The Amusement Park at Seattle Center is the Emptiest Place on Earth.
On a hot August afternoon, at the peak of tourist season, the Fifth Avenue and Harrison Street entrance to Seattle Center is overflowing with people. Dazed tourists stop in the middle of the sidewalk and point their digital cameras up at the 605-feet-tall Space Needle, their heads knocked back and mouths hanging open. Down the street, a gaggle of girls walk in front of a frustrated German man's shot of Experience Music Project's bright exterior, and a "Ride the Ducks" vehicle cruises by, hauling a boatload of out-of-towners egged on by their tour guide to scream and wave at everyone on the street.
Seattle Center is heaven for a visiting sightseer and absolute hell for the locals who have to put up with them. At this time of year hordes of tourists swarm around EMP, Pacific Science Center, KeyArena, and the food court in the Center House. In the middle of it all sits Seattle Center's Fun Forest, a tiny amusement park featuring a dozen or so rides and a strip of carnival games. Unlike everything else in and around Seattle Center, Fun Forest is empty.
To the right of the monorail track as you walk into Fun Forest are the "big kid" rides. Most of them require riders to be taller than four feet. That's where you'll find the Windstorm (a 1,445-foot-long roller coaster that can reach up to 40 miles per hour), Wild River (the treacherous-looking log ride that reeks of chlorinated water), and the Orbiter (an octopus-like contraption where you sit in a bucket, get turned sideways, and then spin around really fast). To the left of the monorail track, and right under the Space Needle, sit the kiddie rides. There's a much smaller toddler roller coaster, mini bumper cars, a merry-go-round, and a Ferris wheel. Most kiddie rides are two tickets a pop, while the bigger rides can be anywhere from three (Wild River) to 10 (the Booster) tickets. You can get 10 tickets for $9, 20 for $17, or 60 for $45.
On the day that I visit, only one car on the Ferris wheel is occupied. There's a little boy trapped inside and he's screaming his face off and obviously wants to be back on the ground. His parents tune him out and attempt to take in the view. Not far from the Ferris wheel, one little pigtailed girl is sitting in a glittery green jeep that has been slowly going around and around in small circles for almost two minutes now, leading a pack of six empty cars. Just a few yards away from her, a lone boy swings back and forth in a miniature pirate ship that was built to delight a dozen or more children at a time.
The park's feeble midway is even more deserted. The short strip of booths house the typical array of classic carnival games, starting with "Tucky Derby," a racing game where you roll a ball up a ramp and attempt to drop it in a hole in order to propel your plastic horse forward, and ending with "Crazy Darts," where a buck will get you a chance to throw a dart at a balloon pinned to corkboard.
Slowly passing by the games, I am a target. I'm the only customer in sight, and every person working at a booth is watching me as I walk by. Some call out, insisting it's worth my money to give the game a go, others just stare. I feel at once outnumbered and utterly alone. I take a quick look around and discover that on this late-summer afternoon, the people who work in the park—ride operators, ticket sellers, and people who staff the games—appear to outnumber the people visiting by five to one.
Besides Fun Forest, the closest amusement park to downtown Seattle is Wild Waves and Enchanted Village in Federal Way, a short 30-minute drive away. So who goes to Fun Forest? Some parents take their kids there to pass some time during the summer, and younger teenagers, stuck in the awkward years of being unable to drive anywhere or do anything else with their time, straggle in, aimlessly wandering the grounds, occasionally coughing up a few quarters for a video game.
But for some folks, Fun Forest is a job.
Most of the people who work in the park are in their late teens and early 20s—you can spot them by their bright-blue vests or aprons. The "Fun Forest" logo is scrawled across the front, and each and every one of the workers looks bored out of their fucking gourd as they wait for customers to materialize. One night I sat and watched one young Asian woman pass the time grooming her eyebrows and fixing her lip-gloss, while another teenage kid jingled a handful of quarters. The rest just sit... staring at nothing... waiting...
Strolling through Fun Forest, you can't help but think of all the shitty jobs you've ever had, the ones that forced you to suffer through long lonely hours, and your heart aches for these kids.
