He's sowing his Wildwood oats at 'Randyland'

Senna acquired items from the Enchanted Tiki Room and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea while working at Walt Disney World.
Senna acquired items from the Enchanted Tiki Room and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea while working at Walt Disney World.
Posted: December 04, 2010

THE POLAR BEAR snarls and the square-jawed gunslingers squint their steely eyes, but the friendly walrus bellhop beckons visitors to step inside a Wildwood wonderland that's been dormant for a decade.

Curious adults and children have tugged at locked doors at Pacific and Wildwood avenues for years now, pressing their faces against the glass to catch a glimpse at the odd figures, arcade games, and bizarre contraptions that seem to go on forever in the massive building.

They also see mannequin clones of Randy Senna, a veritable Willy Wonka of Wildwood, whose sparkling blue eyes and permanent, snow-white smile brighten up the darkness inside the former Woolworth's. Every day, a handful of Randy mannequins in various stages of undress smile at the lunch counter while others sit on pinball machines. Beaming Randy heads, minus the body, smile from the ice-cream freezer, the hot-dog grill, and from inside the churro warmer instead of crispy cinnamon sticks.

"This is Randyland, that's why there's Randys all over the place. There are hundreds of them," the real Senna said one recent fall afternoon with a booming laugh. "It's a history of fun here, it's a history of New Jersey boardwalks, and most of all, it's a history of me. You walk through my life here. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do anything. I play pinball. I am married to this. These are my children."

Like the fictional Willy Wonka, Senna, 50, is an eccentric man whose life revolves around a few burning passions. He's gifted, too, a self-taught electrical engineer who, according to one peer, could fix broken machines with paper clips and bubble gum.

"This guy should be building the next moon rocket," said Senna's attorney, Scott Becker. "I understand, and not because he told me himself, that he's pretty much a genius."

Government bureaucracy, Senna said, has prevented him from opening Randyland for years because leaders felt it was more arcade than museum and arcades weren't a permitted use on Pacific Avenue. New leaders looking to revitalize the street are more open to Randyland, he said, and he thinks he might get his "golden ticket" by summer.

"I'm just trying to live my dream," he said.

Senna's "children" are thousands of pinball machines, video games, antiques and props from amusements and attractions up and down the Jersey shore, along with rare items from Disney World, where he once worked. The collection fills both floors of the old Woolworth's building, along with 20 tractor-trailer loads in storage yards.

Senna is not simply a collector who uses deep pockets to gobble up random items on eBay or at estate sales. Almost every item inside Randyland, from his old Schwinn bicycle to his mother's crib to the specific "Crook's Saloon" shooting game he played as a kid, has a direct connection to his past.

The collection, he says, is easily worth "millions" if he sold it off piece by piece, but he cringes at the thought.

"This is my life, it's not a business here," he said. "I haven't made a dime in here in 10 years."

Senna was raised in North Jersey in "upper middle class" Short Hills, where his father was a "blue collar" attorney who did everything from "murder cases to parking tickets," he said.

He credits his parents, whom he now cares for in Wildwood, for lighting his passion, but they didn't just buy up every pinball machine he ogled at. They took him to the boardwalk and he took care of the rest.

In Seaside Heights, Senna spent hours, sometimes whole days, rolling little rubber balls into holes for prizes at a bingo-like game called "Fascination."

Senna became so enamored with Fascination, so skilled with each roll, that he was eventually banished from his favorite arcade for winning too much. The hooks were in deep, though, and before he finished high school, he knew his future would revolve around Fascination and all the noisy, colorful games that made up the sound track of his youth.

"Anybody can play Skee-Ball; not anybody can play Fascination," he said. "It takes a little bit more intelligence."

Fixing cranky, old games became his specialty when arcade owners would throw up their hands. His collection started, he said, when he would salvage games no one wanted or accepted a pinball machine with a prayer's chance of working instead of a paycheck.

"I was always at the right place," he said. "My mother said it was God's gift. I never went to school for it; I was self taught and I'm quite, quite proficient."

Simon Benichou, director of food, beverage and games at Morey's Piers in Wildwood, said Senna is an "electrical genius," albeit an expensive one.

"He's like MacGyver," Benichou said. "There are times when we'll sit around for hours, stumped over a problem, and we'll give in and call Randy and he'll have it working in minutes."

Senna bought and ran his first Fascination tables out of high school and later spent several years working in Disney World, where he amassed items Disney collectors would "kill for." He made a "triumphant return" to New Jersey, he said, when the man who booted him from Fascination in Seaside Heights as a teen offered to sell him his operation.

"This was huge," he said. "That humiliation as a kid scarred me."

Senna owned and operated Fascination games and arcades in Seaside Heights and Wildwood for decades until this past summer, when he put his business, Flipper's Fascination on the Wildwood boardwalk, into "hibernation" to care for his parents.

Senna lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on a museum off the Wildwood boardwalk in the 1990s after learning that the building was unsafe, and he's been fighting over zoning issues at the Woolworth's building ever since. Wildwood Commissioner Al Brannen vowed to help Senna iron out the issues after taking a tour of Randyland. The bells and whistles and the clanging of pinballs on glass and wood were like a time machine, Brannen said.

"You can daydream again in there. I didn't want to leave," Brannen said "The amount of stuff he has is mind-boggling."

Unlike Willy Wonka, though, Senna doesn't have an heir and he worries about the future of his life's work.

"I have no one," he said. "I am the most important machine in this place."

If and when Randyland opens for tours, Senna might find a good-hearted Charlie Bucket, someone with the same sense of pure fascination he first felt as a boy on the boardwalk so many years ago.

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