Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, Calif. is 10 acres of adorable fun for small children. Opened in 1950, it’s the longest continually operating storybook theme- park in the U.S., according to Nancy Friedman, who handles media and marketing for the park.
“It was the inspiration for Disneyland,” she relates. “Over the 68 years we’ve been open, there have been a lot of changes in the park. For example, we’ve always had live animals, but in the early years we had seals, a monkey, and other exotic animals. Now we have farm animals such as two mini-horses and goats, ducks, rabbits, chickens, and guinea pigs,” she says.
Ten years ago, the park added a children’s theater, an outdoor amphitheater designed by the Bay Area’s renowned Ace Architects, and more recently added a children’s orchestra performance and an inclusive immigration ceremony. “We designed that for children of immigrants. The adults get to go to a ceremony, so we decided to do our own special event for the young children of new immigrants. It’s been very moving. After the ceremony, we give the family passes to Fairyland for the day.”
Friedman says the park’s outreach has grown considerably, as Oakland is a “city of wealth and poverty both, and there are a lot of under-served populations. Our admission rate is low at $10, but some cannot afford to go anyway. So, we have made a really strong effort to reach those people. We’re more than just an amusement park, we’re a place of literacy and learning for everyone,” she relates. “’Create, imagine, play, and learn’ is our motto.”
She notes that the park really believes in the “learning curve.” To that end, they offer toddler story time twice every Friday, bring in field trips from schools, and subsidize attendance through grants and donations, offering free visits for children who cannot otherwise afford it. “We are a non-profit and raise money constantly,” she says.
Fairyland also plans many special events over the course of the year. “We are having our third annual children’s book festival next month, a celebration of local authors, illustrators, and publishers who meet the children who read their books, sign them, show them how they create drawings. It’s a pretty great day in the park,” Friedman asserts. “We get a great turnout, we have had almost 2000 people come over the last few years, and have 28 authors coming to share this year on May 19th. It’s included with park admission.” So is the park’s puppet show. “We have the longest running professional puppet theater in the U.S,.” Friedman says proudly.
The park became a non-profit in 1994, and was originally founded as public/private partnership. “When we started, there was nothing like us, attractions were not meant for young children. There were carnivals and fairs, but nothing like this. We have always said that this is for kids, and no adult is allowed in the park without a child. Everything is scaled to child size -- that was one of the takeaways for Disney. It is really about kids and seeing the world through children’s eyes.”
Friedman says the park works hard to do that, from birthday areas scattered throughout the park to special events such as an upcoming Port of Oakland day in which a small-size container crane will be brought in so that children will be able to operate it.
When it comes to marketing, Friedman says the park has limited to no budget. “Occasionally we will do a trade, but primarily it is social media and word of mouth. I’m in charge of all social media, and we make good use of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. We also send out a monthly e-mail blast to our members.”
Membership is a particularly good deal: $91 for an entire year provides admission for two adults and two children.
“We get three generations of families who come to Fairyland, in fact every December we have a grandparent’s week where grandparents get in free.”
Attendance varies throughout the year, and Friedman says the park is very much affected by the weather: if it rains, they have to close. That said, the park averages 500 to 600 visitors on most of the days they are open. “We have a big surge in the weeks around Christmas, and also for special events. Many people come for Christmas, we have cocoa and cider and special musical performances,” she relates, explaining that the park also has one of the few African American Santas in the country.
The park is located in the heart of Oakland, which leads those with memberships to simply drop by as if to a neighborhood park, Friedman says. “It’s really fun to see the way the kids take ownership of the place, it’s really impossible to get lost, and parents often let the kids decide where to go and what to do.”
As far as rides go, the park keeps things gentle. “We have a little Ferris wheel and two little merry-go-rounds, we have slides. One of the biggest attractions is the simplest: a hill covered with artificial turf, with big card board pieces that kids can slide down the hill on. It’s the best thing,” she enthuses.
While there are no new attractions planned for this year, the park’s full-time horticulturist is always working on new, themed storybook garden areas. “We use some of our gardens for teaching,” Friedman reports, “we have a kindergarten and first grader program called Science Alive, where we go to the classroom with animals or plants and then the children come for a field trip here.”
And according to Friedman, the park is committed to innovation. “There is always something bubbling up. We are always working on new programs that include growing together, things that encourage city kids to come and see our animals and gardens, and introduce them to life beyond their neighborhood.”