How the Freed family saved Utah's Lagoon amusement park
Farmington • Lagoon board chairman Peter Freed seems like just the kind of man you would want operating an amusement park.
Sitting behind a desk surrounded by antiques and photos representing more than 60 years of helping own and operate one of Utah's treasures, the man with flowing gray hair and a twinkle in his eye talks about the venerable park as if he were a kid on Christmas morning.
I know the feeling. A summer trip to Lagoon has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My Uncle Harv supervised "Kennecott Day" at the park for years. In those days, there was no "pay one price" policy to ride all the attractions. Instead, patrons purchased scrip tickets. But, because he was in charge, Harv had what we called "a magic ribbon" that he would show to ride operators, getting us on the rides "free."
That started my lifelong love affair with amusement parks, roller coasters and thrill rides. But in those days I hardly realized that Lagoon, which originated as Lake Park on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in 1886 and moved to its present location in 1896, ranked among the oldest in the country. I didn't know that the resort's famous wooden roller coaster was built in 1921 and is one of the oldest of its kind, or that the Merry Go Round has been on site since 1906. All I cared about was that they were fun to ride.
The park was originally built by Simon Bamberger, Utah's fourth governor, who operated a railroad from Salt Lake City to the Davis County park. It was primarily a place to dance and swim, though it offered a few rides, including a mule-drawn carousel. It was closed during World War II.
"My brothers and I got home from being in the war," recalled Peter Freed, "and my oldest brother Dave asked what we would all do. We came up with the idea of going to the Bambergers and getting them to lease us the park. We took over in 1945 and, in all honesty, with the exception of the roller coaster, there was hardly anything there."
The Freed brothers did not have much spare cash. But, led by Bob, who Peter said had a passionate love of amusement parks and live entertainment, they did have dreams.
"We would open around 3 p.m.," recalled Peter. "We would be here all day and stay up late at night when we would count money by hand. Gradually, things got a little better and we started adding to it."
Then came a disastrous night in 1953. Peter said he got a call from Hays Gorey, then the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, telling him that Lagoon was on fire.
"I jumped out of bed and went out the door," he recalled. "The sky out this way was absolutely red. My heart started beating so hard and I got here as fast as I could. But I had to stop the car. I was so out of breath I thought I was going to pass out."
Part of the roller coaster and the carousel survived. The brothers seriously thought about giving up. But they pushed ahead, finding the money to build an even better park. A Lagoon timeline says 1954 was the year most attractions were added.
Lagoon classics such as the Colossus, Wicked, Lagoon-A-Beach, Pioneer Village, Rattlesnake Rapids and, this year, the Air Race would follow. A park that once operated with three full-time employees now employs 300 year-round and 4,000 in the summer.
Some things have not changed. For example, Lagoon is one of the few theme parks to allow outside food because bringing in picnics is a long-standing tradition. There is still live entertainment, though the days of Patio Gardens, when such acts as Johnny Cash, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Janis Joplin, the Beach Boys and even the Three Stooges performed, are gone.
Despite offers from big corporations to buy Lagoon, the Freed family is still in charge. Four of Peter's six children run the park.
Freed maintains the demeanor of a young man thrilled that he has created so many good memories for so many great years. It is easy to picture him laughing at the park's attractions, new or old.