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New York Times: Charles Wood, 90, Innovator At Upstate Amusement Park

The New York Times
Monday October 11, 2004

By Douglas Martin

Charles R. Wood, who dreamed up an amusement park based on Mother Goose rhymes, then invested his life savings and hammered nails himself to create it, died on Sept. 3- at home in Glens Falls, N.Y. He was 90, having lived 10 years after doctors ordered him to stop riding his own roller coasters.

Clad in loud sport coats and likely as not behind the wheel of Greta Garbo’s 1933 custom Duesenberg, which he owned for many years, Mr. Wood presaged Walt Disney in developing new ways for people to have fun.

According to Beth Robertson, vice president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, he was one of the first to develop the “idea of theming a park based on an idea or character” when he opened Storytown U.S.A. in 1954 in Queensbury, N.Y., a year before Disneyland.

“Charley Wood is considered to be the grandfather of the American theme park,” Ms. Robertson said in an interview.

But Storytown was preceded in 1946 by Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind., and in 1949 by North Pole village, near Lake Placid, N.Y., so Mr. Wood was not the first person to conceive an organizing principle for a new kind of roadside attraction. In postwar America, a new and tempting market clearly beckoned: people were having lots of children, loved to drive and had grown leery of old-time garish midways.

Storytown stood out by offering horse-driven rides in pumpkin-shaped carriages, a replica of Cinderella’s castle and much more, including a Ghost Town for the hard-to-reach adult male audience.

He also amassed an empire of amusement activities in the Lake George area, including other amusement parks, all or parks of a least a dozen resorts, restaurants, hotels, a classic car museum, a wax museum, and much more.

Ms. Robertson said Mr. Wood was a pioneer in what she called “clustering of activities,” offering “a destination vacation” with all kinds of things to do.

Charles Reeves Wood was born on April 28, 1914 in Lockport, N.Y. Even in high school, he demonstrated an entrepreneurial bent by buying houses, including one for his parents when he was 13, Funworld magazine reported in 2003.

He spent less than a year at the University of Michigan, then worked for General Motors and Curtiss-Wright, the aircraft equipment maker. In World War II, he spent 38 months overseas, first servicing aircraft for the Royal Air Force, then working for Douglas Aircraft in the Pacific.

After the war, his thoughts turned to a trip he made in 1937, at the age of 23, to Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California, which made money during the depths of the Depression with what was later seen as a prototype of the theme park.

“I came back full of beans and wanted to get into the amusement business,” he told Funworld.

He first tried to buy a roller rink but was unsuccessful. He then bought a mansion on Lake George and turned it into a resort. Even though guests thought the lake was gorgeous, they told him there was not enough to do in the area.

So in 1954, he and his wife, Margaret, invested $75,000 in some swampy land in Queensbury, five miles outside the village of Lake George. Mr. Wood worked feverishly, sleeping just three hours a night, to build the park.

In 1982, he renamed Storytown the Great Escape to broaden its appeal. Also that year, he acquired Fantasy Island, an amusement park in the Buffalo area.

In 1989, he sold both parks to the International Broadcasting Corporation, then bought them back when the buyer went bankrupt. In 1996, he again sold the Great Escape, this time to Premier Parks, now known as Six Flags. He sold Fantasy Island to a Buffalo businessman.

In 1994, he bought the Comet, a roller coaster that had been in Crystal Beach, Ontario. Coaster enthusiasts consider it one of the world’s best wooden coasters. He moved it to Queensbury.

Mr. Wood’s millions of dollars in charitable contributions went to health care, the arts and children in need. With the actor Paul Newman, he founded the Double “H” Hole in the Woods Ranch, in Lake Luzerne, N.Y., for children with cancer and blood-related diseases.

Mr. Wood’s first wife, Margaret, died in 1976. He is survived by his wife, Josie Beckos Wood; his daughters, Barbara Wages of Burlington, Conn., and Charlene Courtney of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; his stepdaughter, Barbara Beckos McDonald of Syracuse; his stepson, Dean Beckos of Glens Falls; his sisters, Grace Wood Williams of Rochester and Frances Sterndale of Albany; 11 grandchildren; and 3 step-grandchildren.

Interviewed by The Capital District Business Review, Mr. Wood said his plans were always simple.

“I just wanted to own places that people had a good time at,” he said.

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