Tulsa doesn’t have a major roller coaster. Tulsa doesn’t have a Ferris wheel. Tulsa doesn’t have an amusement park for nearby, affordable family fun. But Tulsa still has a skyride. Tulsa’s skyride is a historic Von Roll skyride that is in great shape. People of all ages have been making lasting memories on Tulsa’s skyride since it opened in 1965. Let’s keep it going.
This is a brief history of the Tulsa Skyride. More details of the skyride’s history will be added in ongoing updates here.
A Swiss and Walt Disney Legacy Still Standing in Tulsa
Tulsa’s skyride is a Von Roll detachable gondola system known as the VR 101. Detachable means that the grips that attach the gondolas to the cable detach from the cable in the stations. Detached from the cable, gondolas can be brought to a complete stop inside the stations for easy passenger loading and unloading. Meanwhile the cable continues to run, transporting the attached gondolas to the opposite station.
Fixed-grip lift systems typically require passengers to board and disembark from moving chairs or gondolas. For those needing special assistance, fixed-grip systems can be halted, stopping the entire system. Detachable-grip lifts, such as Tulsa’s skyride, eliminate having to stop the entire system this way.
Von Roll invented the detachable-grip system in Switzerland in the 1940s. The company went on to become the world leader in mountain transportation systems.
Von Roll’s alpine ropeway transportation systems caught the interest of Walt Disney. He got the idea of installing a Von Roll aerial lift in Disneyland. Walt Disney bought a Von Roll gondola system, a used one, for Disneyland. Disney opened his Von Roll at Disneyland, dubbed the Skyway, on June 23, 1956. He is seen at the Skyway’s opening in this photo. The Skyway was said to be a personal favorite of Walt Disney.
The success of the Disneyland Skyway soon inspired other theme parks, fairs, and zoos across the United States to install Von Roll skyrides of their own. Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington opened in 1961 with a Von Roll skyride named the Astrolift.
The Tulsa State Fair would outdo Six Flags Over Texas in 1965 by opening a much bigger Von Roll skyride here. If you know where to look, there are still markings on some of the towers stating that the skyride was shipped from Switzerland to Tulsa via the Port of Houston. This was several years before the opening of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.
Skyride by Von Roll, Cabins by Gangloff
Von Roll turned to other suppliers to provide the passenger cabins for its skyrides. The skyride gondolas are also called cabins. Gangloff AG, also of Bern, Switzerland, manufactured the cabins for the Tulsa skyride.
The early Von Roll detachable lifts used an open-air two-seater chair instead of an enclosed gondola. These two-seaters were called a side chair. They faced sideways, rather than forward or backward.
Gangloff later produced a cabin that was like an enclosed side chair. The cabin had a single bench inside that also faced sideways, just like the side chairs that came before it. These single-bench Gangloff cabins look like a smaller version of the Gangloff cabins used on the Tulsa skyride.
Single-bench Gangloff cabins are also called two-passenger cabins. However, the maximum capacity is usually determined by weight rather than the number of people. If all can be seated and their combined weights are below the limit, they are usually permitted to ride together. Similarly, the two-bench Gangloff cabins are also called four-passenger cabins.
Today only two Von Roll skyrides in the United States run the smaller single-bench Gangloff cabins. They are the skyrides at the Minnesota State Fair and the Washington State Fair. The cabins on both of these skyrides have windows. Gangloff also offered the single-bench cabins in an open-air version without windows. The original Von Roll skyride at Cedar Point in Ohio initially ran the single-bench open-air Gangloff cabins. That skyride was later modified to be capable of running larger, two-bench cabins. The rare double Von Roll skyride at New York’s ill-fated Freedomland theme park also ran the single-bench open-air Gangloff cabins.
Throughout the 1960s, the two-bench Gangloff cabins were used more and more on Von Roll skyrides in the United States. They were found on skyrides at Six Flags Over Texas, the New York 1964-1965 World’s Fair, Six Flags Over Georgia, San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park, Hemisfair ’68, Astroworld, and more. All of these two-bench Gangloff cabins were open-air models.
