And They All Lived Happily Ever After: The Unbelievable Story of the Enchanted Forest and its Resurrection

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So much of this site sadly focuses on parks that have been lost, so a story like this one is rare. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before- A beloved children’s park that opened in the 1950s closed in the late 80s, fell into disrepair, and never opened again…We’ve told this story plenty of times.

However, in Ellicott City, MD-a truly magical thing took place when a farmer with a huge heart and a community that loved their park came together to resurrect a fallen friend. The story of The Enchanted Forest is unbelievable, but true. Outside of Baltimore, this park, which opened on  August, 15 1955 and welcomed thousands of children and families for over 30 years was all but lost until a woman named Martha Clark came along and did the impossible.crown_jpg

It started in 2004-Clark’s Elioak Farm purchased a Pumpkin Coach and the locals were delighted to see a part of their childhood saved from uncertain doom. Along with the cooperation of the Shopping Center which now stood on the site of the former park, Clark’s Elioak farm began obtaining other items from the Enchanted Forest. For the next 10 years figures and buildings  were carefully moved and lovingly repaired by volunteers and staff.  Some characters, like Willie the Whale, which appeared to be lost forever were saved and restored by the incredible and talented Mark Cline.  (See some of our previous features on Mark Cline if you like Dinosaurs and Monsters!)

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The Merry Mill, The Crooked House, and Peter Peter Punkin Eater have all found new homes on the farm.

Since that first pumpkin coach, more than 100 figures and buildings have been moved and restored to their former glory.  I first visited in the summer of 2015, after I hThe Enchanted Forest Shopping Centereard about one of the largest relocation projects in the farm’s history. They had managed to move the castle entrance gates and the beautiful Story Book signage that once stood along Route 40 to the farm. The iconic King, however, remains above the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center sign ruling over the local Safeway and Petco.
Fans of the park hope that one day he will be reunited with his kingdom.  The castle gates were finished just in time for the park’s 60th Anniversary celebration, which now also takes place at Clark’s Farm every summer.

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The Old Woman Who lived in a shoe- 1956 and 2015

During my visit, I was constantly awestruck at the care and level of detail that went into the restoration project. I walked the grounds and at times became emotional thinking about how much someone had to care to do all of this. That is what makes places like this special. They hold onto a part of our childhood and some people will do anything to get that feeling back.

Castle Gates Then and Now Humpty Dumpty Back on his wall, and the Easter Bunny back home again.

Castle Gates Then and Now Humpty Dumpty Back on his wall, and the Easter Bunny back home again.

I spent several hours walking the farm and finding statues that I recognized from my books and post-cards. I had never visited the park in its original location, but I was familiar with its history and the people who brought it back to life.

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Sleeping Beauty, Three Little Pigs, and Little Toot Tugboat-1950s and Today.

I was walking through the gift shop when I spotted Martha Clark organizing some of the souvenirs and fresh food that was for sale. I approached her as if she were some sort of celebrity (in my mind she was!) I said “Excuse me, Are you Martha Clark?” and she said “Yes.” Seeming a bit embarrassed to be recognized. I didn’t expect it, but I became emotional as I thanked her. Tears came to my eyes as I told her “I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done here. This is just…amazing.” She smiled and said “Thank you-It’s a lot of hard work, but thankfully, I have so many people that help!” She went on to tell me that just that day a truck pulled up with the Queen of Hearts. She said  “I’m not sure if she’s from the Enchanted Forest or not. I’ll have to do some research, but if she is, she’ll be out next year, so you’ll have to come back and see her!” And that is how it has always gone. Slowly rebuilding the park one piece at a time. Saving bits and pieces and putting it all back together. Martha probably doesn’t think of herself as a hero, but around here, she’s a hero to us! In a world  that is often quick to bulldoze its past, she was brave enough (and maybe insane enough) to go about rescuing it.

Thank you to Martha Clark, to all of the volunteers, and the cooperation of the community, the friends and the family of the Enchanted Forest.

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Mother Goose Ride-No longer a ride, but still intact in 2015 

For decades of amazing family snapshots and some wonderful discussion be sure to join the Enchanted Forest Behind the Scenes Facebook Group!
To see what Clark’s Elioak Farm is up to, visit their site site here.
For Some of Mark Cline’s before & after work on the park-click here.
To dig really deep, check out the book: The Enchanted Forest: Memories of Maryland’s Storybook Park

When Dinosaurs Fought In The Civil War

Between 1861 and 1865 the bloodiest battles in US history were fought on American soil during the American Civil War. For more than four violent years, armies fought and died after 11 Southern Confederate states seceded from the United States of America over the right to own slaves. After 750,000 American citizens died, combat finally ended with the abolition of slavery and surrender by the Confederate army. But what if something else had happened?

