It’s the morning after Mother’s Day and Al Fasnacht is visiting the Haunted Mansion at Funland, an amusement park on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach.
Fasnacht isn’t thinking about ghosts and goblins. He is there to paint, meticulously brushing yellow enamel on the mansion’s fence for the umpteenth time.
He is 94 years old and has worked at Funland for 61 of those years, since Fasnacht and his brother Don, four years younger, bought the park with their parents. Today, four generations are involved in the business, proffering popcorn, loading toddlers onto the boat ride and handing out stuffed bears to kids whose grandparents visited Funland when they were young.
“People tell me I really must like working here because I keep coming back, year after year,” he says. “They are absolutely right.”
Allen Ray Fasnacht was born in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1928, the year Herbert Hoover was elected president, the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and “Wings” won the best picture prize at the first Academy Awards ceremony. It was a notable year for amusement parks, too, with the wooden Airplane Coaster opening at Playland, in Rye, New York. It was the height of the Roaring ‘20s and Americans were intent on fun and plenty of it.
A year later, the nation plunged into the Great Depression. As a lad, Fasnacht picked up pocket money caddying at a local golf club. When he was 14, he got a job working in the greenhouse of Milton Hershey, the chocolate czar and philanthropist who founded Hersheypark in 1906 as an oasis of leisure and fun for employees.
“Growing up in Hershey, you can’t help but be influenced by amusement parks,” he says.
Fasnacht — which translates to “fried doughnut” in German — was a strong and wiry boy, who became state runner-up in wrestling when he was in high school. He loved the outdoors and learning about nature with the Boy Scouts.
In August 1961, when Fasnacht was 33, the family was operating Willow Mill Park, a small picnic and games venue in Pennsylvania, and decided to combine a vacation to Bethany Beach with a visit to the Rehoboth Beach Sports Center amusement venue. Fasnacht and his wife Jean were with his brother Don, his wife Dee, and their parents Al and Sis.
“We were thinking of buying a helicopter ride and they had one there, so we thought we would check it out,” Fasnacht recalls.
They liked the ride. They liked the park, too. And they soon learned the owner was eager to sell. The deal was almost blown away by the legendary Great Atlantic Storm of March 1962, which destroyed large sections of the boardwalk and decimated the amusement center. The family decided to go ahead with the deal, after negotiating a deep discount for storm damage.
The Fasnachts rebranded the park as Funland, a name that is short, snappy, and tells patrons what they can expect when they get there. The brothers made a great team. Garrulous Al, with strong connections in the scouting and wrestling communities, recruited scores of young people to staff the park. Laconic Don, the guy who can fix anything, kept the rides running.
“Funland is his baby, something he built with the help of his family. It’s his happy place.”
— Ian Curry (Fasnacht’s great-nephew)
Funland was so successful, the family sold its park in Pennsylvania, although Al and Don and their families continued to live in Hershey during the offseason. Today, the brothers reside next door to one another on Spring Creek Golf Course, where Al is a regular on the links.
Each May, Fasnacht returns to Funland to help the staff get ready for the traditional opening on Mother’s Day weekend. The park closes the week after Labor Day. He is a friendly and steady presence, a trim figure with snowy white hair and glasses, garbed in khakis and a red golf shirt embroidered with a merry-go-round horse.
“Funland is his baby, something he built with the help of his family. It’s his happy place,” says Ian Curry, grandson of Don Fasnacht and part of the fourth generation to lead the park.
For the past 20 years or so, Fasnacht has worked part time at the park. Until a few years ago, he focused on recycling and waste management, driving truckloads of plastics to an environmental center and taking out the trash.
A year ago, he had to give up driving. It was a bitter pill for an active nonagenarian. But Fasnacht, a supremely adaptable creature, embraced the change. All three of his adult children volunteered to drive him wherever he wants to go.
“I have my family all around me, three dedicated taxi drivers, and that’s a blessing,” he says.
Fasnacht enjoys painting, his latest endeavor. Spiffing up the Haunted Mansion, which debuted in 1979 and has been Funland’s most popular attraction ever since, is an important job in enhancing the guests’ experience. When he finishes the black fence, he will move on to touching up the wood in the games area.
“I’ll paint gray over there,” he says.
He believes Funland serves a higher purpose than providing families with a good time at budget-conscious prices. The venue has raised its prices only three times in six decades to 60 cents per ticket, which are discounted when patrons buy multiple tickets. The Haunted Mansion is six tickets. The boat ride is one.
“There’s great satisfaction to offering family entertainment at a reasonable cost. The volume of business has enabled us to keep costs where they are,” he says.
His brother spends a lot of his time camping at his cabin these days. Fasnacht has no plans to retire “until they carry me out.”
Only three percent of family enterprises survive into a fifth generation. With more than 20 descendants of the brothers already working at Funland, Curry says the family is intent on taking the business forward for the youngest members.
“Our generation feels that great responsibility to follow in the footsteps of Al and Don,” he says. “We tell our relatives that they aren’t working for us, they are working with us.”
AL FASNACHT’S LIFE LESSONS ON LONGEVITY
WATCH YOUR WEIGHT. Fasnacht’s top weight as a high school wrestler was 139 pounds. (He’s 5 feet,
8 inches tall.) Today, he tips the scales at 142 pounds. “I think that says a lot about my ability to control my weight,” he says.
SAY “NO” TO TOBACCO AND ALCOHOL. He doesn’t smoke; he doesn’t drink. “Nope, just not interested.”
EMBRACE FAITH AND FAMILY. During the off-season in Pennsylvania, Fasnacht worships regularly at United Methodist Church in Hershey, where he sings in the choir. He adores his three adult children and extended family and it makes him happy to see people helping each other and getting along. “Love covers it,” he says.