Almost everyone who’s grown up in Oakland has memories of going to Fairyland--from riding the ferris wheel, to checking in on Pinoccio, to the puppet shows. Located next to Lake Merritt, Fairyland’s entrance is marked by a large boot, inspired by the tale of the old woman in the shoe. When Arthur Navlet founded the amusement park in 1950, there was no such thing as Disneyland, or carnivals specifically for children. Most amusement parks were geared towards thrill-seeking teenagers. He wanted to create a dream world where younger children could see fairy tales come true and have a safe space to go on adventures, hence the rule that adults couldn’t be admitted without a child.
To gain support for his idea, Arthur Navlet took it to the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, an organization for recreational activities, where he was able to raise $50,000. Oakland based architect William Russell Everitt created the seventeen original sets, “Trader Vic” Bergeron created the Play Island, and Milton Shoong made the Dragon Slide. Arthur Navlet did the landscaping, much of which was inspired by a children’s zoo in Detroit called Belle Isle Park.
Fairyland was the first themed park in the United States. From livestock to guides dressed up as children’s characters, it was an instant hit with families. Among the original sets were Pinocchio’s Castle, Thumbelina, Three Billy Goat’s Gruff, The Merry Miller, and The Three Little Pigs. When the park first opened, admission was nine to fourteen cents, depending on age. Today, it’s ten dollars.
The amusement park became a jumping off point for people to enter the kids’ entertainment industry. In addition to taking inspiration from Fairyland to create Disneyland, Walt Disney hired Fairyland’s first executive director, Dorothy Manes, and puppeteer Bob Mills. He was also motivated to create the exhibition Magic Kingdom in 1955 by Fairyland’s storybook theme and costumed employees. Oakland television star Bruce Sedley gave tours of Fairyland, explaining what the different sets were. However, as he aged, his voice grew frail, hence the talking boxes activated by keys, which are still in use today. In 2015, Fairyland won the “Best Place To Make You Feel Like You’re Five Again” Award from the editors of the East Bay Express.
I asked the director of Fairyland, C.J. Hirschfield, what a typical day of work at Fairyland looks like.”There is no such thing as a typical day at Fairyland,” she said. “The variety of tasks range from rolling out pizza as a new menu item, welcoming a vet to check out the animals, preparing for a special event at the park, approving insurance premiums, advocating at City Hall for additional funding, hiring new employees, removing graffiti, or checking out a new puppet show.” However, she said that the most enjoyable thing about her job is seeing kids who don’t have access to sweet, fun places to play arrive at Fairyland with huge smiles on their faces, and seeing how far the employee’s hard work has brought Fairyland.
Despite the rewarding moments, there are still many challenges. “I am always in ‘fundraising mode,’” Hirschfield said. “Whether it’s a matter of increasing our earned income (café, gift store, summer camp, weddings, etc.) or our donated income (foundations, individuals, companies, corporations). Luckily, Fairyland is a pretty easy “sell,” once people understand our mission.”
In addition to the original exhibits, Fairyland now has a ferris wheel, carousel, and train. In 2008, Aesop’s Playhouse opened, where plays for children are preformed on a weekly basis. “We have restored many original sets to their former glory, and added a number of new attractions (still in keeping with our theme and mission),” said Hirschfield . “But most significant has been the creation and growth of our Outreach program for low-income and at-risk youth. We serve former foster youth with a program that brings them together with our gentle animals, autistic children with a horticultural therapy session that engages their five senses, and a Science Alive! Program which brings our animals and plants to Oakland’s underserved schools. We also now offer free or subsidized park access to over 16,000 kids and their family members each year, including every Head Start kid in Oakland. We’ve also seen our attendance increase by over 100 percent over the last decade, and we currently have over a dozen weddings booked at the park! This would not have been possible had we not invested in the park’s infrastructure and renovation.”
The Fairyland experience is a precious memory for many, both visitors and residents of Oakland. “It’s a part of the collective memories of so many,” Hirschfield said. “We are unique, authentic, affordable, non-commercial and low-tech, and parents seem to love that about us. We have provided the first job for thousands of kids, and as I mentioned, are committed to ensuring that all families in our community have access to our amazing park.”