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The Future Looks Bright for Children's Fairyland, as It Seeks to Better Reflect Oakland's Cultural Rainbow

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Beyond bushes in the foreground, we see a giant, light-pink shoe with a turquoise roof and a tunnel people can walk through toward an arch with multicolored letters that spell "FAIRYLAND."
At the entrance of Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, children can pass through a giant shoe, a reference to a popular nursery rhyme about an old woman who lived in a shoe. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

Read a transcript of this episode here. 

To Rose Gelfand, Children’s Fairyland exists “outside of the bounds of time.”

Gelfand grew up in Richmond and as a kid went regularly to the 10-acre storybook-themed amusement park on the north side of Oakland’s Lake Merritt. But even as a teenager, when Gelfand attended high school at Oakland School for the Arts, Fairyland’s rainbow-colored sign remained a destination.

“Oftentimes I would meet friends at the Fairyland sign facing the water and sit in the sun and, you know, have long chats and make art together,” said Gelfand, who now lives in Portland, Oregon.

“[It] sort of always had this presence in our lives, even past the point where I was going as a kid.”

Gelfand is certainly not the only person who grew up in the Bay Area, or currently lives here, who considers Fairyland an iconic East Bay institution.

The park’s timeless charm may come from its elaborate play sets based on classic fairy tales — most of which were made in the 1950s and ’60s and have changed little since then.

But as the park approaches its 75th anniversary, in 2025, its leadership is pondering how to update it to better reflect Oakland’s ever-growing diversity.

A three little piggies-themed play set, with a small brick house with a low doorway, and a cut-out cartoon pig next to it. A couple high-rise buildings in downtown Oakland are visible in the background.
Children’s Fairyland has dozens of interactive play installations based on popular stories for kids. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

Gelfand has been wondering something similar.

“I’m kind of curious what their plan is moving into the future and if it will continue to exist as it is,” she told KQED.

‘Kiddy tech’

If you’ve already been to Children’s Fairyland, you’ll know it’s nothing like a Disney theme park. There are no extravagant light shows, no giant castles and no Donald Duck mascots.

The park is a unique landscape of dozens of interactive play installations — ideal for kids 8 years old and under — to climb on or into or run through. The play sets are all based on popular kids’ stories: nursery rhymes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” classic children’s books like Peter Rabbit, and folktales like those about Johnny Appleseed and Anansi the Spider.

A “magic” key — bought for a few bucks — unlocks the story of each scene through a colorful speaker box next to each story station.

A little kid, around age 6, with poofy, coily hair and a blue puffer jacket turns a key in a light-blue wooden box. Beyond the box, which sits atop a turquoise-painted fence, is a little, light-pink house and flowers blooming amid paving stones.
Story boxes with speakers are next to each play set at Children’s Fairyland. Kids can unlock the story with a ‘magic key.’ (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

The park’s structures are kid-size and slightly crooked, as if they were sprinkled with a bit of surrealist fairy dust.

Everything looks vintage, which makes sense because of when most sets were built. Many of the play areas could use a coat of paint or even an extra nail. But the veneer of the play areas is not the point, says Randal Metz, who has worked at the park for more than 50 years. It’s about the imagination the spaces provoke, he says.

“Fairyland is a place for kids to lose themselves and to create their own fairytale fantasies,” said Metz, who was once the park’s artistic director, and is now a puppeteer and park historian.

A tall, light blue clock tower has a set of stairs to the left, with a dark green banister, and an opening at the bottom where the end of a slide empties. The ground around the clock tower is paved.
Children’s Fairyland has dozens of interactive play installations based on popular stories for kids. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

Metz says the park’s style is intentionally “quiet” so that kids use their own creativity to add depth and detail to the stories through play.

“We’re low tech. We call it kiddy tech. We like to keep it simple, and so that things turn and they move for the children. But also they can understand how it happens.”

