Playland at the Beach

Opened: 1920s (when Playland name began being used for the beach concessions)

Demolished: 1972

Playland began a series of waffle stands, shooting galleries, and other concessions at San Francisco's Ocean Beach designed to remove recreation-seekers from their nickels. In 1883, the Park and Ocean Railroad line opened and terminated at today's intersection of La Playa and Balboa Streets. Thousands of city residents used to train on Sundays to visit the beach, see the sea lions on the rocks, and visit roadhouses such as the Seal Rock House and the Cliff House.

The small gathering of carnival games and refreshment stands around the train station expanded in the 1910s when Charles I. D. Looff installed a carousel (officially a "Looff Hippodrome"), and John Friedle, who operated a candy stand and a few games, began to think big.

Friedle teamed up with Charles' son, Arthur, to make a real amusement park of large rides and attractions. "Chutes at the Beach" opened in 1921, along Ocean Beach between Balboa and Fulton Streets. "Shoot-the-Chutes" was a popular and well-known water ride, and the name "Chutes" had been used for earlier amusement parks in the city. There was no admission charge to visit the open park. Along with Looff's carousel and the Chutes, a fun house, bumper cars, coaster rides, and a Ferris Wheel stood among a midway of dozens of carnival games, souvenir shops, and food stands.

After the famous Big Dipper wooden roller coaster was built in 1922, and a larger Fun House in 1923, instant-photo studio operator George K. Whitney began buying up smaller leased concessions in the amusement park. In 1928, he and his brother Leo, purchased much of John Friedle's investment (Looff had already moved on), and the Whitney Brothers renamed the park Playland at the Beach.

Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Whitney acquired more and more of the game and restaurant operations in the park. They built new rides, renovated old ones, and added different restaurants, food stands, and transformed the old Ocean Beach Pavilion building into a restaurant and dance hall called "Topsy's Roost." They took over the Cliff House from the Sutro Family in 1936, and, after Leo Whitney retired, George bought the Sutro Baths complex in the 1950s.

Playland's heyday were the World War II years and 1950s. The park offered servicemen and women a relatively respectable place to have a good time from noon to midnight, and in the Baby Boomer years, San Francisco children were able to spend a full day at the amusements with allowance money. The Fun House, guarded by the legendary manic automaton, Laffing Sal, cost only a coin to enter. Generations of San Franciscans grew up eating Playland It's-Its (ice cream smooshed between two oatmeal cookies) and sit-down meals of quasi-Mexican food at The Hot House.

Playland declined in the 1960s. George Whitney died in 1958, and the Big Dipper had been torn down over safety code concerns and maintenance issues in 1955. The park became faded, dingy, and a hang-out for seedier elements as families in the city chose suburban destinations for recreation.

The park was purchased by developers and closed forever on Labor Day, September 4, 1972. After a sad auction of attractions and memorabilia (the carousel was saved and still runs at Yerba Buena Gardens) the park was demolished and became the site of condominium complexes that stand at the beach today.

  • Podcast # 136: Playland at the Beach

    The long-gone, much-missed amusement park where the sand meets the sea in the Richmond District. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Aug 23, 2015)
  • Podcast # 60: The Chutes

    The Chutes amusement center and water ride and its early 20th Century westward migration from the Haight, to the Richmond District, and sort of to Ocean Beach. With guest star John Freeman. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Feb 27, 2014)
  • Streetwise - Savoring the Past

    Memories and recipe resurrection from The Hot House restaurant at Playland. ( Jan 4, 2014)
  • My Playland-at-the-Beach Childhood

    Playland through the eyes of a local boy in the 1940s. ( Jul 25, 2011)
  • Artifact Discovery

    A piece of Playland history found in West Portal (SF West History Minute Nov 29, 2010)
  • George K. Whitney Jr. Interview, 2002

    Interview of George K. Whitney Jr. in 2002, discussing Cliff House, Sutro Baths, Playland, and Whitney Brothers businesses. ( May 20, 2010)
  • David Warren Memorial

    Remembering the former operator of the Giant Camera, first lighter of the Burning Man, and founder of the Suicide Club, at El Cerrito's Playland-Not-at-the-Beach on January 2, 2010. (SF West History Minute Jan 9, 2010)
  • Playland Auction Video, 1972

    Video of footage of the 1972 auction of Playland Memorabilia and rides, including the carousel and Alpine Racer. ( Dec 18, 2009)
  • Laffin' Sal

    Is Laffin' Sal one of a kind? (SF West History Minute Aug 10, 2009)
  • Playland Memories

    Ronna Brandt remembers visiting Playland attractions. ( May 19, 2009)
  • Playland Movies, 1960

    Great footage of Playland rides shot in 1960. ( Mar 17, 2009)
  • Playland Home Movies

    A little bit of Playland footage from 1947 ( Oct 1, 2008)
  • The Splendid Inn

    A restaurant at Fulton and Great Highway that served the Playland crowds. ( Aug 1, 2008)
  • Warren Crandall

    The spiritual heir of Playland-at-the-Beach ( Jan 1, 2006)
  • Playland-at-the-Beach

    San Francisco's Ocean Beach amusement zone from the 1920s to 1972. ( Jan 1, 2006)
  • Playland was our Adventure

    Memories of Ocean Beach ( Jan 1, 2006)
  • History of Playland

    A capsule history of Playland, based on a 2002 interview with George K. Whitney, Jr. the man who helped run Playland, Sutro Baths and the Cliff House ( Jan 1, 2006)
  • Ralph L. Selleck

    Playland worker, postman, baseball and race fan ( Jan 1, 2005)