Riding on one of Binghamtom’s carousels is like spinning into the past. First, to childhood, and then further and further back in time, to 1919, when George Francis Johnson donated the first of the Binghamton area’s six antique carousels.
There are fewer than 150 antique merry-go-rounds in North America, and the Binghamton area has six different parks that host them. It’s the largest concentration of such carousels, and so Binghamton has been dubbed “the carousel capital of the world.” All of the carousels are on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Johnson, after whom Johnson City was named, donated the carousels, he used his fortune (he ran one of the world’s biggest shoe factories) to make them free for all eternity. If you ride all six, the park employees at the last carousel you visit will give you a pin indicating that you’re a carousel master. They’re open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Anyway, I went on all of them in one day. Here they are, ranked.
6. West Endicott Park – The last carousel I visited, and by far the most depressing, was all the way in Endicott. It’s across the street from the long-shuttered Endicott-Johnson factories, a gloomy building with a lot of broken windows. According to the Visit Binghamton website, the merry-go-round’s creation is “consistent with Johnson’s commitment to providing recreational facilities for his employees and their families.” It’s seen better days. Compared to the other carousels, the one at this park isn’t particularly distinctive. However, only the West Endicott and Highland carousels have animals that aren’t horses. Each one features a boar and golden retriever. Given the gloominess and distance from campus, this one is only for carousel completists.
5. C. Fred Johnson Park – This carousel, in a park named after one of George’s brothers – the only one of his four siblings after whom George named a park – is the biggest of them all, with 72 figures, four wide. But for carousels, bigger isn’t better. It feels overstuffed, and because there are so many horses on it, each one doesn’t seem to have its own distinct personality. There’s a feeling of sameness everywhere, and picking the horse you ride on just doesn’t feel very special.
4. George W. Johnson Park – Installed in 1934, this carousel is the newest of the six, and the building holding the carousel is one of the most distinct. Large glass windows, added in 1999, enclose the carousel area, lending it a bright, airy feel. It also has a blue ceiling and various neon lights on the walls, making it feel like it’s in a real amusement park.
3. Highland Park – Tucked away behind a hill in a gorgeous, spacious park in Endwell, Highland Park’s carousel is the most charming of the six. While the rest have only one foot rest on each animal, the figurines on this one have a rest on each side, so your feet don’t have to dangle awkwardly during the ride. Like the West Endicott carousel, it has a golden retriever and a boar along with the horses.
2. Ross Park – The oldest carousel, built in 1920, and adjacent to one of the oldest zoos in the United States, the Ross Park carousel is one of the most beautiful. It’s in a sunny location, perfect for carouselfies (a word I’m comfortable saying I invented, meaning “a selfie taken on a carousel”). Whoever laid out the zoo’s structure cleverly put the horses near the carousel, so riding it gives the whole experience an authentic smell and, more than any other carousel, makes it easy to imagine that you’re actually riding a horse.
1. Recreation Park – All of the carousels are decorated with paintings, but most of them are small landscapes that are nice, but not very interesting. The beautiful paintings on Rec Park’s carousel are full of specific imagery, like children building a sandcastle, and a knight fighting a two-headed dragon. And while the music from the rest of the carousels comes from electronic speakers, this one features a cool mechanical instrument called a Wurlitzer Military Band Organ, with drums, pipes and cymbals. If you’re going to visit just one carousel in Binghamton, make it this one.