Try then, to imagine that 200 million years earlier (on land that would come to be known by us as a historic Civil War battlefield) massive dinosaurs walked on the same ground fighting their own bloody battles for survival.

Leave it to the imagination of Mark Cline to show us what things might look like had these two events taken place concurrently.  In his now defunct attraction Escape from Dinosaur Kingdom (2005-2012), visitors could see what might have transpired had the Union army captured and used carnivorous dinosaurs as weapons against the Confederate troops!

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Located in Natural Bridge, VA’s tourist complex, Cline had created four unique and separate attractions. Visitors could stop to his free sculptural attraction “Foamhenge” (a true to scale Styrofoam replica of Stonehenge), the could “Hunt Bigfoot with a Redneck” (I’ll give you one guess who the Redneck was!) and they could walk through his beloved Haunted Monster Museum (which turned out to be one of our most popular Enchanted Kiddieland posts!). Included with your value price 2 for 1 admission to the Monster Museum, you also got to travel back to 1863 and visit his imaginative”Dinosaur Kingdom.”

Already an expert after building more than 400 dinosaurs for roadside attractions and theme parks, Cline knew that his Dino park would need to be different if it was going to stand out. valley-of-gwangi-pic-3Lucky for us, he possesses an incredible imagination and an even more powerful sense of humor! The park’s concept is loosely based on the 1969 Ray Harryhausen film, Valley of the Gwangi, (Which pits cowboys against dinosaurs in a special effects Dynamation spectacular!)

Cline imagined a similar scene substituting cowboys with Union Soldiers as villains who use the Dinosaurs as weapons against the South (after all, this attraction is in the former Confederate state of Virginia!) Before you get too upset about the political ramifications of the south winning the Civil War, Cline has stated that he had hoped to build a second Civil War dinosaur park in Gettysburg wherein the Confederate soldiers are the bad guys. Regrettably, that dream never came to fruition.

Dinosaur Kingdom begins its storytelling through journals violently strewn about a campsite with pots and pans, and overturned wagons. By reading the notebooks, visitors can surmise that a family of paleontologists entered a cave in search of fossils only to find living dinosaurs that had escaped (and were now being used by the North to win the war!)! You can see the civilian mother and father Garrison danging precariously in the trees above the sharp teeth of a hungry carnivore.  Dinosaur Kingdom

As guests entered the self guided wooded park, they’d hear the sounds of nature; sticks cracking under shoes and birds- but beyond this, was the omnipresent laughter of children (and adults!) as they were welcomed into wacky the mind of Mark Cline for a short while. A button with a hand painted sign reading “Feeding Time” begs to be pushed, only to discover that you are standing directly beneath the motorized jaws of a hungry T Rex and a dangling deer carcass! A sign tacked to a tree warned “Don’t Look Up!”, but of course you did, only to see an angry reptile climbing straight toward you. In one scene, a herd of curious raptors surrounds farm animals who had all stacked themselves on top of one another until there was a trembling rabbit sitting on the back of a deer who was sitting on the back of a cow resulting in classic cartoon imagery. One of my favorite gags was a full sized port-a-potty that looked no different from any other, but if you were brave enough to open the door you were met with a shocked looking Yankee soldier being attacked by dinosaurs that had busted through the back walls while he was taking care of business.

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Part Wild West park, part Dinosaur Park, part Roadside tourist trap, this place was a dream come true for some road weary travelers who didn’t even know it was here. The park opened in 2005, and our visit was in 2008, meaning it was in a mostly complete state. However, as an ongoing project, Mark Cline continued to add characters and beasts as the years went on. I’m told that later iterations included Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, and even a gorilla wearing a cowboy hat. (Hey, don’t tell me you’re getting upset about historical accuracy now!)

Unfortunately, along with the heartbreaking loss of the Monster Museum, much of the attraction was destroyed in a devastating fire in 2012. The park sat vacant for years with an online notice to “check back in 2013.” Folks like me started to lose hope, checking back not only in 2013, but in 2014, and 2015  as well finding no status change.

