History of the Tulsa Skyride

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.

Tulsa Skyride: Von Roll sign in the eastern station
This Von Roll sign was posted in the Tulsa Skyride’s eastern station. It was taken down in 2008 when the new Doppelmayr control system was installed. A similar sign remained in place at the skyride’s western station. Click on image to view larger.

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

Tulsa Skyride: Von Roll and Gangloff nameplates
These nameplates inside cabins of the Tulsa Skyride inform passengers about the manufacturers of the skyride and its cabins.

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.

Gangloff cabins on the Minnesota State Fair Skyride
Passengers on the Minnesota State Fair Von Roll Skyride sit facing sideways in Gangloff cabins. Each cabin, or gondola, has a single, outward-facing bench seat. Click on image to view larger.

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.

Retired Gangloff skyride cabins at Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ
ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) members Madonna McGovern and Robert Shea pose with retired Gangloff skyride cabins at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey. These two-bench open-air Gangloff cabins ran on the rare double Von Roll skyride at Great Adventure. This skyride was from the New York 1964-1965 World’s Fair. So these cabins also carried passengers at the World’s Fair. Today the Six Flags Great Adventure double Von Roll runs cabins from CWA. Click on image to view larger.

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.

Tulsa Skyride: Gangloff two-bench cabin with windows in original color scheme
The Tulsa Skyride’s two-bench Gangloff cabins are equipped with sliding windows that passengers can open and close. Here Charles Williams washes a cabin in preparation for the Tulsa State Fair. This blue cabin is an example of one of four solid colors of the skyride’s original color scheme. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: Gangloff cabins in original Von Roll factory color scheme
The original color scheme of the Tulsa Skyride’s Gangloff cabins consisted of four solid colors: red, blue, green, and yellow. Cabins 1-10 were red. Cabins 11-20 were blue. Cabins 21-30 were green. Cabins 31-40 were yellow. For the most part, the cabins today retain the original colors beneath the wraps that have been applied to the cabins to give them their current appearance. Click on image to view larger.

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.

Tulsa Skyride: Gangloff cabin Bremshey & Co logo on seat
The Bremshey & Co logo is only visible when one of the bench seats is removed from its fastened-down position inside the Tulsa Gangloff cabins.
Tulsa Skyride: interior of two-bench Gangloff cabin.
This is a look at the interior of one of the Tulsa Skyride’s two-bench Gangloff cabins. You can see both of the Bremshey & Co bench seats. Click on image to view larger.

In 2014 Bartholet Maschinenbau AG acquired the company Gangloff AG. Bartholet is a Swiss ropeway manufacturer.

Tulsa Skyride: Gangloff cabin above the midway
A Gangloff cabin glides over the midway of the Tulsa State Fair. Click on image to view larger.

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

Tulsa Skyride at Bell's Amusement Park during 1995 Tulsa State Fair 001
The Tulsa Skyride is seen in operation here at the Tulsa State Fair while the skyride was under the ownership of Bell’s Amusement Park.

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.

Bell's Amusement Park's Von Roll skyride towers above the 1995 Tulsa State Fair
Bell’s Amusement Park’s Von Roll skyride towers above the 1995 Tulsa State Fair. Click on image to view larger.

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.

View of Bell's Amusement Park from Tulsa Skyride, including Sky Glider chairlift and Zingo wooden roller coaster
This is a view of Bell’s Amusement Park from the Von Roll skyride on descent toward the western station. Bell’s other skyride, the Sky Glider chairlift, is visible on the left with the Zingo wooden roller coaster in the background. Click on image to view larger.

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.

Tulsa Skyride: Von Roll Tramways manual and VR 101 grips.
Here is a Von Roll Tramways manual sitting atop a group of Von Roll VR 101 grips. The cover of the manual has the Watertown, NY address and phone numbers on it. Phone numbers have been redacted. The curved Von Roll nameplates are from the center poles of some of the Gangloff cabins. Many of the cabins still have these nameplates in place. Click on image to view larger.

