The nostalgia of Kiddie Land on Wornall Road
By Diane Euston
Growing up in south Kansas City with two parents who spent the bulk of their childhood in the metro area, I’ve heard a plethora of stories surrounding the post-World War II Baby Boomer generation.
More times than I can count, my mother, Helen, has taken a trip down memory lane when we drive on Wornall Road past the intersection at 85th Street. “That’s where the old Kiddie Land was,” she says sentimentally as I stare through the window at an unimpressive shopping center anchored by a Price Chopper.
Her great aunt often took her there with her brother, Rusty, throwing them in the back seat of her ’56 green and white push-button DeSoto. “There was no place I would rather go when I was seven or eight,” my mother recalls. Once inside the park, her great aunt would treat them to snacks and rides. “She would hold onto those little paper tickets and give them out one at a time, then watch as I would get on the rides.”
Kiddie Land at 84th and Wornall had a short lifespan as an amusement park aimed toward young children, but it had an impact on the Baby Boomers who remember so many exciting excursions to this little amusement park situated on the edge of the growing suburbs.
Before Kiddie Land’s Debut
Sitting at 8440 Wornall Rd. was a large, four-bedroom brick home with a tile roof. It was the residence of Henry P. Soden (1896-1961), son of a successful real estate developer. The property included a four-car garage with a servant’s quarters above it, stables, gardens, a greenhouse and a children’s play area.
The property was sold in 1947 to Stanley M. Presbury, who owned a restaurant and tavern called The Wigwam at 8421 Wornall Rd. Opening in 1939 where a place called “The Donald Duck” had been a year before, the Wigwam specialized in fried chicken “that carries a smack of goodness long to be remembered” at a cost of 50 cents. In addition to fried chicken, items such as homemade rolls and pastries, charcoal broiled steaks and roast turkey served with giblet gravy and dressing made this place popular among those living in Waldo.
As Presbury prepared to relocate the Wigwam in the old Soden house, the area was annexed to Kansas City. A stretch of businesses from 81st to 84th along Wornall were faced with a problem; the city wanted to rezone the area as residential. Considering the dilemma faced by 23 business owners along this section, the city conceded and allowed commercial businesses to continue operating.
Alden N. Rice
Born in 1894 in Iowa, Alden Nixon Rice, the son of a livestock commissioner, grew up in Kansas City and flourished in some unusual business interests. By 1920 Rice was running the Midwest Doll Hair Factory. By 1925 he was the proprietor of A.N. Rice Manufacturing Co., “a manufacturer of dolls, fancy lamps and carnival supplies.”
His warehouse was at 14th and Michigan, and in 1926 a large fire at his business caused $30,000 in damages. The Kansas City Star reported, “15,000 kewpie dolls, 1,000 blankets, and carnival supplies were destroyed.”
Rice may have been enterprising, but his businesses were not always successful. By 1930 his novelty company was bankrupt and he and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Waterloo, Iowa, where he operated a furniture company.
Rice returned to Kansas City and switched interests temporarily from selling novelties to working as an officer of the law. From 1932 to 1937 he was part of the “police raiding squad” that was disassembled at the end of his five years of service.
After returning to Iowa and resuming his carnival accessories business, Rice moved his family back to Kansas City with a new business venture in mind.
He wanted to open a children’s carnival called Kiddie Land.
The Rocky Start of Kiddie Land
For two years, the old brick house on four acres was the home of the Wigwam. In 1949 Rice purchased the property with the idea of starting a small amusement park for young children. He planned on living in the brick home and using the four acres for the park.
Rice went through all the proper channels to get his business licenses in order. He obtained a license from the commissioner of buildings (the same license given to carnivals) and got clearance from the welfare department.
His final stop was to hand over these licenses at City Hall. When the lady signing off on the paperwork asked what kind of business it was, Rice answered, “Kiddie Land.” The lady didn’t ask for more clarification and wrote down “amusement park.” He paid the $310 and was on his way to changing the lives of many little children in the area.
