A line was populated with people waiting their turn to board the Sky Ride at the Tulsa State Fair.
Another line formed at the Sky Ride ticket booth.
The lines prove this: Old school is still cool when it comes to an attraction that has been part of the Tulsa State Fair since 1965.
“It is part of your outing when you go to the fair,” Don McClure said while standing at the eastern base of the Sky Ride. “A lot of people have rituals or routines that they go through. I’m going to have a corn dog first and then we’re going to see the animals and then we’ve got to ride the Sky Ride and then we’re going to go to the midway. ... Everybody has a different order of things they want to do.”
The Sky Ride remains on the to-do list for many, even though rides like it are fewer.
A temporary Oklahoma resident who has been here for the duration of the fair (the last day of the fair is Sunday, Oct. 6), McClure is charged with the responsibility of running the Sky Ride. He said he owns and operates a similar ride at the Minnesota State Fair. If you’ve got Sky Ride questions, he’s got answers.
“At one time there were over 100 of these across North America,” he said. “We are down to probably 14 or 15 now.”
That’s a significant decline. Said McClure: “Different amusement parks have come and gone. Fairs have come and gone. Time has come and gone.”
Without benefit of a cheat sheet, McClure rattled off a list of surviving Sky Rides (San Diego is doubly blessed). He talked about Sky Ride history, saying Walt Disney was the first person to bring a Von Roll-created Sky Ride to the U.S.
Based in Berne, Switzerland, Von Roll has manufactured gondola lifts, aerial tramways and funiculars. The Tulsa Sky Ride is a Von Roll, confirms a plaque at the base of the ride. The plaque is a re-creation of the original, according to McClure.
Of still-functioning Von Roll type 101 sky rides in the U.S., it is believed only two are older than the one at the Tulsa State Fair.
Tulsa’s Sky Ride debuted Sept. 14, 1965, when G.C. Parker, president of the Tulsa Exposition and Fair Co., took the first ride. Other test-drivers followed Parker in 12-second intervals.
The Sky Ride opened to fairgoers Oct. 1 of that year, but people who wanted to take a ride before the fair opened were allowed to hop aboard the week before the fair. “The ride is smooth, noiseless and breathtaking,” said a 1965 newspaper story.
The ride was constructed at a cost of $370,000. Before completion, Parker said the ride would be identical to one operating at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair. At the time, it was projected the Tulsa Sky Ride would do enough business to pay for itself within five years. Riders initially paid $1 for one-way trips or $2 for round trips. Kids rode for 50 cents.
A Minneapolis firm owned the Sky Ride when it opened. Bell’s Amusement Park bought the ride in 1971 and owned it until 2007, when the fair board voted to purchase it for $600,000. Then-president and CEO of Expo Square Rick Bjorkland said he couldn’t imagine the Sky Ride not being a part of the fair — and, at the time, Bell’s Amusement Park was on the way out. Robby Bell said then that the Sky Ride was historically the No. 1 grosser of all fair rides.
The fair still owns the Sky Ride and uses a contracted operator, according to Amanda Blair, the fair’s chief operating officer. She said TCPFA has an agreement with DMC Tulsa, LLC. McClure is the chief manager and operates and maintains the Sky Ride.
McClure said he has been involved with Tulsa’s Sky Ride for five years.
“We take a lot of pride in maintaining and restoring it,” he said. “It has been a project over the last five years to restore it and hopefully we’ll keep it running for another 50 years perhaps.”
McClure did not want to venture a guess on how many riders it attracts (he said it depends on the weather), but he acknowledged it’s a steady stream.
McClure said he sees some of the same faces over and over. John Ferguson said he rides every year because it saves a little walking from one end of the midway to the other.
“There are people that ride every day that are perhaps vendors or just fair aficionados,” McClure said, adding that he sees grandparents with kids who love the ride “and we will see them several times throughout the fair riding and riding again and riding again and riding again.”
McClure said he doesn’t ride every day, but he rides most days to check out the staff and the ride and to see the sights. He said it’s the best place to watch fireworks. The Sky Ride takes passengers about 80 feet above the midway.
“You’ve got to like heights if you’re 80 feet up,” McClure said. “But it’s not a terribly fast-moving ride, so it’s very scenic.”
McClure, who worked in the ski industry for 43 years, said he has been in the Sky Ride business for 16 years and now is solely a Sky Ride guy. He said Sky Rides are basically glorified ski lifts.
When it was pointed out to McClure that Tulsa has a still-functioning Sky Ride, plus a still-in-operation drive-in movie theater, he said this: “Tulsa has got some real nostalgia and history to it. It’s a fun town because people are so friendly. ... The hospitality here is just over the top. People are really genuinely interested in why you are here, why you are in Tulsa, what you are doing, and it’s not idle chit chat ... They are really interested in what’s going on. It’s a friendly town to come visit. We look forward to it.”