Parks within parks

Children’s Fairyland was born out of Oakland’s post-World War II period. Young soldiers returning from war were starting families and wanted a place to escape, Metz writes in his book Creating a Fairyland, which he co-authored with Tony Jonick. At the same time, a landscape architect named William Penn Mott Jr. became the Oakland parks superintendent, with grand visions for expanding the city’s public green spaces.

“There were approximately 950 acres of Oakland city parks in 1946, which was really low for a city of Oakland’s population and size,” said Mitchell Schwarzer, professor emeritus at California College of the Arts, and author of Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption.

Three seemingly life-size statues of smiling little girls in white-and-blue pinafores. The girl on the far left appears Asian and has long black hair. The two girls to the right embrace happily; the girl on the left appears Black, with Black hair, and the third girl appears white, with red hair. They all stand in dappled sunlight beneath trees.
Children’s Fairyland has dozens of interactive play installations based on popular stories for kids. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

“Mott wanted to build more, and he came up with all these ideas to increase the acreage of the park system,” Schwarzer said.

But Mott hit some roadblocks. He couldn’t create new parks because Oakland taxpayers didn’t have an appetite to pay more for them, according to Schwarzer, and Mott’s other idea, to create a fantasy-themed park for teenagers — with a mini train, boat and auto course — failed.

“He had a kind of crisis of spirit in the late ’40s and thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to go a different direction,’” said Schwarzer.

His new approach? Create parks within parks.

If you can’t have lots of space, you can create space in people’s minds,” said Schwarzer.

But Mott didn’t launch Fairyland on his own. In fact, the idea to create the park was fueled by Arthur Navlet, a local business investor who had run a large plant nursery in Oakland.

Navlet and his wife had no children, but still had a deep love for children, according to Metz. While in retirement, the couple visited a children’s zoo in Detroit and were inspired by the bright colors and “festive” environment for the animals, who were not confined to the industrial cages that were customary at the time. Navlet came back to the East Bay determined to create something similar in Oakland.

A view of the anthropomorphic playing cards from Alice in Wonderland, arranged side-by-side to form a maze. Each red or black playing card has a flat head at the top, with various skin tones and facial expressions (although most look surprised).
Over the years, Children’s Fairyland has tried to be more racially representative by diversifying the skin tones of characters in the storybook playsets. Now, leadership wants to diversify the actual stories featured at the park. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

Navlet was a member of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, a civic-minded group of businessmen who were interested in development. He drummed up their support and, along with Mott, raised seed money to develop a plan for the new park.

They hired local artist and industrial designer William Russell Everett, who sketched out the first 17 sets of the park.

Children’s Fairyland officially opened in September 1950, presenting stories such as The Little Red Hen and Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the story of Noah’s ark, to nearly half a million people in the first year of operation.

Fairyland soon inspired other cities, like Sacramento, to open their own children’s storybook parks. Metz says Walt Disney himself visited the park and was deeply inspired by it when he opened Disneyland in 1955.

The Walt Disney Company says there’s no concrete evidence of Disney’s visit to the park, but records show that he did fly to San Francisco in 1954.

The company also went on to hire Fairyland’s first executive director, Dorothy Manes, to head up youth activities for Disneyland in the 1950s, according to former Disney archivist Dave Smith.

Children’s Fairyland started as a public park, and is now an independent nonprofit, operating with the financial help of memberships, donations and $16 entrance fees. It has endured over the decades, much like the timeless stories it recounts, says Schwarzer.

A black-and-white photo of dozens of children sitting on the ground, looking past the camera toward an unseen stage, and laughing really hard. The four boys in the foreground are dressed in cowboy gear, with Western shirts and one wearing a cowboy hat. Most of the children appear Latino and white.
Children being entertained at Fairyland in Oakland, California circa 1955. (Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center)

“This is one of Oakland’s most innovative and lasting contributions to the whole country,” he said, about Fairyland’s ability to inspire other fantasy-themed storybook parks.

Scott Lukas, a cultural anthropologist and author of the book Theme Park, says Fairyland incorporates stories, fostering play and creativity, in a way that is pretty distinct from most other kids’ entertainment nowadays.

