Hansel and Gretel – Lost in The (Enchanted) Forest

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The holidays are coming, and soon you’ll begin to smell warm baking sweets wafting in the air.  After your delicious Thanksgiving meal, you too will want to stuff yourself with pies and cakes. But watch out – if you eat too much, you might be offered a long walk deep into the forest. Its starting to get dark early, and it’s very easy to get lost in those woods.

Such is the tale of Hansel and his sister Gretel, whose father reluctantly lured his children into the woods after being convinced by his new wife that the family could not afford to feed four mouths. Hansel, over-hearing the evil plan, cleverly decided to drop a path of breadcrumbs along the way so that the children could easily find their way back home. Poor Hansel, he didn’t account for the birds. On a night a lot like tonight, and after many days of wandering with no food, they had grown very desperate and hungry. The two children could hardly believe their eyes when they came upon a house made entirely of gingerbread, held together with icing, candies, and sweets. Just a little nibble won’t hurt anyone, right?

The Enchanted Forest in Old Forge New York opened in 1956, and at first glance,many would assume that the gingerbread house was built early in the park’s history. In the late 50s and early 60s story parks were booming and the Enchanted Forest was expanding attractions rapidly. In actuality, work on Hansel and Gretel’s house didn’t begin until 1981, and due to the complexity and size it took approximately 4 years to complete. The final cherry was put on top in time for the 1985 season, which means that next summer the house will be celebrating its 30th Anniversary! The Gingerbread house was designed by Jack Molesky who was the park artist for many years, and the level of detail and artistry are stunning to behold. The dripping rooftoops and giant candies really do look good enough to eat!

As you walk through Storybook Lane, the path winds through the ubiquitous tall trees of the Adirondacks, and when you’re deep in the woods you begin to feel as though you are lost too.  Once you reach the end of the path, the first thing you’ll encounter are the tall candy canes and lollipops among the trees, and just beyond those, you’ll catch your first views of the Gingerbread house. Plucked from a child’s dream; surreal, and out of place in nature, the house has dripping ice cream doorways, shingles built from frosted cookies, and candy cane frames. Chocolates, cookies, candy, and pretzels decorate the awnings. Its not until you look into the windows, that you realize the real treat is inside the house!

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As you approach the ice cream door, there is a tiny step for small kids to easily peek inside an open window. I can’t help thinking if this wasn’t designed deliberately to allow smaller children an opportunity to assert their independence. Surely looking in this window is a rite of passage for children eager to prove their bravery to their siblings and parents. Kids can look inside without an adult’s help. In fact, as a full grown adult I had to kneel if I wanted to look inside. I heard mom’s say “What’s in there? What’s inside?” But this wasn’t built for mom and dad. From its bright candy exterior, to the creepiness that lurks inside, the design accomplishes what the house in the story set out to do, to lure in and ultimately frighten children.

There is no sugar coating what’s behind the glass, the sweet candy house quickly turns sinister when you catch your first glimpse of an innocent Hansel held prisoner in the  back of the house, with a forkful of spaghetti and meatballs (still grasping a lollipop in his left hand). In the main room- a kitchen and across the gingham tablecloth, a scowling witch stands watch over a feast she has prepared with the intent of fattening up the lost children.

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Her green face, black pointed hat, and robe are inspired by Margaret Hamilton’s best known role in the Wizard of Oz. The archetypal pointed hat wearing witch with the green face did not exist prior to 1939, and even her angular features are reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West’s.

This witch appears to be deep in thought, trying to decide the best way  to cook these two little morsels that have wandered into her house. Hansel’s plans don’t always work out, and he doesn’t look smart enough to hatch a scheme to turn the tables on her in this scene either, so we’ll just have to assume that the story ends well. Maybe Gretel’s got the brains in the family.

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The exterior of house was very well maintained and it likely gets a fresh coat of paint regularly. It appears to have gone through some changes over the years, but I was unable to locate any other shots of the interior in my research. (If you’ve got any, I’d love to see more!) I was able to locate a few older images of the exterior. The first shows a very natural earth tone house with biscuits and donuts. This is a vintage postcard and I’m not convinced that this is an actual photograph. It could be a miniature artist’s rendering.  Perhaps it is a model created for concept or promotional artwork.

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Another photo shows a dazzling 1980s rainbow color scheme with bright candy store reds, yellows, and greens as opposed to the current mint green and pastel pink palette used today. This paint job is straight out of Rainbow Brite’s or Strawberry Shortcake’s colorful world.

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This house became an unexpected favorite of mine when I found it at the park, and I had to be pulled away from it, like most of the kids there. It’s a little off the beaten path, and can’t be seen immediately. I didn’t expect to fall in love with it, but there was something so wonderful about the mean spirited nature of the story baked into a sweet pink candy house, that I wanted to stay for dinner too.

