Contrary to popular belief, Amusement parks, theme parks, and fairs existed in France long before Disneyland Paris opened in 1992. This is the almost forgotten, long and winding history of how they evolved from European medieval merchant fairs, bougie aristocratic pleasure gardens and French Folly homes into one of France’s most popular forms of entertainment.
Theme parks, amusement parks, fairgrounds, funfairs and carnivals. For some, they’re fire and brimstone; for others, they’re holy lands.
Even in France, the land of elegance and haute couture, there are hundreds of amusement parks and thousands of seasonal fairs and carnivals that attract millions of visitors each year in search of entertainment, thrilling roller coasters, cotton candy and an escape from daily life
I wrote about the most popular ones that French families love here.
The forgotten Antique Amusement parks in France before 1910
It might surprise you to learn that the first official amusement park, “Parc d’attraction,” to open in France, opened one year before Walt Disney was born in 1901 and almost 100 years before Disneyland Paris arrived in France in 1992. It was called Magic City.
Magic City (1900-1934) and Luna Park (1909-1931)
Magic City (1900-1934) was an amusement park featured at the 1900 world exposition in Paris.
It featured all the latest theme park attractions, rides, and roller coasters . The Magic City ballroom was also a popular attraction where Parisians danced to orchestra music, and the Parisian gay nightlife and drag balls flourished.
9 years later, in 1909, another amusement park opened in Paris at Porte Maillot called Luna Park, riding on the coattails of Luna Park’s success which opened in 1903 at Coney Island.
1910 saw two more amusement parks open, one in Marseille and one in Bordeaux; both were called “American Park.”
But amusement parks didn’t just appear out of thin air one day fully formed, so where did they come from, and who invented them?
Before There Were Amusement Parks And FunFairs In France:
It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the exact origins of modern-day amusement parks and fairs because there were multiple influences and a host of predecessors that date back centuries before Ferris wheels, electricity and heart-stopping roller coasters were invented.
The three main influences were:
- Outdoor open spaces that attracted large groups of people.
- Periodic travelling medieval merchant fairs and trade fairs.
- Commercial “Pleasure gardens” (Specifically English Landscaped Gardens and French gardens aristocrats created for their pleasure palaces in the 18th and 19th centuries)
Here’s a brief look at all three, but first, we need to get in our time machine and travel back in time to 1583 Denmark.
1) Amusement Parks And Fairs That Began Life As Large Outdoor Spaces
Some of the world’s oldest amusement parks and theme parks started life as simple outdoor spaces where large groups of people gathered.
(1583) Bakken amusement park in Denmark started life as a place to fetch clean water.
Bakken, aka Dyrehavsbakken, is the oldest amusement park in the world still in operation.
The legend behind this Danish amusement park located in the woods of Klampenborg is that a young woman named Kirsten Piil discovered a natural spring that attracted large groups of people in search of clean spring water. These large crowds eventually attracted entrepreneurial pedalers, entertainers and performers such as the Pierrot, the famous Italian clown who is still a fixture at the park today and is the park’s scary-looking mascot.
(1766) Wurstelprater, aka Prater amusement park in Vienna, started life as a royal hunting ground.
Prater is the world’s second-oldest amusement park still in operation. For centuries, Prater was a royal hunting ground for nobles, cavaliers and ladies until Austrian Emperor Josef II opened the area up to the people as a public leisure center in 1766. Soon coffeehouses, beer gardens, and taverns popped up, followed by bocce courts, merry-go-rounds, peep shows and entertainers.
(1846) Lake Compounce, the oldest amusement park in the united states, was a large picnic area.
Lake Compounce originally started as a large picnic park around a lake where people could boat, swim, picnic, dance and listen to
2) Medieval Merchant Fairs
It’s estimated that there are over 35 000 fairs in France. Some last a few days, while others can last several months.
Although this might sound exceptional, Fairs are an old tradition in France and other parts of Europe that can trace their roots back to old-world merchant fairs.
These old-world fairs often attracted independent travelling merchants and tradespeople from all over Europe (and beyond) who would travel the countryside to different fairs setting up their stands to buy, sell, and trade their products and goods before packing up their caravans and moving on to the next town.
In France, seasonal trade fairs are called “les foires forains.” and “Carnivals, fairs or fairgrounds” are called “fêtes foraines“. “Forain” originally meant “non resident”, or travelling person who worked rides and stands at fairs. It’s where the English word Foreign comes from.
