The Vizcaya Amusement Park
A Story of Broken Dreams
Essay by Tomás Ruiz. Photographs by Yosigo.
There are abandoned places that generate stronger feelings than others. Possibly one of the most emblematic and missed places amongst the residents of Bilbao is the Vizcaya Amusement Park. Between 1974 and 1990, every kid from the city and surroundings spent their childhood at the amusement park and swimming pools, enjoying the rides, the mini-zoo, and the popular concerts. Since its closure, the still-visible iconic red pyramids are a reminder of a moment in which leisure, entertainment, and tourism flourished in Bilbao. Tomás Ruiz shares the history of the amusement park, from its origins as the most modern park in Europe to its decline and ultimate closing.
In the early 1970s, the local authorities from the Biscay province launched a public call. In refined language, typical at the time, it said the following:
“The Provincial Council of Biscay officially announces the need that the province has to have a place that, open to the four winds and to everybody, can provide rest and relaxation, entertainment and relief from a laborious and committed life, for adults and children; a place that, combining classical and modern facilities, offer the cleanest and most natural way to entertain; a place that, because of being unknown and desired at the same time, draws attention from everybody.”
On May 31, 1972, the Provincial Council of Biscay published in the Heraldo Provincial that three important banking institutions (Bankunión, la Caja de Ahorros Municipal de Bilbao and la Caja de Ahorros Vizcaína) were interested in leading the project.
Two months later, on July 28, the Provincial Council of Biscay awarded the project to the company Parque de Atracciones de Vizcaya S.A., established specifically for this project by the three banking institutions and the company Parque de Atracciones de Madrid (Madrid Amusement Park) to build and manage the amusement park. Construction started on July 9, 1973 and, in a little over a year, 270 workers from the company Edificios y Obras S.A. completed the construction, having used over 13 tons of dynamite to remove 300,000 cubic meters of land.
There are a few other facts that stand out: the main avenue was 250 meters long by 20 meters wide; the roller coaster weighted 75 tons; the entry area had a size of 2,000 square meters; 22 kilometers of underground cable were used for the electrical installation; and more than 11 kilometers of pipes were used for water supply and plumbing. The park occupied an area of about 10 hectares (24.7 acres) in the hillside of the Ganguren Mountain, just a few kilometers from the center of Bilbao.
Two Bilbao-based architecture offices were in charge of the project. On the one hand, brothers José Luis and Mariano Ortega were selected by one of the partners in the project, Bankunion, as they had designed their headquarters in Bilbao (now Caja Navarra). On the other hand, a team formed by Ricardo del Campo, José Luis Burgos, and Juan Manuel Pazos, was selected. This resulted in two different styles that yet coexisted without conflict in the park, ranging from the lightness of the pyramids to the strength of the building hosting the mini-zoo. The former were built to protect some of the rides from the rain, thought from the beginning as a system that could be extended or reduced as needed. Each one of the eight red pyramids had a large skylight in its vertex. The steel structure rested on concrete pillars, something that would have allowed adding modules if more rides had been built after the opening. Contrasting with the lightweight pyramids were the buildings for the mini-zoo and the offices, as well as the urban furniture. Using brutalist-style architecture in keeping with its time, the structures were made out of concrete where the texture of the formwork used for their construction was visible.
In order to take advantage of the summer, the plan was to open the amusement park at the beginning of July 1974. However, and despite the speed at which the work had been done, the construction remained unfinished by July and the opening had to be postponed. Expectations and excitement rose among the people in Bilbao so, in order to avoid a massive influx of people, the official opening was scheduled for a Wednesday, August 14, 1974. But on August 13, a new postponement of 10 days was announced. Due to technical problems, the scheduled opening of August 24 had to be postponed once again. On Saturday, September 14 at 6 pm, the Vizcaya Amusement Park finally opened its doors minus any official celebration and with the summer almost over.
With an investment of 515 million pesetas (3.1 million euros) and a staff of 130 people, it was considered the best and most modern amusement park in Europe at the time. Intended mainly for children, the amusement park also had rides for people of every age, including the roller coaster, an impressive 26-meter tall Ferris Wheel, and the latest in kart racing.
The initial estimates expected 1.5 million visitors a year, but that number was later revised to 1 million people a year. However, as we will learn later, the number of annual visitors never exceeded 500,000 people.
