At 9 a.m. on a weekday morning, walkers in bathing suits and cover-ups are headed toward the beach. There is a bit of activity in the boardwalk shops, but the garage-like doors at Funland are down, hiding the beloved amusements from view. The helicopter and teacup rides inside are at rest, as though taking a breather from the night before, and bumper cars slumber in neat rows.
Under a bright blue sky, Randy Curry is building a cubby area for the newest ride, a contraption that unfolds like a giant monster and whirls passengers upside down. On the first few runs, the guests’ sandals and cell phones went flying. The cubbies will hold these items while guests are in the air.
Barbara Fasnacht is watering baskets of purple petunias outside. Trying to dodge the snaking hose, workers unload bottled water.
But the peace comes to an end when the garage doors roll up. As the day goes on, Funland emits a cacophony of noise. Spooky sounds drift from the Haunted Mansion. Bumper cars collide. Toddlers squeal from the wooden boats that circle a mermaid with seaweed-like hair, and teenagers shriek when the Sea Dragon—a gondola-type ride that swings like a giant pendulum—reaches its stomach-dropping, vertical peak.
The flashing lights. The screams. The neon-colored stuffed animals dangling above arcade games. They’re all part of the fun at Funland, which is finishing its 48th summer. The amusement park is as beloved a boardwalk landmark as the Dolle’s sign.
“I have pictures on the carousel from when I was a toddler,” says Brenna Gause, 11, of Harbeson, who regularly visits Funland with her cousins from Wilmington. “It’s what we do when we’re all together.”
Douglass Mowrey of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, who regularly rents a house in Rehoboth Beach, has gone from the kiddie rides to spinning rides to the Sea Dragon. But thanks to her 4-year-old daughter, she’s back to the kiddie rides. “They have rides for all ages, although for the 1-year-olds, mom or dad has to squeeze in there with them,” she says—and it can be a pretty tight squeeze.
Funland even attracts celebrities. Margo McDonough recalls the June evening when her oldest child, Ryan McDonough Fisher, now 18, was a toddler riding in the little boat. Kathi Lee Gifford’s son clambered into a neighboring boat.
“Frank was dressed pretty low key,” McDonough recalls, “But Kathi was decked out, most especially in bling. There were rocks on her fingers, in her ears and around her neck. She definitely was a sharp contrast to the rest of us doting moms in our standard-issue khaki shorts and T-shirts.”
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Though a must-do on most visitors’ vacation lists, Funland is more than a summer tradition. It is also one family’s heritage. The business is now in its fourth generation of family ownership, with more than 30 family members involved at any given time. “We’re very proud of that,” says Bill Henschke, whose father-in-law, Allen R. Fasnacht, is one of the business’ founders.
It all started in August 1961, when the Fasnacht family vacationed in Bethany Beach. Fasnacht and his wife, Jean, his brother Don and Don’s wife, Dee, were walking with others on the boardwalk when they strolled by Sport Center.
Fasnacht was fascinated by a helicopter ride, one of the first kiddie rides to let the child control the car’s movements. His interest wasn’t unusual, considering the family owned Willow Mill Park, a picnic park with rides, pavilions and games in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
He struck up a conversation with Sport Center owner Jack Dentino, whose family in the 1930s had built the business on the success of an arcade game where contestants tried to topple a pyramid of milk bottles with a ball.
“Almost before I said hello, he asked me if I wanted to buy the place,” Fasnacht says. After brushing off the idea, the family returned home. But the lure of the arcade was strong. They decided to buy Sport Center.
Settlement was scheduled for March 15, 1962. Nature, however, had other plans. On March 6, the Great Atlantic Storm battered the Delaware coast. The nor’easter stalled for five high tides, devouring the boardwalk and its stores and spewing them out to sea.
“It was amazing,” Fasnacht recalls. “Within about 100 feet of the boardwalk it was utter destruction. The structures were old—no pilings—and as a result, the foundations were poured on sand. And you know what the Bible says about building a house on sand.”
During the storm, the surf snatched up the boardwalk timbers and concrete slabs, then used them like battering rams to destroy neighboring buildings. “We had I-beams that had a 45-degree dent. It was hard to comprehend,” Fasnacht says.
Despite the devastation, the families went through with the transaction, making allowances for repairs. (The helicopter ride survived. It is still in operation.)
From the start, Funland has been a family effort. Between them, Don and Al have seven children, and most are involved. “We do everything ourselves,” Fasnacht says. “This type of business is pretty difficult to operate as an absentee owner.” The family closed Willow Mill Park in 1968—running both businesses was too challenging.
Funland even handles its own maintenance. Don Fasnacht, who honed his skills in the Air Force and by working on elevators, can “fix anything,” Bill Henschke says. That was a plus when the track for the Haunted Mansion arrived.
“Everything came in wrong,” Henschke recalls. “The pieces didn’t fit together. We had to redesign some 450 feet of track from hand. We couldn’t run the ride one year because the brakes gave out. Don redesigned the braking system.”
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Randy Curry, Don’s son-in-law, has followed in his footsteps. “There are always new challenges,” he says. Today’s rides involve computers and sophisticated machinery. “They can be frustrating to work on, but it’s rewarding when you get it right.”
Al’s son Craig is an electrical engineer. Son Neal is good at running games—so good, he’s led seminars for the International Association of Amusement Parks, which include folks from Disney and Six Flags.
Henschke, who started dating Al’s daughter Gail in 1976, learned the accounting and administrative side of the business. Al’s mother, Sis, a former bookkeeper for Hershey Foods, worked in the back office until she was 90. “I kept records on the computer. She’d keep them in a ledger,” Henschke recalls. She died at age 91.
Henschke’s daughter, Erin Darr, an accountant, is his “right hand,” he says. Her husband, Chris, handles human resources. There are more than 100 employees, half of whom are foreign summer workers. Henschke’s son, Mark, went full time last summer after graduating from Salisbury State University in Maryland.
“I’ve been here 25 summers now, so coming into the business, I know how everything should be,” Mark says. “Well, I know a fair amount—not as much as these old guys.”
Like his cousins, Mark started young. At about age 9, the children stock games. Each season, Funland receives about seven to 10 containers of prizes, which it stashes in the basement. “We go through a lot,” Bill Henschke says. “People come back if they win.”
The kids graduate to selling tickets and working the arcade. “We want them to grow up seeing what’s involved in this operation,” Fasnacht says. “When we work, we work. And when we play, we play.”
Mark and the other kids relished romping in the Haunted Mansions before it opened—“once I got past being terrified of it,” he says.
No matter the pecking order, Henschke says no family member is too proud to pitch in wherever needed, no matter how unpleasant. “We do what needs to be done. If someone pukes, Al is one of the first guys to clean it up,” Henschke says.
Unfortunately, upset stomachs are a hazard of the business. Mowrey and a friend once joined a child in a crowded seat of the Sea Dragon. “He said, ‘This is my seventh time. I threw up on my second and fifth,’” Mowrey says. Fortunately, the lad’s stomach survived the seventh pass.
The family’s company not only owns the business, but it also owns the land and several houses on or near the property. Curry’s son has a bedroom whose window is breathtakingly close to the Sea Dragon. Two dormitories adjacent to the park house 27 men. (Girls are housed in subleased apartments.)
Not surprisingly, developers often make offers to buy the land. But for the Fasnachts’ heirs, Funland is a lifestyle—a family heirloom that’s treated with loving care. Family members are more likely to join the business than to leave it.
“How long will I do this?” Henschke asks. He looks around, hands on hip. Randy Curry is back at work on the cubbies. His son is pitching in with the water delivery. He shrugs. “Until I die, probably.”