By Jaimz Dillman
Once the air turns crisp and leaves start to fall in the ski town of Beech Mountain, North Carolina a once-defunct theme park is brought back to life to transport guests over the rainbow. The Land of Oz opened in 1970 and ran for 10 years. After a fire destroyed the Emerald City section, and attendance died out, the park closed in 1980.
Over the years decay and vandalism took out more of the attraction including the balloon ride but much of the original buildings remain as well as the all-important yellow brick road. Thanks to former employees and a renewed nostalgia for the movie that inspired Jack Pentes and the Robbins brothers to build Oz, the gates are open once again, 3 weekends a year.
Autumn at Oz welcomes visitors from all over the world for a trek up the mountain and into Munchkinland and proceeds go directly back to bringing the space back to its former glory. I was able to make the trek to North Carolina for the last weekend of the fest- regardless of canceled flights- and the 13-hour drive was worth every minute. Being a fan of Wizard of Oz and Wicked, the park became a bucket list item for me as soon as I learned it existed. Coming from the world of everything magical in Orlando, I was nervous a smaller setup wouldn't give me what I'd hoped for but my expectations were far exceeded.
My fellow Oz-lover and scarecrow, Brooke, and I, dressed in our Oz-bound looks for the day and set out for our 1pm entry on a Saturday around noon. We navigated the winding roads into the higher atmosphere toward the check-in space and once parked, hiked up to the base area. There were families dressed in their favorite characters, vendor booths selling all sorts of souvenirs and vintage finds, food options, and a tavern. Options to Oz were either the included bus ride or an upgrade to take the ski-lit usually used for snow skiing. We opted for the scenic route and I took my first ski lift ride! We definitely were "those girls' singing to the soundtrack of Wicked during our 15 or so-minute ride making returning guests laugh at us when they passed.
The weather was beautiful and cool but it threatened to rain through the afternoon. Nothing could dampen our spirits though and the picture spots were plentiful. A small history of the park and its creators was posted along the route to the Gale farm. Debbie Reynolds attended on opening day with a 13 year-old Carrie Fisher! A sweet memorial gazebo dedicated to Judy Garland invited all to step out and observe the mountain view as Somewhere Over the Rainbow played through speakers. It was a really nice touch. Up a few stairs and around the corner and we were in Kansas! A few more vendors were at the entrance and we snagged some strawberry lemonade while we toured the farm. Professor Marvel was greeting guests outside of his wagon painted with his name and we had a lovely chat. That mean ol' Miss Gulch was spotted with her infamous bicycle and ordered by the Sheriff to snag Toto. As I was dressed in that well-known blue gingham and ruby red shoes she made a bee-line for me to let me know she was looking for the dog. She was in good enough spirits to take a few photos though.
Click the images to enlarge
Several vignettes were featured in the space to tell bits of the story. The farm hands started things off at the barn, then Professor Marvel had a bit of a monologue, and Dorothy completed the round singing a tune you may have heard of about a place in a far-off land.
From there we were escorted through the Gale house which was as neat and tidy as Aunt Em could make it. Once through the first few rooms, she's in the kitchen to warn everyone of the impending twister and that we need to get to the cellar. This part of the tour was newly refurbished from the 80's and just reopened as part of the journey. A winding ramp through black-lit painted walls and fans blowing in the space created our "tornado" and led us to a copy of the house we already walked through but destroyed by the storm. Clever.
Stepping from the back porch into that magical technicolor change was a real-life movie moment. We were met by the Wicked Witch of the West admonishing us for dropping a house on her poor sister (Yes, the legs were there peeking out from under the crashed home) and her cackling laugh could be heard throughout the afternoon.
Our feet were on the yellow brick road-- newly painted each year- and we were on our way to meet character friends we all had grown up loving. Glenda was just glowing in her beautiful pink ball gown complete with crown and staff. All costumes had a bit of a makeover from Project Runway's Austin Scarlett and you can tell this was a passion project for the designer.
We took a few photos and she sent us along to meet the Wizard. I later learned that our Glenda had been one of the park's original Dorothys and met her husband while he was playing the Scarecrow. Little trivia bits like that just made me love the place even more.
Several small gazebos on the walk were spots for more performances with Dorothy and her friends starting with the straw man himself, then the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. After each song, photos were taken in their area and we were really impressed with the commitment and charm each interaction exuded. I'm a snob. I'll admit that anytime. But I was thoroughly in love with each and every meet and greet we had.
Click the images to enlarge
And, being the diva I am, I had a costume change just before another run-in with the Witch and her flying monkey. She was really feeling her moment cracking jokes with lines from Wicked and The Wiz and really gave more of a personality to the villain we all thought we knew. From there, we found ourselves standing in front of those gorgeous green gates. A sign was posted- Bell Out of Order. Please Knock- and the gate guard was kind enough to let me play out that scene with him and my friend. After all, I was in my Ozian finest. (Thanks Tony Wakim of PattyCake Productions for making my ensemble!)
The version of this Emerald City is the grand gift shop at the exit plus more local vendors, food and drink options, photo ops with the hot air balloon and a horse of a different color, and the finale show with the whole cast and pictures at the end. The staff were so nice and even asked for pictures with me as I looked like one of them.
The skies finally opened as we were wrapping up our day and made the choice to take the buses back to parking an easy one. There was a chance to upgrade to the observation area, but we were pretty good to skip it. Taking one last long look at a dream come true, Brooke snapped the most picturesque shot of the dusky view, and we were whisked away back to Beech Mountain.
Click the images to enlarge
What was nice about the whole time spent in this small country offering was the lack of commercialization and money grabs. No extra charges for any photo-ops, no frazzled employees pushing through people as fast as they could to keep their numbers up. Yes, there were souvenir options but everything was presented with love and care. The guests around us were enjoying time with their grandchildren, friends, and loved ones. It just seemed like it was all there to be soaked up and admired- and that's just what we did. The memories and pictures will last, even though Oz is only around for a limited time. For more information and tickets visit- www.landofoznc.com