Arnolds Park

Amusement Park

2011 - Spirit Award

In the late 1800's, when steamships carried passengers to historic ballrooms and other grand sites around the Iowa Great Lakes, pioneer developer Wesley Arnold envisioned an attraction that would draw visitors to his lakeshore property in Smith's Bay on West Lake Okoboji. The construction of a formidable water toboggan slide on that property gave birth to the Arnolds Park Amusement Park , a landmark that would evolve over the next century into the very essence of the Okoboji experience.

Throughout the next one hundred years - as the amusement park diversified into a Coney Island-style attraction and became known as a vacation destination, throngs of visitors and local residents alike filled the 21-acre lakeside site to ride the roller coaster, bumper cars and go-karts, shop the Queen's Court for Okoboji memorabilia, nutty bars and listen to big bands and rock n' roll at the legendary Roof Garden under star-studded summer nights. Arnolds Park Amusement Park became synonymous with the best music anywhere in the USA.

The "Roof,” as it became known, was a “must” destination for several generations of music lovers. Thousands danced to the music of the big bands in the 1920s, 30s and 40s - Count Basie, Harry James, Dorsey Brothers, Duke Ellington, and Glen Miller orchestras, to name just a few. The 1950s ushered in the Rock and Roll era and the ballroom featured nearly all of the top-40 artists and bands of the time, including Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin and the Four Freshmen.

Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s impresario and Roof Garden owner Darlowe Oleson continued to bring the stars of the day to Okoboji. Teenagers boogied to The Beach Boys, Bobby Rydell, Johnny Cash, Bobby Vee, the Yardbirds, the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, and more – if they had chart-topping hits, they played “The Roof.”

The ballroom also featured regional bands, including perennial favorites The Fabulous Flippers from Lawrence, KS and The Rumbles from Omaha . Iowa-based bands competed in an annual Battle of the Bands competition and the top finishers were rewarded with future performance dates. Playing “The Roof” became the sign that a band had “arrived.” Interestingly, many of the groups that played the ballroom back then have been inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘N Roll Music Association Hall of Fame and many are still performing.

Although different owners and attractions came and went over the years, the park and music remained a staple of Iowa Great Lakes tourism and fashioned generations of fond Okoboji memories. After a stunning renovation by owner and philanthropist Chuck Long that revitalized attendance, the park’s existence was threatened by a developer who announced plans to turn the historic landmark into a condominium, hotel and retail complex. The battle to save the park was won when a non-profit, “Save the Park” group raised $7.25 million and purchased it.

The entertainment complex is now officially titled Historic Arnolds Park, Inc. (HAPI) and is run by a board consisting of community leaders who oversee the operations of Arnolds Park Amusement Park , Arnolds Park Raceway, the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum , Preservation Plaza , the Majestic Pavilion, the Roof Garden and the Queen II excursion boat. With the proven fiscal and management skills of these individuals, the preservation and bright future of this historic landmark is certain.

The HAPI board and staff was and is dedicated to bringing live musical entertainment throughout all of these years. They erected a large performance stage on the “Green Space” area on the east end of the Amusement Park and present regular free concerts during the summer season. A new Roof Garden was built in 1997 so that rain or shine; the public can enjoy live entertainment. The IRRMA Hall of Fame induction ceremonies have been held in that facility from the very beginning. The IRRMA Museum is located adjacent to and under the roof of the new Roof Garden.

The "Park” staff works diligently with the IRRMA board, staff and volunteers to present 10 Thursday night Rock the Roof concerts during the summer for locals and visitors to enjoy. Keeping the music alive and accessible to the public garners Historic Arnolds Park Inc. the 2011 Spirit Award.

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