Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Permanent Superfan

Chris Kelley has fond memories of spending time at his grandma’s house in the 1970s. Young Chris and his two sisters loved going fishing near her house in Alameda and visiting locomotives at the Harrison Railroad Park on 7th Street in Oakland (now long gone).

But Chris's very favorite thing to do was to open her utility drawer, grab a Children’s Fairyland Magic Key (she had many) and persuade her to take him to his favorite place, where the key unlocked much more than just a talking Storybook Box.

Chris moved to Texas in 1994, when he was 24. His grandmother is gone now. But the memories they shared live on, and part of his heart always remained in Oakland. At Fairyland.

Last week he returned to Fairyland with his entire family: his wife, their four kids (ages 10 to 19) and his son’s girlfriend. Also along for the visit was a stunning tattooed image on one of Chris's arms. It depicts our iconic Willie the Whale figure biting at a fishhook shaped like a Magic Key.
Fairyland superfan Chris Kelley shows off the tattoo that celebrates his lifelong love of the park.
Naturally, we wanted to know more about him. When we heard his story, we became convinced that he is one of our most devoted superfans, and were once again reminded of the significance of childhood memories.

“I assign emotional feelings to inanimate objects a lot,” Chris told us. When he was young, he said, our Magic Key represented power to make something cool happen (“magic”!), and now it reminds him of a happy time “when things were less complicated, and money wasn’t an issue.”

When Chris’s kids were little, he did an internet search to see if Fairyland still existed. He was overjoyed to discover that we were still around. And so in 2001 he packed up his family and brought them to the park.

“All of those memories came flooding back,” he recalled. And his kids? “They went ballistic.” The puppet theatre, the dragon slide, the pirate ship—“it was a superb day.” Needless to say, Chris appreciates the fact that we have preserved so many aspects of the park that made it special for him.

And here’s the thing: when he inserted his Magic Key into a Storybook Box, grown-up Chris could immediately recall exactly how the park used to be when he was a boy. And he took note of changes -- even subtle ones -- that have occurred in the park since then.

That’s when he started becoming a serious collector of our keys. All different colors, many with the original tags. The pewter version. Even the gold-plated edition.

Then the idea of the tattoo came to him. Again thanks to the internet, he knew that other Fairyland fans had tattoos of the Magic Key. He decided he wanted something different and special.

Recalling his happy childhood fishing trips, he developed a design that turned the key into a fishhook that tempts our Willie the Whale. He studied details like the exact color of the whale’s eyes and the texture of the key. “I was trying to be a perfectionist,” he told us.

The tattoo artist added a glow, and the finished art is superb.

When his friends in Dripping Springs, Texas, ask him about this unique bit of body art, Chris sees it as an opportunity to talk about his favorite park, and about the way we inspired Walt Disney when Disneyland was still just a dream.

While Chris visited us last week, our master puppeteer, Randal Metz, treated him to a behind-the-scenes tour of our historic puppet theater -- “a lifelong dream,” Chris said.

Some people may think that a guy like Chris is a little eccentric. After all, he's building a reproduction on his property in Texas of the Bong Tree from our Owl and the Pussycat set. And he'd love nothing more than to build a life-size replica of Willie the Whale in his backyard. (His wife has vetoed that idea.)

“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he said, “but she knows that Fairyland has a special place in my heart.”

I often tell people that I’m in the memory-making business. And after 14 years in this job, I can tell you that memories really do matter.

Just ask our new friend Chris.

-- C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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