GULFPORT -- The 36 merry-go-round horses are packed into two rows in a Biloxi garage, awaiting the day they will prance again at FunTime USA, a landmark theme park the O'Neal family is bringing back to U.S. 90.
They have experienced a hiccup or two over zoning, but Rafe O'Neal, co-owner of the new FunTime, believes the landmark park should be open by the end of May or early June across Cowan Road from the original park destroyed by 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
"Everybody's kind of concerned we haven't turned soil yet," said Romy Simpson, O'Neal's business partner and FunTime co-owner. But she and O'Neal say the work will go fast after they receive final clearance from the city, which is working with them to bring back an amusement park that had entertained generations.
The amusement park will once again feature adults' and children's rides, a go-cart track, bumper boats and the popular miniature golf course with concrete figures.
A new addition will be a picnic pavilion where families can dine from food trucks. Simpson said they are hoping three or four food trucks will offer a variety of menus.
The park will have a retro design, with about one-third of the miniature golf figures returning from the original park. They are being stored in the country right now.
Life of amusement
Rafe O'Neal's uncle, Ray O'Neal, built the original sculptures and is busy designing new ones. A dinosaur is in the plans "just because," Ray O'Neal said. The dinosaur will be a spiritual cousin to the prehistoric creature that loomed over Biloxi's tourist strip before the storm.
As a 16-year-old, Ray O'Neal started work for Ken Davis at an amusement park that opened in the 1950s at the foot of Veterans Avenue on the beach.
"This amusement business is all I've ever done, just about," said Ray O'Neal, who worked at his first amusement park at age 16 and is now 68. "I've never had a real job."
Ray O'Neal came aboard at FunTime in the 1970s to build the miniature golf course. He learned what has become a lost art from Lee Koplin, the father of Goofy Golf who built a course years ago in Biloxi.
Gradually, Ray O'Neal bought out FunTime, starting with the refreshment stand.
He saved as many of the figures as he could after Katrina, along with the merry-go-round horses and gears, and anything else he could find on the scoured beachfront lot.
"We thought he was crazy," Rafe O'Neal said, "but now we think, 'Wow, you did us a really big favor.'"
For example, Rafe O'Neal said, restoration of the merry-go-round will cost only about $25,000, compared with at least $250,000 for a new one. Built in the 1950s, the ride has cast-aluminum horses built by an Allan Herschell company. Herschell began manufacturing carousels in 1883.
Ray O'Neal's daughter Katie was in the last television commercial for FunTime when she was a toddler. Now 13, she is designing the FunTime entrance where Humpty Dumpty will sit. Originally, the character was going to be in a fountain, but Katie insisted visitors must be able to sit on the wall beside Humpty Dumpty, who did not budge during Katrina.
"She is still one of my motivating reasons for doing this," Rafe O'Neal said. "What my uncle gave to us, I am excited to give to her in return. When my uncle built all that stuff, I don't think he realized how many people he touched."
Because the family is doing so much of the work, they believe the park can be built for $1 million to $1.2 million.
As the family shares plans for FunTime's return on its Facebook page, nostalgic stories are pouring in. Brett Cronier of Escatawpa wrote about trying to take a young lady to FunTime on their first date. Because an accident trapped them on Interstate 10, they pulled up as the park was closing for the evening.
The good news, Cronier said: "We just celebrated our 16-year anniversary and have three beautiful children. I am looking forward to having the date we never had and sharing the excitement I had as a kid with my own children. So, welcome back, FunTime!"