Arriving at the Park
From the beginning, it was evident that the existing access road would not be adequate. Its state of disrepair and its narrowness would inevitably create long traffic jams. This was confirmed on opening day, when driving to and from the amusement park, covering just the few kilometers from the city, took more than an hour. There were talks about expanding and fixing the road and even creating a direct connection to the highway, but the damage had already been done.
The recommendation to use buses reduced the number of visitors due to inconvenience of having to depend of a fixed schedule and the high cost: 13 pesetas (0.08 euros) for adults and 10 pesetas (0.06 euros) for children, which was expensive compared to the 20 pesetas (0.12 euros) that cost to access the amusement park. For those traveling by bus, the stop was located right by the entrance to the park. There was also a seven-story terraced parking lot that could accommodate more than 1,000 cars.
Upon arrival to the park, what stood out even more than the red pyramids was the impressive concrete tower that housed the administrative offices. Resembling an airport control tower, the office personnel could overlook the park from its immense windows. To this day you can see laying on the ground piles of member cards, plans of the rides, maps and brochures and above all, thousands and thousands of unsold tickets.
Thirty years ago, concerts, advertisement campaigns, and all park activity were managed from this tower. Today, walking inside and between the unplugged phones and moldy cabinets, the only thing that you can hear is the howl of the wind that sneaks between some of the windows.
A Walk through the Park
Once the park was reached via car or bus, visitors could access the amusement park through the turnstiles located by the ticket booths. The ticket options and prices changed during the existence of the park. Initially, the cost to enter the park (rides were not included) was 10 pesetas (0.06 euros) for children and 20 pesetas (0.12 euros) for adults. The average cost for the rides was 110 pesetas (0.66 euros) per person. In the end, there was a single ticket costing 500 pesetas (3.01 euros) for all the rides, except for the Magic Forest that cost an extra 100 pesetas (0.6 euros) and kart racing that cost 100 pesetas (0.6 euros) for adults and 50 pesetas (0.3 euros) for children.
Opening hours varied depending on the season. It opened everyday between March and September, and on weekends and festive days the rest of the year. This schedule lasted at least until 1970 when economic losses and lack of personnel forced its closing during the winter season. In September of 1984, for example, the park opened between 4 pm and 9 pm on Saturdays and between noon and 9 pm on Sundays.
Under the watchful eye of Chimbo, the first mascot of the park, adults and children could enjoy a family day in this “modern and functional version of the traditional fair rides of Bilbao, where everything is bigger and flashier according to the tastes and demands of our times.”
In 1981, the original mascot was replaced by Basajun (Lord of the Forest), a Basque mythological character that would walk around the park delivering presents.
The Main Avenue and the Cybernetic Fountains
In order to welcome the visitors, the park created a 250-meter long avenue flanked by flowers and provided access to the restaurants, cafes, pyramids, and the ride area. Two luminous fountains, known as cybernetic fountains due to how innovative their light and water shows were for the time, were located at each extreme. The team of architects designed both fountains but, in order to create the show, they worked with the Catalan engineer Carlos Buigas. Every time the fountains would turn on, they would become another attraction of the park.
Along with the pyramids, the amphitheater, located next to the main entrance to allow entrance and exit to large numbers of people, was probably the most characteristic image of the Vizcaya Amusement Park. With a capacity of 5,000 people, its stage hosted some of the most popular bands and singers of the time, including Hombres G, Alaska y Dinarama, la Orquesta Mondragón, Chiquetete, Gwendal, and Gloria Gaynor. Initially it was designed to be covered, but due to budget constraints, it was decided to cover it in a second phase if the park was successful. It goes without saying that the second phase never took place.
The Swimming Pool
Years after the opening of the amusement park and with the idea to attract a larger number of visitors, a swimming pool was built next to the mini-zoo and the amphitheater, as it was the most protected area of the park. Although it was independent from the rides and it had its own prices, you could buy tickets that would give you access to the whole facility, whether for the day or for the season. The pool would typically be open from 11 am until 7 pm, although it was dependent on the weather.
The Magnetic House, the Shooting Gallery, and the Tombola
The Magnetic House was a place full of sloped walls and gaudy drawings to create different optical effects. The entrance was a zigzag corridor with fans for wind that would give access to a room with a distorted perspective to create a sloped floor. It was one of the fan favorites. Next to it was the Shooting Gallery and the Tombola in which, depending on the offer, you could win any type of prize. Every Sunday, a bicycle would be raffled.
