What a World

02.12.14

Follow the Yellow Brick Road…to North Carolina

Who says the good old days are gone? The Land of Oz shuttered over two decades ago, but for two days every year, the old crew comes back to spread some 'Wizard of Oz' magic.

Somewhere over the rainbow—specifically atop Beech Mountain in western North Carolina—a yellow brick road leads straight to Oz. For more than three decades, the Land of Oz has been abandoned, languishing amid the trees since the once-popular amusement park closed in 1980.

Opened to a flood of visitors in 1970, the Land of Oz operated for a single decade before economic problems led the owners to shutter it. But in 1990, a development project on the mountain drew fresh attention to the failed park. Since then, visitors, including the park’s former employees, have returned every year for a two-day “Autumn at Oz” festival (the party pledges to go on even in the event of a twister). “Guest [sic] will take a tour of Auntie Em’s and Uncle Henry’s farm and meet Dorothy and friends along the Yellow Brick Road,” the website describes. “It’s a wonderful chance to meet other Ozzies and relive our childhood.” Costumes are encouraged, and the park’s remaining original cast even performs.

“I would disappear in a puff of smoke and then reappear,” a former Dorothy recalled during her return to the Land of Oz. “I worked here for about four years. It was really fun. It spoiled me for any other work.”

The theme park was the creation of two men, property developer Grover Robbins—who wanted to build an attraction to make Beech Mountain, already a popular ski resort, a year-round destination—and Jack Pentes, a designer, who visited the site for inspiration and was intrigued by the mountain’s trees. “They seemed to have faces. Their limbs seemed to be reaching out for me,” he told a local newspaper one year after the opening. Then, he said, he realized: “This is the Land of Oz!”

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And so it became. When it was at it’s prime, the park guided guests through an elaborate adventure. A forested trail began with a sculpture of Dorothy holding her sidekick Toto, and wound through the trees to Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm, where real life pigs and horses grazed. A simulated tornado would land visitors in Oz, and they’d climb out of a lopsided house, which had just landed on the Wicked Witch of the West. There, the beloved characters would emerge: the Cowardly Lion singing about courage and the Scarecrow dancing with the crows. Guests were swept away on the 44,000-brick Yellow Brick Road toward the Emerald City, where the four determined characters pleaded with a smoke-encircled Oz to fulfill their wishes. A ride in a ski lift crafted to look like a flying hot-air balloon even brought visitors to the vantage point of a flying monkey.

The park’s design was modeled on L. Frank Baum’s 14-book series rather than the 1939 movie, but the creators still relied on cinematic elements to achieve the right effect. They secured the rights to the classic theme song, “Over the Rainbow” and displayed Judy Garland’s famous blue dress and other artifacts from the film at an on-site museum. Actress Debbie Reynolds, a collector of Oz memorabilia and co-owner of Dorothy’s dress, helped the museum acquire the mementos. In 1970, Reynolds and her then-unknown daughter Carrie Fisher came to the park’s inaugural day to do the honors of cutting the ribbon.

“Way up high in the North Carolina mountains, a Land of Oz can imbue a little magic.Just pack your own ruby slippers.”

The Land of Oz attracted 400,000 visitors during its first summer, and it soon became the second most-visited tourist park in the eastern part of the country, trailing behind Disney World.

But time was unkind to the Land of Oz. The company that owned the park filed for bankruptcy after a different property failed, and, shortly after, a fire destroyed the amphitheater and the museum was burglarized. A few years later, maintenance issues forced the new owners to shut the amusement park down. The various sets, from the Wicked Witch’s gothic castle to the whimsical Munchkin Village, were abandoned and left to decay.

Since the surrounding development began in 1990, the park’s bits and pieces have been spruced up, aided by volunteers who come to clear weeds from the Yellow Brick Road. Apart from the annual fall festival, the park is also available to rent out for private events, tours, and picnics. Dorothy’s house has been converted into accommodations, and you can even hire the heel-clicking character herself to join your party for $100. Now, way up high in the North Carolina mountains, a Land of Oz can imbue a little magic. Just pack your own ruby slippers.