Home » Explore the Child-Only Theme Park that Inspired Disneyland’s Creation

    Explore the Child-Only Theme Park that Inspired Disneyland’s Creation

    Children's Fairyland sign

    It’s a story every Disney fan knows well. Walt Disney, sitting on a pale green bench in Griffith Park, watched Diane and Sharon Disney spin around on the park’s iconic merry-go-round. He’d been there most Saturdays, when he broke from the rigors of running an animation studio to spend time with his daughters, and an idea was beginning to germinate. He could picture an amusement park of his own, perhaps something small and quaint by the Los Angeles River, where entire families would spend the day together.

    “I felt that there should be something built, some kind of an amusement enterprise built, where the parents and the children could have fun together,” he’d tell Canadian television producer Fletcher Markle in 1963, just eight years after Disneyland opened its gates to the public for the very first time.

    Children's Fairyland sign

    Image: Ted Eytan, Flickr (license)

    In his excitement to bring quality family entertainment to California, Walt scoured the country for ideas. He traversed the grounds of Knott’s Berry Farm, better known then for its homemade berry preserves than its roller coasters, and paid a visit to the classic fairgrounds of Coney Island. On a trip to Oakland, California on Easter Sunday in 1954, he discovered an amusement park that checked every box on his list: Children’s Fairyland.

    The oldest themed amusement park in the world

    Children's Fairyland

    Image: Trisha Fawver, Flickr (license)

    There’s no doubt that Walt Disney redefined the concept of child-friendly theme parks, but he wasn’t the first one to come up with the idea. In 1948, Bay Area florist Arthur Navlet celebrated his retirement with a vacation to Detroit, where he was drawn to a new children’s zoo at the Belle Isle Aquarium. The zoo was no more than one year old, and could hardly compete with the larger and more vibrant Detroit Zoo some 16 miles away. Still, it had an enchanting quality all its own, featuring exotic wildlife from myna birds to kangaroos and whimsical, colorful buildings that seemed to spring from the pages of children’s fairy tales.

    Navlet knew he had found something special, and his “Griffith Park Carousel” moment inspired him to bring a little Belle Isle charm to the West Coast. Upon his return to Northern California, he found something – someone – even more important: fellow visionary and Superintendent of Oakland Parks, William Penn Mott, Jr. The two men formed a partnership and soon devised a plan to create their own fairy tale oasis in Oakland.

    Within months, the Oakland Park Board had furnished the men with a three-acre plot of lakefront property on the edge of Lakeside Park. They enlisted the services of local architect William Russell Everritt, who designed elaborate, cockeyed fairy tale buildings that would appeal more to young children than teenage thrill-seekers. Two years, several targeted ad campaigns and $50,000 later, the park was dubbed Children’s Fairyland and hosted its grand opening ceremony on September 2, 1950. It was the first storybook-themed amusement park in United States history.

    Fairyland transitions from family-friendly to kid-only

    Children's Fairyland entrance

    Image: Trisha Fawver, Flickr (license)

    Not only had Children’s Fairyland made theme park history; it became the first park to enforce a rather unusual rule. Where state fairs, carnivals and amusement parks tended to cater to a teenager’s desire for cheap thrills and date nights, few, if any, were built with children in mind. Fairyland was an exception. When guests ducked through the giant shoe at the park entrance, they found only one major rule in effect: No adult was permitted admission without a child, and no child without an adult.

    Martin Snapp explains the rather sordid backstory behind the rule. Prior to the park opening in 1950, park founder William Mott frequently conducted research at the nearby Oakland Public Library, lurking in the children’s section to see what stories captivated the kids’ attention. The library staff was alerted to an adult man spying on the children. “The staff thought you might be a child molester,” library director Peter Conmey told Mott, who quickly cleared up the confusion. The incident stuck with him – so much so that he instated a rule to prevent any similarly suspicious behavior from occurring within his amusement park

    Almost seven decades later, today’s visitors will find the same rule in effect. Children under eight years old are required to accompany an adult into the park, and vice versa. With the exception of Fairyland’s annual adult-only fundraising gala, there are no solo adults (or solo children, for that matter) permitted on the property at any time throughout the year, bringing a new meaning to the “family-friendly theme park.”

    1954 – 1957: Walt Disney invades Fairyland

    Post office at Children's Fairyland

    Image: Trisha Fawver, Flickr (license)

    The year of 1954 was a crucial one for Walt Disney and his dream of owning an amusement park. He had recently purchased a 160-acre spread of orange groves in Anaheim, California, and his team of artists and architects had already started devising plans for attractions like Rocket to the Moon and the Jungle Cruise (formerly developed as the “Rivers of Romance” ride). Walt wanted something that was as peaceful and beautifully sculpted as it was entertaining, a park that embodied the best of “a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic.”

