Meet Bill Brown: The heartbeat of the Balboa Park Carousel for the past 51 years

Bill Brown began working at the historic ride in 1972, when he was just 16 years old; last year, the City of San Diego proclaimed Oct. 3, 2022, Mr. Bill Brown Day.

SD Bill Brown Balboa Park Carousel 2023

Bill Brown says this horse covered in roses is often requested by kids who love fairy tales.

Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

As a kid, San Diego native Bill Brown loved going to the Balboa Park Carousel with his family. He even had a favorite animal among the menagerie that he’d always choose to ride — a black horse adorned with a red-trimmed harness, with bright yellow details flowing from its saddle.

In 1972, Brown got a job at the carousel. Little did he know he’d work at the historic ride for the next 51 years and counting. Brown is the carousel’s heartbeat, a San Diegan through and through who cherishes every nook of the century-old ride located at 1889 Zoo Place. We caught up with Brown to ask some questions and learn about his career — take the ride with us.

The Balboa Park Carousel in San Diego in September 2023

The Balboa Park Carousel — newly restored — in September 2023.

Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

Q: This seems like a dream job — how did you get this gig?
A: I rode it when I was a kid. I saw how much fun the people who worked here were having so I asked the woman who owned the carousel at the time, Virginia Long, how old you had to be to work here and she said 16.

As soon as I was 16, I came down and said, “OK, I’m ready to go.” She said, “We don’t need anyone right now, but give me your number.” About a week later, she called and said they had an opening. I started and I’ve been working here ever since.

Did you know? Last year, the City of San Diego proclaimed Oct. 3 Mr. Bill Brown Day.

Q: When you got here and got to work, how did you feel?
A: It was like a dream job. I’d follow the other workers around. It was a great part-time job — I went to San Diego High and San Diego State — and it slowly evolved into a full-time job.

Q: How does it make you feel to see how happy families are when they come here?
A: It’s one of the reasons why I’m still here after 51 years. It’s just a great atmosphere, everyone’s in a good mood. The kids are fun to watch and the adults are friendly — it’s a good job.

Bill Brown the manager of the Balboa Park Carousel stands next to the horse he used to ride as a child.

Bill Brown stands next to the horse he used to often ride as a child at the Balboa Park Carousel — a horse now named “Buttons.”

Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

Q: Are there things about the mechanisms and intricacies of a ride like this that people might be surprised to learn? What does it take to operate the carousel?
A: We still use all the original machinery; we still have the original General Electric 10 horsepower motor, and all the gears are original. To work here, you have to have a variety of skills. You have to be good with machines, good with people all day — it’s a challenge, I’ve tried to mold myself to whatever it is the carousel needs me to be.

These 100-year-old carousels were originally built for adults — they were the thrill ride of the day — that’s why this particular one goes so fast. Adults enjoy it as well as kids.

Q: Walk us through a day in the life of Bill at work — what are the first things you do to set up for the day?
A: I get here about an hour early and spend that time greasing the carousel — that’s why it’s still going after over 100 years, because we take good care of it. Traditional maintenance [skills were] handed down from operator to operator.

I’ve been here 51 years and there was a guy who was here over 40 years, so between us, we span most of the age of the carousel. I’m confident when I’m greasing the carousel I’m doing it the same way it was meant to be in 1910 when it was built. That’s the reason it’s still going.

We open the doors at 11 a.m., greet the people, and we go until 5:30 p.m. — making people happy.

Q: Be honest with me, how many times do you hop on here yourself each day?
A: [Laughs] I hop on a few times just to show the young workers that I can still do it.

SD Bill Brown Balboa Park Carousel September 2023

Bill Brown shares some of the history of the carousel, seen at this display at the ride in Balboa Park.

Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

Q: Please tell us a couple of interesting historical facts about the structure.
A: The structure was built in 1910 and was originally in Los Angeles for three years. It was brought to Coronado in 1913 — at Tent City, the summer resort near the Hotel Del Coronado. In 1922, it was brought to Balboa Park and it’s been here ever since.

The building is designed to be dismantled and put back together. It’s in 12 sections, like a pie — and each section is numbered in Roman numerals — so it can be taken apart and put back together [like a big puzzle].

Q: What do you think this carousel means to our San Diego community?
A: Well, the carousel has been here so long that it’s a generational thing. People that I knew who were kids when I started are now bringing their kids and their grandkids down. That’s one of the fun things about being here for so long — watching people grow up over the years. They say, “Oh, you’re still here, things haven’t changed.” It’s cool.

