Lack of Funland, arcades in Rehoboth no fun for families

Crowds play Skee-Ball during a past summer at Funland in Rehoboth Beach. (Submitted photo/Gregg Patrick Boersma)

REHOBOTH BEACH — Any frequent visitor of the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk knows the beginning of June is marked by the buzz of families, fast-rolling Skee-Balls, coins falling into claw machines, and children squealing in delight on their favorite rides. Yet these landmark traits of Rehoboth Beach are not likely to be seen in the same magnitude in the immediate future.

Boardwalk crowds aren’t the same this year so far with the continued closure of Funland, and the limited business operations at Zelky’s Beach Arcades and Donuts.

Ian Curry, general manager of Funland and a fourth-generation member of the Fasnachts, the family who owns the facility, said state officials have not given them a concrete date on when they will be permitted to open.

“It’s not going to be the summer that we’re used to,” Mr. Curry said. “The short of it is, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be different, but we’re going to adapt and change.”

Many businesses have been permitted to open since Phase 1 of reopening began on June 1. As Delaware prepares to open businesses further in Phase Two starting Monday, arcades, amusement parks, and water parks have been singled out yet again by the state guidelines, which prohibits their opening without submitting a detailed plan of opening to the state.

For Zelky’s Beach Arcades and Donuts, they have been successful in submitting such a plan, which allowed them to open on June 1 under restrictions such as limiting how many people are in the arcades, how far games are spaced apart, placing distancing stickers on the ground, and setting up sanitation stations, among multiple other restrictions.

Matt Weiner, general manager of Zelky’s, said he submitted his opening plans before June 1, along with his petition signed by approximately 1,000 people advocating for their opening.

“After submitting the plan, we heard back a couple days later. We made a couple changes per the Division of Public Health’s suggestion,” Mr. Weiner said. “At this point, we’ve been granted full approval to reopen the arcades on the boardwalk.”

Zelky’s opened their central arcade boardwalk location on June 1, and their south boardwalk arcade location opened on Monday. They are still struggling to open all three of their locations at once under the guidelines, and on some days they are unable to open more than one arcade at a time, according to Mr. Weiner.

Mr. Weiner said one of the more challenging aspects of opening since approval is finding enough employees. While the arcades typically employee 75 people in the summer, they have only been able to hire nine people this season, with employees reluctant to come off unemployment and lack of J-1 visa workers.

“In the end, we are very happy to have been able to finally open our doors.” Mr. Weiner said. “At this point, our biggest issue is seeking to find additional help. It seems that a lot of people are not wanting to come off of unemployment. A majority of people that we are having applied were not able to qualify for unemployment, or were too young and are entering their first jobs.”

Mr. Weiner emphasized that the arcades are doing everything in their power to make their locations a healthy environment.

“We wouldn’t have fought so hard to be able to reopen if we didn’t think that we could provide a safe environment,” Mr. Weiner said. “We don’t want to get anybody sick, nobody wants to get sick coming to our place, so we’ve done everything we were able to provide that kind of comfort.”

Funland difficulties

While Zelky’s had more luck with submitting an opening plan, the circumstances of opening for Funland are more difficult, mostly due to the sheer number of people it draws in such a small space.

Folks ride the merry-go-round at Funland. (Submitted photo/Gregg Patrick Boersma)

In 1962, Allen and Don Fachnacht purchased what would later become Funland, now the only permanent amusement park in Delaware. Their first year owning the park was christened by the destruction of the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962, after which the family had to rebuild from the ground up.

Mr. Curry said he and the rest of the Funland team have been working closely with state and local officials who are helping them draft a suitable reopening plan.

”We’re all in this together, essentially,” Mr. Curry said. “There’s so much unknown out there. We see what’s best is to follow all the guidance from the state and federal level, and also from the local level.”

For Funland, opening would require them to follow much of the restrictions most stores have already put in place, such as limiting crowds, frequent sanitization, and mask-wearing requirements among other things, but executed on a much larger scale. Mr. Curry said Funland’s priority is opening to as many customers as possible while keeping the environment safe.

“The good and the bad of it all is when it gets busy, it’s crazy in there. You’re packed in like a sardine can,” Mr. Curry said. “That’s a great thing to be so popular. But that is one of our main concerns of how do we control that? So, we’re looking at a whole host of ideas about how that happens.”

