Talking trees, wicked witches and magical mushrooms. Do these repressed memories from the 1970s lurk along the Yellow Brick Road in your mind?
And no, we’re not talking about some sort of hallucinogenic flashback.
If you answer “yes,” chances are you visited the Land of Oz theme park high atop Beech Mountain Resort in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Want to reclaim a bit of that nostalgia? It’s a whole lot easier than clicking your heels and chanting “There’s no place like home.”
The Land of Oz was the brainchild of creator and designer Jack Pentes, and entrepreneur Grover Robbins. Robbins, who owned the park, had great success with the popular Tweetsie Railroad attraction in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, which still chugs along today. Sadly, Robbins succumbed to cancer just months before Oz went operational.
Opened in 1970 as a warm weather attraction when Beech’s ski slopes were closed, the Land of Oz brought to life the world and characters found in “The Wizard of Oz,” and plopped tourists smack dab in the middle. Actress Debbie Reynolds, who helped the park acquire some of its “Oz” movie props for the park museum, cut the ribbon on opening day, her bored-looking daughter, Carrie Fisher, in tow.
Guests took an enclosed gondola lift or surrey bus to the top of the mountain where they would find Dorothy’s house on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm, which also played host to a petting zoo. Visitors would tour Dorothy’s digs then journey downstairs to the cellar for a simulated cyclone.
After the storm, they’d exit through a door that led to an exact replica of Dorothy’s house, which was decked out and distressed as if it had been trashed by the cyclone.
Stepping out the front door, visitors would find themselves on the Yellow Brick Road, the witch’s feet sticking out from underneath Dorothy’s house.
The experience would unfold on the Yellow Brick Road with encounters with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion along the way. Each character had his own house, and they would step outside and greet guests as they passed.
The Wicked Witch’s castle loomed above the trail, too. She would jump out and cackle at all of the little pretties skipping along the bricks.
The Yellow Brick Road led to Emerald City where a stage show starring Dorothy, her buds, dancing mushrooms, puppets and the Wizard took place. Gift shops shilled Oz T-shirts, kazoos, buttons and more. And you could make like Dorothy and hop on a special ski lift for a simulated hot air balloon ride.
Although it proved to be the most popular attraction in the Southeast in its first year, a myriad of problems, including economics and dwindling attendance, caused Oz to shut its doors in 1980.
Beginning in 1990, a development dubbed Emerald Mountain began sprouting homesites in the area. Although the remnants of the Land of Oz had become overgrown and prey to vandalism, the property owners slowly began restoring portions of the park.
Today the Yellow Brick Road has reclaimed its golden glimmer with caretakers replacing missing bricks over the years. The Witch’s castle and some of the anthropomorphic trees have been rebuilt. The covered bridge still stands, as does the fountain at the park’s entrance. A lone surviving hot air balloon car is perched high on a pole.
From June through October, guests can actually bunk in Dorothy’s house, which comes blinged with Oz memorabilia. My family and I rented it out several years ago. The place looks almost the same as it did when I visited the park as a wee munchkin in the ’70s. The property owners have even recreated the cellar cyclone scene right down to the witchy glow-in-the-dark “Surrender Dorothy” mural on the wall.
Crash at Dorothy’s and you have access to the Yellow Brick Road. Ask nicely and the caretakers might show you their Land of Oz museum featuring park artifacts, and actual screen-used props and costumes from the 1939 film. Breathtaking, some of this stuff, including the Witch’s stockings worn by actress Margaret Hamilton in the movie, could be in the Smithsonian.
Want to get married in Oz or simply party on the Yellow Bricks? The property can also be rented for parties and special events. Fork over an extra $100, and Dorothy will materialize.
Autumn at Oz
Each October, the Land of Oz throws a two-day bash billed as Autumn at Oz. Oz characters, some portrayed by original Land of Oz cast members, mingle with the crowd. Live music, food vendors, a petting zoo, Oz museum tours and more bring the magic.