If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that many kiddie parks focus on the sweeter parts of childhood. In fact, most of the places that I post about are decidedly “girly” in theme: Princess castles, Mother Goose, Alice in Wonderland. There is no debating who the intended audiences for these attractions were. However, there is another type of kiddie park that was geared at the rough and tumble boys of the 1950s; boys who grew up on Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. They were dirty, old fashioned, and gritty. Let me introduce you to the Wild West Park. Now nearly extinct, these parks usually featured skits and shows filled with shoot-outs, bank robberies, and undertakers. Often they included inappropriate themes like drinking, can-can girls, and train robberies. One such park still exists in Netcong, NJ. Opened in 1956, it continues to operate today as Wild West City. Incredibly, the park has been under the ownership of the same family since 1966. The shows are a joy, and the actors that work to recreate Dodge City in 1880 clearly love their jobs. Many that I spoke to explained that they felt like it was their second home. They worked there, their children worked there, and they hoped the park would be around long enough for their grandchildren to work there. Young men skillfully rode horses and were clearly proud of their role in this historic place.
It is here, among the daily stunt shows, the gunfights, and the saloons that you will also find a miniature treasure that is easy to walk by. A long trailer fitted with a glass front is home to Pixieland, which took 15 years to build. The attraction isn’t mentioned on the park’s website, but it literally captivated me as I stared and laughed at its scenes until I was pulled away before I missed the next scheduled show!
A printed description next to the diorama proudly describes the work:
PIXIELAND was made in Australia by Mr. A. Langham, a mechanical engineer. It took 15 years to build with the help of his wife and son. All the tiny figures and animals are hand carved out of wood and hollowed out to take the mechanical movements.
They are all dressed an finished to look lifelike, although only five inches high. All the scenery and effects are handmade also. Every animation tells a humorous story; keep this in mind as you watch. For instance, observe the cross-eyed cowboy on the cross-eyed horse and the horse’s eyes roll. See the prisoner sawing his way out of jail. The old man is shooting rabbits as they pop out of their holes. He is swearing as he misses them. Watch his mouth. See the bears tongue move as he eats the honey.
Chief Sitting Bull’s eyes move as he oversee s the war dance. The hair of the man tied to the totem pole raises in fright. The horse at the wagon, his ears are moving. As the baby pulls the mother’s pigtail, watch her mouth move as she cries! The cowboy holding a lighted lantern in his toes is breathing in and out. The cowboy playing the harmonica in the Hillbilly band puffs out his cheeks. The man next to him opens an closes his eyes.
Underneath Pixieland is a maze of shafts, pulleys, bolts, gears, cams and levers. All these too are handmade. The main shafts are powered by 1 H.P. electric motor using 110 volts.
Originally the entire unit was designed to be portable and came apart into five-foot base sections. The entire display was enclosed as you now see it and trailer mounted in 1972.
I’ve visited a lot of parks and seen a lot of dioramas and animatronics, but I have never seen anything like this one! First, it is enormous, stretching the length of a trailer. You can’t possibly take it all in at once. The costuming details along with the characters’ strange pointed ears and the cartoonish features ensure that viewers can’t help but smile at them. The scenes are sometimes funny, sometimes gruesome, and sometimes politically incorrect. One vignette shows a tribe of native Americans dancing around a white cowboy tied to a pole with a sign reading “Injun Country. Paleface Keep Out By Order Sittin Bull”. Another scene shows a man with an arrow through his face (!) kicking his feet helplessly as he takes his final breath, and in another, a cowboy with a bloody mouth sits on the chest of an Indian while pistol whipping him in the face…Yes...pistol whipping him in the face.
Still photos do not do it justice, as it is so amazing to see every minute detail of this artwork moving simultaneously. I strongly encourage you to stop by this park to see it for yourself. There’s plenty more to see as well, so hop on your saddle and get there when they open up this May, cowpoke.