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Return to Oz: Vintage theme parks enjoy an afterlife

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/09/2016 John Bordsen
Just like in the 1970s, groups of guests accompany their Dorothy guides down the Yellow Brick Road. © Sean Barrett, landofoznc.com Just like in the 1970s, groups of guests accompany their Dorothy guides down the Yellow Brick Road.

BEECH MOUNTAIN, N.C. —  Funky old fair midways just pack up and hit the road; they will live to Tilt-a-Whirl another day. But fate is less kind to time-honored amusement parks. 

Their mortality rate is high when bankruptcy or natural calamity shutter their gates. Time and vandalism work against them. Intact attractions are usually sold and carted away; what remains are broken-dream eyesores situated on prime acreage ready for redevelopment.

“Derelict parks are not in condition to reopen,” says Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Association. “They’re in disrepair and are dangerous.” 

But not here. Land of Oz, dead these past 36 years, attracts 7,500 fans of the park — and of the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie that inspired it – to the annual Autumn at Oz weekend. 

The September event is so popular that this June, Friday walk-throughs of the grounds were also offered. 

What saved Dorothy’s house, large portions of the Yellow Brick Road and several other Oz features is its improbable fallen-from-the-sky location on a mountain top in northwest North Carolina.

The road to Oz

In the 1950s, brothers Grover, Spencer and Harry Robbins were operating vacation-oriented developments that included Tweetsie Railroad, a Wild West-theme park in nearby Blowing Rock. (Tweetsie, still open and thriving, is billed as the state’s oldest theme park.)

They leased the top of Beech Mountain (elevation: 5,506 feet), the site of an apple orchard that reminded their creative consultant of a spooky forest Judy Garland and her friends had to traverse on their big-screen Wizard of Oz quest.

The result was a linear park: Guests would begin at the Gale family’s Kansas farmhouse, be gusted to Oz, then escorted down the Yellow Brick Road by a Dorothy. On the way, they would encounter the Scarecrow, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Tin Man, Munchkins and other characters who would do specially commissioned song-and-dance routines.

There were no rides, except for a glorified ski lift from the Emerald City finale (and adjacent gift shops) that provided an aerial view of the theme park. Land of Oz debuted in June 1970 and pulled in 400,000 people that summer. 

But a little over a year later, Walt Disney World opened in Florida. That and the 1973 opening of the ride-driven Carowinds park in Charlotte, N.C., cast a pall over Land of Oz. Adding to the problem: off-season vandalism and destructive snowy winters. The attraction permanently closed after the 1980 season; the land reverted to the mountain’s owners.

Oz’s 450 acres decayed. But skiers continued to go to the adjacent Beech Mountain ski resort. Residential lots surrounding Oz were sold to mountain lovers, including those nostalgic for the old park. The population of what essentially is suburban Oz is now about 3,000 households.

Among the arrivals was Cynthia Keller, 56, a fan of Land of Oz in its heyday and who these days is project manager for the Emerald Mountain Properties site.

Keller lives in what was once Uncle Henry’s Kansas petting-zoo barn. She leases the Gale family farmhouse where Dorothy lived — a 5/8ths replica of the movie home — as a vacation rental. Through the year she also leads the area’s volunteer preservationists — she calls them “Ozians” — with upkeep on the winding Yellow Brick Road (current status: 44,000 customized, fire-glazed yellow bricks), plantings and whatnot.  Artifacts found among the ruins are preserved. 

Much of Oz may never return. The Yellow Brick Road tapers into oblivion near the sole remaining arch at the approach to the long-gone Emerald City.

A partial comeback

Fully restored is the cellar where a tour-leading Dorothy would gather guests as a tornado was on the way. Once all were safely inside, sound effects and a wind machine would signal the storm’s arrival. After, you’d step outside and into Oz, where a staffer garbed as Glinda the Good Witch met you. That’s where the Yellow Brick Road would begin.

The pre-Computer Age chicanery at the Crooked House is simple but effective, a crowd-pleaser during the June Friday walk-throughs and during Autumn at Oz. The events are quick sell-outs.

But Keller says the park could never open as a commercial attraction in this day and age. “For one thing, it’s not (ADA) accessible. You couldn’t push a wheelchair through there.”

Although the Gale home can be leased as a getaway throughout the year, the rest of Land of Oz is off-limits to the public at all other times. 

Tim Hollis, an Alabama-based writer of books about tourism history, is wrapping up The Land of Oz (Arcadia Press). He says the enduring appeal of the Beech Mountain attraction is tied to what inspired it: “It’s based on a well-known property, the L. Frank Baum series of Oz books, but more to the movie,” he says. “When the park opened, The Wizard of Oz was only on TV once a year.”

Hollis’ dozens of other titles include Dixie Before Disney, which chronicles the demise of pre-Walt parks: “There were a bunch that closed at the same time. It’s ironic that you have a lost generation of them. They couldn’t hang on long enough to become legends.”