An amusement park that prides itself can’t forget about fairy tales. A Fantasy House was built to recreate the Snow White fairy tale with dolls, with an aesthetic far removed from Disney’s but with the same charm. Through large windows visitors could see the bedroom of the Seven Dwarfs, their living room, the dining room, and even the Evil Queen.
Among the few rides that were not removed after the park closed was the Haunted House, a magic place full of fantastical creatures that even nowadays remain impressive. From this labyrinthine 2-story building you could only escape crossing a hanging bridge, go down a slide, climb several impossible steps, and cross two barrels that each rotated the opposite way.
The visitors really enjoyed this miniature version of a zoo. It was located on one of the extremes of the park and, besides the typical wild animals such as lions, there was an aquarium and a room for birds. Among the biggest animals, there were wolves, lion cubs, foxes as well as domestic animals so that the children could play with them. The park also bought between thirty and forty stuffed animals for the zoo museum, including the bear that “welcomed” you.
Far from the plastic and safe swings that we have nowadays, the ones in the amusement park were metallic structures, typical of the time. In a wooded area were found the rowboats, the slide in the shape of an elephant, the ball and a yellow train engine that delighted the younger kids. The swings in this area replaced an earlier area of the park that included the military fort and the wishing well.
Although not included in the price of the ticket, karting was one of the most popular rides of the park. The pavement, tires on the sides, fully equipped boxes, and brightly painted cars were all that was needed to feel like a Formula 1 driver. There were two tracks, one that was 180-meters long for adults and a 100-meter long track for younger people.
This ride, that wasn’t included in the price of the ticket either, recreated a walk in the jungle. It was a place full of articulated figures of animals that were controlled by a computer. It was leased in 1989 for 20 million pesetas (120,200 euros) and was installed in the area previously used for slot machines. The ride was destroyed by a fire just a month after it opened and despite being one of the main attractions, it had to be closed. Nowadays, a Land Rover being swallowed by weeds is all that is left of this ride.
No Longer There
It was presented as one of the best selections of rides in Europe and, according to the news at the time, it really achieved that status. Besides the rides whose remains are still visible, there were many more that were dismantled and sold to a Portuguese amusement park. Among them, a bumper car floor with an impressive size of 30 x 14 meters that accommodated about 30 cars, and the 26-meter tall Noria Visión Ferris wheel that was one of the tallest in Europe. The roller coaster had a length of half a kilometer and weighed over 75 tons.
If you wanted to rest, you could ride on the small train along the one-kilometer long circuit. Nowadays, only some roadbed is left in place. Another option was to ride the automatic Ford Model T along the one-kilometer long track, or hop on the motorcycles for children, the only remnant of which is a painted logo on a wall. There was also the carousel, with its fire trucks, planes, and spaceships that we all dreamed to be driving for a moment accompanied with strident and catchy music. Despite being at the cutting edge of amusement parks, there was also room for some traditional rides such as the witch ride, trampolines, and miniature golf with fifteen holes.
Today, barely anything survives, only dilapidated tracks, round holes on the ground, and faded stalls. It is hard to imagine today that this amusement park was once one of the most modern amusement parks in Europe.
Eating & Drinking
Despite the fact that the management of the park always mentioned that they wanted to keep the prices very low, reviewing newspaper libraries we can find many complaints regarding the prices of food and drinks inside the park.
Without counting the snack bar by the swimming pool, there were six areas to eat. The snack bar by the entrance sold sandwiches and sodas. The stall selling churros, near the shooting gallery and the Tombola, also sold pastries and cotton candy. The two cafeterias, one by the amphitheater and one under the Ferris wheel, sold combination plates and fast food not only to the park users but also to those attending the concerts. The luxury restaurant focused on people with higher income and celebrations. Connected to the magnificent glazed dining room were an exhibition room, slot machines, and a nightclub. Finally, in the selfservice area you would select the food that you wanted, place it on the tray, and pay at the end. As the food was already prepared, the fast service allowed eating quickly and going back to the rides as soon as possible.
