Saturday, January 2, 2016

SAVING STORYLAND

Although Children’s Fairyland was the nation’s first storybook theme park, many others followed. In the 1950s, the world was no longer at war, and families were growing and looking for sweet places to spend time together. Disneyland, which opened five years after Fairyland, was certainly the biggest such park, but dozens of other smaller parks opened around the country, many of them inspired by Fairyland.

One of them was Fresno’s Storyland, which has recently been re-imagined after a sad decline.Storyland, which originally opened in 1962, closed earlier this year because of financial difficulties. It reopened in September thanks to a dedicated group of people who raised half a million dollars from the community.

Bruce Batti, who heads an ad agency in Fresno, led the charge. He brought his sons – now in their twenties – to the park years ago, and had fond memories of a place devoid of electronics and commercialism, a place that inspired make-believe and love of learning.
I was surprised when Bruce told me a vocal minority had objected to the park’s reopening. 

“They said that the park wasn’t relevant, that their kids don’t know the stories we’re telling,” Bruce said.

His response: “Come to the park with a 3-year-old, and watch as they’re greeted by a storybook character. Irrelevance is not a word that’s in their vocabulary.”

Bruce firmly believes that certain things are timeless, and that one of those things is family members interacting with each other in a whimsical way.

I know I’m biased, but I have to agree.

The path to Storyland’s reopening was not easy. Bruce’s agency pretty much adopted the project, assigning copywriters, designers and event producers to the project. Bruce himself devoted over 20 hours in some weeks toward bringing the park back and creating a solid plan for sustainability.

It worked. Contributions began arriving, from small individual gifts to a $25,000 donation from Fresno natives Brook and Robin Lopez, twins and professional basketball players, who had loved visiting the park when they were young.

The Fresno Zoo is adjacent to Storyland, and Bruce says an alliance between the two attractions could be mutually beneficial. Storyland’s new board includes the zoo’s CEO and board chair, as well as a former county supervisor, a financial expert, the general manager of the local Univision channel and an attorney.

Bruce knows that they have to prove they can be viable over the long term. But recent press coverage is helping the cause – as are facility improvements that include the repair of the park’s popular train, Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades, new landscaping, a new sound system, upgraded security and a new coat of paint. New park attractions are planned, including a recreation of our very popular Jack and Jill Hill – a big hill covered in Astroturf. (We’re also proud that Storyland recreated our Happy Dragon, and installed Storybook Boxes – operated by Magic Keys, of course – inspired by Fairyland’s.)


Storyland’s reopening was a resounding success, and the park is currently breaking even. Bruce and his team acknowledge that much still needs to be done for it to survive and thrive. 

“We’re hell-bent on not spending more than we take in,” says Bruce, who worked in the park’s ticket office for four days so he could get feedback from patrons.

Some months ago, Bruce visited me at Fairyland for a tour and brainstorming. I was impressed with his energy and commitment to his community’s littlest kids. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also helps to have a Fairy Godfather on the job.

-C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry.  C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.



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