Arnolds Park: Iowa’s Coney Island for 125 Years and Counting

A century plus a quarter

Arnolds Park, located on West Lake Okoboji in the northwest corner of Iowa, kicked off its 125th summer, opening Friday, May 16 for regional senior class trips, DARE parties, and the public.

The roots of Arnolds Park go back to the earliest years of Civil War reconstruction, when Wesley Arnold claimed the land where the park now sits. He built his home and opened the lakefront for fishing and tent camping parties.

A pavilion, boathouse, and waterslide follow, and after Wesley died, his daughters expanded on the amusement park concept with the first wooden roller coaster built west of the Mississippi River.

For the ensuing six decades, the Pavilion was host to up and coming bands from the ragtime to swing to rock and roll eras.

A 2011 Gallup Poll showed consumer spending in the $15 billion amusement park industry was on an upward trend. This is reflected at Arnolds Park, where officials throughout the Okoboji lakes tourism industry are bracing for a record year.

In 1965, drunk college students started a riot at Arnolds Park. Twenty-five were arrested following looting, vandalism, and shooting firecrackers in a barrel. When the national guard arrived, the situation was under control. This marked the increase of Okoboji’s reputation as a drunk fest for teens and twenty-and-thirty somethings, and no longer a haven for families.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Arnolds Park fell out of favor as the lake cruise steamboats left, and the simplicity of a lakefront vacation was rejected in favor of ocean cruises, Disney, and other postmodern thrills.

With the increase in working mothers, the need of the well-to-do for  vacation homes to send the family to for summer fun, with father joining on the weekends, declined.

At the century mark of Arnolds Park’s founding, a group of investors purchased the park, then philanthropist and founder of Long Lines Wireless, the regional AT&T hub, Chuck Long, purchased and refurbished the park.

Longer working hours, less vacation time, and a still sluggish economic situation for many Americans means stay-cations and vacations closer to home are the norm. Arnolds Park remains an option for upper Midwesterners seeking a shorter drive.


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New Media Journalist, writing plays under the pen name Ash Sanborn.

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