In contrast to Fairyland, “they’re not maybe being used for imagination and development of important skills in children, but they’re being used as properties, as brands, as commodities,” Lukas said.

And, he says, Fairyland is not trying to sell you anything or tell you what to think.

“Children get to complete the stories. It’s not about something preset,” said Lukas.

Controversy

While Children’s Fairyland may be a point of pride for Bay Area residents, its history isn’t without controversy.

When the park first opened, its creators wanted to hammer home the idea that it was for all small people, including adult little people. So they hired Victor and Edna Wetter as host guides. The married couple, who starred as little people (or “munchkins”) in The Wizard of Oz, were not much taller than the children who visited the park.

“The couple would show groups of kids throughout the park and tell them the stories that they were seeing,” Metz said. “Unfortunately, the park decided that the job for getting a host guide in Fairyland had to be at a certain height.”

City rules dictated that Fairyland hosts had to be of “small stature,” according to Metz. When another employee of average height contested the rule, the controversy got the attention of the mayor and parks director.

“The Wetters just said, you know, we’re not going to be involved with that. So they moved on to something better. And Fairyland took that out of the job description,” Metz said.

The future of Children’s Fairyland

Despite Fairyland’s very multiethnic, multiracial clientele, about 90% of the play sets at the park highlight European folktales, according to the park’s leadership. Over the decades, the park has taken small steps to diversify: There is a Chinese dragon slide, a Japanese “party area,” and a mini Ferris wheel based on Anansi the Spider, the protagonist in folktales from Ghana in West Africa.

The puppet theater, which presents daily shows, has featured more international stories over the years, including a Vietnamese Cinderella story, a Mexican folktale called “Perez and Mondinga,” and Baba Yaga from Slavic folklore.

The narrow backstage of a puppet theater, with two people standing behind a curtain operating marionettes below them. The right side of the frame shows a strip of bright sunlight, where we assume the audience is sitting; behind the curtain are ordinary objects, such as books, a lamp and a painting.
The puppet theater at Children’s Fairyland has daily shows when the park is open. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

The skin tones of characters in story sets have also been painted various shades of brown in recent years. Little Miss Muffet and the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, for example, are now portrayed as Latina and Black, respectively.

But as Fairyland prepares for its 75th anniversary, the park wants to tell more stories that better reflect and celebrate the diverse community it serves, says Executive Director Kymberly Miller.

“The park has always tried to be intentional to represent where it sits in Oakland,” Miller said. “I think what we’re looking for is a much deeper, wider intention now around that, because what it is right now is a little bit narrow.”

We see the backs of parents and children sitting on green, pink and yellow benches under yellow shade umbrellas, facing the front of the puppet theater, which has a blue awning and an ochre-colored arch lettered with "Storybook Puppet Theater."
The puppet theater at Children’s Fairyland has daily shows when the park is open. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

Miller says the stories should reflect what kids of different cultural backgrounds hear as they grow up, both in Oakland and throughout the world. The park wants to install several more international sets and make stories accessible in more languages, she says. It’s even considering rotating out some installations, much like conventional museums do with their exhibits.

But the fundamental character of the park that families love — the low-tech, vintage experience that offers a departure from everyday life — won’t change, says Miller. Fairyland goers can look forward to some updated storytelling, though.

A view of six marionettes arranged on a high shelf, with varying styles, including a multicolored jester and a white-faced mime.
Puppets from the folktales and mythologies of different cultures at Children’s Fairyland. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

“It’s about being able to be representative enough as the world changes,” said Miller. Paola Lopez, who recently took her two youngest children to Fairyland, says it would be great to see the park present stories from more places and cultures around the world, like from Peru, where she grew up.

“Well, yeah, it’s Oakland … I mean, look around,” said Lopez one recent Saturday afternoon at the park. In addition to European tales, visitors could see “South American stories about the jungle,” she said, or just one other play set that makes more people say, “‘Hey, I grew up listening or reading this story.”’

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