The regional theme park history book keeps pushing right along toward completion (hint…it’s close). To hold you over in the meantime, I’ll be sharing bits and pieces from the book and my research while tossing in other interesting items along the way. Three of them, in fact. I’m extremely pleased to have some wonderful folks who were eager to pitch in on this project.
First up is Rob Decker, former Senior Vice President of Planning & Design for the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company. We saw his beaming face every time the company made a big announcement or opened an attraction. More importantly for this project, though, was his role in bringing back story, history, and rich placemaking to their parks. I posted an earlier article featuring some of their recent work at Carowinds, and I’m thrilled Rob is writing the foreword for the book.
Next is Mel McGowan, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Storyland Studios. Several years ago I ran the idea by him for writing a book on Ira West, his dear friend and mentor, along with some of the other early designers who haven’t received a lot of attention. This morphed over time, as you’ll see when the book comes out, but the spirit is still there. Mel’s experience as a spatial storyteller comes into play in a section titled Duell Design 101, offering perspectives into the design thinking of R. Duell & Associates from those early regional parks.
And then there’s Rick Bastrup, President and Head Designer at R&R Creative Amusement Designs Inc. You’ve certainly seen or ridden his work, as he’s been designing park attractions for decades. If you ever rode Grand Canyon Rapids at MGM Grand Adventures he probably took a shot at you as Sheriff Rick. Working closely alongside Randall Duell’s team gave him a front row seat into how they worked; it also netted him amazing friends for life. Rick shares some of his perspectives on the artists, designers, and innovators he met over the years including Ira West, Bud Hurlbut, Ron Toomer, and Dave Bradley of Beverly Park.
Thanks guys—I’ll have to remember to send you Christmas cards this year.
Grab your free preview chapter and get email updates with these extra park goodies by signing up here: https://www.rivershorecreative.com/themeparkbooksignup
Here’s an excerpt from the chapter Munchkins, Berries, & Hersheybars. This chapter focuses on parks other than the major, built-from-the-ground-up theme parks. Some of these technically qualify as a theme park, although they weren’t built in the Disneyland mold, while others morphed into theme parks along the way. This is the short story of a quirky place high up in the mountains of North Carolina—The Land of Oz.
Grover Robbins, years after successfully getting Tweetsie Railroad and Rebel Railroad rolling, hired a designer from Charlotte, NC and dragged him to the top of Beech Mountain. It was no easy trip, being a rugged, undeveloped region. “We want to put something on top of the mountain,” Grover and his brother told him. Something that would attract people but interfere with nature as little as possible. Jack Pentes explored the nooks, crannies, and amazing twisted trees that had been standing sentry for, well, centuries. “He walked the property on his knees on a dirt path so he could design everything from a child’s perspective,” explains Sean Barrett, the park’s artistic director. And then it began to dawn on him. The trees seemed to reach out and grab him, seemed so familiar. And then he turned a corner and there it was—the Cowardly Lion’s cave, placed exactly as in the movie. “There was no question that this was Oz. It was over the rainbow—part of another world.”
Pentes’ design director, Joe Sonderman, took charge of the project from concept to final construction. The goal was to fit the park elements into the natural surroundings without disturbing anything. “We had to lay Oz into the set.” In the end they wound up chopping down only a single tree of any significance.
Land of Oz opened in 1970. Just getting there was an adventure, driving up steep, winding roads deep into the mountains, then taking a ski lift from Beech Tree Village up to the top. No earthen berm required here to keep out the real world. Explore Dorothy’s house and hold tight as the tornado rips you from Kansas, then step out onto the yellow brick road, passing through the miniature setting of Munchkinland. The ultimate destination was Emerald City, where you could shop and witness the Wizard presenting a heart to Tin Man, courage to the Cowardly Lion, a brain for Scarecrow, then joyfully watch Dorothy lift off in a hot air balloon on her way back to Kansas. As a child I remember floating over the park in one of those magical balloons (a modified gondola), basking in the breathtaking views of the surrounding Smoky Mountains.
It was a magical, quirky kind of place. If Land of Oz had been built most anywhere else it wouldn’t have had the charm and emotional connection it did. The combination of physical setting and emotional attachment to the movie was a powerful effect. But the 70s were a difficult time for vacation destinations, and a combination of Robbins’ death, financial difficulties at his company, increased competition, and a major fire that destroyed a large portion of Emerald City helped bring about the end. New owners tried for a few years, but with attendance dwindling down to almost nothing, finally gave up in 1980.
The park has found a bit of new life in a limited role by opening certain weekends during the year. After sitting abandoned for decades, with decaying buildings and trespassers snatching pieces of the brick road, the owners are gradually trying to rediscover the magic. You never know—maybe someday, somewhere over the rainbow, the dream will come true.