As a guy who loves Disney World, Six Flags and just about any other kind of theme park, it looks like this summer is shaping up to be a bit lacking. My wife, daughter and I are season-pass holders at Sesame Place, and by this point in the year, we likely would have already been there two or three times to ride Captain Cookie’s High C’s Adventure and Oscar’s Rotten Rusty Rockets. And we would have wrapped up the day with the huge Neighborhood Parade.
But even my love of theme parks pales in comparison to these guys, who weren’t content to visit a park only once in a while. No, they decided to bring the experience home by building their own backyard roller coaster or, in some cases, an entire backyard amusement park. And now that we’re all facing a summer in lockdown, these seemingly kooky hobbyists are looking like prescient geniuses who are better prepared to cope with a summer at home than just about anyone else.
Bruce Sales, California — The Speed Weasel
Sales tells me that “curiosity, physics and problem-solving” was his motivation for his backyard project. He credits an influential high-school physics teacher with his career path as an engineer and says that whenever he’d visit an amusement park, he’d wonder how something worked, and from there, wondered if he himself could build something like it. Years later, when he was the father of two young children, Sales poured his curiosity into a project to entertain them.
To build a roller coaster, Sales explains that it takes a knowledge of physics and algebra, but that, “the formulas are really easy. Like, if you drop something 10 feet, you can calculate how far it will go, and there’s also g-force calculation for spinning things around in a curve, and since my coaster wasn’t a loop, you never put the end of the track any lower than the start because then you can’t fall off the end.” It was still largely trial-and-error, though, as Sales says that he’d build about 10 feet of track, see how it worked, then build another 10 feet, and so on. He also started with the end of the track first, which he says was important because then he could make the hills larger as he went, as opposed to doing the bigger, more difficult hills first.
While the track took three months to plan, Sales says that it only took about two months to build, and consists of just PVC pipe and wood. Weirdly enough, it was the cart that gave him the most problems: “If you made just a straight track, with hills going up and down, you’d only need wheels that would articulate up and down. If you made a track that just went left and right, without any hills, you’d need wheels that go left and right, like a car. But if you’re making a track that goes up and down and left and right, it takes a lot more. For my cart, it ended up having 24 wheels to account for all that. And it took five or six iterations of the cart to figure that out.”
The track was intended for his kids, but Sales says that he rode the coaster himself many times before he put his kids on it, and that he outfitted the cart with a baby seat to strap them in. As for his wife, Sales says, “She was already used to me doing crazy things around the house. She was a bit nervous, but I showed her how it works and she trusts me. If anything, my wife might have been more upset about what this might cost, so I kept track of all that and, altogether, it cost me less than $1,000.”
Unfortunately, a year ago, Sales moved, so he had to sell off The Speed Weasel (a name he struggled to remember), but he says that it went to a good home, where a friend of his with a mechanical and woodworking background took it in. Sales says that he chose this friend specifically because of their skill set, and their ability to keep it safe and maintained. And while his family isn’t riding The Speed Weasel anymore, it is at least keeping another family entertained this summer.
J.T. Nejedlo and Aidan Deavan, Wisconsin — The Power Velocity Coaster
Back in high school, Nejedlo and his friend Deavan did much the same as Sales did, but with far less planning and experience. “We were just bored, sitting in Aidan’s backyard on a trampoline, and we started saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a roller coaster in our backyard?’ So we went on YouTube and were looking at people who built backyard roller coasters and got to work on it the next day,” Nejedlo says. “We were just trying stuff. We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Deavan adds.
They’re now college students, but at the time, Deavan was in eighth grade and Nejedlo was in ninth grade, so they hardly had the training to build this kind of thing, yet they continued on with their idea. Deavan says, “I remember going to my dad and asking him to take us to Home Depot to build a roller coaster, and he seemed very confused and doubtful. But he still took us.”
“I didn’t tell my parents for at least the first week or so, and we actually ended up starting it when Aidan’s dad was in another country,” Nejedlo adds.
The project began in 2013 — it took only a few weeks to build the track out of PVC and wood, but, like Sales, the cart ended up being an issue. “Aidan fell off a few times, and we decided not to put a seatbelt on it. It seemed safer to be able to jump off it at the last second than to be strapped in. We kept running into problems, though, so we just quit for a while,” Nejedlo says.
They revisited the project about a year later, though, and, with a bit of help from Deavan’s dad, they figured out what to do with the cart, ultimately ending up with 24 wheels on theirs (just like Sales). They tell me the track got good usage for the next several years, and Nejedlo says that they never tired of it. Once they went to college, though, they were unable to maintain it as much, so, two years ago, Deavan began taking it down. “It was deteriorating, and one time when I was riding it, a pipe just broke, so it was reaching a point where I was afraid to ride it.”