The Start of the Problems
Since the park’s opening, the number of visitors was way below the expectations of the promoters. The first number considered was 1.5 million visitors a year, but that prediction had to be lowered twice being set finally at 500,000 people. The strong wind gusts that continuously swept the area, and the rain, so common in Bilbao, were determining factors in preventing the success of the park. Although many of the rides were covered, the large pyramids did not protect the visitors, who would end up completely soaked. In 1981 there was a capital increase of 300 million pesetas (1.8 million euros) and, seven years later, the Provincial Council of Biscay acquired 77% of the park stocks by investing 144 million pesetas (around 900,000 euros) with the goal of “not only maintaining it but strengthening and expanding it.” In 1989 there was another economic injection of 50 million pesetas (300,000 euros) to renovate and relaunch the park. To that purpose, a large advertisement campaign was launched, free buses from downtown were organized, and a single ticket was created that allowed to enjoy all the rides (except for karting, motorcycles for children, and later, the Magic Jungle). Unfortunately, that year the park suffered 188 million pesetas (1,130,000 euros) in losses that the Provincial Council of Biscay covered with a special budget item for 1990.
In 1989, there was a viability study commissioned that shed light on the issues that the park faced. The periodic money that the Provincial Council of Biscay had been injecting since 1981 began to be questioned, as they had not turned the park into a profitable activity. The study provided two options in order to address this issue. The most ambitious option required an investment of 1,150 million pesetas (6.9 million euros) and needed to attract one million visitors a year. The second option, more modest, required an investment of 347 million pesetas (just over 2 million euros) and needed to attract 640,000 to make it profitable. Considering that in 1988 the number of visitors was 120,000 and that, not in the most successful years the number of visitors had surpassed 500,000, the results of the study could not be more negative. With these facts, keeping the park open for the Provincial Council of Biscay and the two banks (Caja de Ahorros Vizcaína and Caja de Ahorros Municipal de Bilbao) proved to be impossible, so it was decided to dissolve the company and close the park. The labor disputes that took place during the summer, which included hunger strikes, walk-outs during work hours, and the distribution of pamphlets, did not help the situation. These disputes, with the workers demanding wage increases and equal rights with the public employees of the Provincial Council of Biscay, were taken into consideration when deciding the fate of the park. On Friday, February 9, 1990 the amusement park closed its doors.
With annual expenses of more than 120,000 euros dedicated to maintenance and security, in 2011 the land where the former park sits was placed on the market for 2.4 million euros but no buyer was found.
It is currently used as a warehouse and archive for several public institutions, having had other temporary uses in the past such as parking for the trucks and trailers for the fairground rides installed during the local holidays in Bilbao or as a warehouse for confiscated items and repossession.
There have been several artistic interventions and cultural activities organized in relationship to the park. Between 2005 and 2007, the project LUNA PARK, conceived by Franck Larcade, Lisette Smits, and Alexis Vaillant, and organized by Consonni, invited seven artists to the park to create seven interventions. In October of 2007, artist Saioa Olmo and Consonni organized a series of sold-out guided tours of the park titled “Vuelven las atracciones.” In 2011, the release of the documentary Parque de Atracciones de Vizcaya: El Diente del Diablo, directed by Guillermo Santamaría, brought back memories of those who enjoyed the park and introduced its history to a younger generation that missed it.
On November 4, 2015, the Provincial Council of Biscay announced that it had allocated 1.6 million euros to demolish the complex during 2016. However, on June 9, 2016 it was announced that the demolition of the park would probably be postponed and on November 4, 2016, it was confirmed in the budget for 2017 that the demolition will not take place in 2017.
Today, the Vizcaya Amusement Park waits the final date for its demolition. With its vanishing, the citizens of Bilbao, specially those that grew up during the 1970s and 1980s, will lose a referent of the Bilbao that started to open to entertainment and tourism, anticipating the transformation of the city that would later come.
The Vizcaya Amusement Park as seen by Yosigo
Tomás Ruiz is a TV cameraman whose interest in abandoned places started ten years ago. Since then, he has been recording and photographing locations across Europe, from stations to hospitals. He is the administrator of the Club CELA, the most important forum in Spain concerning abandoned places, and he runs the blog Esperando al Tren since 2007.
Yosigo is a photographer and graphic designer based in Barcelona, Spain, whose work pays particular attention to space, symmetry, and color. He has exhibited his work in the monographic exhibition Kresala in the Aquarium San Sebastian and has had his work published in international magazines including Colors and Wired. His latest book is called Riu Avall.