Your formative fumblings -- the gropes and sloppy tongue-kisses of your lost and sparkling youth -- where exactly did they go down? Poll a hundred people and some themes might emerge: backseats, basements, patches of grass behind big box stores. But let's say you get an outlier. That one out of your hundred people answers with "The Tunnel of Love." How old would you guess this person to be? Fifty? A hundred? Which generation of teens was dry-humping on slow-moving indoor boat rides?
Seems more like a '50s thing. Yet: if it was a '50s thing, why have I even heard of it? And why are you nodding your head, like, "Sure, the Tunnel of Love, I'm familiar with that iconic 20th-century amusement park ride"?
My theory as to why you're nodding boils down, as so much does, to a lucrative corporate syndication deal.
In the '90s, Cartoon Network was new and lacked an archive vast enough to fill cable's round-the-clock schedule. From 1992 to 2001, Hanna-Barbera's vault of Boomer nostalgia trips — The Flinstones, Scooby-Doo, The Jetsons — plugged the gaps. These programs spanned millennia, but all shared at least one common trope: An episode, or multiple episodes, depicting a ride through a Tunnel of Love.
Credulous little idiot I was, I took these rides as established facts of life, was positive I'd one day ride through one. Two decades later, I've still never so much as seen one. I got to thinking: Do these things still exist? Did they ever?
Donald's Double Trouble
They did. But they don't now. And they didn't exist fifty years ago when those cartoons first aired. You'd have to go back a hundred years to find anything like a thriving romantic-boat-ride culture in the United States, according to Jim Futrell, historian of the National Amusement Park Historical Association. "The traditional Tunnel of Loves probably started fading out in the 20s," he said.
The ride originated in London, where it was called 'The Canals of Venice.' It quickly became a staple of the American amusement park, an institution then at its apex. There were over seven hundred of them scattered across the country, according to Futtrels, and at least a third of these hosted some variant of the Tunnel of Love. These rides served a necessary social function; as Dave Samuelson writes in The American Amusement Park, "the darkness became a big draw for romantically inclined couples looking for a little intimacy in a time when any public display of affection was frowned upon."
Then came, among other things, war, the sexual revolution, and the rise of the modern roller coaster. Suddenly kids could pet each other openly, without the pretext of a frightening underground boat trip. Plus amusement parks had entered their ongoing BDSM phase: Kids went mostly to be whipped and spun by huge creaking machines designed to nearly kill them. By the 1960s only a few dozen Tunnels of Love survived, if that, and already these were throwbacks, emblems of some earlier, lost America.
These rides were not explicitly designed to foster underage tongue-kissing; it was more of a "wink-wink, nudge-nudge thing," says Futtrel. The nickname 'Tunnel of Love' derives from Palisades Park in New Jersey, which was the first to make romance the point of its Old Mill. ('Old Mill' being the proper designation for this genre of ride.) Soon most of these attractions were re-themed along similar lines, and for a time America was basically just a series of dank steam-propelled makeout chambers.
I didn't float my Cartoon Network theory by Futtrells, but I did ask why 'The Tunnel of Love' still means anything to anyone besides mid-career Bruce Springsteen fans. Futrell blames the media, too. "[Palisades Park] was right outside of New York. It was something where, if you needed to film an amusement park, you could go out to the Palisades," he says. "From a Hollywood perspective, a Tunnel of Love was something that you could work easily into the narrative of a movie or television show."
So, yes: The Tunnel of Love is pretty much just a media-fostered myth. But then, plenty of media-fostered myths have real-life counterparts. I bet you someone out there writes 'milkman' on their tax return (although that person probably works at a terrible milk-delivery start-up). And according to Futtrells, the systematic destruction of this country's slow-paced carnival rides has indeed spared two genuine Old Mills. One of them, located in Pennsylvania, is called Garfield's Nightmare, and may or may not be a long tour through a lasagna-less tunnel. The other is called--simply, authoritatively--The Old Mill, and can be found just one hour outside of New York City, in Rye, New York.
I live in New York City. I also have a girlfriend (we'll call her B.), who--though she's never explicitly complained about our usual MO of drinking and watching Netflix--has recently made a point of telling me about other couples she knows, who (for example) sometimes eat at the kind of restaurants that have more than one dollar sign on Yelp. I figured it was time for us to take a trip.
Together, we would role-play the mating rituals of our forefathers, and/or our forefathers preferred sitcom characters. We'd share a cotton candy. I'd win her a bear while winningly acknowledging the patriarchal structures inherent to heterosexual male bear-winning. And side by side we'd float through one of the few monuments left to the era when making out on subways was kind of transgressive, instead of just gross.
Types of old mill rides
Tunnel of Love
This iteration featured either a Valentines-style romantic theme where couples cuddled and canoodled or a cartoonishly scary haunted house that encouraged lovers to cling to each other in fear.
These rides became ubiquitous in the mid-twentieth century. River Caves tend to be more family oriented and often feature slow moving boats, animatronic figures and styrofoam stalagmites that form the namesake cave atmosphere.