Still, the coaster seems to have informed their career paths. Deavan is an engineering student, and Nejedlo is a game developer, and both of them cite their time on the Power Velocity Coaster — or “PVC” — as instrumental. Additionally, it’s provided both of them with countless fond memories. “It was definitely a little sad when it was taken down, but it was one heck of a journey,” Nejedlo says. “I go back and watch videos of it to this day.”
Steve Dobbs, California — Dobbsland
But why settle for just one ride when you can take things to the next level by building an entire amusement park in your backyard? That’s exactly what engineering professor Dobbs has done over the past five years.
It all started with him just trying to entertain his grandson. “I had bought a little rideable electric train for him, but it just went around in a circle, so he got bored with that. Then I made him a tunnel out of a cardboard box — he liked that for a little bit, and then he got bored with that, too. So, instead of the train just going around in a circle, I decided to make some track to make it bigger.”
From there, Dobbs says that he decided to repurpose some old puzzles his family had built over the years, so he made a tunnel out of those. Then he repaired some broken dolls and added some mechanics to animate them. Eventually, that became a miniature version of Disney’s Small World ride, complete with that iconic clock face.
Over time, the park grew into an entire backyard amusement park. “I have grandkids and they love Disneyland, so I thought that a good way to spend time with them was to build a little amusement park in my backyard,” Dobbs says. “Dobbsland” — as it would come to be called — now has nine rides, all in his backyard.
In addition to the train, Dobbsland has a princess castle and a Winnie the Pooh ride, complete with an animated Pooh and Tigger. There’s also a roller coaster built by his engineering students at Cal Poly Pomona, who offered the idea of building a coaster for Dobbsland as their senior project last year. He’s also built a submarine ride out of a trash can and a Star Wars ride — complete with laser targets and a lightsaber battle — out of a swingset.
Dobbs says it’s proven to be a great teaching tool for his grandkids, too. “They helped build an Alaska-themed ride, and I taught them how to use an electric drill and a jigsaw to cut out wood. They’ve also painted a lot of it and designed part of it, so I’ve been trying to teach them some skills as well.”
Roger Tofte, Oregon — The Enchanted Forest
Tofte took things further still. “Back in 1964, I was working for the highway as a draftsman and an artist, and I was just frustrated and wanted to do more creative things,” Tofte tells me. “I was on a trip to Minnesota. I’d seen a few small theme parks along the highway and there wasn’t much to them, so when I got back to Oregon, I decided that I wanted to do that myself. I began looking around for property, and I found this 20 acres for $4,000. I made a downpayment and paid $50 a month on it. To finance the project, I started doing watch repairing, as I’d been trained as a watchmaker. I’d fix a watch and then buy a sack of cement. Next, I started coming out to the property on weekends to work on it. I did that for seven years, building a little bit at a time.”
To many, Tofte’s dream seemed like a fool’s errand — his family certainly wasn’t really on board at first, and his friends at work would tease him about his “funny farm” or his weekends spent on “idiot hill.” But Tofte remained undeterred. Over time, his family joined him and built, by hand, a unique theme park that used the landscape of the forest to its full advantage.
After seven years of tinkering away at his park, Tofte finally resolved to open it to the public in 1971. “One Sunday, I hung a piece of butcher paper on the fence that read ‘open,’ and about 75 people dropped by on that first day,” Tofte recalls. “Then the local newspaper had a picture of the castle on the front page that week, and the next weekend 1,500 people showed up.”
The park has expanded bit by bit each year. Now, at age 90, Tofte still has a hands-on approach to the park, taking care of many of the same tasks he has for decades. Tofte’s main role, though, is the park’s design, as he’s a painter with a deep love of art. In fact, he sees all of The Enchanted Forest as an extension of his paintings.
As for the rest of his family, his daughter now runs the operations and another daughter does the books. His oldest daughter writes the music throughout the park, and his son does the animatronics. Another daughter, who is a professional architect, helps to craft her father’s new building designs. He also has a brother-in-law who does the repairs around the park, and several of his grandchildren are employed there full-time. “The park utilizes everyone’s talents in different ways,” Tofte says, which he feels has been the key to the park’s success.
The Enchanted Forest is closed right now thanks to the pandemic, but Tofte and his family are looking forward to reopening when it’s safe to do so. In the meantime, they’ll be at The Enchanted Forest getting things ready, spending time together as a family, just like the rest of us. Though, like Dobbs and the other backyard roller coaster enthusiasts, the Toftes will likely do a better job keeping themselves entertained than those of us with just a regular old backyard.