If you go

Land of Oz parking is at 1007 Beech Mountain Parkway, Beech Mountain, N.C. 

Dates: Sept. 9 (11 a.m.-1 p.m., 1-3 p.m.), Sept. 10-11 (10 a.m.-noon, noon-2 p.m., 2-4 p.m. both days)

Tickets: $35. To order: etix.com/ticket/v/11891/land-of-oz

Land of Oz info: landofoznc.com

Facebook fan page: "Land of Oz - Beech Mountain, NC." 

Dorothy’s House rental (June-October rates): $575 for three weeknights, $630 for three-night weekend. Details: emeraldrealtyandrentals.com.

Not forgotten, not completely gone 

That so few amusement parks survive old age makes them endangered cultural curios. Building codes, safety codes and liability insurance doom many relicts. Joyland in Wichita met the wrecking ball last year. Ghost Town in the Sky, a Wild West amusement park (1961-2009) southwest of Asheville, N.C., remains padlocked and deteriorating despite repeated attempts to revive it.

But at least three legendary parks partly returned from the dead, and portions of some deceased destinations remain accessible to the public. Historian Jim Futrell has written six books about fun parks and tries to stay current on their status. He and others schooled in paleo-parks point to these places:

• Cypress Gardens, Winter Haven Fla.  What’s considered Florida’s first theme park — it began as a botanical attraction in 1936 — became known for water-skiing and other aquatic shows (its 1953 Florida Pool was built as a set for an Esther Williams swimming movie). Hurricanes and competition from Walt Disney World led to ownership changes and a series of bankruptcies at the 200-acre park. In 2010, it was purchased to become the site of a Legoland.

But 16 key acres inside Legoland Florida have been set aside and preserved as a nod to the past. The iconic Florida Pool and Oriental Gardens have been restored. Both were reopened in 2014 and can be seen with regular Legoland admission. legoland.com/florida

• Belmont Park, San Diego, opened in 1925 as a beachfront amusement center, was on its last legs by the 1970s when the city acquired it. Despite redevelopment-related teardowns, the lease-holder since 2012 has made a financial go of it as a mixed-use retail/entertainment site. Rides that survive include the restored Big Dipper roller coaster, which dates to the park’s earliest days and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Plunge, also built in 1925 and billed as the “the largest indoor heated pool in Southern California,” is closed for repairs.belmontpark.com

• Coney Island, Cincinnati, opened in 1886 on the banks of the Ohio River and thrived until 1971 when its owners moved most of the rides to their new property, Kings Island. When they couldn’t sell the flood-prone Coney Island site, its grounds were maintained and the 2-acre 1925-vintage Sunlite Pool remained open (capacity: 10,000 swimmers). Renovations, the addition of small rides and the creation there of the 15-acre summer home of the Cincinnati Symphony has given Coney Island a new life. coneyislandpark.com

• Rocky Point, Warwick, R.I., evolved from a simple attraction on Narragansett Bay in the 1850s to an 82-acre, ride-filled amusement park. It went belly-up in 1995. The rides were sold; buildings were vandalized and the midway was demolished after two suspicious fires. The seaward half of the park became public property in 2008 and since 2014 has been Rocky Point State Park. The largely cleared grounds still have an entrance arch from the amusement park and parts of a high-wire ride (climbing is prohibited). Picnicking, bike riding, boating and fishing are permitted at the passive-use park (no restrooms, no drinking water). riparks.com/Locations/LocationRockyPoint.html

• Kishacoquillas Park, Lewistown, Pa. In 1900, the local trolley company started an end-of-the-line 45-acre park to encourage ridership. After World War II, new owners raised the rides total to 15. “Kish Park” was where Kishacoquillas (kish-a-co-QUAL-is) Creek enters the Juniata River, and when Hurricane Agnes came through in 1972, the site sustained severe damage and folded. The rides were sold, and the land eventually became a community park.

There are ball fields, camp sites, a mini-golf course — and a row of old buildings from Kish Park’s glory days: The former toy store now houses a community theater (the 1904 building that held a haunted house attraction is the troupe’s backstage area). The arcade building is now a maintenance garage for Derry Township vehicles, and the old bumpercar/scooter building — protective mesh screening still in place — is a picnic pavilion. All are still painted in amusement park style. Every April, carnival rides are trucked to the park for a nostalgic fundraiser for Lewistown’s historic Embassy Theater. derrytwp.info/Pages/Home.aspx

• Guntown Mountain, Cave City, Ky., midway between Louisville and Nashville, is near an I-65 exit and Mammoth Cave. It was a Wild West-theme park with staged gunfights, mini-golf, entertainment and rides. The ’70s attraction shut down piecemeal in recent years, has proven difficult to reopen and is closed to the public.  An area-led group of investors bought it at auction this year and hopes to restore its rides, trails and zipline. 

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