Geek Road Trip: Bootleg Oz
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Credit: Elizabeth Szypulski

Geek Road Trip: Inside the once-forgotten bootleg Wizard of Oz theme park in the Appalachian Mountains

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Aug 29, 2018, 5:38 PM EDT (Updated)

We’re winding up a gravel road on Beech Mountain in North Carolina. It’s the back road to The Land of Oz, the one that customers aren’t allowed on — they have to go up the ski lift. It’s threatening rain and the Yellow Brick Road is calling as we get out of the car, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and get a bit lightheaded from the altitude. I’m here at a secluded, 1970s vintage Wizard of Oz theme park, and it’s already one of the most unique days of my life.

Then it's through a locked gate to be greeted by a broken Fountain of Youth. It’s indicative of the struggles this Wizard of Oz park has had, tucked up here in the mountains; it's under construction, right now, but the disrepair is still obvious for the moment. My guide is Jana Greer, a manager here at The Land of Oz, and a former Dorothy performer for the park. She’s got ruby-sequined Vans on. Once Dorothy, always Dorothy. It’s immediately apparent that she and co-manager Sean Barrett are deeply passionate about it, cracks, bumps, and all.

Geek Road Trip: Bootleg Oz

Credit: Kristina Manente

The park was born when Grover and Harry Robbins of Carolina Caribbean Corporation, who developed the land in 1965, went looking to create something for the summer season on the mountain. A Charlotte-based designer named Jack Pentes “started designing the park on his knees so it’d be from the viewpoint of a child," Jana tells me.

The Wizard of Oz is timeless, and has a special place in the heart of every generation, but this place was meant to bring the magic alive for the children. There were shows and musical numbers. You could visit the Tin Man’s house and the Cowardly Lion’s den. That didn’t stop adults coming, of course. Over 400,000 people visited in its first season, including Muhammad Ali, which is almost unbelievable.

One of the most iconic parts of the original park is the Kansas section. The farmhouse comes into view after we wander past a lookout. Based on the American Gothic house, with a telltale bicycle leaned up against an old fence, it's a structure made of nostalgia. The interior is much like any country farmhouse, though there are hidden Totos scattered throughout, if you can find them. It’s the basement and beyond that makes this one of the most loved attractions at Land of Oz.

Geek Road Trip: Bootleg Oz

Credit: Elizabeth Szypulski

After wandering through the kitchen and living room, we begin to head downstairs, which sports walls splashed with the original 1970s blacklight drawings of characters from the book. Sound effects like a demonic TARDIS and visualization of a tornado rumble the walls and suddenly the floor is a bit more askew, the walls begin to look warped. Emerging out of a bad-acid-trip room, you’re immediately disorientated. Everything is sideways, tilted, and altogether kind of vomit-inducing.

“It’s built on a double axis,” Jana explains, as I attempt to balance myself in this funhouse-gone-wrong. It’s a complete replica of the first house, just twisted. It’s an incredibly cool effect, and in the age of digital effects and CGI, it’s nice to experience such a great use of practical effects. Even if I feel like I’m about to upchuck. “They could only work on this for fifteen minutes at a time before the construction workers would get sick,” says Jana.

She goes on to explain it is the house that everyone remembers, even back from the original opening. And even now it’s incredibly well done. They plan to update it a bit, but want to keep the heart of Jack’s original design.

Not much has changed from the original design. The Land of Oz was built to fit into the landscape, Jana says, very proudly explaining how only one tree was removed during the entire construction process. After all, the park was built here because it resembled Oz.

Geek Road Trip: Bootleg Oz

Credit: Elizabeth Szypulski

After Kansas, you’re greeted by the window and blindingly bright Yellow Brick Road. I can’t help but skip down it a little; it’s just so iconic, and it immediately makes the park glimmer with a bit of magic. Jana and her managing partner Sean Barrett, who has joined us, reminiscence about running back and forth on the road during the years they worked as characters here. The original 1970s bricks had a slippery veneer, causing more than one person to bite the dust. “We had a few Lions and Scarecrows down. We’ve all been there.” That’s since been fixed.