Mr. Curry said even if there were no state restrictions, his family would not feel comfortable opening until they knew they could do it safely.

“This is the right decision for us. Yeah, we want people to have fun, but I would never want to put anybody, my family, employees, or someone that’s paying money to come into our establishment, I would never would want to put them in jeopardy,” Mr. Curry said.

A missing piece

With Funland closed until further notice, former Funland employee and author of the book about the venue, “Land of Fun”, Chris Lindsley said the boardwalk will be missing an important part of its local charms.

“Funland is really the heart and soul of Rehoboth in the evenings for those people looking for kid activities and fun,” Mr. Lindsley said.

Funland serves a crucial role for families visiting Rehoboth Beach because of its affordable pricing and nostalgic rides dating back to the 1950s and 60s that can be appreciated by all generations, he said. Without Funland, families have significantly fewer options after long days of sitting on the beach.

Mr. Lindsley said that while writing “Land of Fun,” he spoke with many families about how important their summer tradition of visiting Funland is.

“I certainly do feel for those families because, again, I know many of them. Their kids, in particular, think about Funland pretty much all year. I mean I’ve heard some pretty amazing stories,” Mr. Lindsley said.

For the Gerber/Reid family, this is exactly what Funland means to them. Ilene Reid and Mitch Gerber who live in Rockville, Maryland, have brought their children Dana Gerber, 20, and Eli Gerber, 26, to Rehoboth Beach every summer since they were born.

Mitch Gerber’s face lit up as he described his favorite Funland ride, the Skyfighters, which reminded him of rides he went on as a child.

“At Funland we had some early rituals too,” Mr. Gerber said. “In the beginning, we limited ourselves to the kiddie rides, and I was particularly attached to that area because one of the kiddie rides with the snub-nosed rockets with the buzzers you could press, was the exact same ride at an amusement park in Buffalo, where I grew up in and where I went to as a kid.”

Chris Lindsley wrote the book “Land of Fun” about Funland in Rehoboth Beach.

The Gerbers said they would often visited Funland every night during their weeklong visits.

“The walk over there, in fact, was like the longest 15 minutes of me and my brother’s lives because all we wanted to do was go to Funland,” Dana said.

Ms. Reid reinforced that Funland, as its name would suggest, was always a fun place for her family to visit.

“I just feel so positive about the place and the environment,” Ms. Reid said. “It just has this real feel to it, like, you feel welcome. They’re not turning you upside down and emptying your pockets.”

Dana said seeing Funland opened with strict health precautions could warp her fond memories of the park she’s grown to love over the years.

“I feel very restricted by, you know, these guidelines, and I don’t really ever want to associate that with Funland. I don’t ever want to, like, see a Funland where you have to wear masks and stuff like that. I don’t want to see a Funland where they disinfect everything between every game, because I feel like that would sort of taint my memories of it.” Dana said. “I’m really, really hoping that next summer is much better in every possible, knowable, respect.”

Despite this, Dana said a younger child-version of herself visiting Rehoboth would see a closed Funland as a sign of the “apocalypse”.

If I was a kid I would think that, like, it was the apocalypse. I would think, how can Funland possibly be closed?” Dana said. “Now I mean, I’m 20, so I can understand why it wouldn’t open and why it wouldn’t be safe. I think the core of Funland is fun. And, you know, an amusement park during a pandemic is not fun.”

The question of how Funland could be closed for this long, is a question that the community has been asking itself for weeks now. It is likely Funland may not open until Phase 3, expected to begin in July at the earliest.

Mr. Lindsley said Funland being closed for this many weeks is far from normal for the park.

“At the time I worked there, it was never closed. The only time they ever closed was if there was a hurricane or something. And then, once in 2013 when Al’s wife passed away, they closed for one day,” Mr. Lindsley said.

“This is a new experience for the family as well, I think, obviously, not being open this time of year. So, yeah, it’s weird for everyone in a whole bunch of ways.”

For more information on the status of Funland, visit FunlandRehoboth.com. To learn more about the history of Funland and Mr. Lindsley’s book, “Land of Fun,” visit land-of-fun.com.

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