I never knew the Enchanted Forest in its prime. By the time my family and I started visiting in the early 1980s, the Maryland theme park–one of the many “storybook lands” to pop up around the U.S. in the wake of Disneyland’s 1955 opening–was already deteriorating. But decades after my last visit to the functioning park, and more than a half-century after the park’s opening day, the Enchanted Forest keeps a hold on my heart.
In its heyday, the Enchanted Forest welcomed hundreds of thousands of children each summer to explore twenty (later fifty) acres of fairy tale scenes and characters. Ticket sales dropped as the 1950s and 1960s gave way to the 1970s and 1980s, and while other theme parks kept pace with the times, shifting focus from nursery rhymes to thrill rides, the Enchanted Forest remained a “storybook land where fairy tales come true.” Guests walked along forest paths to the accompaniment of piped-in classical music, stopping to visit with whimsical fiberglass versions of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, and other storybook characters. Even the few mechanical rides the park eventually added were on the sedate side: a mice-drawn pumpkin carriage that brought visitors to Cinderella’s castle, a line of teacups that creaked slowly along a track to Wonderland, a sedate boat ride through Ali Baba’s cave.
The Enchanted Forest I remember from childhood is equal parts beauty and decay–and is probably responsible for my tendency to conflate the two concepts. I remember the grandeur of the ballroom scene in Cinderella’s castle, but I also remember the time Cinderella’s slipper was mysteriously missing from the prince’s hands in the final scene. I remember being small enough to look up at the schoolmarm figure in front of the Little Red Schoolhouse, and big enough that I almost knocked her over once. I remember the first time I noticed how much some of the attractions had “borrowed” from Disney–the recording of “Heigh-Ho” playing in Snow White’s house, the display of pages from a Disney storybook at the base of the Sleeping Beauty tableau. I remember how, every year,the figures grew older and shabbier, and favorite attractions were closed or under construction.
When the Enchanted Forest closed the first time, I was almost eleven years old, and preparing to start middle school. The park literally became a storybook paradise I couldn’t revisit once I’d entered adolescence. No wonder it continued to such an allure for me as I grew up. Sometimes, on our way home from a day trip to Baltimore, my dad would drive past the Enchanted Forest, and I’d strain to catch glimpses of my childhood through the trees as we zoomed along Route 40. There was Old King Cole standing atop the sign, pointing the way into what was now the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center. There was the line of pink and brown gingerbread children waiting to be freed from the Wicked Witch’s spell. There were the towers of Cinderella’s castle–the pink Circus in Central Park tent–the ice cream cone chimney of the gingerbread house–the lute-playing dragon serenading Rapunzel in her tower.
I longed for years to return to the Enchanted Forest and explore it fully one more time–to piece together my fragmented memories and separate the real park from the many imaginary versions of the park my mind had created in recurring dreams. In my twenties, I got my wish, thanks to a friend who was willing to indulge me, and a conveniently placed break in a chain-link fence.
By this time, the park had been closed permanently for eight years, and what hadn’t been destroyed by arson, stolen, or otherwise vandalized, was slowly rotting from neglect. Still, that didn’t stop me from running from one attraction to the next: peeking into the Three Bears’ house (now devoid of bears), crossing the Rainbow Bridge, sliding down the Old Woman’s Shoe slide, or ducking into the tree where young Sleeping Beauty lived with the good fairies. My friend kept pace with me and listened patiently as I exclaimed again and again, “This looked SO MUCH BIGGER when I was a kid!”
Since the park’s 50th anniversary in 2005, over one hundred items from the park have been relocated and restored by volunteers to their former glory at Clark’s Elioak Farm. I was honored to be part of the entertainment lineup at the official 50th anniversary party, and I’ve visited the farm several times since then on my trips back home to Maryland. While the original Enchanted Forest seemed to fall further into ruin every time I visited, the Enchanted Forest at Clark’s Elioak Farm is now tended to lovingly by people who are determined to preserve the park’s legacy for future generations. And this past July, shortly before the park’s sixtieth anniversary, I got to help introduce the Enchanted Forest to my two favorite members of the youngest generation: my niece and nephew.
Every visit I make to the Enchanted Forest becomes another layer of nostalgia to view the park through next time. Underneath each restored piece, I see the original, preserved in my memories from ten, twenty, and thirty-odd years ago. And underneath those layers is a final layer: the original from the park’s heyday, decades before I was born.
My niece and nephew weren’t sure what to make of the Enchanted Forest back in July. At nineteen months and eleven months, respectively, they probably saw the park as yet another confusing jumble of colors, shapes, and sound–except even stranger than the jumbles they’re used to, because this jumble also included a petting zoo full of bleating, smelly goats. My sisters-in-law were probably even more confused as they tried to understand what about these goofy fiberglass creations held such great appeal for us. “Well, I guess maybe I can see how this would have been a big deal for you guys, since you never actually went to Disneyland,” one said. My brothers and I jokingly admonished them for “not taking other people’s nostalgia seriously.”
But how much of our love of the Enchanted Forest is based in our own nostalgia, and how much is nostalgia borrowed from the generation or two before us? Even as a very young child, I had the sense that the Enchanted Forest was something of a relic–something from the days of my parents’ childhoods, before thrill rides and cable TV and video games–and that made it even more appealing for me. Growing up in the early 1980s meant being bombarded by 1950s nostalgia, and the Enchanted Forest held the same allure as my mom’s vintage doll collection, the old-fashioned radio in my grandmother’s basement, and the Howdy Doody memorabilia at the Smithsonian. It represented a time that, according to all the adults I knew, was simpler, more innocent, and happier than the present. Even now, with a much more balanced and critical understanding of American life in the mid-twentieth century, I still feel a deep connection with the popular culture of that era. I wouldn’t write for this website if I didn’t.
“Oh, Enchanted Forest, what is your magic spell?” asks the jingle at the beginning of the old promotional film linked above. For me, the spell is equal parts nostalgia for things I loved, nostalgia for things I never knew, and the sense of hope that comes from a beloved place getting the fairy-tale ending it deserved.