As Wichita gears up to celebrate National Travel & Tourism Week (May 6-12), industry members take time to reflect on how far their destinations have come. Visit Wichita has served the city for over 38 years, during which time much progress has occurred. Looking at the past, we reflect on the days when Wichita was growing, and home to an all-but-forgotten amusement park that lived on a tiny island in the middle of the Arkansas River. Ackerman Island, as it was called, was more of a sandbar sitting in the middle of the river.
Nearly 115 years ago, Wonderland Park opened its doors just north of the Douglas Street bridge (about where Exploration Place stands today) offering the longest roller coaster in the country (The Great Thriller), a baseball field, pool, theater, dance pavilion, coliseum that sat 2,500 people, carousel, billiard hall, Irish café, carnival, penny arcade, fun factory and various shows and performances.
More than 200,000 visitors came during opening year to pay the quarter admission fee and enjoy the attractions. The bandstand brought in acts like the Marx Brothers, John Philip Sousa and preacher Billy Sunday. The National Balloon Race was held at Island Park baseball field in 1915, shining a national spotlight on Ackerman Island.
But the fun and excitement didn’t last long with the hard times of WWI and the moral crusades of religious groups. “Blue laws,” preventing shows and theater sales on Sundays, eventually led to Wonderland Park’s demise, and in 1918, the park closed for good.
Island Park survived for a while after the closing of the amusement park, before being replaced by Wichita’s current field, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
By the 1930s, flooding had become a problem along the river, causing the Works Progress Administration to recommend getting rid of the sandbar to widen the river. As workers fixed the issue, Ackerman Island became part of the west bank of the river. It cost the city $750,000 to move the sandbar.
River Vista is a 203-unit apartment complex expected to be complete in June 2018. The city is also working to beautify the area around it, working on enhancing trails in the area and opening a 240-foot public boat dock and rental concessionaire to activate the river. Boats and Bikes will offer men and women’s locker rooms and daily, year-round rental of canoes, kayaks, and paddleboats as well as wheeled rentals, from bicycles to skateboards.
The new Advanced Learning Library is more than just a public library, it offers meeting space, the latest technology, a children’s pavilion, a space just for teenagers, collaboration spaces and a space to research your family tree. The current Wichita Public Library will be moved to this new location.
With many projects still in the works and under construction, you can see how Wichita is growing right before your eyes. With Project Wichita and many leader dedicated to the future of our city, we look forward to the progress to come.