Discover the Secrets of Story Land
An insider’s guide to historical curiosities, forgotten fairytale lore and pre-Disney entertainment on the park’s 60th anniversary
If you’re keeping up with the latest princess news, you already know that Disney’s tiara empire just added its 12th and 13th charter members, Anna and Elsa, from the animated film “Frozen.” Last year, the redheaded, archery-loving Merida was “coronated” into the Disney Princess family at Cinderella’s Castle in Orlando, Florida.
or six decades, there has also been a rival Cinderella’s Castle deep in the woods of Glen, NH. The Story Land family theme park was founded in 1954 by entrepreneurs Bob and Ruth Morrell, of North Conway, owners of the Eastern Slope Ice Cream Company. Their fairytale dream was actually constructed a year before Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
While stationed with the US Army in Germany from 1950-52, the Morrells met folksy toymaker Frau Edith Von Arps, who made handcrafted fabric dolls of famous children’s storybook characters. The couple brought home a full set of the dolls — which are heavily sought-after collector’s items today — and they became the inspiration for the park.
Originally called Story Town, the ambitious startup needed to rebrand a year later when it was discovered that another park in upstate New York had already staked a claim on the same name. While several other regional fairytale parks have since been closed or swallowed by larger chains, Story Land remains a time capsule of entertainment at the dawn of the television age.
One of the first attractions was the Three Bears’ House, where children can still see Papa, Mama and Baby Bears’ beds and where Goldilocks illegally sipped their porridge. The house’s interior, like the nearby Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater’s home, contains no animatronic figures or special effects. It’s up to the child to immerse him or herself into the story — and the park depends on the presumption that their parents read to them.
At Disney, the costumed characters are mostly aspiring actors and models who likely will move on elsewhere at their first opportunity. In contrast, Story Land’s fantasy cast consists mostly of retirees. Mother Goose and the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe are not angling for better gigs — and surprisingly, today’s kids are embracing their unglamorous and unlicensed existence.
With the expansion of the Interstate Highway System under President Dwight Eisenhower, several regional nursery rhyme-themed parks took root in the 1950s. The aforementioned Story Town is now a Six Flags, with only traces of the original place remaining. Storytown in Northern Virginia was left to the vandals, much like the fate of Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in Hudson, before it was reclaimed as public recreational space.
Why is Story Land still thriving where other make-believe landmarks failed? Luck is certainly part of the survival equation, but so is the park’s delicate balancing act of preserving its history while seeking out new attractions to engage the far less sentimental 5 year olds. On its 60th anniversary this year, Story Land is adding the “Roar-O-Saurus,” a larger wooden coaster to complement the popular Polar Coaster. Going from walrus to dinosaur will represent a graduation from child to ’tween, as the park is seeking out more opportunities to appeal to 10-12 year olds, the upper limit of their demographic.
The Roar-O-Saurus is meant to be a child’s first drop coaster, with a 40-foot lift height and 12 “air-time moments,” marking a step up from the relatively gentler dips of the Polar Coaster.
Adrenaline rushes aside, parents seeking nostalgia can find plenty of original photo ops like the fiberglass Humpty Dumpty on the Wall, Little Miss Muffet’s Tuffet and the gigantic empty picture frame near the park’s entrance.
“Parents can take pictures of their kids in the same exact spot where they posed as kids,” notes historian Jim Miller, author of “Images of America: Story Land.”
“You’ll see three or four generations of families return to the same place. Story Land binds people together,” he adds.
No one embodies the park’s “memories that last forever” promise more than Jack Mahany, the assistant general manager who jokingly refers to himself as Prince Charming.
Mahany, who works in an office above the candy store at Yum-Yum Junction, has the fairytale street cred to support his royalty claim. His wife Mary is a former Cinderella. The couple met at Story Land in 1968 as teenagers. She was on princess duty and he was the backup Pumpkin Coach driver while the regular guy was on lunch break.
“Back in the ’60s, Cinderella played the part six days a week, nine hours a day with limited break time — it usually was a one-year gig,” he recalls. “Burnout happened to them all, including my future wife. Plus, Cinderella had to wash her own dress every evening. We used real horses to pull the Pumpkin Coach and at the end of the day, the manure smell was embedded in her dress.”
In honor of Story Land’s six decades, Prince Charming (who left the park in 1971 and returned in 1995 after more than 20 years as a mechanic) was recently kind enough to give New Hampshire Magazine an insider’s tour.
Without further ado, here are 16 of Mahany’s favorite historical and behind-the-scenes “secrets” you won’t find in the Story Land brochure.
“You only have a few hundred days of childhood,” Mahany says, noting there are plenty of places in the park to impress adults too.