Tulsa’s two-bench Gangloff cabins came equipped with windows. The defunct Von Roll skyride at the State Fair of Texas also had Gangloff cabins with these windows. I’ve never seen evidence of any other two-bench Gangloff cabins with windows on another Von Roll skyride in North America besides these two. The Tulsa Skyride is the only Von Roll skyride left in the United States that runs the two-bench Gangloff cabins.
Gangloff obtained the seats for the Tulsa Skyride’s cabins from Bremshey & Co of Solingen, Germany. Founded in 1862, Bremshey & Co started producing the Knirps telescoping umbrella in 1932. Over time the company expanded its product line to include seats for cars, buses, and trains as well as tubular furniture and more. The skyride seats have a tubular frame.
In 2014 Bartholet Maschinenbau AG acquired the company Gangloff AG. Bartholet is a Swiss ropeway manufacturer.
The Tulsa Skyride’s Gangloff cabins are a unique example of mid-century design. Tulsa has long been the only skyride in the United States to run the two-bench Gangloff cabins.
Bell’s Amusement Park’s Von Roll Skyride
Bell’s Amusement Park purchased the Tulsa Skyride in 1971. Three years earlier, in 1968, Bell’s opened its Zingo wooden roller coaster. Zingo, built by Philadelphia Toboggan, was designed by John Allen.
Bell’s operated as a standalone amusement park on fairgrounds property. During the Tulsa State Fair, Bell’s became an extension of the fair’s midway. With both the skyride and Zingo, Bell’s had the two most significant rides at the fair. Other notable Bell’s rides included a log flume that was one of two that operated at the New York 1964-1965 World’s Fair, the Phantasmagoria haunted dark ride, and local favorite the Himalaya.
Under Bell’s ownership, Bell’s operated the skyride annually during the Tulsa State Fair. For a while, Bell’s also operated the skyride during its regular summer operating season. This practice ended, however, and afterwards Bell’s ran the skyride only during the fair. Meanwhile, Bell’s added a Sky Glider chairlift to its ride lineup. The Sky Glider operated throughout the regular Bell’s season and during the Tulsa State Fair.
One of the most important things Bell’s did for the skyride was to keep it. In the 1980s, theme park and amusement park skyrides began to disappear across the country. Bell’s was among those who kept their Von Roll skyrides.
In 1996 Doppelmayr took over Von Roll’s ropeway business. The business continued to operate under the Von Roll name until May 1, 1999 when the name was switched over to Doppelmayr. Von Roll’s US ropeway business during this period was based in Watertown, New York operating as Von Roll Tramways and American Tramways. The Watertown location was the home of the Hall Ski-Lift Company. Von Roll had previously taken over Hall. Today Doppelmayr provides support, service, and new parts to the Tulsa Skyride.
Bell’s Amusement Park’s operating season ended each year on the last day of the Tulsa State Fair. After the 2006 season ended, it was announced that Bell’s lease with the fairgrounds would not be renewed. Bell’s was being evicted and everything had to go, including Zingo. The future of the skyride was cast into doubt.
Fair Board Saves the Skyride
Everything from Bell’s was removed from the fairgrounds except the skyride. The Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA) recognized the importance of keeping the skyride as an attraction for the fair. Often referred to as the fair board, the TCPFA voted in January 2007 to purchase the skyride from Bell’s for $600,000. This action ensured the preservation of the skyride and set it on a path forward to restorations, renovations, and upgrades. For this, the TCPFA deserves major thanks.
The following series of photos and captions highlights many of the improvements to the skyride that began in 2007.
Skyride Tulsa, Team Minnesota
2015 was the Tulsa Skyride’s 50th anniversary year. It was also the start of a ten-year agreement between the Tulsa State Fair and Don McClure of the Minnesota State Fair skyride to operate, maintain, and refurbish the skyride. McClure owns and operates the successful Von Roll skyride at the Minnesota State Fair. The Minnesota Von Roll wasn’t in the best condition when McClure took it over in 2003. Since then, he has renovated it and upgraded it to the point that his skyride is in impeccable condition. By the time that McClure was ready to take on the Tulsa Skyride he was a confirmed Von Roll skyride enthusiast.
