For sale: One 1953 kiddie train. Lots of mileage. Even more smileage.
Kiddie Acres, a North Austin family-fun landmark since 1979, closed at the end of June. Owners Joe and Marina Herring, with countless birthday parties behind them, are retiring. Kiddie Acres’ 5 acres on Howard Lane have been sold and the rides are being auctioned.
I’ll have more in a minute on how you can own the train or any of the five other rides. FYI, the 10 ponies are spoken for. They’ll be relocating to Goldthwaite, about 88 miles west of Waco.
Kiddie Acres opened on Burnet Road, just north of Parmer Lane, in 1979. The little amusement park moved to Howard Lane in 1987 when its original site was needed for the northern expansion of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).
So for 38 years, at two locations, the Herrings combined two of life’s greatest pleasures: making money and making kids smile. The last customers were on June 29 when the sale to a landscaping company was finalized. The sad-for-many-Austinites news is posted matter-of-factly on Kiddie Aces’ website: “Permanently closed. Owners retiring. Thank you for 38 years of patronage and wonderful memories.”
As we rode the train on Friday, Marina told me they’ve been “totally overwhelmed” by the outpouring of thanks from former customers. The Herrings both are 67. It’s time for what’s next.
“We haven’t had any weekends where we could go visit our children,” she said. One’s in Houston, the other’s in Georgia.
Joe told me, “I don’t want to be, like Marina says, out here on my walker walking around walking the ponies. We’re young enough to go and retire and travel around America and see our kids.”
Kiddie Acres was the business brainchild of Joe, then a city of Austin electrician, and his wife, the daughter of Earl Podolnick, who owned movie theaters (anybody remember the Americana, Southwood and Texas theaters, among others?).
“We were looking for something to do for our 3-year-old and we just couldn’t find anything to do in Austin back then,” Joe said. “I said, ‘I bet if we started up a little old kiddie park, people would come out.’”
The Herrings had five rides built for them by a Kansas manufacturer. And Joe found the train at a Bloomington, Ill., amusement park that had folded. He paid less than $10,000 for it, and it’s made the circuit of its 900 feet of track around Kiddie Acres a time or two or several thousand.
The business plan worked, Joe said, built on this foundation: “We never run out of kids so we always had customers.”
And those kids grew up and brought their children and grandchildren and, in some cases, great-grandchildren.
Here’s the upside of the end of this era: You can own a part of Austin kidstory. The rides go on sale Tuesday in an online auction by Jones Swenson Auctions. (You know you want the airplane ride, complete with spinning propellers on each plane.)
The announcement of the closing marked a milestone for many Austinites. Matthew Alvarado posted he was “so sad to see that this place is closing. It was an amazing place for me when I was little 30 years ago, and for my little guys now. Thanks to the owners and operators for years of good family fun and memories.”
Deborah Blumentritt posted: “Yeah, it is sad. I am glad that I got to take my granddaughter in the fall of 2016, because I took my son there to celebrate his first birthday 31 years ago.”
Here’s the thing about Kiddie Acres: It wasn’t Disney World or Six Flags Over Anyplace. Kiddie Acres was small, family and personal, and nobody dressed up as a rodent. Seems like the world could use more small, family and personal and nobody dressing up as a rodent.
Kiddie Acres was kiddie paradise, albeit sometimes in need of a paint touch-up here and there. Joe recalls a kid who wanted to ride in the orange airplane because he thought the pockmarks were bullet holes.
The park always was staffed by friendly folks, including teens simultaneously learning how the whole employment thing works while also learning the wonders of WD-40 and how to convince a semi-hesitant kid that it would be fun to pilot a little airplane without mommy or daddy aboard.
Online reviews for Kiddie Acres capture the essence:
“This place is old,” John T. of Round Rock Yelped last September. “In other words, it could use a little freshening up. But the rides are fun and the staff is great. It’s a perfect time for a three- to eight-year-old. … If you are looking for a carnival atmosphere and a train or a pony ride for the kids, this place is it.”
Cynthia S. of Charleston, S.C., offered a perspective from a simpler time when reality always was real and never virtual. “As a grandmom, I will tell you this place rocks for the little ones. I love the extremely old-school rides and atmosphere. If you’re looking for shiny and modern, this isn’t the place. It’s just the perfect nostalgic entertainment for any preschooler,” she posted in July 2016. “Remember when we were thrilled by the little boats we could sail on real water? These still are going round and round, complete with the bells the mini-captains ring and ring.”
Austinite Scott Swenson took his two sons there when they were preschoolers. They’re now 18 and 21. And for Swenson, Kiddie Acres was nostalgia squared, reminding him of a similar little amusement park from his youth in Waco.
Now he’s the auctioneer handling the sale of the Kiddie Acres rides and equipment.
“In my business, you see people having changes in their lives,” Swenson said. “Joe and Marina have been bringing smiles to kids’ faces for 38 years. They’re ready to retire. If you look at it from that angle, there’s no sadness to it. I could get nostalgic, I suppose, but I’m happy for them that they’re getting to retire.”
Swenson said he’s talked to a potential buyer who’s interested in putting the train on his ranch.
I want to be that person’s grandkid.
Bidding begins Tuesday at jonesswenson.com, and, as Swenson said, “Someone out there is going to have the chance to take these rides and continue to make kids smile.”
That could be you. The airplane ride doesn’t take up all that much space.
The Herrings have had a good ride running the rides that so many of our kids enjoyed. Thanks and best wishes to them.
“We’re just going to enjoy being together and doing what old folks do,” Marina told me of what’s next.
I’ll try to get an update on where the rides wind up. Please let me know if you buy one.