The Sweet 16 – Jack Mahany’s Secrets of Story Land
1. Dolls That Came Alive
When Ruth and Bob Morrell met famous Nuremberg toymaker Frau Edith Von Arps in 1952, she suggested that the couple build a theme park around the same fairy tales inspiring her cloth dolls. Her advice was not fully altruistic. The artist had hoped that such a park could also serve as a natural US distributor for her products. The original dolls, including the Three Little Pigs, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland and Mary Had a Little Lamb, are now displayed in the administrative offices. They used to be showcased in the gift shop, but renovations forced out the characters for more shelf space. Mahany says he is exploring an alternative display space for the dolls and other historical memorabilia.
2. Story Land’s First Ride Ever
The very first ride at Story Land in 1954 was an old fire engine they bought for $1. It wasn’t on tracks. “Freddie the Fire Engine” was just driven around in circles as if he were at a 4th of July parade. Not too many people know that the original Freddie really is stored in the fake firehouse near the gift shop, but the garage door is seldom opened. Having invested considerable money for restoration, the park is figuring out how to display him without getting damaged by overzealous kids who want to climb all over him like their predecessors did.
3. Squirrel Repellent
Squirrels are the sworn enemy of Story Land. They’ve historically chewed off the electrical wiring under the antique cars and they break into the candy shop to snack. As a deterrent, an opened case of candy corn is kept on the floor of Freddie the Fire Engine’s garage. So far the squirrels are happy eating that and don’t break into the adjacent candy shop. The squirrel problem may partially be Bob Morrell’s fault. He planted walnut trees near the antique cars and they tend to attract even more squirrels.
4. Humpty Dumpty’s Physiology
Putting yourself in the fairy tales is Story Land’s calling card — and no opportunity better embodies that than getting to sit on the wall with the Humpster. In 1954, the story was told with a crude 2D wooden cutout before the familiar fiberglass 3D character was added in the early ’60s. The iconic egg character remains one of the most popular photo ops in the park. *Photo courtesy of Karen Desmarais. Taken in 1979.
5. A Place to Pray
There is a place for religious services at Story Land, a non-denominational chapel modeled after an octagon-shaped church the Morrells saw in Austria. The two onion domes are topped with giant copper spheres originally used by the Mount Washington research laboratories. The chapel is near Heidi’s Grandfather’s House and people have gotten married there. But it is also available all the time for private prayers and personal reflection.
6. Heidi’s Grandfather’s Secret Past
According to Mahany, many visitors spend one and half days in the park (if you come at 3 p.m., you get the next day free) without realizing that Heidi’s Grandfather’s House is even there. The reason: The creation of new walking paths to some of the more popular attractions diverts most foot traffic elsewhere. If you went to the nearby Heritage New Hampshire attraction as a kid, you might recognize actor Dan Woodbury, of Glen. Before the interactive history museum closed in 2006, Heidi’s Grandfather used to be Portsmouth Sea Captain Lewis Barnes.
7. Fairytale Weddings
If you want to have the Pirate Ship, the Swan Boats, the Chapel or Cinderella’s Castle to yourself on your wedding day, you had better act fast. There is only one day each year — the first Saturday after the park closes in the fall — where you can have a ceremony without any party crashers. In the past, Story Land has asked for a modest donation ($200-$500) made to the children’s charity of the couple’s choice. Several weddings, however, have happened while the park is open with guests paying admission just like everyone else.
8. Real African Safari Animals?
Like brands fighting ferociously for supermarket shelf space, new rides often compete for the same limited real estate. This classic wild animal ride has been cut in half by the Egyptian “Splash Battle: Pharaoh’s Reign” water ride. If you look closely at the sidewalks around the Egyptian temple, you’ll notice numerous painted paw prints on the pavement. The Safari Ride also used to use real monkeys and aoudads (Barbary sheep), but the care and upkeep of the animals was not deemed to be worth it.
9. Black Sambo Merry-Go-Round
For decades, the park celebrated “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” an 1899 British children’s book that became controversial for its stereotyped illustrations, with a Little Black Sambo Merry-Go-Round. Because author Helen Bannerman’s story focused on an Indian boy outsmarting four hungry tigers, the kid-powered ride featured wooden tigers with a dark-skinned boy hiding in the jungle. The park removed the Sambo name and his image from the merry-go-round in the early 1990s, leaving only the wildcats.
“Anyone who is in the business of entertaining people, especially a diverse group of people, needs to be aware that perception is more important than reality,” says Jim Miller, author of the “Images of America: Story Land” book. “Even though the park meant no harm, just because something is historic, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good. You need to be sensitive to people’s sensibilities and move on to something else.”
10. Miss Muffet’s Reincarnated Tree
Near the entrance, the totem pole of the Three Bears, Peter Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat looks like it might be one of the park’s original treasures. It actually has only been around since 2002, when Massachusetts artist Justin Gordon (famous at champion sand sculpture competitions around the world) did his magic. The carving was done on the trunk of the tree that used to hold up the spider web behind Miss Muffet’s Tuffet. The tree was dying and owner Stoney Morrell wanted to salvage it in a special way. Bonus Secret: If you look at the totem pole from a certain angle, you can also see the silhouette of the Old Man of the Mountain.