Sean started at the park in 2001 as The Scarecrow. He met Jana then, as she played Dorothy at the time. Now, all these years later, they’re the managers, hoping to reinvigorate the park for the modern age.

“It can’t be a fully functioning theme park,” Sean says with a touch of grimness, though he bounces back as he announces they’re planning on multiple smaller events, each with different programming. They hope that new events will bring in new customers as well as the diehards that come back every season.

The attendee numbers aren’t anywhere near where they were back in the day. They had just 7,500 visitors this past June, but with their Autumn In Oz bonanza just around the corner, they’re optimistic for larger crowds as they’ll have two events instead of just one. “We just ordered 2,500 poppies to add to our... 2,500 poppies.”

Geek Road Trip: Bootleg Oz

Credit: Kristina Manente

In five years time, they hope to rebuild all of what was lost, including the character stages and a museum. You could say the Wicked Witch had her way back in the day; The Land of Oz has had a tumultuous history.

On Dec. 28, 1975, Emerald City was set on fire. The amphitheater was destroyed as the nearby restaurant and shop were damaged. During the blaze, the museum was broken into and many of the original film costumes that were bought from the David Weiss MGM Liquidation Auction of 1970 were stolen. This included the priceless original gingham dress worn by Judy Garland, multiple Munchkin jackets, and Frank Morgan’s Guard of the Gate jacket. It was a catastrophic blow and ultimately the beginning of the end.

As we continue along the Yellow Brick Road, Jana and Sean explain how the park declined. The sound systems would stall, the original jingles breaking down all-together with crackles and groans. The road’s 44,000 yellow bricks were tarnished. The magic was over, and by 1980 the park would close after attendee numbers plummeted and upkeep made it look more like Kansas after a tornado.

By 1985, the Emerald City, character houses, and some other buildings were condemned and demolished due to vandalism and decay. The Balloon Ride that encircled the park was dismantled in 1986 and repurposed as another ski lift on Beech Mountain. We pass the Witch’s castle, which resembles a rather epic volcanic sand castle, and the Lion’s den. Everything else is gone.

Geek Road Trip: Bootleg Oz

Credit: Elizabeth Szypulski

The park re-opened in the early '90s in part thanks to Emerald Mountain, Inc, which developed a gate residential community around the old park. Public interest began to grow again, and in 1994 original cast members were invited back for a reunion during homecoming weekend. The reunion weekend became a regular weekend and then it became a whole season. Ticket sales went straight back into the park to rehabilitate it, and that’s where they are today.

That said, even today, The Land of Oz seems abandoned. It’s quiet here. Some things are in disrepair or under construction. But that’s because it’s being renovated and prepared for the new season. Also because it’s, well, old. But it’s a work in progress and a labor of love. That hasn’t stopped urban explorers from breaking in and stealing things though. Or getting arrested.

“We’ve had over 50 arrests since January," Jana says with a sigh. Note to self: Don’t break into Oz.

Beyond the Emerald City gates is the lone balloon from the original Balloon Ride, a rusted relic of the past, but also a nice monument and memory. And that’s what keeps Land of Oz running, and keeps people coming back: memories.

Geek Road Trip: Bootleg Oz

Credit: Kristina Manente

The Land of Oz is a park that holds a special place in many people’s hearts. Jana and Sean say they see the same families every year and have made lifelong friends through their work at the park. It’s a place where childhood comes alive in a wonderful simple kind of way.

Sure, it doesn’t have rides or special effects, but that’s not what this place is about. It’s nice to see, and I admit as the Yellow Brick Road ends at the Emerald City gates with a wooden "OZ" on them, I’m a bit sad. It’s a lovely place, a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world. Here, you can just be in Oz. In the Appalachian Mountains. But it’s still Oz.

The Wizard of Oz means so much to people,” Sean says as we head back to the cars. “People are willingly risking to get arrested to see the park. We’ve had grown men get on the Yellow Brick Road and start crying.”

“It’s a dream, a fantasy,” Jana adds. “Whenever you watch the movie or read the book... here you get to actually touch that fantasy. It’s great to share that.”

I have to agree.

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