McClure and his team got to work right away, essentially undertaking a complete overhaul of the Tulsa Skyride. McClure’s maintenance team members were from both Tulsa and Minnesota. During the run of the Tulsa State Fair each year, McClure brought even more staff from his Minnesota team to operate the skyride.
McClure proceeded to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into the ongoing mechanical and electrical overhaul and modernization of the skyride. He also invested heavily in upgrading the aesthetics of the skyride. Some of the improvements include:
- mechanical and electrical overhaul including new parts
- addition of a sophisticated video monitoring system
- refurbishment and return to service of disabled skyride cabins, including specially-themed cabins
- new wraps for many of the skyride cabins
- new paint scheme and other improvements for the stations
- new LED “SKYRIDE” signage for the eastern station
- new LED lighting for the skyride cabins
- all towers painted bright blue
NOTE: I’ve received disturbing reports that the video monitoring system and the LED “SKYRIDE” eastern station signage have been removed in 2021.
At the end of 2019, McClure exited the partnership agreement with the Tulsa State Fair. In a September 2020 television interview, McClure seemingly hinted that there could be a possibility for him to return for the skyride’s future. The television news report emphasized that both McClure and the Tulsa State Fair team remained on very good terms.
2020 and Beyond
Under the 2020 pandemic conditions, the normal Tulsa State Fair was called off. Therefore, the skyride did not open to the public that year.
In 2021, the pandemic still wreaks havoc. But a fairly normal Tulsa State Fair ran from September 30th through October 10th.
Of the ten remaining Von Roll gondola skyride installations in the United States, three are at state fairs:
- Minnesota State Fair: skyride operated for the 2021 fair
- Tulsa State Fair: skyride did NOT operate for the 2021 fair
- Washington State Fair: skyride operated for the 2021 fair
It’s disappointing that out of the only three state fairs that have Von Roll skyrides, Tulsa is the only one not to run its skyride in 2021. Despite this discouraging development, the focus now must be on ensuring the skyride’s return to service in 2022.
The future ought to be bright for the Tulsa Skyride. Instead, its future is uncertain. Scrolling through this history page and just looking at the photos, you can see the beautiful transformation this skyride has undergone. You can get an appreciation of the work and investment that went into modernizing and renovating this 1965 classic. Taking the skyride’s rich history into consideration along with the skyride’s being a huge part of the Tulsa State Fair’s history and traditions, and along with the fact that the skyride was essentially in better-than-new condition when it shut down at the end of the 2019 fair, it seems unfathomable for it to go away.
Rides that appeal to all ages yet still offer a thrilling experience are rare and often underappreciated. There are not many big rides around that grandparents can ride together with children as young as infants. Many classic rides in this category have been removed from major theme parks across the country. Later, park management has acknowledged that some of these removals were big mistakes. And once they are gone, they are difficult, often impossible to get back.
Yet sometimes they do come back, but perhaps in a different form and with a big price tag. Even Walt Disney’s pioneering Skyway was removed from his parks many years after his passing. But Von Roll’s ropeway-manufacturing successor Doppelmayr has arrived back at Disney in a huge way. Walt Disney World’s massive Skyliner first opened in 2018. This time, instead of being an in-park attraction, the Skyliner is a sprawling transportation system at the resort. It’s fitting because Walt Disney was always interested in transportation systems for the future. And now his beloved Skyway has returned as true transportation system.
The future of the Tulsa Skyride is in your hands and ours. We need to convince the decision-makers that this historic skyride and cherished tradition should remain a part of Tulsa. Let’s keep it going.
As a first step in support of the Tulsa Skyride, please sign our online petition and get all of your friends and family to sign it, too.