11. The Most Majestic Storage Unit in NH
If you’re looking for parking on a particularly busy summer day, you can’t miss the huge empty shell of Heritage New Hampshire, the living history museum with costumed interpreters that opened in 1976 and became a traditional field trip for middle school students. Resembling a blend of a mansion and a New England Town Hall, the building is now the state’s most gorgeous storage closet. Heritage shut down in 2006 after the building inspector determined it wasn’t up to code and required expensive upgrades. With low attendance numbers, and already heavily subsidized by Story Land, the museum’s fate was sealed. “People said they were sad to see it close, but we’d ask, ‘When was the last time you were there?’” Mahany says.
12. Antique Sandbox Toys
With the gigantic Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe looming on the horizon, not many visitors even notice there is a sandbox at Story Land, let alone original handmade wooden toys from the 1950s. The toys are repainted every year.
13. Ghosts of NASA
The US Space Shuttle program was canceled a few years back, but Story Land scrapped its astronauts first. “Voyage to the Moon,” the park’s first and last in-the-dark ride opened in 1983, with Gov. John Sununu sharing the first ride with founder Bob Morrell. The sci-fi theme was abandoned 15 years later, with the dome being converted to house the “Loopy Lab,” a massive ball pit that makes your average Chuck E. Cheese pit feel inadequate. The moon ride was shut down because the ride capacity was too low and the lines were too long.
14. Horses Who Play Dress-up?
In the park’s international section, called “A Child’s Visit to Other Lands,” the Let’s Pretend Costume and Ornament Shop caters to every kid who wants to be a pirate or princess for the day. The building used to house the horses who pulled Cinderella’s carriage. If you look closely inside some of the window frames, you can see slight damage caused by the animals. FYI: The shop no longer smells like a stable.
15. Try Moving a Granite Boulder
Near the entrance of the Bamboo Chutes flume ride, a Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not-style challenge beckons those about to take the plunge: Can you move this 2,544-pound granite sphere? Surprisingly, an ultra-thin layer of water (1/20,000th of an inch thick) underneath the rock enables a young child to turn it as if it “were suspended in air.” Don’t expect us to explain the physics!
16. Middle East Mayhem
You don’t need to travel to Cairo to see the Sphinx or cruise the Nile. The next best thing is “Splash Battle: Pharaoh’s Reign,” a squirt-gun-armed boat ride with an Ancient Egyptian soundtrack. When the marketing department was brainstorming how to theme the attraction, they also considered building the water fight around pirates or dinosaurs. In any case, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all Middle East battles were conducted with squirt guns?
The Disney Influence
Does Story Land have Castle Envy?
The comparison is inevitable. One glance at the cherubic kiddie characters populating Story Land’s international section and visitors familiar with Disney will instantly think about “It’s a Small World.”
Built in the early 1970s, “A Child’s Visit to Other Lands” did come after the famous animatronic United Nations ride, which was first introduced at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. However, it’s difficult to parse which elements of the park were inspired by Disney and which ones were influenced by the international travels of founders Bob and Ruth Morrell.
“Bob very much admired Walt Disney,” says historian Jim Miller. “Story Land followed his model that you weren’t just building rides, but you were building attractions. Every ride tells a story. There was a bigger commitment to drive the imagination for kids.”
In a 1990 speech to the New Hampshire chapter of The Newcomen Society, Bob Morrell reminisced about his early visits to Disneyland in California, asserting that it had made all other amusement parks “obsolete” and set new standards in the industry for both entertainment and management.
“Story Land conveys a message that fascinates,” Morrell said. “That does something to most everyone. Cleanliness, courtesy, order, innovation, a sort of changing stability, participation, family communication — like growing up with one foot in the sandbox.”
Of course, the Disney princess influence is unavoidable.
According to Jack Mahany, Story Land’s assistant general manager, the park originally allowed its Cinderellas to sport their natural hair color, but a little girl rebellion quickly mandated a blondes-only policy.
“On the rare occasion that Cinderella was ill back in the day, and we had to use a brunette, we heard about it for a week,” he says. “That comparison will never go away.”
Amusement Park Afterlife
Where do theme park rides go to die? Usually obsolete attractions are sold for scrap metal or wind up in the landfill.
However, at least three abandoned Story Land relics have found a respectful resting place at the Red Jacket Fox Ridge Resort on Rte. 16 in North Conway.
Guests who play on the mini-golf course behind the restaurant can be reunited with a retired antique car, a rocket ship from the closed “Voyage to the Moon” ride and a “tub” that was removed from the park’s century-old German carousel to make it wheelchair accessible.
The antique car was built in the early 1970s on site using John Deere tractor parts. According to Story Land’s Jack Mahany, the retired cars lasted 30 years and traveled more than 75,000 miles around the same track. Two similar cars were donated to the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Massachusetts.
Black and white photos are reprinted with permission from Story land, by Jim Miller. Available from the publisher online at arcadiapublishing.com or by calling (888) 313-2665.