Where a lone dinosaur roams

I have intended to photograph this dinosaur for years.  A couple of decades, actually.

The colorful, scaly reptile is a denizen of a long-closed amusement park on the northwest side of Milwaukee – once a roadside attraction featuring miniature golf, possibly go karts, and a giant wave slide of the sort ubiquitous in the early 1970s.  I have vague, distant memories of driving past at night and seeing the darkness brightly lit, which means it must still have been in business as late as the early 1980s, when I moved to the city.

In searching for more information online, I came across this photo on Flickr that shows the orange dinosaur in its original setting.  And here’s another Flickr photo showing the dino from the opposite angle, a rear view pointing out toward the street, with the original (but by then greatly deteriorated) “Johnson’s Park” sign beyond. 

The park remained intact for many years after it shut down, but eventually the slide disappeared and slowly the rest of its installations were also dismantled, until all that was left behind were some dinosaurs and other remnants of the miniature golf course hidden in the encroaching brush.

Demolition of the property started in earnest maybe a year ago.  Bulldozers and heavy equipment moved in, and soon it appeared nothing remained.  I had waited too long to take my photo.  With all traces of this kitschy park erased, there would be no tangible reminder of Milwaukeeans’ cheesy entertainment of an era past.

Then my daughter recently spotted this guy lurking in the bushes.  He’s nearly invisible to motorists driving north on 76th Street because of the overgrowth.  Because I needed to be on the northwest side of the city today anyway, I took along my camera – finally!

The site of this former amusement park exists in a swath of empty history: abandoned auto dealerships and weedy parking lots along N. 76th Street in Milwaukee.  Half a century ago this area was freshly built, the newest construction on the outer edges of the city abutting the countryside.  Now it has lapsed into ruin.

Whatever shape this property assumes in its next phase of life, wouldn’t it be wonderful if somehow the dinosaur could be incorporated into its design as a physical link connecting us to who we used to be?

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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12 Responses to Where a lone dinosaur roams

  1. Oh my gosh! Johnson Park!! I remember that, too!! I had no idea anything was still over there. That area has been “depressed” for a while, although a few business have managed to survive (like Hoffers Pet store).

    • I’m so glad these photos brought back memories! Stuff like that makes life longer.

      It’s so strange to think about how the city has its own lifecycle: growth, decay, renewal. Do you ever find yourself referring to a building by a name that is three or four businesses old? Like the First Wisconsin building or the Marine Bank building? Or Gimbels, as long as I’m mentally navigating Wisconsin Avenue. (Or would that be Grand Avenue? Don’t get me started on street names 🙂 )

  2. David J. says:

    I can still remember driving go carts around, and the arcades. I think I may have gone mini golfing, but I’m not sure. I used to love riding my bike over there, or having my father take me and my sister here to have fun. I was born in 1985, so I know it was open at least into the 1990s. Really fond memories here even though the area has really declined since my youth. Even North Town cinema is shut down.

  3. Kate says:

    I just rode my bike on 76th on Saturday and saw this dino! I remember seeing the slide as a child, perhaps after the park was already out of business. I didn’t know the dino and slide were part of the same park!

    • And I drove up 76th last Thursday and was happy to see the dino still there, too. I don’t know why I’ve gotten so attached to it. I guess I feel sorry for abandoned things. Maybe it will get a second life. I hope so!

      • sobapan says:

        I’ve not been to that area in so long but I was over there today and saw the dino. I have a really distant memory of riding the go karts there when I was about 5, and I was born in 1990! Also saw The Lion King in that nearby theater.

      • Wow, so it has only been closed for less than twenty years. It seems like so much longer ago, but your memories document it well, especially since you were born in 1990. I really liked Northtown Cinema, too, although I hadn’t been there in years by the time it closed. I guess that’s how it goes 🙂

  4. John says:

    I hung out there all the time. We would stop at Arby’s, grab a Jamoca shake, then go hit the arcade. I grew up in a subdivision about a mile west of it and remember it well, there also was a rollerskate rink in the far building. I was pleasantly surprised that the dino was still there. They also had a giant cave man, and a big bird with its head jammed in the ground. …

    • Those are such cool memories! I didn’t know there was a rollerskating rink. What a fun, all-inclusive destination that place must have been. The fact that this dino is still around gives me hope that maybe it’ll find new life in whatever is developed on that location. I drove by the other day, though, and noticed that its condition has deteriorated a lot since I took the photos for my blog post 😦

  5. Pingback: Farewell, Iconic Dinosaur | Katherine Wikoff

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