auction site until the late 2010’s.
But after the park and mall closure, the site was still incredibly large, and it seemed early on that there would be some sort of redevelopment for the site. But the proposals became more and more pie in the sky as the early 80's continued, such as a casino, a training site for the Chicago White Sox, and a Chinese international trade center.
The land was sold in 1987, after which for over twenty years an auto auction site called the development home, with the Old Chicago structure being demolished the previous year.
Perhaps there was more symbolism that initially met the eye when an elephant, albeit not a white elephant, held the shovel that began the groundbreaking ceremony for the park. The best case scenarios for the park and shopping center still would not have made the cost of constructing it a worthwhile endeavor. Infrastructure is expensive, and while it's not often that we typically think of things like this, buildings are infrastructure themselves. At minimum, Old Chicago would have needed a more attractive theme park area, perhaps with sponsorships, and anchor stores to keep the mall traffic flowing in.
But with the mall and amusement park closed and doors shuttered, the Village began exploring other land uses for the area.
While currently dormant, the site was purchased by Amazon in 2020, ostensibly to build another distribution center. However, the village was not keen on any construction for the site, citing already large truck traffic volumes in the area. The coronavirus pandemic also most likely did not make progress towards construction move any faster. As of 2022, the site remains dormant following the closure of the auto auction, but is still owned by Amazon.
Once again, I want to thank the Bolingbrook Historic Preservation Commission, as well as those who've donated photos, memorabilia, and newspaper articles to the historical society for their help in preserving the history of the Village as a whole, and Old Chicago as it relates to this blog. If you'd like to add anything to this blog, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. It wouldn't be possible without you all. Thanks as always for reading!