A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Where Fairy Tales Come True

(Above: Willie the Whale)

It seems like all my favorite haunts are popping up on TV these days. Last week, the Travel Channel ran a series called "101 Tastiest Places to Chow Down," and No. 4 in the whole country was Fenton's Creamery in Oakland.
The next day, The Travel Channel ran a repeat of "Man Versus Food," featuring host Adam Richman tackling the humongous, 2-pound Kitchen Sink sundae at the San Francisco Creamery in Walnut Creek.
But the climax came on Tuesday, when the new NBC dramedy, "Parenthood," opened with a scene filmed at Children's Fairyland in Oakland.
It couldn't have come at a better time because Fairyland is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
Fairyland was founded in 1950 by William Penn Mott, director of the East Bay Regional Parks system, and the legendary nurseryman, Arthur Navlet. They designed it to be, in their own words, "the dream of every child come true."
A frequent visitor to the park was Walt Disney, who opened Disneyland five years later, basing much of it on what he saw at Fairyland.
But I think the original far exceeds the imitation. Fairyland is everything Disneyland is not.
Disneyland is huge; Fairyland is cozy. Disneyland is frenetic; Fairyland is peaceful.
Most of the attractions at Disneyland are passive experiences; you're literally along for the ride.
But at Fairyland, most attractions are interactive, whether it's climbing down Willie the Whale's gullet, using your Magic Key to make one of the Storybook Boxes tell you a story, or exploring Alice in Wonderland's Tunnel.
It's all in keeping with the iron-clad rule that Mott and Navlet laid down when they founded the park: "No straight lines and a surprise around every corner."
Above all, Fairyland was built for little kids, first and foremost.
"There's a reason why you have to go through the big shoe to enter the park," says executive director C.J. Hirschfield. "It's sending a not-so-subtle message to the adults. They have to duck down while the kids proudly walk through straight and tall."
The target audience is toddlers, but many of them stay connected with Fairyland when they get older by becoming one of the Storybook Personalities. They perform musicals, represent Fairyland at public events, and serve as mentors and role models for the little ones.
My favorite Fairyland memory was the time I saw a Storybook Personality, about 10 years old, painting a flower on the cheek of a little girl, about 5.
I'll never forget the look on that little girl's face - a mixture of gratitude, hero worship and sheer amazement that a big kid was being so kind to her.
And I knew immediately that her goal was to grow up and be a Storybook Personality herself, when she, too, could be kind to a little kid.
But that's just my memory. I'll bet you have plenty of your own. And Fairyland is collecting them as part of its year-long 60th anniversary celebration.
Submit your stories (200 words or less) and photos on Fairyland's website, www.fairyland.org, or call 510-452-2259 to be sent a submission form. There will be prizes for both stories and photos, and all entries will be eligible to be featured on Fairyland's Facebook page, on Fairyland's YouTube channel, and in a giant scrapbook at the park.
I'll tell you more about Fairyland's celebration plans in a future column.

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