However, you can’t keep a good dinosaur park down, and like a Phoenix  no, like a Pterodactyl rising from the ashes, the park has some exciting news on the horizon. Last fall, the dinosaurs made a limited engagement appearance at Clark’s Eliok Farm  to terrorize some fairy tale characters (YES, PLEASE!) in the temporary “Enchanted Dinosaur Forest“.  Clark’s Farm, which regular Kiddieland readers will recognize as a sanctuary for rescued Enchanted Forest, MD figures housed the salvaged dinosaurs from September to November 2015 in a hysterical mash up of Dinosaurs and storybook characters that could only come from the off-kilter mind of Professor Cline!

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Photo Courtesy of Enchanted Castle Studios

We were so thrilled to see that many of the dinosaurs had survived, but this story has an even happier ending. According to his Facebook page, Mark Cline is planning to bring Dinosaurs back to Natural Bridge, Virginia with the opening of Dinosaur Kingdom II in June 2016! Based on this concept art, my guess is that guests may be riding through this one on by train? Oh, I am so there!

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Photo Courtesy of Enchanted Castle Studios

So don’t fret, though you may have never gotten to experience the weirdness of the original Dinosaur Kingdom and Haunted Monster Museum, it looks like this summer you may be able to marvel at these Jurrassic giants once again in Natural Bridge!

Thanks for all the memories, Mark!

Wilkum Kinder, to Dutch Wonderland, A Kingdom for Kids!

I grew up German in Pennsylvania, a state where the Department of Transportation still issues licenses to horse & buggy drivers, and it is not uncommon to see street signs like this on the side of the road:

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In high school, I was taught polkas in my gym class, and well into the 1990s, PA Dutch was spoken in my home, especially by my older relatives. My grandmother would instruct us to “redd up the room” when company was coming. My family still practices some of the old German traditions today. Every December 6th Belsnickle put candy in my shoes, and he continues to visit my nephews.  Everyone I knew made sure to eat at least a small spoonful of sauerkraut on New Year’s Day even if they hated the taste (for it will bring wealth and good luck for the rest of the year!)

Due to the large number of German settlers in the state, many people living in the northwestern part of Central and Northern PA would identify as “PA Dutch.”  Contrary to popular belief, in this case “Dutch” does not refer to Dutch people (from the Netherlands), but from the German word”Deutch.” Coming from a deeply Christian culture; many of the farmers were practicing Amish and Mennonites. Though both traditionalist Christian religions rooted in Anabaptism; they hold distinctly different sets of beliefs with the Amish being the more strict of the two sects.

Pennsylvania, with its mountainous rolling pastures, is also home to a countless number of dairy farms. (I didn’t realize ice cream-and I mean REAL ICE CREAM was regional until I moved to New Jersey years later!) As we’ve already seen, Pennsylvania is blessed with an abundance of land, and other than farms, it is also home to dozens of amusement parks. With the collision of the PA Dutch farming culture and the growing amusement industry in the state something truly unique magical took place 53 years ago. In 1963, Dutch Wonderland was erected outside of Lancaster, PA, and although it features many typical attractions for kids including a train, roller coasters, princesses, dragons, and a massive castle (Surrounded by a monorail!); we’re going to take a look at the very distinct PA Dutch touches that make it a one of a kind family attraction.

Upon entering the park you’ll immediately begin noticing their solemn hard working faces. A lifesize Amish couple sits on a bench on the porch of their home. Inside the windows the children are working on chores. Their faces are somber and appear tired from a long day of hard work.

Nearby, a giant pretzel greets visitors entering the park. To the uninitiated, this may look like a simple oversized snack food, but pretzels are an apropos representation of the hard working Christian people of PA, with their roots in both Bavarian culinary history and their ties to the church. It is said that the twist of the pretzel is a reminder to children to say their prayers, and was once considered a small reward or “pretiola” for those who do! Whatever you do, just remember…Please Do NOT Crawl on the Pretzel.

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We have already told you about the strange phenomenon of kiddie park chapels, so its no surprise that a park so closely tied to Christianity houses a simple un-ornamental chapel on its land. Visitors are reminded to treat it respectfully, as it is a house of the Lord.

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One of the most interesting exhibits I encountered are these two dioramas of animated miniatures. In the elaborate animatronic displays, groups of women and men toil over the daily chores while discussing their daily activities. At the push of a button, the women work on a quilt and gossip with one another.

