Jersey City, N.J. -The Freedom and Fireworks Festival marked the return of fireworks to the Jersey Side of the Hudson River, and what better enhancement to a celebration of all things America than a midway. N.J. Valley Amusements provided about 10 rides and a popcorn stand, giving the urban setting an unmistakable county fair feel that enhanced the family-friendly atmosphere.
The sprawling, 1,212-acre Liberty State Park - the only state park in the heavily populated New Jersey counties of Bergen, Essex and Hudson - is often used for events. The backdrop of the Hudson River, Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty make the park particularly photogenic. But the July 4th midway by N.J. Valley Amusements is the first time Liberty State Park, which opened in 1976, has hosted rides.
Good Park for a Midway
"The park is good for a midway," said John Cooke of N.J. Valley Amusements (The family-owned company was founded by John's parents and the second generation, now the owners and operators, eschew formal titles). "Very open. As a day event, it is very good. Except for the rain."
"It is a beautiful park," said Donna Cooke. "There was a lot of room. It definitely has definitely has potential for future fairs and midways."
Jersey City - the second largest city in New Jersey - has gained attention for being the home of a growing number of millenials and young families. The 38-year-old Jersey City mayor, Steve Fulop, inaugurated one year ago, wants Jersey City to be the "greatest mid-sized city" in the United States.
Responding to New York
Through the years, Liberty State Park offered spectacular views of the nationally renowned Macy's Fireworks display put on by New York City, but after the Big Apple decided to move the Macy's Fireworks display to the East River - out of view of New Jersey residents - Jersey City officials worked quickly to fill the void with the Freedom and Fireworks Festival.
"We are excited to bring fireworks back to Jersey City and to have the premier Fourth of July event in New Jersey," said Mayor Fulop. "This will truly be a national event and will be a great day of entertainment for the entire family."
Tropical Storm Arthur
According to John Cooke, the city of Jersey City after announcing the fireworks, approached the N.J-based company, who has a history of bringing rides to events in Jersey City.
The event was scheduled to start at noon and run until 10:30 p.m., although the fireworks display started at 9 pm, the scheduled time for the midway to close. The Midway was located in the southwest portion of the park while in at the northeaster corner of the park -a peninsula tip that also serves as the home harbor of the Liberty Landing Marina - was the main viewing area for the fireworks display - as well as the main stage which presented free pre-fireworks, evening concerts by country stars Craig Morgan and Kristen Redmond as well the Budweiser Clydesdales, along with the Budweiser Brewmaster Experience and Beer Gardens. (Budweiser was a major sponsor of the Freedom and Fireworks Festival).
This main area was more than a ¼ mile from the NJ Valley Amusement carnival rides, but in-between these two book ends of the festival were dozens of vendors and food trucks and two stages, one featuring bands from the New Jersey/New York area and the other showcasing performers for children in the afternoon, then a massive drum circle until 9 pm.
Although doors opened on time, for much of the day, residual rain from Tropical Storm Arthur dampened the spirits and ridership. Gusts of wind and rain towards mid-afternoon forced the cancellation of a children's theater event and at times, fairgoers scrambled to find cover.
About 4:30 pm, the rain ceased and the sky cleared and lines began to form around the NJ Valley Amusements tickets booths and at many of the rides. The Cooke Family brought 10 rides to the Jersey City midway, including the Fireball, Hurricane, Round Up, Himalaya and the Dragon Wagon, a children's roller coaster.
The organizers of the Freedom and Fireworks Festival forecasted more than 100,000 attendees, although an estimated 60,00 reportedly attended. "When the rain finally stopped, peoples started coming in," said Donna Cooke. "The day didn't turn out that great, but towards the end it turned out very good. Judging by other events we have had that precede fireworks, people don't really come until after dinner and they go on rides before the fireworks."
For N.J. Valley Amusements, the Jersey City event was just another stop on what is shaping up to be a positive season. "The summer has been pretty good so far," said George Harris, Superintendent, who has been with NJ Valley Amusements. since 1989. "People still like coming out for the rides. They seem to have more money to spend. Gas has gone up this summer, so that is a factor. The fuel prices affect how well the season is. But overall, it has been good."
The N. J. Valley Amusements season runs about six months, from March to October. "The spring was kind of wet, said Harris. "That hurt some."
At Liberty State Park, as the late-afternoon sky cleared, Harris said, "see, the rain stopped and the people are coming out. They want a good seat for the fireworks, they like the rides. The weather is turning our way."
"This is a mid-sized event for us.," said John Cooke. "We mainly play New Jersey events, we used to play more New York events, but there is a lot more regulations and paperwork with New York. Combined with the price of gasoline, playing New York for us is getting less and less economically feasible."
Even though New Jersey still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the Northeast, there have been positive economic signs at the N.J. Valley Amusements midway. "People are spending more," said Donna Cooke. "Not a lot more, but it is noticeable. People do have more money to spend or are more willing to spend money, more so then in recent years."
For the Cooke family, the appeal of a Garden State midway remains evergreen. "Rides are still a good value," said Gary Cooke. "It is affordable entertainment. With events like this, people can come and support their community and have a mini-vacation."