It is as existentially depressing a place to visit as any in Seattle. The rides look outdated and rickety—and abandoned. I watch as two girls exchange a handful of money for a sheet of tickets. They walk over to Music Express, which is blasting Top-40 hits from 2001, and not a person is in sight. With no ride operator around, the girls wonder if the ride might be closed. But as they make their way up the entrance ramp, a slightly older teenage girl in a blue vest lopes over from the park bench where she was passing the time. She takes their tickets and, after the girls settle in, hits the start button. The ride runs just for them. It's the same story over at the Windstorm, which has just two riders. There's never a wait for any ride at Fun Forest, where most of the employees sit in silent contemplation until their shift is up.
Alicia, a spunky 20-year-old in a blue vest, is slowly pacing the 10-foot stretch of shaded blacktop in front of the Pokemon game. Her long, curly red hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she's counting through the day's meager take while she waits for someone to come along and slap down two bucks for a chance to win a polyester cartoon character stuffed with synthetic fibers. A family of five stops, reads the rules of the game, and Alicia flashes a smile at them. They continue on.
Alicia started working at Fun Forest four years ago. "It's fun!" she says with a surprising degree of sincerity. "I get to meet all kinds of people. A lot of Russian people come here for some reason, and I've even picked up some Russian."
During her first summer at Fun Forest, Alicia worked in the rides. Working the rides, she says, "sucked." She enjoys working the midway, though, where she says she gets a nice hourly wage and a commission. "If you're a boring person you won't have fun with the job," she says. "It is what you make it."
Another family approaches and a young boy hands Alicia two one-dollar bills, eyeing the stuffed Nemo hanging on the wall. Alicia quickly explains how the game works. A few moments later, after he's knocked down all the wooden Pokemon cutouts, the little boy walks off with an orange clown fish.
Farther down the line, an 18-year-old girl named Kaytee is working at the booth called Buckets, where the object of the game is to try to land a softball in a bright blue plastic bucket. "I love working here," Kaytee says in a thick Alabama accent. "Some [of the other employees] just sit there, 'cause they don't care, but some do care, and that's when it's fun. I love giving out prizes. We're not trying to trick people either," she says, tossing a softball back and forth in her hands, "I tell people how to win. You gotta put the backspin on it."
While Fun Forest sits in the partially public-funded Seattle Center, it's actually a privately owned business. It was built for the 1962 World's Fair and then purchased by Bill and Stella Aubin after the fair ended. Bill passed away about 10 years ago, but Stella still owns the place.
Fun Forest has been hanging in there for 40 years now, and in that time it has seen its fair share of ups and downs. It has survived the mid-'80s threat of a Disney takeover (there was a 60 to 70 million dollar deal proposed, which would've updated the entire Seattle Center compound, but it ultimately fell through). And in 1997 the park expanded in an attempt to grab the testy attention of local teenagers by adding the Entertainment Pavilion, which is a 20,000-square-foot indoor area featuring video games, laser tag, miniature golf, and a 25-foot climbing wall.
Mrs. Aubin won't say how much the park makes or how much it costs to run ("We don't release numbers," she tells me), but Virginia Anderson, Seattle Center's director, did confirm that in 2004 Fun Forest paid over $600,000 to Seattle Center, which was a combination of rental fees and a percentage of the park's gross income. She also tells me that Fun Forest's current lease won't expire until 2014. So, for another nine years at least, Fun Forest, however empty, certainly isn't going anywhere.
But if an amusement park amuses no one, does it exist? Should it exist? Kids in the city are aching for a good skatepark, and there's more than enough room for a bowl, a ramp, and a good-sized street course in the space currently occupied by Fun Forest.
Some would be sad to see Fun Forest go, though. In the nearly empty Entertainment Pavilion, a man named Paul is manning the Max Flight roller-coaster simulator. It's a big sci-fi looking ship that encloses two people in a small cabin with a TV screen. Riders get to design their own computerized roller coaster, and then the machine spins them around while the roller coaster's virtual tracks flash by on the screen. Paul's perfectly happy with his job, despite the fact that he's spent most of his shift alone in the simulator's cabin. He entertains himself by watching the kids on the Dance Dance Revolution video game across the aisle. But Paul insists it's not a bad gig. "I get to be outside," he explains, leaning against a metal barricade. "It's an easy job."
Paul tells me about the time when someone recently asked him what he would do if Seattle Center and Fun Forest just didn't exist. He looks at the ground and then looks at me "It's a beautiful place to be, I like it here. If it wasn't here..." he pauses for a minute, letting the sounds of the surrounding arcade games ring in the air, "...we'd have no place to go." n