Live Local, Live Small: Taking a trip along the neglected yellow brick road to the Land of Oz

Sep 23 • FEATURE BOTTOM, Live Local, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on Live Local, Live Small: Taking a trip along the neglected yellow brick road to the Land of Oz

Somewhere over the rainbow—atop a beautiful mountain—The Land of Oz comes to life again for one weekend a year. “Autumn at Oz” is a magical experience in the western part of NC, when the now-defunct Land of Oz theme park re-opens to the public. Dorothy and friends dance on the yellow brick road and even the Wicked Witch of the West is back in her castle.

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HEARTFELT AMUSEMENTS: The Land of Oz takes visitors back to a magical world where the Tin Man resides. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler.

In 1970 the Land of Oz theme park opened to much fanfare at the misty peak of Beech Mountain. The project was developed to capture tourism money in the summer months. Beech Mountain Ski Resort on the other side of the mountain was producing well for the winter. Like Tweetsie Railroad (also owned by the same people), Land of Oz was an experience-driven park with singing, dancing and a narrative to carry visitors throughout its splendor. It wasn’t filled with roller coasters; the only ride was the balloon ski lift that took visitors home after seeing Emerald City and meeting the wizard.

In the mid-‘70s arsonists set fire to the park and destroyed major portions of Emerald City, along with most of the museum that housed original costumes and other memorabilia form the movie. Though Land of Oz managed to re-open, the park only made it another few years after the fire before closing permanently in 1980. Much of the property has now become a housing development by Emerald Mountain Properties. What is left of Land of Oz sits alone atop Beech Mountain.

I became fascinated by Land of Oz while I was a college student at nearby Appalachian State University, where one of the popular pastimes was to break into Oz at night and wander around. In a weird way, the nostalgia and the mystique around the abandoned park made it more appealing. It’s also added to its tourist draw today. While I may never drive across the state to visit an open and operational Wizard of Oz theme park, the opportunity to visit one with all the charm of being neglected has tugged at me for years. When I discovered I could rent the whole park and enjoy it unimpeded (instead of having to trespass or jostle crowds), it became an obsession to see and do. Though I had been all along the yellow brick road during college, I had never been inside Dorothy’s house. During the summer I finally saw the fascinating, mysterious, white structure up close and personal.

From a theatrical standpoint, the park’s creation and especially Dorothy’s house is incredibly impressive. At some point in the mid-‘90s, the house was renovated enough to actually be usable instead of just a show piece. A refrigerator and stove were installed, as well as a working bathroom. This was done to make it appealing as a short-term furnished rental (it can be rented as a vacation property from June through December, starting at $165 a night, $400 for a two-night weekend, or $1,000 for the week). Still, for all intents and purposes, it’s a stage set or an amusement-park funhouse, with all the original set dressing still there. It is eerie, but it’s wonderful.

“We are thinking about this wrong,” my dear friend Anthony Lawson mused. It was early July when Anthony, Ryan Trimble and I were standing in front of Dorothy’s house in Oz. Jock was drinking a beer on the porch and enjoying the view—which put the best overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway to shame.

“We keep thinking of this as the beginning, but it’s a reveal,” Anthony said, gesturing behind us to the house. “You came in through the petting zoo, go to the gazebo and then came through the trees, and this is the reveal.”

He was right, of course. After years of talking about Land of Oz and how much I wanted to go with some friends, I finally rented the park. Anthony, Ryan and I were busy piecing together what the park would have been like when operational. Winding along the path from the petting zoo was a beautiful gazebo perched on an overlook. It was designed to be a place for a moment of reflection. It used to house a bronze bust of Judy Garland and Toto. The designers of the park wanted people to have an opportunity to pay their respects to the girl who immortalized Dorothy Gale.

“Look, then you come through the woods and it’s a reveal,” Anthony iterated. “Remember, they didn’t drive up like we did; they parked down the mountain.”

Dorothy’s white farm house, with its beautifully manicured lawn and Tin Man sculpture sitting on a stump, would have looked incredibly magical to anyone, especially a small child. Hell, it looked magical to me at 34! I squealed with delight when we drove up the day before. The inside of the house was decorated to be a turn-of-the-century prairie parlor. It had a kitchen with a cast-iron stove, and bedrooms for Dorothy, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em.

When Oz was open, the announcement of a tornado on the horizon would cue guests to go down a staircase to the storm cellar. They would be exposed to a combination of sound effects, black lights and projected images that created the illusion of the house flying through the tornado. As they exited, they would be led out a different door, through a replica of the house that looked like it had been tossed to hell and back: Chairs and tables were over turned, pictures shattered, a door ripped off its hinges, and Dorothy’s room looked exactly the way it did in that famous scene in the movie. When visitors opened the front door to leave, the front yard was gone, and the yellow brick road rose to greet them.

Today, they petting zoo no longer exists, but during Autumn at Oz—which takes place October 4 and 5—visitors can still visit Dorothy’s gazebo and experience the tornado that takes them to the magic. Though it has been 34 years since Oz closed to the public, on this one weekend a year, the Scarecrow will dance and sing, the Tin Man is saved by the oil can, the Cowardly Lion comes out of his den to meet people and the big, scary world, as the Wicked Witch casts spells from her castle. At the gates of Emerald City the keeper guards the doors, and a machine with levers hides behind a curtain. Souvenirs, face-painting, food, and drink make it a full-blown festival, too.

Tickets for Autumn at Oz are limited to 7,000 per year, and they sell fast at $35. But the experience is priceless. Head to www.emeraldmtn.com for more information.

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