They’re still the same animals — everything is original from the same way it was in 1910. People have their favorite animals, and they’re still here.

Q: What is your favorite part of working here?
A: It’s the atmosphere — seeing happy faces all day long. It keeps me young, at least mentally, seeing all these happy people.

Q: When can San Diegans see you here?
A: We’re open weekends and holidays, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and I’m usually here on weekends, so come down and say hi.

Pro tip: The hours Brown referred to are typically from mid-August to mid-June — to coincide with San Diego Unified School District’s academic calendar. In the summer, when local kids are out of school, it’s open daily, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

SD Balboa Park Carousel September 2023 close-up

The staff works hard to keep the menagerie looking bright and polished — including “Rosie.”

Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

Q: What else is really important for people to know about the Balboa Park Carousel?
A: Well, the carousel is really a work of art. These animals are all hand-carved. I’ve got black and white photos of guys with chisels carving out the animals. The paintings are all hand-painted; they’re all original — they’ve never been retouched. So, that’s pretty amazing. It’s like a slice of what they were thinking about in 1910.

We still have the military band organ that came with the carousel, so it’s got the greatest hits up until 1910. We have 100 rolls, each roll plays three songs, so when I get tired of those songs, I’ll put in another roll.

Q: What’s a real banger from 1910 — a song you really love?
A: [Laughs, then sings] There’s one song, “By the sea, by the sea.” Unfortunately, the best rolls have gotten played the most and the rolls are made out of paper, and the paper is 100 years old, so some of the best rolls are wearing out. I still have some that are in good shape, though.

Q: Tell us about the Brass Ring game here at the carousel.
A: There are only about a dozen carousels left in the country that still play the Brass Ring game. It was very popular, it’s where that expression came when you get a big break, “Oh, that guy got the brass ring.”

You sit on an outside animal and there’s a receptacle off the carousel with an arm with rings on it. As you go around, you grab these rings. And there are a lot of iron rings and one brass ring, and whoever gets the brass ring wins a free ride. There’s a clown you can throw your iron rings at because they’re no good.

If there’s at least two people on the outside who want to play, we’ll put it out. It’s all luck, it’s fun to do — it’s 100 years old also.

SD Brass Ring Balboa Park Carousel

The Balboa Park Carousel is one of few carousels in the world that still feature the Brass Ring game.

Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

Q: Tell our readers about the importance of the carousel’s restoration and upkeep and what a big job that is.
A: We have a restoration team that we’re about to start back up again. We go on hiatus in the summer because we can’t restore while we’re open every day. Every Tuesday, we come in and we restore the animals. I’ve got a few very good artists on the team who make them look good again.

🎠 Bonus wisdom from Brown:
Brown tells SDtoday that he could probably map the carousel with his eyes closed — every nook, knob, and animal. He also proudly remembers many of his repeat customers’ names, and uses little tricks to jog his memory.

He says the favorite horse among kids is a horse covered in roses that the staff affectionately refers to as “Rosie” — she’s often requested by kids who love princess fairy tales.

Finally, he tells us balance is key when it comes to hopping on and off the carousel while it’s moving, and San Diegans who know how to skateboard have proven to be particularly successful as carousel staffers who run the Brass Ring game.

Brown has gotten to see generations of San Diegans grow up at the carousel. We asked you to share your favorite memories of the Balboa Park Carousel. You made us tear up.

Some words from SDtoday readers:

  • Patti B.: “As a kid, I remember the joy of trying to snag the golden ring! I’m 80 now and still have fond memories of the Merry-Go-Round!”
  • James R.: “Pulling the rings for my kiddos! They love the carousel.”
  • Erin P.: “It was a great day anytime the carousel was open and my grandma or parents decided I could ride. It [brings] good memories and reminds me of being a happy kid (which I was most of the time!).”
  • Marlo B.: “I was one of those kids! I will have to bring my grandkids.”
  • Laura C.: “My dad would take me to Balboa Park every Sunday as a little girl and I would ride the carousel. Bill taught me how to play the Brass game when I was finally old enough! I recently got to take my son and it was so beautiful saying ‘hi’ to Bill and knowing that my son gets to experience the carousel with Bill just like I did when I was a little girl. Truly a San Diego treasure!”
More from SDtoday