To be fair, the term “kiddie land” was used by numerous attractions across the area to indicate a young children’s area inside an amusement park. Pla-Mor and Fairyland at 75th and Prospect both had “kiddie lands.”
Regardless, this flub by City Hall almost cost Rice’s venture its entire existence.
After investing around $80,000, Kiddie Land opened its doors in the summer of 1950 and was an instant favorite for children. However, homeowners in nearby neighborhoods were less than thrilled with the noise and traffic.
The honest mistake of the lady labeling Kiddie Land as an amusement park reared its ugly head. The area was not zoned for amusement parks, so Kiddie Land was in violation of zoning laws. The city gave Rice five days to shut down.
He didn’t comply, and the lights of Kiddie Land were left glowing at night. He continued to advertise it as “a fun place for the kiddies.”
After a year of litigation, the city finally agreed to let Kiddie Land continue to operate.
Kiddie Land’s Attractions
Geared toward children under the age of 12, Kiddie Land featured numerous attractions including ponies, a train running the perimeter of the park, a merry-go-round, the prairie schooner, a ride called the Little Dipper, a Ferris wheel, auto ride, boat ride, and a ride called the Sky Fighter. One roller coaster on the property promoted roars and screams of little children as they rode its simple tracks.
Free admission made Kiddie Land more accessible than larger parks such as Fairyland. Four acres of family fun with plenty of “cool shade” had parents toting their children to Kiddie Land for afternoons and evenings of fun.
At 9 cents per ride (or six rides for 50 cents), Kiddie Land was an affordable and attractive spot. By 1954 the park featured 12 rides and concession stands offering 10-cent hot dogs.
That same year the pony rides were expanded to include a “Super Pony Ring,”with 20 Shetland ponies supplied by the Weidenmann Pony Farm. Originally located on the west side of the Plaza, the Weidenmann Pony Farm moved to land just south of Watt’s Mill on 103rd Street. The addition of their well-trained ponies helped make Kiddie Land a magical place that still sticks out in the memories of children who visited there.
To keep up with the times, Rice did an extensive remodel of Kiddie Land in 1958. He planned 25 special nights benefitting local organizations, and promotions such as three free rides with every $1 book in order to continue the public’s love of the little carnival in Waldo.
Unfortunately the increasing value of the land and competition with other amusements made Kiddie Land’s future short-lived.
A Carnival Turns into a Concrete Parking Lot
In 1961 little advertising for Kiddie Land was purchased, and Rice began selling off some of the park’s attractions, including a commando machine gun shooting gallery. Without any press, Kiddie Land quietly shut its doors at the end of the 1961 season. The following year Rice sold the land to a real estate developer for $115,000.
In 1963 plans for the Wornall Village Center were announced. The old site of Kiddie Land was paved with concrete to create parking for 250 cars. Anchored by a 23,000 square-foot Safeway store, the shopping center also featured a Ben Franklin variety store and a B.F. Goodrich. The shopping center opened at the end of 1963.
Other versions of Kiddie Land opened around the city, but none held the nostalgia of the little park on Wornall Road.
Kiddie Land Survives in Memories
Steve Hodgden is one of many Boomers who wildly ran around Kiddie Land as a child. His memories are simply magical; much like my mother, his fondness for this four-acre park is paramount to his childhood. “The Wornall Kiddie Land is in the DNA of anyone raised in our ever-changing south Kansas City past,” Hodgden explained.
Kiddie Land lasted for only 12 years, yet thousands of children passed through its gates. There isn’t much evidence of its existence, but nostalgia oozes from people when someone mentions its name.
Rice passed away in 1981 at the age of 87 in Phoenix, Arizona. His obituary notes that he “had owned numerous businesses in the Midwest.” I can’t help but wonder if Rice had any idea how many children’s lives were changed, and how many Baby Boomers were ignited with excitement when their parents, relatives or friends uttered his park’s name. One man with a background in novelties had the novel idea to create Kiddie Land, and his little park still lives on in memories.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com