Entertainment might have been a marketing ploy to attract more customers to fairs and stands.
Although the main objective of Medieval merchant fairs was trade and commerce, most fairs also had some element of fun and entertainment.
Music, magicians, jugglers, theatre and puppet shows were some of the main activities at fairgrounds up until the 18th century, possibly to make merchant stalls unique and attract more customers.
Over time, as the fairs drew larger crowds, they also attracted more and more attractions, and entrepreneurial entertainers: from circus and animal shows to illusionists and “Freak shows” Think bearded ladies, dwarfs, and people with deformities or strange abilities. (source).
Freak shows are called “les foires aux monsters” literally “fair monsters.”
By the 19th century, fairs took on a more festive carnivalesque atmosphere with more focus on entertainment and rides.
As time and technology advanced, rides started appearing. The first was probably carousels, aka merry-go-rounds. There was also the curious 19th-century velocipede carousel which had bikes instead of horses that riders had to pedal.
There are less than a handful of working bike carousels in existence today, but you can see and ride an original at the Musée des art Forains in Paris, which has many more antique French carnival rides, booths and games from the Belle Epoque.
Many medieval fairs are still operating in France as funfairs and carnivals:
Many merchant fairs faded away, such as the Bartholomew Fair in England (1133 to 1855) and the “Foire de Champagne” (French for “Champagne fair”), an annual trade fair that moved around in the Champagne region of France in the 12th and 13th centuries.
But many merchant fairs have also stood the test of time.
- La Foire de Nancy (1339): The second most popular fair in France operates during April. Was originally a religious fair run by priests.
- La vogue des noix (1507) Started as a nut fair. Open 8 days during October. “vogue” from Franco provençale dialect is a word used in French which can also mean fair “fête foraine” or “foire.”
- La fête des Loges (1652): Originally a religous faire called “la foire de la Saint-Fiacre” on the grounds of an old hunging loge just outside of Paris. Open June to August.
La Foire Du Trône (the 1000 year Parisian Funfair)
The oldest and largest fair in France is without a doubt “La Foire du trône,” which sets up at the edge of Bois de Vincennes in the 12th arrondissement of Paris during April and May. This Parisian icon began life over a thousand years ago in 957 as a humble “spiced bread fair” run by monks and was originally called “Foire de
You can catch a glimpse of it in the cult French film “Amelie.”
3) French And English Pleasure Gardens: The precursor to Theme Parks
In the 18th and 19th centuries, while medieval merchant fairs were evolving into loud and raunchy carnivalesque funfairs, private English Pleasure Gardens were transforming into for-profit commercial pleasure gardens.
Although there is no modern equivalent to commercial pleasure gardens today, they helped shape many forms of modern entertainment, including art festivals, outdoor music concerts, alfresco theatre events, and of course, amusement parks, theme parks and county fairs.
What is a pleasure garden? Comercial vs Private Gardens
For Europeans who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were two types of pleasure gardens, or pleasure grounds: Private pleasure grounds and Commercial pleasure gardens.
Private pleasure gardens
In the Georgian era in British history, Private pleasure gardens were ornate landscaped gardens centred around outdoor leisure and entertainment.
It was very fashionably for wealthy bourgeoisie and aristocrats to create these elaborate and expensive gardens around their palaces, manors, villas, country homes and weekend retreat estates as a way to flaunt their wealth and entertain guests.
Depending on the garden, invited guests could socialize, enjoy refreshments, cultural events, firework shows, and occasionally play games such as bowling or pigeon shooting.
Another popular form of aristocratic entertainment in the mid-eighteenth century was the promenade through the gardens.
Pleasure gardens were designed so that guests could enjoy the garden’s beauty while promenading along curved pathways, under shady trees and meander past a variety of carefully composed decorative landscape scenes and architectural garden folly structures.
What is a Garden Folly and why were they important?
Garden follies (“Fabrique” in French) were an important decorative feature in the English garden and later the French landscape garden that date back to ancient Greece and Roman pleasure gardens. Traditionally they were purely ornamental structures and buildings designed to look like they were from far away places or another time. They could be anything from a splashy fountain, fake Roman ruins, an Egyptian pyramid, a Turkish tent, grottos, or eccentric statues. Chinese and Japanese follies were especially popular.
The garden at Stowe, designed by William Kent on the grounds of Viscount Cobham’s family home, is an example of a remarkable pleasure grounds of the period.
