Carousel Connection

Did you know there are four carousels in San Francisco? Considering how few remain in the world, that’s pretty amazing, and what’s even more amazing is that three of them are beautifully restored antiques. I discovered this fact when I started looking for things to do with our two-year-old great-grandson.

There’s something magical about carousels with their whimsical animals, brightly colored and jewel-studded decorations, twinkling lights, and upbeat organ music. Topped off with happy, laughing children, they can’t help but brighten your day. The animals are also great subjects for wannabe photographers like me.

Here are a few details about our carousels:

01) Zeum Carousel (FZ28-0-508)02) Zeum Carousel (FZ28-0-487)


Creativity (Zeum) Carousel

Built in 1906, this splendid carousel is the oldest in San Francisco. It features 65 characters including camels, giraffes, rams, a lion and dozens of horses with real horsehair tails. Each animal is uniquely designed and decorated, and even the decorations have decorations: exotic creatures — eagles and monkeys and snakes and dragons — are tucked under saddles or entwined in the harnesses.

This carousel was hand-carved by legendary master craftsman Charles I.D. Looff who created it for San Francisco. Unfortunately, it was completed in 1906 just when that pesky earthquake left San Francisco with no place to put it — so, it ended up in Luna Park in Seattle. Following a fire there in 1912, it moved to San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach where it delighted children for nearly 60 years. After Playland closed in 1972, the carousel was sold and moved first into storage in New Mexico and then to a park in Long Beach. In 1998, it was purchased, brought back, and restored by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

Now this wonderfully restored carousel is back in San Francisco where it belongs and where it is housed in a beautiful glass enclosure next to the Children's Creativity Museum (formerly called the Zeum). It's located in Yerba Buena Gardens (at Fourth and Howard Streets); it’s a multi-media art and technology museum for kids with lots of creative hands-on activities. The carousel is a beautiful and fun addition to this venue, and its ticket sales help support the Children's Creativity Museum.

03) GGP Carousel (FZ28-0-665)04) GGP Carousel (FZ28-0-676)

Golden Gate Park Carousel

This large carousel is nearly 100 years old. Complete with 62 animals and a German band organ, it’s blessed with an unusual collection of fantastic animals. My favorites are the awesome sea dragon, a jumbo sized red rooster, and a black horse in full armor.

Built in New York by the Herschell-Spillman Company, this carousel was completed in 1914. It was one of main sights at the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island and moved to Golden Gate Park in 1941. Following a mechanical failure in 1977, the carousel was completely rebuilt and restored; it reopened in 1984.

This carousel is next to the Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park (320 Bowling Green Drive). The playground dates back to 1887 and is one of the oldest in the United States. It recently underwent a major ($3.8 million) renovation and was renamed the Koret Children’s Quarter. This is a really great playground with a variety of play structures and has areas for the smallest and largest kids. The carousel and playground are located near the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park. At 1017 acres, the park is the largest city park in the country and is home to many popular attractions.


05) Zoo Carousel (FZ28-0-555) 07) Zoo Carousel (FZ28-0-546)

San Francisco Zoo Carousel

At a mere 90 years old, this is the newest of San Francisco’s vintage carousels. It features 50 intricately hand-carved wooden animals surrounded with sparkling lights and gilt-framed mirrors. There are beautiful horses, of course, and there are also lions and tigers and ostriches and giraffes and much more. They are all individually embellished with whimsical details and jewels." Where else could you ride a Sumatran tiger or a cat with a fish in its mouth?

This intricately carved carousel is one of the last constructed by William H. Dentzel. It’s a “rare menagerie Carousel”; “one of only seven Dentzel Carousels remaining in the United States.” Originally constructed in Philadelphia in 1921, it came to the San Francisco Playground/zoo in 1925. It was repaired and repainted in 1978 and completely dismantled and rebuilt in 1994. It was later renamed the Eugene Friend Carousel to honor the Bay Area philanthropist who was, among many other things, a big supporter of the zoo.

The San Francisco Zoo started as a playground and evolved into a zoo in the late 1920s. Like most early zoos, it was a pretty bleak place from the point-of-view of the animals. In recent years, many of the habitats have been expanded and greatly improved. In just the last two decades they’ve added the Australian WalkAbout, the African Savanna, Grizzly Gulch, and made major improvements to many of the other enclosures. The mission of the zoo is evolved too; it’s not just a place to see wild animals; it’s designed to inspire people to care about nature and to advance conservation.


08) Pier 39 Carousel (FZ28-0-659)10) Pier 39-Peg & Kimberly (FX01-3-251)

San Francisco Carousel

The carousel at Pier 39 is very different from the other three: it’s new, it’s two-tiered, and its decorations were tailored specifically for San Francisco. Both the ceiling and the crown around the top are decorated with hand-painted scenes like the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Chinatown, and cable cars. In addition to the beautiful paintings and carvings, this carousel is decked out with 1800 twinkling lights. Even though it’s quite small in diameter, it can seat 50 people on its two tiers where there are 32 riding animals, chariots, and a couple of spinning tubs that are reminiscent of the Mad Hatter's tea cups in Disneyland. There are many horses among the riding animals, but there are also sea dragons, sea lions, panda bears, rabbits, and a curious creature that is half fish and half horse — a mermare, I guess. Topped off with traditional organ music, it’s all quite fantastic.

This carousel was made especially for Pier 39 by the Bertazzon Company in Treviso, Italy. It opened at Pier 39 in March 2002.


Pier 39 is a 45-acre complex next to Fisherman’s Wharf. According to the pier’s website, it’s “a festive shopping Mecca featuring 110 specialty shops and 14 full-service restaurants.” There are also attractions at Pier 39 including an aquarium, an arcade, and, of course, the famous sea lions that hang out on the adjacent docks. It’s touristy, but it’s good.



The word carousel comes from the Spanish word “carosella,” which means “little war.” It’s generally believed the idea for a carousel grew out of a game played by Arabian and Turkish horseman to train for battle. The game was brought to Europe in the 12th century by crusaders where it evolved into a tournament with horses and lances and became a display of horsemanship and pageantry. Overtime, wooden horses were crafted and used to practice for the tournaments; these evolved into the carousel. Carousels with beautifully hand-carved wooden animals — especially horses —  “flourished from 1880 to the early 1930s.

San Francisco is fortunate to have four carousels. That three of them are wonderfully restored vintage carousels is a treasure. If you are lucky enough to be in San Francisco with a small child, grab your camera and head to the nearest carousel — you’ll be glad you did.


Giving credit where credit is due:

Much of the information about the Zeum Carousel was taken from the wall plaque and information card at the entrance.

Spin City –San Francisco’s Historic Carousels - By T. Houseman, March 24, 2008

Pier 39 Unveils New San Francisco Carousel - March 20 [2002]


© Virginia E. Vail 2012