Don’t be surprised to see dogs, cats or ostriches bobbing up and down to jaunty organ music at the Oaks Park Carousel in Southeast Portland. These colorful, hand-painted animals are at work as the stars of the brightly lit ride that’s well over 100 years old and the oldest in the amusement park. Rotating in safe, soothing and happy circles, it feels like being inside a giant music box.
The early 20th century was the heyday for carousels in the U.S., which celebrates National Carousel Day on July 25. Less than 200 of that era’s roughly 6,000 hand-painted beauties remain nationwide. Several dedicated organizations in Oregon are working to bring back the glory days of these classic carnival rides, which are also sometimes called merry-go-rounds or whirligigs.
Your Passport to Oregon’s Carousels
The good news for merry-go-round fans — and the kids and grandkids who are yet to be introduced to them — is that you can still enjoy a ride in Oregon. Several carousels are featured on the Northwest Carousel Trail Passport, a new way to experience these nostalgic rides. To join the fun, pick up a free passport at any participating carousel in Portland or the Willamette Valley cities of Salem, Albany and Cottage Grove. Collect stamps for each visit as you take a whimsical ride.
Tigers in Portland’s Oaks Park
The carousels on the passport are a mix of old and new. In Portland, Oaks Park’s 46-animal carousel was built around 1913 and is now listed on the National Historic Register. The menagerie includes ostriches, zebras, roosters and the only hand-carved carousel kangaroo left in the country. Rides are free Tuesday through Sunday during the summer, and weekends-only in spring and fall.
Hand-Carved Beauties in Salem
The Salem Riverfront Carousel, which opened in 2001, was born from one woman’s dream. Hazel Patton was inspired by a 1996 trip to Montana, where she rode a merry-go-round and decided Salem needed something just as beautiful and magical. Under Patton’s leadership, each animal was sponsored by a Salem resident, and volunteers spent six years building the Salem ride from the ground up.
In addition to 42 horses, Salem boasts such characters as Mr. Hopkins, a tennis-playing frog, and Benny the Beaver, who waves an Oregon State University flag. It’s open daily except for holidays at Salem’s Riverfront Park. The carousel also hosts a monthly session for people with sensory sensitivities on the first Monday of each month, without music or lights.
Carvers in Action in Albany
The Albany Historic Carousel & Museum also recruited volunteers to carve and paint its wooden animals, each a unique piece of art. So far 43 — with room for 52 total — are on the carousel that spins with refurbished mechanical innards from 1909. “We’re still actively carving,” says Peggy Burris, executive director of the organization. “And that’s half the entertainment for people when they come here. They want to get downstairs to see our carvers in action.”
Like many merry-go-rounds, the ride in Albany has an outer ring of “standers,” the animals that remain stationary, and two inner rings of “jumpers” that bob up and down. Burris’ favorite ride changes as new animals are added, but she admits she’s partial to Fredrick the hare and Sally the Swiss cow. Fully enclosed in a handsome building with arched windows, the carousel is open year-round and provides ADA-compliant access for wheelchairs.
The Albany Carousel also offers a Sensory Friendly Day, for members in the community who need a quieter and slower ride is the first Wednesday of the month where they slow the carousel down to a “jog” and turn the loud organ music off to a quieter music option.
Restored Carousel in Cottage Grove
In 1995 the late Judy Cash bought a 1929-vintage carousel from a roadside Virginia amusement park and transported it to her home in Cottage Grove. It sat in storage until 2014, when a dedicated group of volunteers started putting in the thousands of hours necessary to restore it. The volunteer-run Cottage Grove Carousel is now open on the third Saturday of each month, when people can ride a beautifully repainted pig, dog, zebra and horse, of course.
Portland Carousel Looking for a Home
From 1928 to 1970, Jantzen Beach served as Portland’s premier amusement park, featuring a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, four swimming pools and a spectacular 20-ton merry-go-round with 72 horses galloping four abreast. When the Jantzen Beach shopping mall opened in 1972, it incorporated the carousel, the only surviving ride from the amusement park. It was put in storage from 2012 to 2017, when historic preservation organization Restore Oregon acquired the carousel. The nonprofit has been looking for a home for the merry-go-round — with several Oregon cities being considered — and means to return it to riding condition. You can see four of the horses in various stages of restoration at a special exhibit about the carousel at the Oregon Historical Society through September 24, 2023.
Other Oregon Carousels
A few notable Oregon carousels aren’t on the Northwest passport, but they’re well worth seeking out: An 18-animal ride at Portland’s Oregon Zoo, the carousel at Salem’s Enchanted Forest and Seaside’s 24-animal merry-go-round.
In Eugene Roaring Rapids Pizza has its own carousel reserved for restaurant guests ages 12 and under. In 2019 the owners had their original 1931 carousel replaced with an 18-animal carousel built using 1906 molds. “Watching a grandparent with joy in their eyes watching their grandchild ride as they remember their ride from half a century ago is so cool,” says Garry Weber, operating partner of the pizzeria. “And we all love big toys. They’re larger than life.”