French Folly Home: A Country pleasure palace for leisure and entertaining
Although the term “pleasure garden” didn’t exist in France, wealthy French landowners and aristocrats also created ornate and expensive gardens for pleasure and entertainment around their country homes and estates. These homes were called “Maison Folie” or “Une Folie” + the “owner’s family name.”
Maison folie=Pleasure palace usually in the country or outside the city with an pleasure garden
Un Fabrique = Garden folly
Folie in French means many things; crazy, foolish, madness. But it can also mean absurdly extravagant.
Many folly homes in France still exist, but many were destroyed, were turned into parks or have streets named after them where they once existed.
- Folie Méricourt: all that exists is a street named after this house: rue de la Folie-Méricourt
- Folie Regnault: destroyed, but this street is named after it: rue de la Folie-Regnault
- Folie Rambouillet: destroyed but street named after it: rue de Rambouillet
- Follies of Bouexière (1760): destroyed in 1840
- Folie de Chartres (1769), part of this land was destroyed but what remains is now Parc Monceau. Make sure to check out the Egyptian pyramid here.
- Folie d’Artois, (1775) Named after le
Comted’Artois, the brother of the Louis XVI. It’s now Bagatelle park. Probably one of Paris best parks.
- Folie Saint James (1777) was Partially destroyed, but the garden is now parc de la Folie Saint James.
English Gardens take over French gardens In France
Like everything else, gardens have trends.
Up until the 1700s, the “IT” garden that was widely copied throughout Europe by the Elite was the French formal garden known as “Jardin à la Française, whose key feature was very geometric, symmetric and orderly.
For example, the Gardens of Versailles, which landscape architect André Le Nôtre designed in the 17th century, is a traditional “Jardin à la française.” It’s very orderly As opposed to English Gardens, which rejected symmetry in favour of nature, rustic scenes and exotic garden folly structures.
When descriptions of English pleasure gardens with their new English landscaped gardens reached France, wealthy French landowners began incorporating them in the gardens of their stately country homes.
1783 The Queen’s Hamlet (a fake but functioning rustic peasant village) is the largest French Follie home in France:
The most elaborate, biggest and most expensive example of a pleasure garden or Maison Folie in France is, without a doubt, the grounds at petit Trianon in Versaille park (1762) at Versailles designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel for Louis XV.
Marie Antoinette first had an English garden created in 1777. Then in 1783, she had “Le Hameau de la Reine (French for The Queen’s Hamlet) created; a fake but working rustic peasant village built around an artificial lake.
It was the Queen’s private retreat and meeting place for her closest friends; and a place of leisure.
Commercial Pleasure Gardens:
Commercial gardens were essentially glamourous landscaped pleasure gardens that operated as businesses to anyone capable of paying the entrance fee to access the many attractions and entertainment within the enclosed gardens.
The concept of a permanent enclosed garden or park for amusement was a new concept and differed from fairs where the entrance was free.
The entrance fee was usually a substantial amount for the average person, which theoretically guaranteed guests wouldn’t have to rub shoulders with the lower class. This eventually changed over time and later attracted people from all social classes.
These for-profit pleasure gardens often incorporated theatre, fountains, masquerade galas, opera, open-air concerts, fireworks, supper booths, modern art, menageries (captive wild animals), spaces for social interaction and paths for guests to promenade.
In short, they were part magical landscaped gardens, part hoity-toity country club and part outdoor concert and theatre parks.
London’s Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens: The first commercial pleasure garden for profit
Vauxhall pleasure gardens (1661-1859) was the most famous and most successful for-profit pleasure garden in London that spawned many imitators in name and spirit across the globe looking to recreate Vauxhall’s success. It was located on 12 acres of land by the banks of the River Thames, accessible only by boat until the Vauxhall Bridge was built.
Like Disneyland, the Vauxhall pleasure garden was a magical place with themed areas where people from all walks of life and any class paid their entry fee to socialize while enjoying the entertainment.
Some of the different themed areas guests could promenade through at Vauxhall Gardens included:
- The Grand Walk
- The Chinese Pavillion
- The Grand South Walk
- The firework tower
- The Turkish tent
- The Gothic Piazza
- The Handel Piazza
- The Pillared Saloon
- The Prince’s Pavilion
- The Organ
- The Orchestra
- The scene of ruins
- The Rotunda: An elegant music room
- The Grove
- The cascade: An artificial waterfall.
