Anyone raised in Omaha up until the early 1990s more than likely spent some time at Peony Park and has some wonderful childhood memories of the place.
We swam at the beachlike pool, whirled and twirled on the rides, attended company picnics and award ceremonies, dressed in our best for proms in the Royal Terrace Ballroom, and danced the night away under the stars in the Royal Grove.
Peony Park actually started out as a “Manhattan Gas” station and small restaurant called the “Peony Inn,” which Joe Malec Sr. built across the road from Carl Rosenfield’s peony gardens in 1919.
Malec saw the hundreds of visitors to the gardens as a great opportunity. The gas station and restaurant soon grew into a beer garden and ballroom.
In 1926, the park added a swimming pool, developed from a natural spring-fed lake. In 1947, The World-Herald described it as: “The pool and surrounding beach take up about 4 acres. There are five million gallons of filtered, chlorinated water in the lake. It is supplied from artesian wells. The pool is seven hundred feet long. Its width varies from 150 feet to four hundred feet. The depth ranges from one foot for youngsters, to 10 feet for expert swimmers and divers.”
Peony Park was strictly segregated until 1963. During that summer, there were three protests in four days, and the park even shut down on July 16.
The photo above was taken on July 28, 1963, the second day blacks were allowed in the pool. Front row, from left: F.J. Pepper of the Omaha Urban League, Herb Rhodes, Betty Jo Moreland and Dale Anders.
There was no trouble and the youths felt no outward hostility towards them, but the attendance was down that day and there were some grumblings of discontent among the whites.
Here’s the pool in 1990. The speed slides had a three-story drop, and the “tubes” (in the background) were a big attraction.
The Royal Grove and Royal Terrace Ballroom
From the June 6, 1932, World-Herald: “Above are the ruins of the modernistic new beer dispensary in Peony Park’s beer garden, burned to the ground early this morning. The loss was estimated at five thousand dollars. The beer garden was opened only last evening.”
There was talk of the fire being the result of a “beer war” between two wholesalers over the business, but was considered to be just speculation. The ballroom was saved from the fire by rains that night and opened the next day, serving beverages through a window.
This 1979 photo is of a Disco Rondo dance. The next year the name was changed to Sprite Night.
Charles Malac (with train) designed and implemented “Wonderland” and a miniature golf range called “Around the World in 18 Holes” in 1958. He said the 9 1/2 acre attraction cost around $200,000. The boy in this 1958 photo is unidentified.
As the years went by, the park continued to grow and added several rides that appealed to teenagers and adults.
The “Galaxy” roller coaster, added in 1972, was a big attraction. It is shown here in 1985.
The “Hurricane” ride on Aug. 11, 1988. Bryon Conant of Missouri Valley, Iowa, fell and later died after standing up in the car the day before.
The park closes
Peony Park closed March 31, 194, the victim of financial problems that led to a bankruptcy filing.
Auctioneer David A. Norton on April 16, 1994. The ride in the background is the Zierer Wave Swinger. It sold for $220,000.
I hope you enjoyed seeing these photos as much as I did posting them. If you would like to see more, check out a photo showcase I created. There also is a book by longtime park employee Carl Jennings, ”Omaha’s Peony Park: An American Legend.” It’s out of print, but the Omaha Public Library has several copies.