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The men work on crafting furniture, sanding  a bench and planing a table. They discuss their work. If you stay long enough to listen, you will hear PA Dutch dialect and language spoken by both the women and men. They are a true slice of life, and are often overlooked  by the park’s visitors (who are predominantly small children.)
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In keeping with the PA Dutch theme, you can climb aboard a horse and buggy for a family photo op. It’s no surprise that farming made its way into the park’s attractions, but I have to say that this is probably the one and only time that I’ve seen a fiberglass cow with SIMULATED RUBBER UDDER for guests to milk! Next to a tin pail, a small sign reminds children to be gentle: “Bossie says Please Squeeze Do Not Pull”

True to its roots as a Dairy farming state, this attraction is absolutely a Pennsylvania one-of-a-kind! If you’ve seen another one, we’d love to hear about it!

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We hope you enjoyed this look at the PA Dutch touches of the Dutch Wonderland. If you visit, there’s plenty more to see including the Kingdom Coaster, some great shows, and the newly opened Dinosaurs Alive area with moving, roaring  dinosaurs that will surely amaze younger kids and parents alike!

Dutch Wonderland is open seasonally and has some dates in the fall and winter months for Halloween and Christmas celebrations. Check schedules online at their website.

Mold-A-Rama Memories

Souvenirs are wonderful little reminders of all those trips we made across the country. Along with photos, they remain when the memories begin to fade, and they can be passed on to future generations to teach kids about the way things used to be.MoldARama1

One such souvenir comes in the form of an inexpensive waxy toy that pops right out of a machine in front of your very eyes. Behold-The Mold-A-Rama!

Mold-A-Rama is the brand name for a type of injection mold vending machine, invented in 1962. The machines gained momentum as an attraction at the 1964 World’s Fair where the Sinclair corporation promoted their Dinoland exhibit with 7 different Dinosaur figurines made right on site.

And for just 25 cents, what parent could resist?Thanks to the internet, you can watch this bizarre virtual rendering of the Sinclair machine that exists for some reason I am unable to comprehend.

Your quarter didn’t just buy you a toy, it bought you an experience! Sure you got to take home a dinosaur from the exhibit, but more importantly, you took home a memory. The moment you put the money in the space-age machine it kicks on like a loud washing machine. Shaking and rattling, the tubes inside the glass bubble begin jerk and wiggle, mysteriously injecting the melted plastic into the mold. When the mold halves separate a mechanical spatula arm pushes your toy toward the dispensary, and into your eager hands. In about a minute, you have a freshly made, warm plastic toy of your very own. The first thing you do is smell it. The second thing you do is juggle it between your hands until it cools down! As souvenirs go, it really doesn’t get much cooler than that.

The machines have a history of operating in zoos, science museums, and parks, including a rich history with Disney Parks as part of the Disneyland Toy Factory in the mid 1960s. The funny thing is, the appeal of these machines is still the same today. Mold-A-Rama and Mold-A-Matic machines exists in pockets of America (primarily in Florida and Chicago).  Most figures now will run you around $2.00. (Still the best souvenir value for your money if you ask me!) Something about putting your money in the cash slot, hoping the machine actually works, and waiting patiently for your toy to drop from the chute still generates a thrill!

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Mold-A-Rama machines even have some admirers in the music and art world. Jack White is a fan and owns his own machine which operates at the Third Man Records Novelty Lounge in Nashville alongside his other vintage coin-op machines including Scopitone machine, photo booth, and a Voice-O-Graph record booth. The bright yellow machine dispenses a custom 1964 Montgomery Ward guitar shaped figure, identical to the one Jack plays in the White Stripes. In 2012, Tim Biskup collaborated with boutique toy retailer Rotofugi on their “Roto-A-Matic” machine in Chicago releasing limited run colors of his Helper Dragon character. If you happen to have a spare $15,000 you can also buy your own setup!

For the rest of us, we’ll have to travel to make our molds. The heaviest concentrations of machines can be found operating under the Mold-A-Matic name in Florida, while some zoos in the Midwest still boast about their machines and regularly change their molds. Here are some of the machine’s we’ve found in our travels:

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You can find a full list of operational machines online at Mold-A-Mania. Check it out and support your local vending machine! We want to make sure these are around for years to come. Do you collect Mold-A-Rama? Here at Kiddieland, we are always looking to trade figures, and have many doubles. Show us your collections, in the comments!

