The Bronx was home to the ‘Disneyland of the East.’ Meet the author of ‘Freedomland USA: The Definitive History’

A 1960s photo of the entrance to Freedomland USA along Bartow Avenue in the Bronx.
Photo courtesy Michael R. Virgintino Collection

Imagine a 205-acre theme park focused on American History with attractions like Little Old New York and a 19th century replica of Macy’s department store, buildings on fire in Old Chicago, earthquake simulations in 1906 San Francisco, and they all sit on grounds in the shape of the U.S. Before the world’s largest housing cooperative in the Bronx, there was the world’s largest outdoor entertainment center – Freedomland USA.

“It was a wonderful place because it wasn’t your usual theme park, because you learned things,” says Elizabeth Raucci, daughter of Frank Adamo, the director of operations for Freeedomland.

Adamo saw the park through from conception to demolition. “My father was very proud of it,” Raucci adds.

An aerial view of Freedomland circa 1961. Photo courtesy Michael R. Virgintino Collection

Many shared this sense of pride and nostalgia for the amusement park, including Michael Virgintino, author of the 2018 book, “Freedomland USA: The Definitive History.” Virgintino grew up in Baychester where the whistle of the steam train attraction would fill the air on summer nights. He went to Freedomland only a handful of times at a young age, but the park made its impact on him.

“This is what got me involved in history and others interested in history as a child, because of the theme park,” says Virgintino, specifically highlighting the Civil War attraction in the New Orleans section of the park.

From 1960 to 1964, the one-of-a-kind, theme park sat on the land that is known today as Co-op City and Bay Plaza. It was the brainchild of Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood who was also the chief developer of Disneyland and shortly after its opening, Freedomland USA would come to be known as the “Disneyland of the East.” The park boasted top-tier entertainment like Tony Bennet, Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. Even Stevie Wonder performed there at the ripe old age of 14.

A map of the Freedomland campus which one sat on the current site of Co-op City. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

At the dawn of Facebook, Virgintino noticed a gap in social media groups about Freedomland and wanted to fill the void. His experience as a broadcast journalist facilitated his research. This led to him writing the foreword for Chuck Schmidt’s 2012 book, “Disney’s Dream Weavers: The Visionaries Who Shaped Disneyland, Freedomland, The New York World’s Fair, and Walt Disney World.” Virgintino was noticed by the book’s publisher, Theme Park Press, which led to publishing a book of his own.

The park took $65 million to build, the equivalent of approximately $630 million today and more than it costs to build a Six Flags. But Freedomland filed for bankruptcy in 1964, and by 1966 construction was underway for Co-op City.

“While the modern development of the land began with a theme park, the overriding objective by developers and politicians was to build Co-op City,” Virgintino says in the book.  The author also explains that the park was used to test if the marshland could take the weight and construction, but that these key facts were hidden from developer C.V. Wood, by the land owner William Zeckendorf.

Meet author Michael Virgintino, this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the New Rochelle Public Library at 1 Library Plaza. Memorabilia will be on view and attendees will receive an authentic token from Freedomland USA. Virgintino will also be at the Yonkers Public Library in June, and while a title has not been finalized, a second book on Freedomland is expected to be published this holiday season.

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