OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — When Bell's Amusement Park was forced to close in 2006, northeast Oklahoma lost an iconic landmark that served the community, says the business's owner.
Robby Bell, who had worked at his family's business since he was 12, remembers the special moments that took place there: first kisses, first jobs, family outings and more. And, at its peak, the park employed 600 workers who helped run rides such as Zingo, a white wooden roller coaster, and the Chili Pepper Plunge, a water ride.
Now, Bell, a third-generation owner of the family-friendly amusement park, is on a mission to rebuild it — one ride at a time. Bell recently completed an online campaign that raised $19,000 for the new park he has started with just a handful of kids' rides at a local flea market.
"I've had women who have come out here and seen this little bitty park we've got running, just five rides, and they're in tears, and they come up and give me a hug because they're so happy they can now bring their kids out to a place where they used to go," Bell, 48, said. "When you have a customer base that thinks that way of your product, well, then, you owe it to them to try to get it up and going again."
When the original Bell's Amusement Park opened in 1951, there were just six rides, all built by Bell's grandfather, Robert Bell Sr., and father, Robert Bell Jr., in a small garage in Tulsa. Over the years, the park expanded and became a popular site for school field trips, family get-togethers and birthday parties.
In 2006, the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority failed to renew the park's lease at the Tulsa Fairgrounds because of concerns over the park's longevity, and many of the rides were placed in storage. A plan a few years ago to try to rebuild Bell's in Wagoner, about 40 miles from Tulsa, fell through. In 2011, Bell announced he was reopening the park with two children's rides at the flea market in Tulsa.
Reopening the park must be done in phases, Bell said. Although the family still has many of the rides, reinstalling them and the rest of the park's infrastructure would be very costly — about $20 million on a new piece of property, Bell said. That's simply not feasible for a park that attracts local visitors, not regional or national park-goers, he said.
Instead, Bell is using elbow grease and donations to get the park back to where it once was. The recent online campaign will help pay for adding a few more rides along with an 18-hole miniature golf course and concession stand. And any free time Bell has is spent working on the machines, he said. On a recent morning, he said he was planning to give a small wooden roller coaster called the Little Dipper a new paint job.
For Tulsa residents such as Jared Schwyhart, 24, rebuilding Bell's Amusement Park means rebuilding a part of the city's history. Schwyhart, who last visited the park when he was 9 or 10 years old, said Zingo was the first roller coaster he ever rode. He'd like to eventually take his young nieces and nephews to the park to ride Zingo for the first time, too.
"I'd love Tulsa to have an amusement park again. I know there's a lot of history behind it, and I love history being restored in Tulsa," he said.
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