The Old Mill gets an extreme makeover, adding an exciting drop of varying heights for thrill seekers who aren't as keen to just float around in a boat when they could be riding a death-defying roller coaster.
Season 1, Episode 04a (1996)
Cut to I-95, a week later. B.'s at the wheel. I'd offer to drive, but no one ever taught me how. Things are a little tense. We were supposed to leave at 10am, but I refused to be roused until two in the afternoon; my late-morning dreams were turbulent, haunted by cryptic half-phrases, such as "wake up," and "almost noon," and "oh, come on." But I figured it was nothing I couldn't cure with a little weather humor.
"At least it's overcast!" I said.
"I think I'm breaking out in hives," she said.
Soon the thunderstorm was upon us. Low spirits prevailed as we pulled up to the Playland parking lot in Westchester County, New York.
"We close in thirty minutes," the parking attendant said, and then--quickly as if banishing any ideas we might have had about reduced parking: "Ten dollars."
Here I should mention that I'd lost my debit card the day before. I'd meant to replace it before we left, but, instead, I didn't.
"I'll pay you back," I said, wincing.
B. just kind of grumbled.
We parked, approached the ticket-taker.
"We close in thirty minutes," she said, staring out at us from an enviably dry-looking booth.
"We know. We're just here for the Tunnel of Love."
"The Old Mill ride."
"Okay. Twelve dollars. But we close in thirty minutes. It's raining."
We walked cheerlessly towards the Old Mill, past shuttered snack stands and powered-down roller coasters. Attendants in yellow parkas hustled to close up shop. I fully expected the Old Mill to have burned down earlier that morning.
But there it was: A veritable relic of history, expensively re-made to look like a small church with a windmill growing out of it. Ride operators outnumbered riders 3:1. Which is to say, it was us and six ride operators, most of them hiding out from the rain. Wordlessly we were guided into our little boat, and with a pull of a lever carried into the darkness.
The Oldest Old
"Garfield's Nightmare", located at Kennywood Amusement Park in Pennsylvania, is considered the oldest operating Old Mill Ride. Subsequent to its opening in 1901 the ride has changed names and themes many times over the years.
The change to “Around-the-World” in 1954 featured "gorgeous grottos" modeled after global destinations like Hawaii and Australia.
1974Hard-Headed Harrold's Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway
In 1974, it became “Hard-Headed Harrold's Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway” which was designed around a whimsical haunted mine filled with ghosts, ghouls, and skeletons.
Beginning in 2004 Kennywood's historic attraction was revamped as “Garfield’s Nightmare,” a black light filled, fluorescent-colored trip into the mind of a cartoon cat.
First we floated through a narrow corridor adorned with 'Exit' signs, green lights, exposed wiring; I wondered if maybe this Old Mill's theme was "flooded office hallway." Then we rounded a corner, and the known world dropped away. From lighted recesses huge animatronic gnome-people--mostly working-class, in overalls and workshirts--saluted us, or maybe threatened us; I couldn't really get a handle on the narrative. It was like watching a film in a foreign language, or roaming the diseased mind-space of a 1920s gold prospector with an opium habit. The mood intensified. There were explosions, peals of psychotic laughter. You could call it... romantic.
Suddenly B. shrieked. I turned to comfort her--finally, a chance to flex those atrophied conventional-male muscles!--until I saw what she saw and shrieked myself. Up ahead, water was falling from the ceiling in torrents, our boat moving inexorably towards it.
Love, Springfieldian Style
Season 19, Episode 12 (2008)
Recovering, I played it cool: No way they were going to splash us. It then occurred to me this ride was constructed before humans were welded to gadgets, back when a little surprise fun-ride soak-attack held no risk of wiping out years of accumulated data. B. herself was toting a fancy hi-res camera, which I shamefully never thought to shield. We closed our eyes, braced ourselves for impact.
Then: nothing. The downpour abruptly stopped right before we passed through it. Was this automatic, I wondered, or did some sadist sit there all day, twisting the water knob? And did he ever leave it on? Either way, we hugged, and for a moment were as dizzy and elated as two '20s high school kids sneaking shoulder-squeezes at the State Fair.
Our boat lazed out into the gray afternoon, and we rose. Mortally frightened of getting wet, we'd forgotten it was pouring; the Tunnel of Love had, to its credit, vanished the world for a few minutes. With society more or less onboard with public dry-humping, maybe this is what the Old Mill can still offer us: A privacy tough to access in the cities most of us live in, where there's always someone on the other side of the wall.Or maybe I'm just trying to justify traveling two hours to go on a six-minute amusement park ride. I think it was worth it, though. If and when we all transition into IV-nourished virtual reality-dwellers, I hope someone thinks to program an Old Mill ride. Could be fun for the teens.
DANIEL KOLITZ is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has a Tumblr called The Printed Internet, and is currently working on some other stuff.
JIM FUTTRELL is a historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association. He is the author of seven books, including Amusement Parks of New York, Amusement Parks of Pennsylvania and Amusement Parks of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.