Children's Fairyland in Oakland

Show Map

Children's Fairyland, U.S.A. was the first theme park in the United States created to cater to families with young children. Located in Oakland, California on the shore of Lake Merritt, Fairyland includes 10 acres (40,000 m2) of play sets, small rides, and animals. The park is also home to the Open Storybook Puppet Theater, the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the United States.

Fairyland was built in 1950 by the Oakland Lake Merritt Breakfast Club. The sets were designed by artist and architect William Russell Everritt. The park was nationally recognized for its unique value, and during the City Beautiful movement of the 1950s it inspired numerous towns to create their own parks. Walt Disney even came to Fairyland often to get ideas for Disneyland.

Numerous artists have contributed exhibits, murals, puppetry, and sculptures to the park. Some of the better-known artists are Ruth Asawa and Frank Oz.

The park has rides like the spiderweb Ferris wheel, carousels and the Jolly Trolly (a train).

For safety reasons, Fairyland admits adults only when they’re accompanied by children and children only when they’re accompanied by adults.

Origins of the park

On a 1947 trip to the Detroit children's zoo in Belle Isle Park, Oakland nurseryman Arthur Navlet saw a collection of small nursery rhyme themed buildings, and wanted to create something similar in Oakland's Lake Merritt Park. His hope, though, was to create much larger sets that children could climb in and interact with. After getting the backing of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, a civic organization devoted to improving the park, he took his ideas to William Penn Mott, Jr., then director of Oakland's parks department. Mott and the Breakfast Club were able to raise $50,000 from Oakland citizens among the sponsors: Earl Warren, Clifford E. Rishell, Joseph R. Knowland and Thomas E. Caldecott to create the park.

Navlet hired fantasy architect William Russell Everritt to design the original 17 sets. Everritt originally presented models which followed a standard fantasy architecture: straight-sided, "precious" buildings in gingerbread and candy. When told his models were too staid, he delightedly destroyed them and came back with buildings with no straight sides and outre colors and textures. It was exactly what Navlet was looking for.

The original park

The park opened on September 2, 1950. Admission was 9 to 14 cents, depending on age. The original guides to the park were a dwarfish married couple dressed in glamorous Munchkin-style costumes. The park was reported on nationally, with numerous newsreels shot in the park. The original sets included Pinocchio's Castle, Thumbelina, Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Merry Miller, The Three Little Pigs, Willie the Whale, and several others. The entrance to the park was the shoe from The Old Woman in the Shoe. The entrance through the shoe was sized for children so that adults had to bend over to go through.

The park continued to grow through the early years, adding the Open Storybook Puppet Theater, also designed by Everritt, in 1956, as well as other sets. Another important addition were the Fairyland Talking Storybooks and Magic Keys. Oakland television personality Bruce Sedley would often make appearances at the park to tell the stories of the sets. The constant strain of speaking threatened his voice, and he invented a system of talking books with recorded stories on tape. The boxes were activated by a plastic key. Sedley took the system he developed at Fairyland to zoos and children's parks across the country, where they are still used extensively.

Children's Theater Programs

Every year Fairyland has plays put on by local kids ages 8–10. The past 2005 shows were The Monkey King's Journey to the West, Brer Rabbit, and the classic The Wizard of Oz. The past 2006 shows were Cuoi, the Boy in the Moon, Ohana Means Family, and Little Red Riding-Hood, Lost in Fairyland. The 2007 shows were Hip-Hop Pinocchio, The Panchatantra, and Méxica. The 2008 shows are Aesop's Fables, The Girl Who Lost Her Smile, and Harvest at the Lake; the 2008 season is the first on Fairyland's new Aesop's Playhouse, a dedicated children's theater funded by Oakland City bond measure DD.

In 2006, Children's Fairyland's Open Storybook Puppet Theater celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a near-complete renovation including the addition of a new facade and workshop.

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