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by Gary Casteel
In the early 1970's, in the middle of the "energy crunch," many Spokane businesses were closing their downtown stores. The most successful were relocating to the new malls on the east and north sides of town. Downtown Spokane was dying, so this small city took a huge gamble and produced Expo '74 - a world's exposition. The event proved to be a success both financially and socially, and its positive effects are still visible today. It transformed what was becoming a decaying segment of Spokane's central downtown area into one of the most beautiful parks found in any city. Expo '74 revitalized not only Spokane's physical environment, but also the attitude of its people. Evidently, the city's gamble paid off.
Expo '74 was devoted to the environment. The fair was held in the newly constructed, 51-acre Riverfront Park, only one block from the major shopping, and business center. The park is almost completely surrounded by the sometimes calm, sometimes raging Spokane River, and it offers a breathtaking view in every direction. Many of the business people of Spokane walk to the park and participate in the city-sponsored "Brown Bag Lunch Programs." While they sit and eat their lunches and enjoy the beauty of the park, they are entertained by musicians, singers, mimes, jugglers, and other performers - all for free.
The heart of the park is the Pavilion, which is filled with rides and thrills for the entire family. The gyrating SR-2 Space Capsule uses film, sound, and motion to take its riders on an action-packed adventure. Let the kids ride the Krazy Kars and the Dragon Coaster, or take them to the petting zoo. Children will also enjoy the miniature golf course that's located directly under the giant pavilion.
The Eastern Washington Science Center offers a world of discoveries for the entire family. This facility features more than 150 hands-on experiments and exhibits that visitors can explore and have fun with. Exhibit subjects range from computers to geology to the stars.
Have you ever been inside a theater that has a screen that is five stories high? That is just what you will find inside the Pavilion's IMAX Theater. The giant screen, coupled with amazing special effects and a stereo sound system that literally draws viewers into the action, is unlike anything most of us ever experienced. Viewers are seated in comfortable chairs, with an unrestricted view of the screen, when a crystalline-sharp, colorful image and a powerful stereo dazzle their senses. The IMAX film format is 10 times as large as conventional 35mm film. Its clarity and impact cannot be described: it must be experienced. Only a fortunate few have had the opportunity to visit an IMAX Theater, as there are only a few of them in the world.
Another "don't miss" is the historic carousel. In 1907, wood-carver Charles I.D. Looff began two years of work on the 54 horses, one giraffe, one tiger, and two Chinese dragon chairs that would make up this large and unique attraction for the city of Spokane. All of the animals were constructed of New England Chinese elm and balsam. Each horse is different from the others in many ways, yet is authentic down to the last detail, i.e. to the number of nails in its shoes, and teeth that indicate its age. The horses are fitted with specially carved harnesses and are inlaid with a rainbow of imported, German cut glass. Each piece of scrollwork and gold leaf was the work of a skilled artisan. The carousel's gears, which are still in use, were imported from Germany. It is interesting to note that the same General Electric 15-horsepower motor has always powered the carousel. A German organ with more than 300 pipes and with instrumentation equal to that of a 60-piece band still provides the music for the carousel. The organ was built in 1907.
If you would prefer a ride with more altitude, try the Gondola Sky Ride. This ride takes passengers on a thrilling journey over the beautiful, cascading falls of the Spokane River. Do not forget your camera. The park train transports guests on the ground, and it is a welcome addition for those who are weary of walking to and from all of the rides and exhibits.
Every weekend and holiday during the summer, the park holds an arts and crafts show that is free to the public. The show features handcrafted work by many local artists, including a number of pieces designed by Native Americans. Free concerts, art exhibits, and special entertainment events are scheduled throughout the season as well.
There is always something to do at Riverfront Park. On Neighbor Day, for example, people may buy and sample ethnic foods from around the world, all prepared and served in the middle of the park. Fresh produce and handicrafts are for sale at Riverfront Park's public market every Wednesday and Saturday from May through October, near the north side entrance to the park.
You will find a number of places to park a towed car or truck within a block or two of the park; however, I do not recommend that you drive a large motorhome or tow a long trailer to Riverfront Park. There is very little parking available for such vehicles. However, free parking for even the largest RV is available at the Spokane Coliseum on the corner of Boone and Howard streets, assuming there is no entertainment event in progress. The coliseum is only three blocks, a short walk, north of Riverfront Park.