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Nora Rose Mueller

The Fantastic World of Children’s Fairyland

Perched on a hill along the edge of Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA is a row of vividly painted block letters spelling out the word Fairyland. The sign is visible at a distance, beckoning across the lake, but the entrance to Children’s Fairyland itself is secluded behind old, thick trees. A winding gravel path leads up from the sidewalk to the “Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe”: a giant boot with a doorway carved out at the bottom. Near the top of the shoe, a life-sized doll is visible through a small, weathered window, peering out at visitors as they pass by. Coiled around the entrance and stretching along the fence is a giant topiary dragon, its head turned to look out over the city. Beneath it, a pair of gates, purple and wrought with gold fairies, opens out into the park itself.

FairylandNora Rose Mueller

A local, hidden treasure, Fairyland is a park for young children filled with elaborate, old-fashioned storybook sets–the Jolly Rodger ship from Peter Pan, the cottages of each of the three little pigs, a maze of playing cards from Alice In Wonderland. Each is a fully functional structure–kids can climb over, under, and through them to live out their favorite stories. Between them pathways move along in slow curves (there are no straight lines at Fairyland), bordered by flowers and trees, such that one is enveloped in a fantastic realm from another era.

For $3, visitors are given a key in a bright color to keep and use throughout the park (I still keep a vivid purple one on my keychain, as an adult). Each storybook set in Fairyland is accompanied by a small, light blue box with the name of a fairytale printed on it in old-fashioned letters. Turning the key in the box prompts a quaint, crackling recording to play, which recounts an abbreviated version the fairytale tale in a rich, even voice.

Image via Fairyland.comImage via Fairyland.com

Arthur Navlet, an Oakland nursery owner, first conceived of Fairyland in 1948. At the time, little existed in the way of children’s amusement parks outside of the occasional carousel or pony-ride. Navlet, however, imagined something fantastic: an outdoor park with a coterie of farm animals, engaging live entertainment, playful structures children could interact with, and landscaping that would complete the whimsical atmosphere. Navlet brought his proposal to the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, who happily gave their approval, and with the help of Oakland’s citizens (who raised $50,000), the park first opened its doors in 1950. After a period under the jurisdiction of the city, Fairyland became a non-profit in 1994.

Shortly after the park opened, Fairyland was visited by Walt Disney. Impressed by the park, Disney returned to Anaheim, opening Disneyland there in 1954. Disney’s “magic kingdom” section of the park was inspired by Fairyland, and Disney would go on to hire Fairyland’s puppeteer and executive director.

Fairyland HouseNora Rose Mueller

 

When Navlet first conceived of Fairyland, he imagined a balance of fanciful landscapes and playful storybook structures–with something to be discovered around every corner. Over the years, the gardens have evolved under the guidance of different groundskeepers–a mix of ornamental and native plants grow throughout the park (including some of those originally planted by Navet in the 1950s). Today, Jackie Salas, the chief horticulturist for Fairyland, is focused on creating a landscape for Oakland kids who may not otherwise have access to beautiful gardens. Salas works on creating a space they can come and enjoy–a place they can call their own.

FairylandNora Rose Mueller

Almost the entire park is organic–Salas uses no pesticides, only a bit of fertilizer in the nursery, as she wants to keep the park safe for children and animals; she uses only soap and oil against pests. The results speak for themselves: the park attracts crowds of ladybugs and is a part of Oakland’s Pollinator Posse, having released 900 monarchs in 2014.

In addition, Fairyland operates several programs for children. Fieldtrips from local schools enjoy the Beanstalk program, learning about gardening with the organic demonstration vegetable garden. Fairyland is also beginning a horticulture therapy program for children with mild autism and cerebral palsy by planting a garden to stimulate the five senses. Salas also works with young adults with disabilities to prepare them to enter the workforce.

Fairyland KangarooNora Rose Mueller

As a child I spent many afternoons at Fairyland–peeking out of the Crooked Man’s crooked house, wandering into the mouth of Willie the Whale, sliding down the spine of a very fearsome dragon. But even as an adult, Fairyland is an enchanting place. It retains a timelessness, preserved by the earnestness and enthusiasm of those who visit and of those who work there. At Children’s Fairyland, everyone can be a kid.

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