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.

Tulsa Skyride: beautiful design concept for the western skyride station by Minick Associates
This concept drawing shows a stunning design for the Tulsa Skyride’s western station. Minick Associates created this design. Minick designed the entire Bell’s Boomtown expansion for Bell’s Amusement Park. The Bell’s Boomtown expansion never could get the necessary approvals to be built. Minick has done theme design for parks and other venues worldwide. The firm also has done design work for the State Fair of Texas for more than two decades. Their work for the State Fair of Texas includes skyride station concepts for the $5.5 million dollar Doppelmayr Texas Skyway skyride added to the fair in 2007. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride without Bell's in 2007
This is the western station of the Tulsa Skyride in 2007 after Bell’s Amusement Park’s removal from the fairgrounds. Here it stands as an island on the cleared grounds. At this time the station was being renovated with improvements including a new exterior and new paint. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride's western station without Bell's in 2007 #tulsaskyride
Here the station was in the process of being renovated. Note that the cabins outside the station on the left were cabins that were out of service. Click on image to view larger.

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.

Tulsa Skyride: new look for exterior of western station in 2007. #tulsaskyride
The skyride’s western station got a new look for 2007. This graphic was applied to three sides of the station. 2007 was the celebration year for Oklahoma’s reaching one hundred years of statehood. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride 2007: new color scheme for cabins.
Prior to the start of the 2007 Tulsa State Fair the cabins got a new color scheme. They were wrapped with this new design in red, yellow, light green, and light purple. Two sponsored cabins had custom wraps. One was Ford. The other was QuikTrip. Another cabin had a custom wrap promoting Meeks Group, the company that did the wraps. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride 2007: two cabins are seen out on the rope in their new wraps.
Two of the newly-wrapped cabins are seen out on the rope during the 2007 Tulsa State Fair. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride, August 2008: Doppelmayr technicians install a new control system.
In August 2008, a major improvement came to the Tulsa Skyride when Doppelmayr installed a new, modern control system. This upgrade included the addition of Rope Position Detection on all towers. This feature is something not even dreamed of back in 1965 when the Tulsa Skyride opened. According to Doppelmayr, “…the rope position detection system (RPD) is the unrivaled safety standard for ropeways.” Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: Doppelmayr technicians working on tower 5 during new control system installation.
Doppelmayr technicians here are working on tower 5 during the installation of the skyride’s new control system. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: newly-installed Doppelmayr control panel
Here is the newly-installed Doppelmayr control panel. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: new motor is ready for installation.
In addition to the new Doppelmayr control system, the Tulsa Skyride also received a new motor in 2008. The motor is sitting in the foreground under clear plastic. The motor will be installed in the area above the red hand wheel just behind. This is an example of a top-drive Von Roll skyride, with the motor installed in an elevated position. Later, Von Roll skyride motors were installed on the foundation. It is said that Tulsa’s skyride may have been the last Von Roll top-drive installation. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: the western station got this new look for 2008.
The western station of the Tulsa Skyride got a new look for 2008. New graphics replaced those for the 2007 Oklahoma Centennial. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: one of two maintenance catwalks added to the eastern station in 2008 is seen here.
Two maintenance catwalks were added to the eastern station in 2008. One is seen here above and to the right of cabin number 15. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: the eastern station gets a new roof in 2010.
In 2010 the eastern station would get a much-needed new roof. Here, the old roof had just been removed. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: construction progresses on the new roof of the eastern station.
Construction progresses on the eastern station’s new roof. The new roof provides higher clearances inside to facilitate skyride maintenance work. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: interior of eastern station with new roof and paint.
This 2011 photo shows the interior of the eastern station under the new roof and with new paint. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: tower 5 in dark gray primer prior to getting a new coat of white paint
This is a rare view of tower 5 in dark gray primer prior to getting a new coat of white paint just before the 2012 Tulsa State Fair. Tower 5 is the only 16-sheave tower on the Tulsa Skyride. It was one of the earliest 16-sheave towers used on Von Roll skyrides. The assemblies of rollers that carry the wire rope on each side of the tower are called batteries. The rollers in the batteries are called sheaves. The batteries on this tower have sixteen sheaves each. The rest of the towers on the Tulsa Skyride have twelve sheaves in each battery. Click on image to view larger.

