Not such a Fun World

Tax-defaulted and nearly burned down, Chico Fun World dies a lingering death

THE LOST WORLD <br>In the year 2000 alone, there were four fires reported and upwards of 37 calls for police assistance at the abandoned Fun World amusement park. One of the fires, in November, almost burned down the entire park.

In the year 2000 alone, there were four fires reported and upwards of 37 calls for police assistance at the abandoned Fun World amusement park. One of the fires, in November, almost burned down the entire park.

Photo by Tom Angel

Bright beginnings: Fun World opened with a water slide, bumper boats, picnic areas, an arcade and batting cages in 1984. It closed for the last time in 1995.

T. S. Eliot once famously wrote, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.” Of course, he wasn’t writing about the slow demise of Chico Fun World, but he might as well have been.

Burned out and abandoned for the better part of six years, the amusement park, which first opened in 1984, is set for a county tax-default auction later this month. It will sell for a minimum of $671,000 (an assessor-set amount), and from the looks of the property it probably won’t fetch much more than that.

The park’s smokey, burn-scarred roofs and gutted buildings squat in a messy lot at the end of Elm Street, behind the Sierra Nevada Brewery and just north of the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. Weeds are growing up through big holes in the broken asphalt. Electrical wires droop between buildings—some even touching the ground. Dead trees are rotting and falling over, and garbage is piled everywhere.

There’s evidence that transients are living on the property—a few blankets, a dented pot and some clothing sit in a corner. Vegetation, in some places, is taller than most people. And towering above it all are two blue water slides that look like broken-down warriors presiding over a sad, bloody battlefield.

It’s not a pretty sight.

But it didn’t always look like this. When the park opened in October 1984, it boasted a sparkling pool with bumper boats, an arcade, a swimming pool and picnic areas. There were volleyball courts and batting cages, a giant water slide and a playground. It was, as one newspaper reported at the time, a “great place for a child’s birthday party or the family.” There was considerable excitement over the opening—the owners even hosted an opening press party complete with a tour, complimentary bumper boat rides and miniature golf, champagne and swanky Japanese hors d’oeuvres.

Back then, it probably seemed that Fun World would be a smashing success. But it wasn’t. Why not?

The park seems to have provided a worthwhile service, at least for the first few years it was open. The owners, three Chico men—including one who also owned a local pool maintenance company—did have some trouble, though, in abiding by all the rules and regulations imposed on them by the city. The park’s file held by the Building Department includes several letters that passed between the original owners and the city outlining problems the park had. As part of its use permit, the city required that the park’s owners widen and landscape its end of Elm Street, and it appears that they never followed through satisfactorily on that.

There were several complaints from neighbors, too, which said that the park opened too early and stayed open too late (its approved hours were supposed to be noon to 10 p.m.). The park was reprimanded for the violations, but they were nothing compared to the problems the park would have under its next owner, Omni II Foundation.

Owned by Glenda Driver and Evelynn Carr, Omni II is (or was, as a current business license for the foundation was nowhere to be found) a drug rehabilitation service based in Sacramento. Omni took control of Fun World in February 1995, and it was then that the park’s drawn-out illness took a turn toward the fatal. While it’s probably simplistic to blame all of the park’s ensuing problems on Driver and Carr, it’s true that their taking over the park started a long dialogue with the city over the park’s management and general maintenance.

In April 1995, just two months after Driver and Carr took control of the park, the county’s Health Department received a letter from a Chico woman who said she was “outraged” by the condition of the park. At her daughter’s birthday party earlier that day, she wrote, the pools were “so dirty that you can’t see people when their bodies are underwater.”

She wrote that there were exposed wires all over the miniature golf course; that while park-goers were forbidden to bring outside food inside, the snack bar was open only intermittently; that there were no lifeguards supervising children at the top of the giant water slides; and that the park was generally in “such a filthy state, I can’t even believe it’s open.”

The letter prompted a visit from the city’s code enforcement officer, who added his own complaints about the park to a list of violations—exposed wiring, a water slide that appeared to be structurally unsound, and a lack of substantial parking.

There were problems, too, with the park’s finances. The previous owners, it turned out, hadn’t paid sewer fees in all the time the park had been opened, according to a letter filed in the park’s building file. By 1995, when Omni (which, as the owner of record, was responsible for the fees) was notified of the problem, the fees, including penalties and interest, amounted to more than $48,000.

The park’s building file is virtually bulging with letters from the city about a host of code violations at the park. Indeed, there are so many that there are actually two files for the park.

Building official David Purvis, the author of many of the letters, said Driver and Carr were notoriously hard to get a hold of. He said the park seemed to have fallen victim to out-of-town owners who “didn’t want to know what was going on there.”

“They just didn’t do the maintenance that they needed to do to keep the place up,” he said. “It was one thing after another … and there was a problem with poor management. That’s an opinion, I know, but if you look at the history of the place, it’s pretty clear.”

Driver and Carr couldn’t be reached for comment about this story. Searches of public records for both of them reveal Sacramento home addresses and unlisted phone numbers, along with several lawsuits in which they were named as defendants alleging non-payment of debts. Their last business address is for a mailbox at a Sacramento Mailboxes Etc. store.

Financial problems plagued the park. After not paying its PG&E bill, the park lost its power in the summer of 1995, and management used a generator to keep it open—a fact that infuriated neighbors, who complained about the noise. Omni, too, also reportedly failed to pay its employees for several weeks, and finally its lender, Spartan Partner Twenty, foreclosed on its loan.

Only about 14 months after Omni took over Fun World, the city revoked its use permit, citing serious concerns about the safety of the water slides. The city’s code enforcement officer and engineer had noticed that the slide lacked the necessary support and cross beams and went as far as to call the slide a “public hazard.”

In a fiery letter to city officials, Carr charges that the city had been “openly hostile” to Omni and “harassed” the park into foreclosure. She complains that while she and Driver tried to follow the rules set out for them by city building officials, they “kept changing [the rules].” She also complains that they city inspected the park more often than was called for and charges that officials singled Omni out because she and Driver are African American.

“As long as the park was owned and operated by an Anglo white male there was nothing done about the so called deficiencies or use permit,” Carr wrote. “ … But as soon as an assumed minority organization takes over the operation of the park, all of these issues must be corrected immediately.”

At the time, Planning Commissioner Jonathan Studebaker said he “resented” Carr’s implication and asked that the city and the company “wipe the slate clean and start over.”

Omni agreed and vowed to re-open the park, but it never happened. Since then, the park has become a major headache for Chico police, who report that in the year 2000 alone officers responded to 37 calls for service to the abandoned park. They included trespassing juveniles, transients living at the park, unsecured buildings and domestic disputes. There have been several serious fires there, too—most recently, a Nov. 16 arson fire that almost burned the whole place down.

It’s still unclear what will happen to the old Fun World. Although it’s supposed to be off-limits, it’s become something of an attraction for transients and teenagers looking to get away from home for a while. It’s a dangerous place, to be sure, and will continue to be until it’s either torn down completely or renovated and re-opened.