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HORSIN' AROUND : There's Nothing Quite Like Taking a Spin on an Old-Fashioned Carousel

December 26, 1991|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition

Aside from locking yourself in the pantry with the See's candy (my personal favorite), one of the best ways to battle post-holiday blues is a spin on your neighborhood merry-go-round.

There are a surprising number of them sprinkled across the county, ranging from turn-of-the-century machines to fiberglass workhorses. And, if you're feeling generous, you can even take the kids.

Where you go to choose your mount is a matter of taste, but if you're a purist like Scott Ringwelski, you'll head for one of three locations: Shoreline Village in Long Beach, Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm.

Ringwelski and his partner Robbi Rustuen have studied and promoted antique carousels for the last 12 years.

He gives the Shoreline Village machine his top rating, calling it "one of the 10 best (carousels) in existence." Built in 1906 by Charles Looff, considered one of America's premiere carousel builders, the machine has a history as colorful as the twinkling jewels on its figures.

In 1913, it survived a disastrous fire in Seattle, and went on to spend nearly 60 years in San Francisco's now-defunct Playland at the Beach. In 1983, it was installed in Shoreline Village, a waterfront shopping center near downtown Long Beach, and is now recognized as an official California Historic Point of Interest.

Housed in a replica of one of Looff's original hippodromes, the four-row carousel features 62 vividly colored figures: stallions with flared nostrils and bared teeth, vicious lions frozen in mid-leap, and chariots "pulled" by fierce dragons. Each movable figure is constructed of pieces of wood held together by dowels and glue, and glitters with Austrian crystals typical of Looff's eye-catching designs.

The 3 1/2-minute ride whizzes along at 14 m.p.h. The fare is $1 for adults, free to children 42 inches and under riding with an adult.

According to Ringwelski, merry-go-rounds have existed in some form since medieval times. They peaked in popularity during the early 1900s, when revelers considered them a "white-knuckler ride. . . . A big, fast, elaborate escape from a gray industrialized society" that offered a dizzying glimpse into a world of color and fantasy.

"It was a chance to let your dreams take flight, all for the price of a carousel ride," he said.

When the roller-coaster arrived on the scene, however, the carousel was dismissed as "something for old folks and kids." At one point, 6,000 machines had been created by about 10 major U.S. carousel builders, each with their own unique style; of these, less than 200 remain.

The Dentzel family, creators of the first American amusement park carousel, are the makers of the Knott's and Disneyland merry-go-rounds.

Built in 1902 by Gustav Dentzel, the Knott's ride features a menagerie of 54 horses, cats, pigs, zebras and ostriches--48 of them hand-carved originals which, according to Knott's public relations director Stuart Zanville, are worth as much as $100,000 each. Real horsehair tails and the original brass poles add to the authenticity. A pair of turn-of-the-century organs provide the music for the two-level machine, which revolves at a stately 7 1/2 m.p.h.

If leaping pigs are not your speed, you may prefer the Disneyland machine, which offers a stable of 72 pure-white horses. Disney lore has it that the mounts, previously a variety of colors, were painted all white because children used to argue over who could ride the "good guy" white horse.

Originally built in the mid-1920s by Dentzel's son, William, the machine was remodeled by Disney staff and consultants to include four rows of leaping animals. Even the outside row of "standers," or stationary figures, had their legs replaced.

Because the animals were collected piecemeal from machines nationwide, as many as five different carousel builders and carvers are represented, including Looff, Dentzel and Charles Carmel, according to Ringwelski.

Today, Disneyland employs a full-time staff member just to maintain the machine, which carries approximately 2 million riders each year.

Although Ringwelski dismisses the South Coast Plaza merry-go-round as a "kiddie ride . . . that belongs in front of a K mart," there are plenty of harried mothers in this county who bless it. Installed when the mall opened in 1967, the late-model machine has 20 horses and two chariots; a three-minute ride costs 50 cents.

Across the street at Crystal Court, kids can hop aboard one of 12 hand-carved horses that are decorated based on the legend of King Arthur. It is a small machine custom-built by Chestnuts Carousel of Kent, England. A ride costs 50 cents.

And at the Balboa Fun Zone, riders can take a turn on a no-frills machine for a buck, and get a million-dollar view of Newport Harbor to boot.



Vintage carousels.


Shoreline Village: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Knott's Berry Farm: 10 a.m. daily, closing times vary. Disneyland: 9 a.m. daily, closing varies.


Shoreline Drive and Pine Avenue, Long Beach. Knott's: 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park. Disney: 1313 Harbor Blvd., Anaheim.


San Diego Freeway north to the Long Beach Freeway south. Follow signs toward Golden Shore. Knott's: Riverside Freeway to the Beach Boulevard exit south. Disney: Santa Ana Freeway to the Harbor Boulevard exit south.


Shoreline: $1 for adults, free to children 42 inches and under. Knott's: $9.95 to $22.95 to the park, free for ages 2 and under. Disney: $22.50 to $27.50 to the park.

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