I hope you’ve been paying attention. If you decide to go out walking in the forest, just remember those breadcrumbs won’t do you any good. Please, be very careful whose house you decide to nibble on, or you could get swallowed up by the woods on your way home…or something worse. And if your host keeps filling your plate this Thanksgiving, make sure you’re not the only one eating. She might still be preparing her feast.

 

They’ve got the World by the Tail-The Enchanted Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

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Imagine a place
Serene, tranquil, and peaceful
Full of weightlessness
A world as old as time,  and as new as a dream.

Kiddieland is based out of the Philly area, so locals may have seen some billboards popping up in our area from Adventure Aquarium promising MERMAIDS this November. If you’re not already a fan of kitschy roadside attractions, you may not be aware of the rich history of the Weeki Wachee Mermaids (who will be gracing the aquarium with their first northeast tour date their 67 year history!) The mermaids hail from Weeki Wachee Springs in central FL, a national park /town that has affectionately been dubbed “Mermaid City” and their kitschy show has to be seen to be believed. In fact, I’m sure you’ve never seen anything else like it in your life.

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The mermaids have been swimming since 1947 when Newton Perry, a former Navy Seal saw a business opportunity and opened an underwater theater 6 feet into the limestone of the spring. After some experimentation, he invented a forced air breathing tube that could be dropped into the water allowing the mermaids to “breathe” underwater without the use of SCUBA equipment or air tanks. Now all he needed were some pretty girls! He scouted and trained girls to swim, breathe, smile, and even eat in this new underwater ballet. This was no easy feat considering the currents run at over 5 miles per hour. It takes a very athletic mermaid to stay perfectly in place in a 5 mile current, but they do it with grace and beauty.  The girls now go through a full year of training and are required to pass their “mermaid test” to become a mermaid! Since cars were sparse in the 1940s, the sirens were said to have lured roadside travelers to the attraction by running to the highway in their bathing suits! Needless to say, cars started stopping. Interest in the attraction grew greatly in the 1950s and 1960s and the area was eventually purchased by ABC who built the current theater-16 feet below the surface. Plenty of Movies and TV shows have been filmed there since, and the show was a worldwide sensation, even bringing in celebrities like Elvis Presley to see the mermaids in action. The full history is long and worth your time. You can check out more on the Weeki Wachee website.

We’re not like other women,
We don’t have to clean an oven
And we never will grow old,
We’ve got the world by the tail!

      -Lyrics from the Weeki Wachee Little Mermaid show

If it all sounds too good to be true, think again. The mermaids still swim today. Twice daily, live mermaids with bright tails and glittery tops dive into the deepest natural spring on earth to put on shows for eager families, usually with children (mostly little girls) in tow. I was lucky enough to catch them in June for both of their daily shows.

The day that I visited they put on “The Little Mermaid” (adapted from the Hans Christian Anderson story) and “Fish Tales” featuring segments from some of the best loved shows over the decades. Past shows have included Snow White, Alice in Waterland, Underwater Follies, We got to see the famous “eating and drinking” underwater act, which they still do in the Fish Tales show. The elaborate 1960s props and costumes speak to the popularity of the attraction at that time.

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I came across this treasure of a 1964 Super 8mm film of Alice in Waterland that still has my mind spinning.

You can see photos and video, but nothing compares to seeing these talented, strong, yet graceful mermaids (and mermen!) swim up to the glass in person. It is truly breathtaking and I’m not surprised to see that the show still brings in a crowd. Sure, at times the shows feels dated, but isn’t that what we’re here for? The music, the props, and the costumes are an amazing time capsule to a simpler time when a good idea and a little bit of money could lead to an empire worthy of network television and celebrity attention. This is the legacy of an entrepreneurial diver with a dream to make people believe in mermaids, and almost 70 years later, the gimmick still works. Every little girl in that place left with the dream of becoming a mermaid.

The kitschiest kookiest part of the modern show can be seen here with the mermaids performing their brassy theme song:

WeekiWachee1In other areas of the Weeki Wachee National Park, you can take a Riverboat Cruise, See the Wilderness show or visit the water park at Buccaneer Bay. You also won’t want to miss a stop by the Mold-A-Rama machines (A beloved retro treat for roadside kitsch fans like myself!) Unfortunately, one of the Mold-A-Rama machines was down when I visited, so if anyone makes it back, and can make me the green mermaid on the seahorse,  I will love you forever! The grounds are full of lush Florida greenery, and beautiful Grecian inspired  mermaid statues, and at times it is very serene. If it weren’t for the squawking of the peacocks, I imagine that this might be the kind of place I could visit often to be alone with my thoughts, sort of like that muffled perception you have of the world  when you are submerged in water, and you can’t hear anything above the surface.
WeekiWachee3I encourage you to visit for yourself and see the mermaids swim live.  The day filled me with a sense of deep history. You could feel it in the air, the memories of almost 7 decades in the bubbles of the deep water-days spent with family,  nostalgia for a simpler time, and enchanted magic under the water. If you don’t believe in mermaids now, once you step inside, you can’t deny it. Mermaids are real.