    With plans for Disneyland well underway, Walt paid his first visit to Children’s Fairyland in April 1954. He liked what he saw: a colorful, serene park that was best enjoyed from a child’s point of view. Fairyland’s young visitors could mail letters from a pint-sized post office (the smallest official post office in the country until it was shuttered in 1976), bottle-feed piglets behind the straw, stick and brick façades of the Three Little Pigs’ houses, and toss raw fish to the sea lions that sunbathed on a Walrus and the Carpenter set.

    Walt didn’t just have a knack for spotting innovation – he also had a way of spotting innovators.  He found one such kindred soul in Dorothy Manes, then-executive director of Fairyland. According to an account by Disney historian Jim Korkis, Walt invited Manes to tour his park when it opened the following summer. Before long, she was officially hired to run Disneyland’s youth activities, where she oversaw children’s programs and group sales until her departure in 1972.

    Snow White's cottage at Children's Fairyland

    Image: Trisha Fawver, Flickr (license)

    In 1957, Walt returned to Fairyland. By now, the park had expanded to include a miniature working railroad called the Jolly Trolly, a Storybook Puppet Theater and Alice’s Wonder-Go-Round Ride, among other attractions. The puppet theater intrigued him the most. He hired away puppeteer Bob Mills, who took a four-year gig operating Disneyland’s own puppet theater at the Tinker Bell Toy Shoppe in Fantasyland.

    If the changes perturbed the rest of Fairyland’s employees, they didn’t let on. “We don’t mind being ripped off because the more the merrier,” Fairyland’s executive director C.J. Hirschfield told Snapp.

    Eventually, Fairyland reciprocated Walt’s admiration. In 1962, they debuted a walk-through Alice in Wonderland attraction that was faintly reminiscent of Disneyland’s own Alice-themed dark ride, which had premiered in Fantasyland four years earlier in 1958. Children could tumble down the rabbit hole by way of a slide and revisit each hare-brained scene from Lewis Carroll’s story, from the Mad Hatter’s rambunctious tea party to the Queen of Hearts’ hedgehog-and-flamingo croquet match. As in Disneyland’s attraction, they finished with a madcap dash to evade the Queen’s sentient playing card guards.

    In 1982, guests found an even more telling tribute to Walt Disney. Several yards away from the Alice in Wonderland Tunnel, a charming cottage was sculpted with eight figurines: one for each of the titular characters in Walt’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Next to the display, a music box could be activated to play one of the film’s songs.

    Fairyland’s unique approach continues to set it apart

    Magic Key at Children's Fairyland

    Image: Trisha Fawver, Flickr (license)

    Walt may have poached a few ideas and employees from the little Bay Area park, but Children’s Fairyland remains a one-of-a-kind treasure among theme parks. Now spanning 10 acres along Lake Merritt, Fairyland showcases nearly five dozen attractions, including Peter Rabbit’s Village, Jack & Jill Hill, Aesop’s Playhouse, Alice’s Reading Room, the Jolly Roger Pirate Ship and Rapunzel’s Castle. The Storybook Puppet Theater is still the longest-running puppet theater in the United States, and its seasonal rotation of shows draws from fairy tales, folk tales and holiday classics alike.

    Unlike Disneyland, Fairyland’s rides, play places and theater productions are still intended to appeal exclusively to its youngest demographic. The gargantuan Dragon Slide, neon-painted Flecto Carousel, Wonder-Go-Round and miniature Anansi’s Magic Web Ferris wheel are strictly off-limits to adults, though young children can’t ride the rickety Jolly Trolly train without supervision.

    Among the gardens and playgrounds of Fairyland’s various storybook-themed areas, imaginative play is encouraged as frequently as built-in entertainment. Children stage their own theater shows during summer-long camps, while park guests are invited to utilize Fairyland’s library of children’s books, slide down an AstroTurf hill on makeshift cardboard sleds and gawk at the variety of ducks, miniature ponies, rabbits, guinea pigs, goats, donkeys, chickens and sheep that populate some of the park’s fairy tale sets. Visitors can even use shiny, plastic “Magic Keys” to unlock special Storybook Boxes concealed around the park, which play music and tell stories in both English and Spanish.

    There are still remnants of Walt Disney’s creations scattered throughout Fairyland today, from the tiny Mickey Mouse painted in the Alice in Wonderland tunnel to the familiar-sounding story of Pinocchio at Pinocchio’s castle and donkey pen. Snow White continues to grace the cottage next to the Jolly Roger Pirate Ship, where Peter Pan and Captain Hook are locked in a duel that is far more reminiscent of J.M. Barrie’s original source material than the 1953 Disney film adaptation.

    Sixty-seven years after its initial opening in 1950, Children’s Fairyland may not be as well-known as the Southern California theme park it inspired, but it was – and is – far more than fodder for Walt’s Disneyland. It’s a testament to the enduring power of imagination and creativity, delightfully old-fashioned in its belief that children don’t need the bells, whistles and high-speed attractions of modern amusement parks to feel entertained or inspired. All they need is a safe, quiet place that unlocks the simple wonder of a fairy tale world: a place created just for them.