The Wild Ride That Created Castles n’ Coasters Amusement Park
You see it coming while driving along I-17 in Phoenix near the Dunlap Avenue exit. A bright green and white superstructure of swirling ramps and towers. A white castle and blue domes. A lush, palm tree forest. Then, from the backseat of your car, a young voice asks, “Dad, when are we gonna go back to Castles n’ Coasters?”
Castles n’ Coasters—the small but mighty amusement park—has beckoned to families for more than 40 years, offering enchantment to children, thrills to teens, and a fun time for everyone at an affordable price. Within 9-acres, it packs 72 holes of miniature golf, Lil’ Indy go-karts, bumper boats, a game arcade, a zip line and ropes course, and 14 classic amusement park rides, including the only loop roller coaster in Arizona.
Castles n’ Coasters is the sixth and final masterwork of George Brimhall, a creative, hands-on entrepreneur. He built a string of Golf n’ Stuff family recreation centers in Southern California (Ventura, Norwalk, Riverside, and Anaheim), Tucson, and Phoenix. Each project was a financial success, and he used the revenue from one to build another. All remain open except for Golf n’ Stuff Anaheim, which was on land reclaimed by Disney to develop its California Adventure Park, and Riverside, which Brimhall sold to fund his Phoenix creation.
Brimhall designed his miniature golf courses as imaginative journeys, which was the key to success in the business. In essence, mini-golf is tapping a golf ball just enough times to make it fall into a hole. But it becomes a fun, memorable experience when played while walking up and down, around and through a forest of palm trees with an English castle, Dutch windmill, or Old West town along the way.
Miniature golf has featured elements of whimsy and fantasy since its earliest days. Garnet Carter, the owner of Fairyland Inn in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is often credited with building the first such course in 1925. The Inn had a golf course, but Carter felt a “midget” golf course in the garden would provide “a smaller putting course for guests who might not wish to go around the larger circuit.” His little course was much more than a putting green. The holes wandered among rocks, trees, hollowed logs, and ponds, with garden gnomes standing watch. Guests loved it so much so that his miniature course was more profitable than the real thing. Carter began to franchise “Tom Thumb Golf” courses in 1927.
The game’s popularity has ebbed and flowed, but its heyday came early. During the Roaring ‘20s, miniature golf became a sensation. Movie stars, including Fred Astaire, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, posed for photos while playing mini-golf. President Herbert Hoover had the U.S. Marines build a course at his summer retreat. By the early 1930s, an estimated 50,000 courses were open, of which 150 were on the roofs of hotels and other buildings in New York City. Then, the Great Depression and other entertainment options like movies burst the bubble, and most courses closed.
In the 1950s and 60s, Don Clayton, a golf enthusiast, franchised a no-frills, all skills” brand called Putt-Putt Golf. Each hole was a par 2, as their length, shape, plus a bump or obstacle made a hole-in-one difficult but possible. Serious putters loved the challenge, and Clayton knew how to promote it. He started by insisting that Putt-Putt Golf was a sport, not to be called mini golf, an amusement.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2022 issue, Vol. 11, No. 1.