Column: Go off to see the Wizard at Beech Mountain's Land of Oz
On the side of Beech Mountain in the Appalachian range, you can find Dorothy, a tin man, a cowardly lion, a scarecrow and a yellow brick road.
Sean Barrett, artistic director and producer for the “Autumn at Oz festival" at the Land of Oz, is a huge fan of the film.
The festival, an extensive production that brings in visitors from across the state, consists of multiple live performances, photo opportunities and theatrical experiences.
Barrett attended the festival as a child, and even acted as the Scarecrow on one occasion. He comes down from his hometown in New York for four to six months of the year to prepare for the event.
"I was a part of the Wizard of Oz Club at the time, and the magazine asked me to write an article at the Land Of Oz," Barrett said. "Because I was the only person coming to it."
However, the story of the Land of Oz isn’t all blue skies.
The original amusement park began operations under a company started by Grover Robbins, known as Carolina Caribbean (the same owners of Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock). With the development of Beech Mountain, the park opened as a driving attraction in 1970. Debbie Reynold and Carrie Fisher cut the opening-day ribbon.
The Land of Oz was named the "#1 Tourist Attraction."
In 1975, Carolina Caribbean went bankrupt, and months later, a mysterious fire burned down Emerald City. The park was shut down, sold to another investor and rebuilt in lesser quality after three months. As Barrett put it, “Oz went from Disneyland to a roadside attraction.”
The park subsequently closed and laid dormant; sections of the park were even demolished due to vandalism and decay.
Still, management didn’t want the historic location to go to waste; after having success with opening for a single day in the early ‘90s, the park continued opening for a few days each year.
What used to be a fully-functioning theme park in the ‘70s and ‘80s that rivaled that of Disney's has now been reduced to a location for private tours and the “Autumn at Oz festival.” This year, the festival has been extended into three weekends to account for public demand. The event is propelled by a staff made up of nearly 125 seasonal workers, including cast members, ushers and merchandise vendors.
The adventure starts at a series of parking lots at the base of the mountain, where you have the option to ride a shuttle to the park, or take the scenic chairlift for an additional price.
Ira Wilder, assistant photo editor, and I opted for the shuttle. Given the variable waiting time, as well as lack of air conditioning on the vehicles, we’d recommend shelling out the $12 to get one of the best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains on your way to the park.
The initial sights aren’t what you’d imagine for a relatively expensive ticket. A weathered fountain, rocky trail lined with historic infographics and a cheesy musical number next to a white tent with vendors offering kettle corn — it wasn’t the best start.
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However, things quickly turned up after a trip through Dorothy’s toppled house, full with effects and a UV light show. From there, we embarked on the famed yellow brick road, met all the characters, including Glinda the Good Witch, who insisted that Ira and I link arms and skip down the path after getting our photo taken. Not to mention, the scenery at the mountain trail was gorgeous (Barrett mentioned that it’s home to nearly 4000 poppies.)
Unfortunately the themed scenery was underwhelming for an event of this size — the yellow brick road ended at “Emerald City,” which consisted of a white event tent hosting the final show stage. However, while the props and themed scenery were subpar, it was understandable for an event that had to be constructed and demolished within the month of September. In retrospect, the actors did a phenomenal job making the shows interactive and engaging the audience.
And, even though much was left to be desired on the physical side of the park, I will not hide the fact that the souvenirs were top-notch. I did leave with a very cute “Land of Oz” t-shirt, and Ira found some collectible memorabilia to take home for his aunt.
As someone who wasn’t a huge Wizard of Oz fan to begin with, seeing the Land of Oz wasn’t particularly life-changing. Coupled with a feeling of displacement being one of two people of color there, I was weary even on the shuttle.
However, it was incredibly interesting to learn about the history behind the park, as well as see people who were much bigger fans than I was come dressed up and meet their favorite characters.
Barrett wants to perfect the “Autumn at Oz” festival as much as possible before expanding.
“We’re hoping to add more events throughout the year, such as a nighttime Halloween-themed attraction,” Barrett said. “Although it’s not any time in the future, we have all the plans and the design concepts.”
It wasn’t what we expected — but to be fair, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. The Land of Oz was a unique experience that any history buff, musical lover or Wizard of Oz fan can enjoy, and supporting the lively event is a way to keep its history alive, and expand it back to what it once was.
Assistant Photo Editor Ira Wilder contributed reporting.