Year after year, families find fun at Rehoboth park WHERE SUMMER MEMORIES ARE MADE

September 03, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Rehoboth Beach, Del. -- Sheila Diamond tells friends she comes to Funland for the kids' sake, but that's not really true. For while her three children are happily piling into the Paratrooper or crashing into each other in bumper cars, she's trying hard to burn the sights and sounds of this park into her consciousness. It's early August, and her family is concluding its final trip of the summer to Rehoboth Beach, Del.

"I started coming here almost 30 years ago," says Ms. Diamond, 41, a teacher from Harrisburg, Pa., as she leans on a bench at Funland. "My greatest memories are of coming to the boardwalk and riding the rides. Now my kids want to come here, and, quite honestly, it's one of the few things that we all like to do."

Ms. Diamond doesn't ride the rides anymore -- one of the signs of middle age is that your stomach can't handle the up-and-down motion of the Paratrooper the way it might have a few decades ago. But it's enough to watch her children -- ages 10, 8 and 5 -- lose themselves in one ride after another. Sometimes she'll just close her eyes and listen to the screaming of the kids and the clanging of the rides.

"My children think I'm nuts," she acknowledges with a smile. "But those memories keep me going all winter long."

Allan Fasnacht understands what she's saying. As one of the owners of Funland, he's heard it again and again.

"I just talked to a guy who asked me how old the fire-engine rides are," Mr. Fasnacht, a trim, white-haired man in his mid-60s, says in the offices of Funland, located at the rear of the arcade. "I said, 'Gee, we've been here 33 years and they were old when we got here.'

"And he said, 'They're at least 42 years old because I rode them 42 years ago and that's my granddaughter on them now. My daughter -- her mother -- also rode them. So there's been three generations on that fire engine ride.' "

*

Preserve your memories/they're all that's left you. Paul Simon wrote that in a song almost three decades ago -- about the time that Ms. Diamond started coming to Rehoboth and to Funland. This venerable arcade is all about memories -- the ones so insistent and pleasureable that you can't wait to pass them on to others.

At no time are these memories as strong as in late summer, when the nights are getting shorter and there is no more illusion of the endless summer.

In May, the boardwalk signals the beginnings, the promise of another summer at the beach. There's the awful-wonderful junk food, so greasy and salty, or perhaps so sweet you think you're entering glucose shock even while finishing the last delicious bite. There's the jostling mass of beach-goers, filling every square inch of the boardwalk. They dress in the skimpiest of clothing as if to signal with their clothes: I am on vacation. Nothing else matters.

Being on the boardwalk is a license to forget and to indulge. It is sensual tackiness to the extreme.

At summer's end, though, the beach and the boardwalk have a different feel. Soon the kids will be back in school. The drudgery of work will intrude again. The hordes walking the boardwalk seem a little desperate. This will all end, and they must snatch what is left.

It's almost at an end for the people at Funland, too. The place, which opens in mid-May, closes the weekend after Labor Day. The 80-plus high school and college students who work the 18 rides and 12 carnival games will be back in school, their carefully nurtured tans starting to fade. The extended Fasnacht family, which numbers about 17 now, will be packing up as well, and moving back to Hershey, Pa., for the winter.

But while they are in Rehoboth, the Fasnachts will be operating this small, low-key, almost antiquated amusement park and arcade. They bought it in March 1962 -- Allen, his brother Don and their parents -- from Anthony Dentino, who had started a little park on the boardwalk in the late 1930s and called it Sportscenter. It was a modest place from the beginning. It has remained that way with the Fasnachts, even if they have increased the number of rides from 10 to 18.

They were running a little operation named Willow Mill Park, near Hershey -- a "weekend picnic park," as Mr. Fasnacht describes it -- when they happened to vacation at Rehoboth in the fall of 1961. They liked operating Willow Mill, but it was hard work, and its revenue-producing prospects were limited. So they decided to buy Sportscenter in March 1962. Almost immediately, Rehoboth was hit by a storm that destroyed the boardwalk.

"It was utter desolation," Mr. Fasnacht recalls. "The storm transported the bumper cars all the way to the beach. We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into."

But they rebuilt Funland and somehow made money the first year, he says. In 1968 they sold Willow Mill and, over the years, have gradually expanded Funland. Now, it's a staple of the boardwalk experience at Rehoboth.

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