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45-year-old Fun Forest gets 2 more years, then must pack it in

Seattle Post Intelligencer

Original Article »

January 01, 2008

On a recent gray afternoon, Dan Nolan stood inside the Fun Forest Pavilion near the Puff and Dumbo ride, its elephant-and-dragon-shaped cars bobbing up and down with a cargo of small children.

His 6-year-old daughter, Danielle, and her friend Linnea Lone, 7 ("and a half," she insists) nearby busily dug into fresh bales of blue cotton candy, twisting their heads sideways for the biggest possible bites.

"I used to come here when I was a kid," Nolan, 50, said. "I think it'd be kind of sad if they closed it."

But there's no "if."

On Dec. 10, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a shortened lease for the Fun Forest -- one that will not be renewed. The new lease slashes rent and concession fees to about $335,000 annually, in exchange for an agreement to close the park that council President Nick Licata described as "not so much fun, sort of a dreary forest, unfortunately."

"It is kind of old," Nolan said, gazing at Puff and Dumbo. "These are the same rides that, I would assume, have been here for the past 25, 30 years."

Well, not quite, but in one form or another, the Fun Forest and its mix of rides, games and food stands have been around since the 1960s.

And after being a part of Seattle, and a childhood experience for so many, its demise is disappointing. "It's not what we want," said General Manager Steve Robertson. "It's still not what we want."

Earlier this year, a task force created by Mayor Greg Nickels to look at ways to revitalize Seattle Center recommended a grass amphitheater, picnic spaces and a sculpture or pond to replace the Fun Forest buildings and rides.

Created in the wake of the World's Fair, the Fun Forest is a collection of carnival-style games, children's rides and activities, and food booths drawing millions of visitors over the years.

Operators Jerry and Beverly Mackey and their partners, Bill and Stella Aubin, began with games and, in 1964, added the rides. There was the popular Wild Mouse roller coaster, the Kiddy Carousel and a 90-foot Velare wheel.

The Aubins' daughter, now Stella Robertson, began working the carnival games at the Fun Forest in 1966 when she was just 16. "It was very busy at nighttime," said Robertson, now 57. "It was the place to go for the teens at that time."

About the same time, she met Steve Robertson at a teen dance, and the two began to date.

"To make a long story short, I was hanging around here a lot of the time, so her father put me to work," Steve Robertson said.

He never left.

"I was a Bellevue kid," he said. "And just coming to Seattle, back in those days, it was fun. It was the big city."

Over the years, the Robertsons became more involved in the operation of the amusement park, and Steve Robertson became a manager in 1976.

They married and had children, a daughter, now 31, and a son, now 19, who both worked summers at the Fun Forest.

"You meet a lot of people working here, all walks of life," Steve Robertson said.

But despite its longevity, the Fun Forest has not always been favored by city leaders. In 1983, the city hired a Los Angeles-based firm that consulted for both Disneyland and Disney World to offer ideas to improve the Fun Forest, which one councilwoman at the time described disparagingly as a carnival.

Tom Israel, finance director for Seattle Center who worked on the latest Fun Forest contract, said financial problems began in earnest in 2004 when the amusement center's managers were unable to make their quarterly lease payments.

"When somebody's way back on their rent like this, your choices are to come up with a different arrangement, which is what we did, or you sue somebody for breach of contract, which I couldn't see the city doing," Israel said.

Negotiations on the new contract took more than a year. It is designed to allow the Robertsons to pay off debt accrued during the renovations of the late 1990s, and still make the rent. The Fun Forest will stay open through Labor Day 2009, then work will begin to shutter it.

Currently, none of the Fun Forest's original rides remain. The oldest is the Rainbow Chaser. Erected in 1966, the tot-sized roller coaster has rattled and shaken cartfuls of gleeful children in Kiddieland for more than 40 years.

Other beloved rides have been sold off over the years, such as the Flight to Mars, which made way for the Experience Music Project.

"There was no room for it," Steve Robertson said.

In 1989, the original wooden carousel and its horses were auctioned off -- one bejeweled horse fetching a whopping $101,750. "It was getting so valuable that you just couldn't leave it out(side)," he said.

In 1993, the Galaxi roller coaster, the very one Stella Robertson rode as a teenager, was replaced by the newer, $1.7 million Windstorm, which drew coaster enthusiasts nationwide. "It's a lot of ride for a short space," Steve Robertson said.

Then, about 10 years ago, as part of extensive renovations, the $2 million Fun Forest Pavilion was added, and the arcade games, some of the children's rides and the miniature golf course moved indoors. Other work added an additional $6 million to the costs of the improvements.

Stella Robertson said 2000 was one of the Forest's biggest years, but then the 9/11 attacks led to decreased attendance. And with declining attendance came declining ticket revenue.

"We used to be open to midnight every summer night," Steve Robertson said. "Then it was 11 o'clock, then it was 10. Now we have one price that lasts till 9, and then, lots of times, we're closing at 9 or 9:30 on summer nights. That never used to happen."

Steve Robertson said he'll likely retire, though part of him can't envision a future without some piece of a Fun Forest in Seattle.

"It's always been home for the two of us," he said. "Seattle Center's been like part of the family. I mean, that's the only job I've known."

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