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Weeki Wachee Mermaids  

What In God’s Name? The Chapels of Kiddieland

One of the most unusual things you’ll begin to notice when you visit a lot of kiddie parks is the amount of churches you’ll find. When you think about an amusement park today, it is hard to imagine that something so blatantly religious could be an important part of a family’s vacation. Don’t forget, most of these parks were built in the 1950s at a time when the majority of Americans were practicing Christians that attended church every Sunday. In post-war America, the nation was prosperous, and the culture shifted to a more conservative set of values. Families moved out of small city homes and into large suburban ranches. Boomers saw the church as an important pillar of these newly developed suburban communities. It was a place for families to pray, but also to socialize with their neighbors. For parks, building a church was not just culturally appropriate, but it also made good business sense. At a time when families would spend weekend getaways visiting these new amusements, many still wanted a place to worship. This unique intersection between family fun and faith resulted in many kiddie parks having small chapels on their property.

It is in these small churches that families could gather to quietly pay respect to God and step away from the commotion and excitement outside. It is no surprise that many of these small structures are nestled away in quiet forests away from the park’s sensationalism. As parks grew, many are now surrounded by noisy rides and video games. You might walk right by them today without even realizing that they are churches. In fact, most people seem to do just that! Today we’re going to take a moment to peek inside the pews of these small houses of worship.

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At Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, NY, you’ll need to cross a foot bridge in the rolling hills to find this serene chapel with a bright red roof hiding between the trees. This is Saint Nicholas Chapel, and once inside you’ll find a simple rustic church with German influenced design.
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With a mood that differs from most of the whimsical music shows, a group of actors presents a live Nativity Pageant nearby daily.

 

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Story Book Land in NJ welcomes visitors to the “Chapel Of Peace”. This tiny church, The Chapel was built by 18-year-old Andrew Cresci as a gift to his parents Celestine and Augustus Cresci in 1885, and stood at their home in Vineland, NJ. Benediction was held in the chapel on the feast days of each saint until the family property was sold, and the chapel was moved to a cemetery in Union NJ where it fell into disrepair. It was later rescued by Story Book Land, who kept the interior and exterior intact, including the intricate stained glass windows made of sand.

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Nearby a ramshackle nativity is set up using mannequins with wigs, false beards and fabric clothing.

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At Santa’s Village in New Hampshire, an awe-inspiring church sits between the Sugar and Spice Bake shop and the  SS Peppermint Twist ride. A fantastically ornate interior surprises guests entering the rustic log structure. Contained within is an altar built in 1864 for the Cathedral of Manchester. Seven Bishops were consecrated in front of this impressive structure which was graciously given to Santa’s Village by All Saints’ Parish in Lancaster NH when the church was renovated.

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A young elf can be seen worshiping on this late 60s or early 70s postcard of the church.

 

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In what appears to a running theme, A fiberglass nativity is spread out in a wide area of the park, including the Three Wise Men traveling to the manger on camel back.

 

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Down an unassuming path, a short little building with a Queen Anne dome turret stands amongst the landscaping. In Storyland of Glenn, NH, a simple miniaturized church houses two small rows of single seat pews that lead up to fabric draped altar holding just an acrylic encased bible and a vase of fresh flowers. A token sign outside reminds visitors to finish their food and drink before entering the chapel. This is, after all, a house of the lord.

 

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Santa’s Land  inVT features one of the only open air areas of worship I’ve seen, and it happens to be hog sty adjacent. I suppose no other scene more accurately captures the feeling of the nativity stable than one with live pigs running around. A crazy-eyed goat seems tacked on and out-of-place amongst the more detailed figures. There are also pipe organs mounted above the entrance, which seemingly attach to nothing. They do give the whole area a “churchy” vibe though, so its nice to see that they are still being displayed!

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At Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, PA a simple Amish church is on the park property. Traditionally, the Amish do not include ornate or decorative elements in their building techniques, and this church is no exception. It resembles many of the larger churches found in the area, but this miniaturized one seats just 8 people!

 

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We have talked a lot about the Magic Forest on this site, and we often chuckle at some of the creepy statues that inhabit their grounds. I have to tell you that when I stepped inside this log building, I was genuinely shocked at what I found inside! Despite the run down exterior typical of this overgrown park, the inside of this rustic log church blew my mind. Log elements intersect with roman catholic elements like stained glass and a stone holy water font. From the woodsy carved altar and colored lightbulb chandeliers the design elements of this Catholic church come together to create an altogether surreal house of worship.

