BEECH MOUNTAIN, N.C. — It’s not what it was during the heyday of the 1970s, but the Land of Oz theme park endures.
The old Yellow Brick Road, made of 44,000 bricks, still winds around the top of Beech Mountain in a garden-like setting dotted with gazebos, boulders, craggy trees and occasional curiosities like the Witch’s Castle. For the most part, it’s quiet up here, marked by fierce winds that whip across the mountaintop at more than 5,500 feet elevation.
There’s a modest stream of visitors, particularly in the summer. The public can arrange for group tours or events in the park, or even rent out the renovated Dorothy’s House for the night.
Expensive homes situated just across the street bring seasonal residents to the top of the mountain, and a handful of people tend the park, giving tours and doing upkeep. The excitement returns when the annual Autumn at Oz celebration takes place, bringing back thousands of Oz lovers — former Land of Oz employees and fans alike.
Hosts and many visitors at the festival dress as “The Wizard of Oz” characters, paying homage to the classic movie about a little girl from Kansas named Dorothy who survives a tornado, visits a magical, sometimes scary land and finds out more about what’s important in life. The story, written by L. Frank Baum as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” is both enduring and endearing, just like the theme park.
When describing the park, visitors often use the term “a magical place,” based actually more on Baum’s book than the movie. It certainly had an impact on people.
Former Johnson Citian Donna Devereux, who attended East Tennessee State University and now lives near Blowing Rock, is among them. As a teenager she was one of “about nine Dorothys” employed at the park on opening day in 1970.
“I would disappear in a puff of smoke and then reappear,” she said during a recent visit to the park. “I worked here for about four years. It was really fun. It spoiled me for any other work.
“I was here for the grand opening when Debbie Reynolds cut the ribbon. Carrie Fisher was here, she was about 13 at the time, and I was charged with keeping her company.”
The park in its heyday was a big hit. The brainchild of developer Grover Robbins — who also created Tweetsie Railroad, among many other enduring developments — and designer Jack Pentes, Land of Oz was a place filled with characters and scenes from the movie.
Visitors could take a ride around the park in colorful “hot-air balloon” gondolas, visit Dorothy’s house and experience it before, during and after a “tornado,” see a show that revealed the Wizard of Oz and have their photos taken with munchkins or any of the characters.
And there was the shiny (and sometimes slick) Yellow Brick Road that tied everything together.
In the design stages, Pentres indeed saw it as a magical place. He took special care to preserve the natural environment, which was much of what made the place seem so special. And Pentres worked from a child’s point of view, literally, getting down on his knees for the proper perspective as he created the park.
Visitors would drive up the steep, winding road with its hairpin turns, then take a gondola-style chair lift to the very top. The trip up the mountain no doubt added to the mystique of the destination on top.
The place attracted 400,000 people its first year and brought in quite a few celebrities during the decade, including Reynolds, Fisher, Ray Bolger, Anita Bryant, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Charles Kuralt.
“I got to skip down the road with Charles Kuralt,” Devereaux said with a laugh.
The park also featured many of the region’s finest artists and craftsmen, so there was quality shopping to be done. And the long-range views from up high were fabulous.
A recession and a changing tourist industry helped lead to the park’s demise. The property is now owned and managed by Emerald Mountain Realty & Rentals. Cindy Keller of Emerald Mountain oversees the place and organizes the Autumn at Oz festival, and on the company’s website she tells a summarized history of the place.
Keller lists “changing times, economics, liabilities, maintenance and other interests of its owners, along with the lack of change at Oz,” as reasons for its downfall. A fire in 1976 also took its toll, destroying some artifacts.
Devereaux was among those who hated to say goodbye.
“I was very sad to see it close,” she said, adding, “There was a magical feel to the top of the mountain.”
For a decade the Land of Oz fell into decline and was victimized by vandals and people seeking to take home a piece of Oz. In 1990 Emerald Mountain Properties started a 450-acre project to create home sites around the property, but also to protect and partially revive the Land of Oz.
Many of the small attractions at the park are gone for good, including some of the structures as well as the gigantic mushroom and the balloon ride. Dorothy’s House remains one of the highlights. People can tour the place, then experience the sights and sounds of a tornado before emerging from the dark to find another version of the house knocked askew. Witch’s legs are sticking out from the bottom of the outside of the house.
“The park is not, nor will it ever be, what it once was,” Keller writes. “However, with its maturing flora and graceful aging, it has evolved into its own unique entity.”
Visitors can also see Dorothy’s red slippers — actually a sculpture of the shoes, which are bolted down to the concrete — and slip their feet into them while catch a grand view of the mountains.
There’s a small museum filled with memorabilia from and about the movie, and items continue to resurface — evidence that the Land of Oz never actually died. Many people still find the park, even in its faded glory, to be a magical place.
For more information, visit www.emeraldmtn.com.