This year the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County are celebrating their 150th anniversaries. Visit Wichita is also honoring a milestone: 40 years of serving the travel and tourism businesses in Wichita.
Here’s a look back at one of the areas in Wichita that has been drawing travelers since before our organization was around. Long-time residents remember the days of Ackerman Island but many younger generations and visitors don’t know about the all-but-forgotten amusement park that lived on a tiny island in the middle of the Arkansas River.
In 1906, Wonderland Park opened just north of the Douglas Street bridge, about where Exploration Place stands today. It featured the longest roller coaster in the country — “The Great Thriller” — and also had 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.
The Great Thriller roller coaster on Ackerman Island in Wichita - Photo Credit: Wichita Public Library
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 World War I and the moral crusades of religious groups. “Blue laws,” preventing shows and theater sales on Sundays, eventually led to Wonderland Park’s demise, and the park closed for good in 1918.
Baseball field on Ackerman Island, facing east - Photo Credit: WSU Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives
The baseball field survived for a while after the closing of the amusement park. 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.
Lawrence-Dumont Stadium replaced Island Park and stood on the west bank south of Douglas from 1934 to 2018. It was demolished and Riverfront Stadium replaced it, opening in April 2020.
Riverfront Stadium on the West Bank of the Arkansas River, facing southwest - Photo Credit: Drone-tography
The ballpark is home to the Triple-A Wichita Wind Surge baseball team. Along with affiliated baseball returning to Wichita, the area around the new stadium is expected to flourish in the coming years with Riverfront Village, a 7-acre mixed-use development that could include residential, office space, a flagship hotel, retail and restaurants and public plazas.
River Vista Complex on the west bank of the Arkansas River and the Q-line on Douglas, facing northwest - Photo Credit: Drone-tography
The west bank is already home to an exciting new array of recent development, from River Vista apartment complex to a cutting-edge Wichita Public Library. River Vista is a 203-unit apartment complex that also includes trails that tie in to the river corridor and a 240-foot public boat dock. Concessionaire Boats & Bikes operates from the dock area May through October, offering men and women’s locker rooms and rental of kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and pedal boats as well as bicycles and scooters. Wichita State University’s Shocker Rowing team runs the rental business.
Wichita State University Rowing Team on the Arkansas River, facing northeast - Photo Credit: Boats & Bikes
The new Advanced Learning Library is more than just a public library, it offers a children’s pavilion, a space just for teenagers, a coffee shop and access to technology, from a studio dedicated to audiovisual recording and editing to early literacy stations to research-only computers in the Burns Historical Research Pavilion. The library also has technology classes, storytimes and special events.
A new extended-stay hotel, Home2Suites by Hilton, is currently being constructed and expected to open in 2021 in the Historic Delano District. The district already is full of thriving shops, eateries, bars, places to get coffee and other businesses.