Cinderella shows Storyland visitor the way at a recent unveiling of recent renovations. Photo by Steve Skibbie
Written by Edward Smith
The community came together Oct. 19 to welcome a new chapter of Fresno’s park of fairy tales and imagination five years after its re-opening.
On that day Storyland debuted what has become a $400,000 investment into the storied Fresno attraction. The unveiling of new audio boxes, a teacup ride and remodeled entrances earlier this year mark the beginning of what new ownership has planned to keep the 57-year old Storyland and nearby 62-year-old Playland parks relevant into the future.
Seven hundred people went to Roeding Park to hear the new audio boxes tell the tales of “The Three Little Pigs,” “Little Boy Blue” and “King Arthur’s Castle,” as well as to ride on the carousel and train, said Bruce Batti, Storyland and Playland, Inc. board chair.
The audio boxes are still operated by the iconic plastic keys that have become objects of nostalgia for longtime Fresno residents. Gone is the voice of KMJ AM 580 radio personality Ray Appleton, who originally recorded all of the stories 20 years ago.
A design company out of New York, Moey Inc., created the speakers using modern technology to tell age-old stories. They designed the boxes to resemble storybooks growing out of the ground atop tree stumps.
Now, play the tales in both English and Spanish using the voices of local theater company Good Company Players and other community members. Electric Motor Shop donated the labor to install the boxes.
Molly Lenore, co-founder of Moey, heard the story of the community coming together to save the park and it “intrigued her.” They sold the audio boxes “at or below cost,” Lenore said. The boxes in total cost $125,000.
Designing for that age group has a leniency, Lenore said. It isn’t as much of a race against technology to keep toddlers and young children engaged as it can be with older children or pre-teens.
“There’s still a need to be physical and tangible,” Lenore said. “For the younger kids, this is really relevant because it is physical.”
When the Fresno Rotary Club was forced to shutter the park in 2014, the service organization could no longer support the attraction, said former board President Ron Sidoli. The cost for insurance and to maintain safety codes was outweighing what the park was bringing in in ticket sales. For a number of years, they were relying on private donations from individuals or charities to keep the lights on month-to-month.
At that time, the two attractions in Roeding Park ran spring to fall, but when March 2015 came around, the doors didn’t open.
But the idea of the landmark sitting closed and its mission of literacy ended stirred a handful of people who grew up with the park to take it on themselves to bring it back to life. What they found was a community of people offering millions of dollars in services and donations with the same commitment.
Scott Miller, owner of Gazebo Gardens, got with Bruce and Wendy Batti of the Jeffrey Scott Agency and approached the zoo about creating a board to oversee the parks, according to Susan Anderson, attorney and current secretary of the board. The trio of Miller and the Battis invited Anderson to join the board along with attorney Wayne Thomas, who oversaw the board when the Rotary Club ran it, Anderson said.
When they toured the parks in 2015, the rides at Playland sat in disrepair and weeds broke through the concrete. “It was heartbreaking,” Anderson said.
“In the beginning, it was about saving the park,” she said.
They took that first summer to bring it back up to snuff.
The first idea was to get the Fresno Chaffee Zoo involved, using then-recently renewed Measure Z money meant for new projects and deferred maintenance at the zoo. But language in the bill kept it from being used on projects outside the zoo, Anderson said.
But they found the group wasn’t alone in its desire to keep the park alive. In the first year, they raised $850,000.
They paid off or settled nearly $40,000 in debts.
“It was really businesses stepping up, and families,” Batti said. “Every donor, without exception, has been touched by the parks in some way shape or form in these last 60 years.”
The Daniel R. Martin Foundation donated a significant amount of money as well as Lithia of Fresno. Beyond that, groups came forward to donate services.
Kitchell Corporation took the project lead.
Granite Construction Services gifted concrete work to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
One of the legacy attractions, the Children’s Chapel, was in such disrepair that the group thought they would have to tear it down. Instead, Nelson Dye donated a week of labor and supplies to bring it back to life, Batti said.
“It was things like that,” Anderson said. “We didn’t have the money to pay for it. They stepped up and did it.”
By Labor Day 2015, Storyland was open. By Memorial Day 2016, Playland was open.
The first weekends, lines for the park went out the door and around the corner. Without any employees, board members had to work. Batti conducted the train. Anderson and Thomas worked the ticket booth while Miller kept the park clean. Over the next four years, Storyland and Playland, Inc. brought the attractions back to life.
“Now we’re at a place where we can grow instead of fix,” Batti said.
And now, in 2019, groups are still coming forward to donate where they can.
The plan is toward self-sufficiency, Batti said. Tickets and concession sales will be able to keep the lights on, and with the new audio boxes and teacup ride, they can work toward keeping families coming to the park. New projects will come from grants and donations.
Batti said 2020 will “be the year of the train.”
The Smittcamp family donated a second train so that “there will always be one running,” Batti said, even during repairs. But the tracks and the tunnel need to be fixed, a project that could cost $250,000. Following that, in 2021, the hope will be to build a reading room and library in Storyland.
“The community should applaud itself for continuing to find ways to sustain these parks into the future,” Batti said.