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Timeless treasure in Delaware

Funland, an amusement park and arcade on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk in Delaware, has been run by the same family since 1962. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

Many of the beach cottages and bungalows that once filled Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, have long since given way to modern, multilevel homes that are hulking by comparison. Weekly rentals go for $10,000. At the Tanger Outlets on the Coastal Highway, visitors can pick up bangles at Alex and Ani or Kate Spade handbags, then drive a couple miles to sip a craft beer at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats.

But just a few dozen feet away from the beach is a living reminder of Rehoboth’s simpler days. Funland, an amusement park and arcade that has been run by the same family since 1962, offers “old-fashioned fun” and “a slower pace of life” at prices that have barely budged.

No tourist trap here, and no come-ons either. Many first-time visitors simply happen upon this collection of rides and games on an acre of prime real estate on the boardwalk between Delaware and Brooklyn avenues. Funland didn’t raise prices for its first 25 years, and its iconic green tickets, which are good for life, have increased in price just 30 cents, from 10 cents to 40 cents, in 57 years.

I should know. I was part of Funland’s staff for six summers ——from 1980 through 1985 while in high school and college – and have vacationed in Rehoboth Beach since 1968. Although I have visited the park every summer since, I’ve spent much more time at Funland the past two summers ——working on a book on the history of the park and the family that runs it called “Land of Fun: The Story of an Old-Fashioned Amusement Park for the Ages,” which was published in May.

Change is often not easy for a fourth-generation family business such as Funland, but that can be a good thing. Two of the park’s rides ——the boats and fire engines, at one ticket each ——are the oldest and cheapest operating in Delaware. They date from the late 1940s. That’s the era when small cottages were the houses of choice in this sleepy town founded by a Methodist minister in 1873 as a place to hold religious camp meetings.

Rehoboth today is more akin to an upscale D.C. suburb, and it’s known as the Nation’s Summer Capital. Washingtonians of all political persuasions vacation here, and the reasons are plenty: proximity; a wide and pristine beach and ocean; great restaurants; an LGBTQ- and family-friendly culture. And, of course, the old-fashioned appeal of Funland.

The boats and fire engines are two of five rides ——the merry-go-round, helicopters and the sky fighters are the others ——that Funland’s owners, the Fasnacht family, acquired when they purchased the amusement park Sport Center in the spring of 1962. The rides, gleaming as always, hold special meaning for families who have had three and four generations ride them.

The sale of Sport Center, which had stood on the same site on Rehoboth’s boardwalk since 1939, was completed just a week after the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962, a powerful nor’easter that destroyed almost all of Rehoboth’s boardwalk and beachfront businesses.

That included Dolles, perhaps Rehoboth’s best-known landmark after the beach and ocean. At the Rehoboth Avenue – the town’s main drag, lined with shops, art galleries, restaurants and hotels – and the boardwalk since 1927, the candy shop lost almost everything in the storm. One survivor was an almost 2-ton taffy machine, which is still in use. As part of the rebuild, the owners created a large orange-and-white sign above the store that’s in almost all promotional photos of the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, and which draws people from near and far to buy its saltwater taffy, caramel corn, fudge and other sweets.

Funland’s games are as big a draw as the rides for many, and like the rides, they are not often replaced. Three games that debuted when I worked there are still going strong. The derby horse racing game is the park’s most popular, which has been true from the day it arrived from England in 1982. Players roll a red ball toward holes with the numbers 1, 2 and 3 next to them with the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background. Get your ball in a hole, and your horse moves that many spaces. All the prizes are plush horses of varying sizes. Good luck getting an open seat between 8 and 10 p.m. on most nights, as the line is often three and four people deep behind each of the 12 seats.

Whack-a-mole is an amusement park and carnival staple; what makes Funland’s special is the $1 price.

Back to Funland to ride the park’s signature attraction: the haunted mansion. The black haunted mansion car takes us up to the second floor, where the fun begins. You notice different things in every room, and the ride still strikes a good balance of scary and fun. Industry experts such as the Dark Attraction and Funhouse Enthusiasts, an organization that documents and supports dark rides, have taken notice. The group’s member surveys from 2002 through 2011, the last year it did them, listed Funland’s ride as one of the 10 best in the country.

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