Charles R. Wood, 90, known as "the grandfather of the American amusement park," died of cancer Sept. 30 at his home near Glens Falls, N.Y.
Mr. Wood, who told an industry magazine last year that he'd had fun all his life, made a fortune providing thrills, chills and fun in a controlled atmosphere to people of all ages. And then he had fun giving away millions.
He got his start in the amusement park business in 1954, when he founded Storytown USA on the southeastern edge of the Adirondacks, between Lake George and Glens Falls. Walt Disney founded Disneyland a year later.
Mr. Wood opened his five-acre park with a Mother Goose theme for $5,000 and had a staff of four, including his wife, Margaret. On the eve of the park's debut, he sat on a hill and looked down at the little park with its dirt roads and paths and asked himself: "What have I done? I'm not going to have anybody pay and see what I've done."
He needn't have worried. "The first day, people came in droves," he told Funworld magazine. "When we tried to count the money, somebody'd open the door, and money would blow all over the place."
He added restaurants and other amusement park features over the years and in 1982 changed the name to the Great Escape Fun Park. In 1989, he sold the park to International Broadcasting Corp. for $36 million. When IBC went bankrupt, Mr. Wood was able to buy back the park for $14 million. He sold it four years later -- this time for $37 million -- to Premier Parks Inc., which later bought the Six Flags chain and adopted the name.
Still owned by Six Flags, the Great Escape & Splashwater Kingdom is a 150-acre park with six roller coasters and an indoor water park; it attracts more than 700,000 visitors a year. Last year, amusements and theme parks were a $10.3 billion industry in the United States.
Born in Lockport, N.Y., Mr. Wood showed an entrepreneurial flair early. At 13, he bought a couple of houses in his home town, fixing up one for his parents to live in and turning the other into a rental unit. An aircraft mechanic in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, he found his life's work in Southern California after the war, when he visited Knott's Berry Farm, created by berry farmer Walter Knott, beginning in the 1940s.
"I fell in love with what he had done," he told Funworld. "Mr. Knott had created the boysenberry, and Mrs. Knott cooked chicken and made boysenberry pie. People would swarm this place. Mr. Knott built a chapel and a volcano to entertain people while they waited for the dinner. He had started an amusement park. I came back full of beans and wanted to get into the amusement business."
Mr. Wood's success as an amusement park operator allowed him to donate millions of dollars to Upstate New York hospitals, libraries, theaters and other charitable organizations through his Charles R. Wood Foundation. With actor Paul Newman, he co-founded Double H Hole in the Woods Camp, a camp in Lake Luzerne, N.Y., for critically ill children.
"I wish I had a billion dollars to have the fun of giving it away," Mr. Wood told an interviewer last year.