One of the most unusual things you’ll begin to notice when you visit a lot of kiddie parks is the amount of churches you’ll find. When you think about an amusement park today, it is hard to imagine that something so blatantly religious could be an important part of a family’s vacation. Don’t forget, most of these parks were built in the 1950s at a time when the majority of Americans were practicing Christians that attended church every Sunday. In post-war America, the nation was prosperous, and the culture shifted to a more conservative set of values. Families moved out of small city homes and into large suburban ranches. Boomers saw the church as an important pillar of these newly developed suburban communities. It was a place for families to pray, but also to socialize with their neighbors. For parks, building a church was not just culturally appropriate, but it also made good business sense. At a time when families would spend weekend getaways visiting these new amusements, many still wanted a place to worship. This unique intersection between family fun and faith resulted in many kiddie parks having small chapels on their property.
It is in these small churches that families could gather to quietly pay respect to God and step away from the commotion and excitement outside. It is no surprise that many of these small structures are nestled away in quiet forests away from the park’s sensationalism. As parks grew, many are now surrounded by noisy rides and video games. You might walk right by them today without even realizing that they are churches. In fact, most people seem to do just that! Today we’re going to take a moment to peek inside the pews of these small houses of worship.
At Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, NY, you’ll need to cross a foot bridge in the rolling hills to find this serene chapel with a bright red roof hiding between the trees. This is Saint Nicholas Chapel, and once inside you’ll find a simple rustic church with German influenced design.
With a mood that differs from most of the whimsical music shows, a group of actors presents a live Nativity Pageant nearby daily.
Story Book Land in NJ welcomes visitors to the “Chapel Of Peace”. This tiny church, The Chapel was built by 18-year-old Andrew Cresci as a gift to his parents Celestine and Augustus Cresci in 1885, and stood at their home in Vineland, NJ. Benediction was held in the chapel on the feast days of each saint until the family property was sold, and the chapel was moved to a cemetery in Union NJ where it fell into disrepair. It was later rescued by Story Book Land, who kept the interior and exterior intact, including the intricate stained glass windows made of sand.
Nearby a ramshackle nativity is set up using mannequins with wigs, false beards and fabric clothing.
At Santa’s Village in New Hampshire, an awe-inspiring church sits between the Sugar and Spice Bake shop and the SS Peppermint Twist ride. A fantastically ornate interior surprises guests entering the rustic log structure. Contained within is an altar built in 1864 for the Cathedral of Manchester. Seven Bishops were consecrated in front of this impressive structure which was graciously given to Santa’s Village by All Saints’ Parish in Lancaster NH when the church was renovated.
A young elf can be seen worshiping on this late 60s or early 70s postcard of the church.
Down an unassuming path, a short little building with a Queen Anne dome turret stands amongst the landscaping. In Storyland of Glenn, NH, a simple miniaturized church houses two small rows of single seat pews that lead up to fabric draped altar holding just an acrylic encased bible and a vase of fresh flowers. A token sign outside reminds visitors to finish their food and drink before entering the chapel. This is, after all, a house of the lord.
Santa’s Land inVT features one of the only open air areas of worship I’ve seen, and it happens to be hog sty adjacent. I suppose no other scene more accurately captures the feeling of the nativity stable than one with live pigs running around. A crazy-eyed goat seems tacked on and out-of-place amongst the more detailed figures. There are also pipe organs mounted above the entrance, which seemingly attach to nothing. They do give the whole area a “churchy” vibe though, so its nice to see that they are still being displayed!
At Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, PA a simple Amish church is on the park property. Traditionally, the Amish do not include ornate or decorative elements in their building techniques, and this church is no exception. It resembles many of the larger churches found in the area, but this miniaturized one seats just 8 people!
We have talked a lot about the Magic Forest on this site, and we often chuckle at some of the creepy statues that inhabit their grounds. I have to tell you that when I stepped inside this log building, I was genuinely shocked at what I found inside! Despite the run down exterior typical of this overgrown park, the inside of this rustic log church blew my mind. Log elements intersect with roman catholic elements like stained glass and a stone holy water font. From the woodsy carved altar and colored lightbulb chandeliers the design elements of this Catholic church come together to create an altogether surreal house of worship.
You might think that park chapels are only for the wholesome family focused Santa parks and Fairy Tale Lands that popped up in the middle of the twentieth century, but there’s another kind of park that we’ve yet to scratch the surface on here at Kiddieland, Giddy up- it’s the Wild West Park! Once plentiful, there are only a few of these parks remaining. At Wild West City in Netcong, NJ actors recreate a day in the life of Dodge City, KS in the 1880s and while gunslinging cowboys fall off real horses and stage coaches drive by, there is a quiet escape from the shootouts on main street. Near the back of the park next to Boot Hill, a nondenominational chapel welcomes all. You can take a moment to quietly reflect while you mourn your fallen bandits at this historic house of the lord. Uncle Floyd is purportedly a fan of the chapel, as it features one modern convenience that was not available in the old west-air conditioning!
Although I’m not religious, I grew up in a town that boasted the claim of “America’s smallest chapel” which, as a fan of tourism, always attracted me, and I know this is where my fascination with tiny churches originated. As a small town teen (with no church affiliations), I remember going into the chapel with my brother and just taking in the strangeness of the place. Having grown up in a primarily Catholic area, we were accostomed to seeing ornate churches with giant steeples, and rituals we didn’t understand. This simple little place made no sense. We took rosary beads and signed the registry book even though we weren’t Catholic. My brother used to say that when he got married, he wanted to have his tiny wedding there, and coming from a very large family, we thought that was hilarious. I guess we pictured our 15 aunts and uncles and 50+ cousins crammed in the small pews. Now that I’ve been to some of these small churches, I’m not sure Decker’s Chapel can continue with their draw of “smallest church in America” (though they still claim to be!)Whether you are looking for a quiet escape from a noisy day at the park, or want a unique place to hold an intimate wedding, these small park chapels are another way that vintage attractions are keeping things weird.
Parks like Holiday World have even continued the tradition and recently transported a historic 1880s church to the park in 2012. At Knott’s Berry Farm, you can get married at the Chapel of Reflection and Snoopy can even attend your wedding, and late to the game Walt Disney World built their 300 seat nondenominational Wedding Pavillion on the Seven Seas Lagoon in 1995 so that guests could have a fairy tale wedding with a “picturesque backdrop of Cinderella Castle”.
There’s something special about these small spaces. Whether they are built by families out of love for each other and their god, or because that was all that was affordable for a tiny community, these humble churches are a unique testament to a time lost. Regardless of your religious affiliation, there’s something special about that.
Peace be with you.