Vauxhall was initially called “New Spring Garden,” a type of rural outdoor tavern or beer garden for Londoners who went to socialize and buy refreshments since the 1660s.
In 1729, entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers, a pioneer of mass entertainment, saw the site’s full commercial potential and transformed the run-down garden and its tavern into the leading venue for public entertainment that drew enormous crowds. The entrance was originally free, but Jonathan began charging one shilling to keep out the riff-raff. The real money was in the food and drink, which was notoriously expensive.
There were no roller coaster rides or cotton candy, but there were circus acts, illusionists, fireworks, acrobats, Tightrope walkers, hot-air balloon ascents and shows.
Central to the entertainment were musical performances and the large concert hall which hosted promenade concerts; which were like open-air concerts where the audience could listen to the music while strolling about the carefully landscaped gardens along windy paths past pavilions, fountains, grottos, cascades, temples and other gardens Folies Tyler had constructed.
The main walks were lit at night by thousands of lamps which hung in trees and shrubs and turned night into day. In a time with no electricity, it was probably an astonishing sight.
The End Of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens
In July of 1859, after almost two centuries as a tremendously successful amusement garden business dedicated to outdoor entertainment, Vauxhall was bankrupt and closed its doors. The land was worth more for housing development than as an entertainment venue.
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens still exists today as an inner-city public park in Lambeth in South London. It was renamed Spring Gardens, but after a £2.5 million redesign, the gardens reopened in 2012 as Vauxhall pleasure garden. It’s not as glamorous as it once was, but it’s a great place for sunbathing, concerts, picnics and promenades.
Glimpses of the old Vauxhall gardens can be found in several TV series and books:
- Vauxhall is featured in an episode of Bridgerto, a historical drama series streaming on Netflix
- Vanity Fair 2018 historical drama miniseries based on the 1848 novel of the same name by William Makepeace Thackeray
- Season 4 of Poldark.
- Charles Dickens wrote about the Vauxhall Gardens, in Sketches by Boz, published in 1836:
A study of the attractions and interactions of the pleasure garden, from the opening of Vauxhall in the seventeenth century to the amusement parks of the early twentieth.
Vauxhall Style Commercial Pleasure Gardens Reaches France
Soon after Vauxhall’s success, commercialized pleasure gardens for paying guests spread. At least 65 London pleasure gardens are known to have existed in London (source); however, their biggest rival was the more exclusive Ranelagh pleasure gardens which opened in 1746 and attracted a more respectable clientele than Vauxhall.
Imitators also popped up all over Europe, Russia, and even in the US.
France’s first Commercial Pleasure Garden: or Comercial Maison Folie
While most French noblemen who owned Folly homes used them for entertaining friends, some became commercial gardens, similar to the Vauxhall pleasure gardens of London.
Folie Boutin and Folie Beaujon: The two French commercial pleasure gardens that stand out were:
Two of the more popular and well-known French pleasure gardens open to paying guests were Folie Boutin and Folie Beaujon.
Folie Beaujon (1773): The first modern roller coaster ride is constructed in Paris
Folie Beaujon was the extravagant land and home of wealthy landowner Nicolas Beaujon in Paris. After he died in 1801, the land was passed down to his sons, who sold the land after which it was turned into a commercial pleasure park that people paid to enter.
There were no electric or steam engine-powered rides back then. Rides were mechanical or hand-operated and primitive by today’s standards.
The Chinese ring game (la bague Chinois), for example, was very popular. Inspired by medieval jousting, the goal was to catch a stationary ring as servants spun you around a type of carousel. Swings were also popular attractions.
The biggest advancement to public amusement at pleasure parks in France arrived around 1817 when the first roller coaster ride with tracks and wheels was installed. The roller coaster was called “Promenades aériennes” (French for “aerial stroll”).
The French word for Roller coasters is “les Montagnes Russes” which means “Russian Mountains”, named after the manmade Russian ice slides of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Folie Boutin (1766) later called Le Grand Tivoli (1795 -1841)
Folie Boutin was the private estate of Simon Gabriel Boutin, who had English, Italian, and Dutch gardens with elaborate garden follies, including manmade waterfalls and faux ruins.
Although his estate was called Folie Boutin, he nicknamed his gardens “Tivoli Gardens” in homage to the Italian City of Tivoli, famous for its Roman Gardens.
Like Follie Beaujon, there was plenty of entertainment including a pantomime hall/theatre built in 1783 which was a very popular art form in those days and very successful.
