NEWS: Western Playland Bids Farewell

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Sep 22, 2005, 9:59:17 AM9/22/05

Western Playland bids farewell

Amusement park leaves Ascarate, heads to Sunland

Ramon Bracamontes
El Paso Times

The Western Playland that you, Rene Rodriguez and thousands of El Pasoans
grew up with will be dismantled after this weekend, as the 45-year-old
amusement park moves from Ascarate Park to Sunland Park.

The 17-mile move will begin next week, after the park shuts down at 8 p.m.
Sunday on the final weekend for this summer's season.

"This park is a part of a lot of us," said Rodriguez, who grew up in El Paso
but now lives in Austin and works at the University of Texas at Austin. "It
has always been that little special place that this city has, and other
cities don't. It has sentimental value."

Since 1960, when Western Playland opened with six rides and seven employees,
it has been a special part of El Paso and a part of owner Pat Thomson's
life. Thomson's grandfather and father opened the park. They expanded
several times, but four years ago, it outgrew its current 15-acre site at
6900 Delta.

Negotiations to expand the park with the El Paso County Commissioners Court
fell through in 2002, causing Thomson to look for a second home. Three years
ago, he signed a contract to move onto a 60-acre site across the parking lot
from Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino.

The new Western Playland will open with about 25 rides in the summer of
2006. At Ascarate Park, only the go-carts and a couple of kiddie rides will
remain to fulfill a contract that doesn't expire until 2014. All of the
major rides will move.

For Rodriguez, and others who grew up with the park, it is the end of an
era, even though he acknowledges that the new site may lead to a better

"I met most of my best friends there," he said. "It was the place to go.
Back then, it was the only source of entertainment for young kids."

In the 1970s, while a student at Bel Air High School, Rodriguez worked at
the park, operated the El Bandido and met his future wife, Becky, there. She
was a Riverside High School student working in ticket sales.

"My kids have visited Disneyland and Six Flags," he said, "and when I take
them to Western Playland, they don't understand the connection I have with
the park. They don't see why this park is special."

It is special, Rosa V. Martinez said, because it was a place the entire
family could enjoy. It had rides for older kids, such as the Himalaya, and
Tea Cups for smaller kids. It had fireworks displays, it had Friday night
dances, concerts and company parties. It was the home of "POP," pay one

"This is another El Paso thing that is being taken away from us," said
Martinez, whose back yard on Ben Swain Street faces Western Playland. "Is
everything going to be closed in this city?"

She moved into her home in 1964. She has lived through the ups and downs of
Western Playland and Ascarate Park. She lived there when thousands of
teenagers would cruise the park on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. She
was there when the Gold Nugget opened in 1971 and the El Bandido went up in
1974. She remembers ski boats and a gas station at the lake.

She never minded the noise, traffic and lights. She views the moving of
Western Playland as a de facto closing, similar to Dudley Field and Bowie
High School, both of which moved.

"I'm going to miss it; my family will miss it," she said. "You cannot
replace it."

Thomson will miss the old park, which employed about 130 students each
summer and attracted more than 240,000 visitors each year. It also survived
a competitive challenge from Magic Landing in the 1980s, after having to
compete with Washington Park's amusement rides in the 1970s.

"It's tough to leave here, but the new site is spectacular: The Franklin
Mountains are on the north side, and Mount Cristo Rey on the other," Thomson

El Paso County officials said they don't know what will become of the
Western Playland site and have set their sights instead on the overall
future of Ascarate Park, which includes baseball fields, a golf course, an
aquatics center and the lake.

Rosemary Neill, director of family and community services and interim
director of parks, golf and aquatic for the county, said negotiations are
still continuing between the county and the city to see whether the city can
take over the park.

For the next year, though, the county will continue to run Ascarate Park,
she said.

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