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You might think that park chapels are only for the wholesome family focused Santa parks and Fairy Tale Lands that popped up in the middle of the twentieth century, but there’s another kind of park that we’ve yet to scratch the surface on here at Kiddieland, Giddy up- it’s the Wild West Park! Once plentiful, there are only a few of these parks remaining. At Wild West City in Netcong, NJ actors recreate a day in the life of Dodge City, KS in the 1880s and while gunslinging cowboys fall off real horses and stage coaches drive by, there is a quiet escape from the shootouts on main street. Near the back of the park next to Boot Hill, a nondenominational chapel welcomes all. You can take a moment to quietly reflect while you mourn your fallen bandits at this historic house of the lord. Uncle Floyd is purportedly a fan of the chapel, as it features one modern convenience that was not available in the old west-air conditioning!

Although I’m not religious, I grew up in a town that boasted the claim of “America’s smallest chapel” which, as a fan of tourism, always attracted me, and I know this is where my fascination with tiny churches originated. As a small town teen (with no church affiliations), I remember going into the chapel with my brother and just taking in the strangeness of the place. Having grown up in a primarily Catholic area, we were accostomed to seeing ornate churches with giant steeples, and rituals we didn’t understand. This simple little place made no sense. We took rosary beads and signed the registry book even though we weren’t Catholic. My brother used to say that when he got married, he wanted to have his tiny wedding there, and coming from a very large family, we thought that was hilarious. I guess we pictured our 15 aunts and uncles and 50+ cousins crammed in the small pews. Now that I’ve been to some of these small churches, I’m not sure Decker’s Chapel can continue with their draw of “smallest church in America” (though they still claim to be!)Whether you are looking for a quiet escape from a noisy day at the park, or want a unique place to hold an intimate wedding, these small park chapels are another way that vintage attractions are keeping things weird.

Parks like Holiday World have even continued the tradition and recently transported a historic 1880s church to the park in 2012. At Knott’s Berry Farm, you can get married at the Chapel of Reflection and Snoopy can even attend your wedding, and late to the game Walt Disney World built their 300 seat nondenominational Wedding Pavillion  on the Seven Seas Lagoon in 1995 so that guests could have a fairy tale wedding with a “picturesque backdrop of Cinderella Castle”.

There’s something special about these small spaces. Whether they are built by families out of love for each other and their god, or because  that was all that was affordable for a tiny community, these humble churches are a unique testament to a time lost. Regardless of your religious affiliation, there’s something special about that.

Peace be with you.

 

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.

Dino-Mite! Dinosaur Land in White Post, VA

Sometimes you find to those parks and they just feel like stepping in to another time. Oh, you thought I meant prehistoric times, oh my, no! I meant 1960s roadside America. When mom, dad, and the kids would pile in the station wagon and stop at places like this on their way to their Aunt’s house. The kind of middle of nowhere attraction that predates cell phones and handheld video games.  When you needed to break up that long trip to Aunt Edna’s this was just the place! Best of all, you can still visit it today-this is Dinosaur Land!

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Dinosaur Land is the kind of place we might see in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but if you are travelling through the Shenandoah Valley, you should swing on in for a retro good time.  The park opened in the 1960s and is still well maintained today, without losing any of it’s vintage charm. Guests can take a self guided walking tour through the wooded park and where you’ll encounter many dinosaurs-some scary, and some downright silly.  Aside from the expected Dinos, you’ll also find a giant Shark, a huge Octopus, a massive mantis,  larger than life snakes, and several other prehistoric beasts!

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And no trip to Dinosaur Land is complete without  climbing the stairs to King Kong’s hand and getting a photo in his palm! DinosaurLand3

 

Nineteen of the exhibits here were made by Mark Cline and some depict gory battles and death scenes of desperate-eyed dinosaurs caught in the teeth of a larger predator. Cline credits this park with inspiring to sculpt, and he later went on to open his own dinosaur park, Dinosaur Kingdom.

We visited on the 4th of July last year and although it was a hot balmy day in Virginia, we were cool and shaded under the trees. There were plenty of benches to rest along the walk and lots of shade to relax in. Take a slow walk back through time and check this place out. Of course there was a great gift shop with everything from sewing kits, to coin purses and leather goods. I bought anything that looked like it had been sitting here since 1960! Mod Betty took some great photos of the gift shop on her Retro Roadmap blog, which were an excellent scouting tool for seeking out those vintage goodies!

If you are looking to make a day of it, you can make the drive to Harper’s Ferry in about 40 minutes, where you can see the extraordinarily creepy John Brown Wax Museum! Hey kids, do you want to see a wax corpse hanging in a creaky old house built in the 1800s? Then this place is for you! The museum opened in 1963, and even the bravest among you will be looking over your shoulder the entire time you are there. Have fun road-trippers!