After Boutin was executed in 1794 during the reign of terror, it wss officially named “le Grand Tivoli,” wjere fashionable and well-to-do Parisians and bourgeoisie gladly paid their entrance fee to unwind, promenade through the gardens, enjoy simple rides, entertainment and show off their wealth.
By 1826 Tivoli had changed hands a couple of times, but now it had the makings of a true amusement park with its own roller coaster, pantomimes, Labrinths, illuminations, tightrope walking, firework shows, music and even pigeon shooting which was a game imported from England.
There was also “le Cerf Coco,” a deer that could walk a tight rope.
Many more commercial pleasure parks opened in France with their own roller coasters, and entertainment but by 1850, pleasure parks and their amusement rides disappeared to make room for houses, buildings, streets, and parks.
But these French amusement gardens left their mark. Things progressed quickly for this emerging form of outdoor entertainment.
For that we have to had to Denmark again to a garden that merge the rides from France’s folly homes and gardens of Englands pleasure gardens.
1843 Denmark’s Tivoli & Vauxhall Pleasure Garden: Walt Disney’s Inspiration
I’ve saved the best for last, which brings us back full circle.
Tivoli Gardens is an amusement park located in Copenhagen, Denmark. It’s one of the world’s oldest amusement parks in continuous operation. It’s also the 5th most popular theme park in Europe in terms of visitors.
In 1843 Danish King Christian VIII leased about 20 acres of his royal hunting ground land to Georg Carstensen, which he originally called “Tivoli & Vauxhall pleasure gardens.”
- Vauxhall was a nod to Vauxhall pleasure garden in London.
- “Tivoli” was a nod to the French Folie Maison and pleasure garden “le Grand Tivoli” aka Folie Boutin in Paris.
Carstensen’s pleasure garden featured a series of Garden follies: Asian-inspired buildings, a man-made lake, flower gardens and bandstands lit by coloured gas lamps.
By the early 1900s, it featured more traditional amusement park rides, including a wooden roller coaster called the Bjergbanen, or “Mountain Coaster,” as well as bumper cars and carousels.
The interesting thing about Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is that it was one of the main inspirations for Walt Disney’s Disneyland.
In the ’40s and ’50s, Walt Disney travelled the world visiting amusement parks and carnivals, searching for ideas and inspiration for what would become his first theme park in 1955 in Anaheim, California but was most inspired by Tivoli Gardens.
When Walt visited Tivoli, he fell in love with its family-friendly rides, beautiful gardens, restaurants, firework shows and its overall happy and wholesome ambiance, which was clean, safe, and orderly.
According to radio and TV personality Art Linkletter, who visited Tivoli Gardens with Walt in 1951, he jotted down notes about every detail he noticed as Walt walked through Tivoli Garden.
Tivoli Gardens fit perfectly with what Walt envisioned for Disneyland: he wanted to build a better amusement park than what already existed; a safer, cleaner and more wholesome place unspoiled by the carnivalesque atmosphere of existing amusement parks and fairs in the US such as Coney Island, which often featured midways with freak shows, fortune-tellers and other unwholesome forms of entertainment.
He wanted it to be a place where families could enjoy themselves with fun attractions while also getting up close and personal with the magical world and characters depicted in his films on the big screen.
The fact that Walt searched for inspirations should come as no surprise since it’s been well documented that Disneyland’s Cinderella Castle was modelled after the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.
According to the official Tivoli Gardens web page, Walt visited Tivoli many times throughout the years. The two iconic amusement parks have a long-standing tradition of collaboration ranging from employee exchange visits to discussions of best practices.
By 1955 the first Disneyland opened but it’s not the first.
By this time Disney opened His first Disneyland in California, there were modern amusement parks everywhere and fairs had fully evolved into funfairs around the world, including Japan, England, Canada and France.
1955 wss also the year Bagatelle in pas-de-calais opened. It’s currently the oldest amusement park in france in continuous operation since 1955.
Gone but not forgotten?
Most people have forgotten how grand, glamorous and revolutionary the Vauxhall gardens really was.
Even in France, most people have no idea that le Grand Tivoli, and Follie Beaujon, the first amusement parks with roller coasters ever existed right in the heart of Paris.
Even so, the word Tivoli has become synonymous with amusement parks in several languages: Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.
Even the name Luna Park has endured and means “amusement park” in several European languages, including Polish, French, Italian, Russian, Greek and Turkey.