What kinds of things do you remember from your childhood? What were the best times that you had? I remember going to Storyland. Visiting all the different exhibits and sticking a key into a box to hear a story.
I rediscovered it as an adult when I held a ValleyPBS event there last year. I was amazed at this unique gem we have in Fresno, with its whimsical recreations of classic storybook structures like a castle housing King Arthur’s table, a pirate ship and a slide in a large old woman’s shoe.
So I was sad when I heard that Storyland and it’s adjacent children’s amusement park Playland were in trouble last fall. I couldn’t imagine a future where families could no longer visit those parks, where all of those wonderful rides and exhibits would stand abandoned and empty.
Luckily for all of us, some dedicated individuals stepped up to the plate and rescued Storyland/Playland. In March of this year, a new board was formed under the leadership of new partner Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Recently, I spoke at length with Bruce Batti, who is vice-chairman of this new board, about the vision they have for Storyland/Playland, and all that they have accomplished so far, including the re-opening of Storyland this weekend.
“We always say we’re in a crawl, walk, run phase for this drill,” Batti said. “So crawl phase is just to bring the park up to the best it’s ever looked in the past decade.”
In order to do that, the board had to find out how much money the parks needed and set out to raise that money. Many Valley residents stepped up to contribute amounts big and small. The campaign has already raised almost $500,000 of the $850,000 year-end goal.
Much of the initial money has gone towards extensive renovations and facelifts on the existing structures at Storyland. New tracks were laid for the train that runs through both parks and the wagons on the ride were cleaned.
“It is clean and pristine and looks really, really great,” Batti said. “The train is ready to rock ‘n roll – literally roll.”
Many volunteer hours went into the remodeling efforts over the summer. People young and old were eager to pitch in for planting, painting and cleaning. The revival of Storyland has really shined a light on how many residents care about the park because it was a part of all of their childhoods. And the goal of Storyland now is to give the same fond memories to future generations of kids, both by paying homage to the past and adding new ideas for the future. The park gives parents the chance to really engage with their children.
“I would say to any parent that your child’s memories of their childhood is always based on … the stuff that wows them,” Batti said. “It’s a memory that the mom had or the dad had, that they want their children to have.”
The Storyland board has worked hard to ensure that guests will have an experience above and beyond their expectations. In addition to upgrading features in the park, they are introducing more live storybook characters who will interact with the children and adding more shows in the amphitheater.
“What kids will remember is, it’s the human element … when prince charming walked you to your party, that’s what you remember more than definitely who was there or what you ate,” Batti said.
Batti believes Storyland/Playland has a much better chance of success than in the past because of the new partnership with the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. The parks will be co-marketing, with Storyland adding Halloween and Christmas events to pair with Zoo Boo and Zoo Lights. The zoo will be offering discounts on train rides, and there are talks of a park hopper pass in the future.
These are the kinds of ideas that are going to be implemented in the walk and run phases of the park’s regeneration. Others include more multicultural stories -, such as Hmong and Hispanic, presented in English as well – a reading room and bringing back other classic Storybook exhibits such as a Jack in the Beanstalk slide and an Alice in Wonderland maze.
After Storyland gets off the ground, the board will be turning its focus to Playland, which will remain closed until next April. Many of the rides in the park need work in order to pass inspection. They would also like at least one new ride (possibly the return of teacups).
In the meantime, families can enjoy Storyland beginning this weekend and every weekend through October. Things will kick off on Friday with a news conference, after which guests will be able to enjoy the park. Then in the evening, there will be a 21-and-over celebration for volunteers, sponsors and any Storyland supporters who would like to attend. Tickets are $25 each and include free food from several food trucks. The party will also have a no-host bar, live entertainment, train rides and more. Tickets can be purchased online through Friday.
Things won’t stop there, though. The fun will continue for the kids throughout the weekend.
“There are characters and plays and things going on above and beyond,” Batti said. “The Fresno County library will be there with a pop-up library all weekend. They will do a crafts table, making bookmarks. We will have a face painter, some magicians, musicians at times, all that going on in the crafts area. Then over in the amphitheatre, dancers, musicians, theater folks going on almost on the hour all four days.”
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