Somewhere over the rainbow … lies a theme park called the Land of Oz.
It’s in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, to be precise, the dream-child of 1970s developers. And though it is now mostly defunct, Oz is open to visitors this month for tours and in September for a festival. Follow the yellow brick road!
The Land of Oz originally opened in 1970 and closed in 1980. Since then, it has opened once a year or so to raise funds for minimal maintenance.
The park has an annual Autumn of Oz event. Also, in June 2018, the park is scheduled to be open for tours led by Dorothy, with some guests playing other characters, on every Friday and on June 30th.
Like many abandoned spaces, the all-but-defunct park had 15 minutes of infamy when a photographer discovered it and posted pictures that showed the contrast between Emerald City fantasy and behind-the-curtain reality.
In Seph Lawless’s 2015 photos, the park looks spookily rundown, with overgrown plants and broken roads, more like somewhere you’d encounter the Wicked Witch of the West and not Glinda the Good Witch. (But don’t try to take your own rogue Instagram selfies; the park is privately owned and operated and “trespassers will be prosecuted.”)
For the first time, the Land of Oz theme park is offering one-hour guided tours every Friday in June (plus Saturday, June 30). Consistent with the trends of the times, the current “Journey With Dorothy” tour is not a ride around the park in a bus but an immersive “interactive experience.”
As the park’s website explains: “With Dorothy as your guide, you will skip down the yellow brick road through the magical Land of Oz™ to help her search for the wonderful wizard … You may even get the chance to play one of the roles of Dorothy’s trusted companions or the wicked witch that she meets throughout her journey.” The park provides props to help visitors play the roles of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion.
A pop-up museum houses costumes from the original Land of Oz theme park, which features Dorothy in a 1970s-era mini skirt and psychedelic dancing mushrooms. The costumes for the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion as seen here departed a bit from the movies’ presentation.
The property still has its yellow brick road and a quarter-replica of Dorothy’s farm house, with a soundtrack of Aunt Em’s urging everyone to rush into the storm cellar ahead of the tornado: “A storm’s a-comin’!”
Wizard of Oz’ Theme Park Is Opening for the Summer
Unsurprisingly, tickets to the “Journey With Dorothy” event sold out soon after dates were announced. On June 14, tickets will be available for the next event, the annual three-day festival Autumn at Oz in September.
But wait, how did a Land of Oz theme park land in the Appalachian mountains in the first place? That’s almost as strange as being carried from Kansas to Oz by a tornado!
In the late 1969s, two developers bought Beech Mountain intending to open a ski resort. They hired a designer to brainstorm ideas on how to use the property during summer months; the designer in turn recognized the beech trees on the aptly named mountain had been a key part of the woodsy backdrop in the Wizard of Oz movie.
The theme park was a big deal at the time. Construction lasted two years and cost $5 million; 44,000 yellow glazed bricks were laid, according to the Land of Oz website.
A gondola ride shaped like a hot-air balloon took guests to the top of Beech Mountain, where they visited the museum, which had Dorothy’s original costume from the movie (it was later stolen).
Debbie Reynolds, with her daughter Carrie Fisher by her side, cut the opening day ribbon on June 15, 1970. Nearly half a million people showed up in its first year of operation.
The park’s immediate popularity didn’t ensure its longevity, however. The 1970s saw an oil crisis, which curtailed car trips, a 1975 fire that destroyed about half of the property, and the concurrent theft of some of the most valuable museum items. The park’s backers went bankrupt. Oz fell into disrepair, and closed in 1980.
Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz was originally published in 1900 and adapted into a Broadway play in 1902. But its runaway fame was thanks to the iconic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Margaret Hamilton, among many others.
The film used then revolutionary Technicolor for the scenes in the Land of Oz, was nominated for six Academy Awards (winning two), and starting in 1956 became imprinted in American children’s brains with its annual TV airing.
(In a sad footnote, Jerry Maren, the last of the 100 or so dwarfs who played Munchkins in the movie, recently passed at age 98. He played the singing and dancing leader of the Lollipop Guild, who presented Dorothy with a lollipop upon her arrival in Oz.)
It is perhaps not surprising that nostalgic Baby Boomers raised on the promise of the Emerald City and Dorothy’s red slippers are flocking to the theme park, some in costume and some with grandkids in tow.
After all, as Judy Garland sang in the Academy Award-winning song: “Dreams really do come true.”
E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City