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.

Tulsa Skyride: special 50th anniversary cabin
This beautiful custom wrap was designed to commemorate the Tulsa Skyride’s 2015 fiftieth anniversary. This cabin was among those that were previously in unusable condition that were renovated and newly-returned to service. Also seen here is one of the strips of LED lighting that were added to the cabins. The LED strips can be programmed to flash and change colors. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: Gangloff cabins prior to restoration
These seven cabins sitting outside the station were in unusable condition for a decade or more. At least three of them were restored in 2015 and returned to service. Red cabin number nine became the special Skyride 50th Anniversary cabin seen in the photo above. Looking carefully at this photo, you’ll see a puncture in the cabin to the left of the the number nine. This cabin had at least one more puncture as well as other problems that had to be repaired during the restoration process. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: two Gangloff cabins prior to restoration
On the right is red cabin number nine that became the special Skyride 50th Anniversary cabin. Visible here is yet another puncture that had to be repaired during the restoration process. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: this cow-themed cabin is another that was in unusable condition and restored and returned to service in 2015.
This cow-themed cabin is another of the cabins that had been in unusable condition for years. It was restored and returned to service in 2015 as the cow car. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: restored Gangloff cabin themed as Skyride Police
A third cabin in unusable condition that was restored and returned to service for 2015 is this one themed as the Skyride Police with flashing lights. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride at night 2015: new external LED lighting on the cabins
New-for-2015 exterior LED lighting on the skyride cabins add a touch of Von Roll skyride magic to the night sky above the Tulsa State Fair — always in motion. The lighting can be programmed to change colors and flash. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride at night: eastern station with new LED "SKYRIDE" sign
Also for 2015, new LED “SKYRIDE” signs were installed on three sides of the eastern station. NOTE: I’ve received disturbing reports that this signage has been removed in 2021.
Skyride mechanical overhaul work continues on towers 2 and 5 in August 2016.
Skyride mechanical overhaul work continues in August 2016. Towers 2 and 5 each have one roller battery removed for maintenance work. The western station, meanwhile, is getting new paint and other improvements. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: Just before the 2017 Tulsa State Fair, the skyride towers were painted bright blue.
Just before the 2017 Tulsa State Fair, the skyride towers were painted bright blue. At the time of this photo, towers 2 and 4 had yet to be painted. Rain hampered getting tower 2 painted for the fair. It remained white and was painted blue soon after the fair. Click on image to view larger.
New skyride graphics were introduced for 2017.
New skyride graphics were introduced for 2017. They are seen here on one of the skyride ticket booths. Two new cabin wraps from this new graphics package were applied to some of the cabins. Also note that under Don McClure, credit cards were added as a payment method for skyride tickets. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: Here is a cabin during the 2017 Tulsa State Fair with one of the new wrap designs.
This cabin is seen here during the 2017 Tulsa State Fair with one of the new wrap designs. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: Here is a cabin during the 2017 Tulsa State Fair with another of the new wrap designs.
This cabin has another one of the new wrap designs introduced in 2017. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: side view of cabin with one of the new-for-2017 wrap designs.
Here is a side view of one of the new wrap designs introduced in 2017. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: promotional banners
These banners promote the skyride using the new graphics. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: all five towers are painted blue for the first time.
Following the 2017 Tulsa State Fair, tower 2 got its blue paint job. For the first time ever, all five towers were painted bright blue. Even when it’s not running, the Tulsa Skyride has a dominant presence over the fairgrounds. Click on image to view larger.
Tulsa Skyride: all five all-blue towers in 2018
Here are all five all-blue towers in 2018. Click on image to view larger.

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:

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.