Enchanted Forest is sprucing up for a new generation of denizens

December 07, 1991|By Edward Gunts

In a Dec. 7 article about the reopening of the Enchante Forest, the name of the builder was incorrect. It is Howard E. Harrison Sr.

The Sun regrets the error.

Its occupants may be living happily ever after, but the roof on Cinderella's castle leaks. Hansel and Gretel's gingerbread house needs a new coat of paint. And the Old Lady's shoe has been looking pretty shabby.

But they're all being fixed up as part of the most unusual restoration project in the Baltimore area this fall: the refurbishment of the Enchanted Forest theme park near Ellicott City.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

After two years of dormancy, the well-known children's attraction at 11041 Baltimore National Pike -- a Mother Goose-inspired fairy tale factory that drew national attention when it opened and was touted in Variety as "Maryland's answer to Disneyland" -- is getting a major overhaul.

When it reopens under new ownership next spring, it will contain most of the attractions that delighted hundreds of thousands of visitors from 1955 to 1989 -- Ole King Cole, the Three Bears, LittleMiss Muffet and Humpty Dumpty among them.

It will also have the same slow-paced, low-tech character that makes it a throwback to the days before video games, Steven Spielberg movies and monster roller coasters transformed the amusement park industry.

"It's an anachronism," admits Jeffrey Pechter, vice president of JHP Development Inc., the Towson-based group that bought the 32-acre theme park in 1988 and is restoring it. "There's an innocenceto it all, and we want to keep it that way. We want to keep the charm."

A family-owned company that specializes in retail development throughout the Baltimore area, JHP bought the park for $4.5 million from the Harrison family, the original creators. JHP took 20 acres of the Enchanted Forest property -- mostly its parking lot -- and is building a 138,000-square-foot shopping center that is scheduled to open next March.

As part of a commitment made to the surrounding communitywhen the parcel was purchased, JHP is preparing to reopen the refurbished theme park around Memorial Day, the same time the Harrisons traditionally opened it.

"A lot of people are under the impression that we've closed it forever," Mr. Pechter said. "They just think 'developer' and 'theme park' and figure it's gone. But it's not."

The Enchanted Forest made its debut the same year Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Calif., and was part of a national trend toward construction of family-oriented attractions. Its builder, Howard Harrison II, was a Howard County businessman whose goal was to create a theme park that gave classical European fairy tales three-dimensional form.

A local artist, Howard Adler, designed the buildings, which were solidly constructed with oak beams, reinforced concrete and cinder blocks. On its opening day, the Enchanted Forest was featured in a live broadcast on the "Today" show with then-host Dave Garroway and J. Fred Muggs the monkey.

Unlike many parks that had scare and thrill rides as their primary attractions, the Enchanted Forest was a relatively tame place where children could visit the house of the Three Bears, climb up the Old Lady's shoe and slide down its tongue, ring a bell in the little red schoolhouse, or have refreshments in Hansel and Gretel's gingerbread house.

After paying admission -- $1 for adults and 50 cents for children -- visitors entered the park through a moated castle topped by a 40-foot tower. Guides dressed as Little Bo Peep, Goldilocks and other nursery rhyme characters roamed the park. Birthday parties were catered on request.

The Forest was a hit from the beginning.

"Maryland's answer to Disneyland . . . has proven to be a strong tourist lure," Variety said in a front-page story shortly after the opening. "During opening week, over 20,000 flocked out to catch this unique version of nursery rhyme images."

Attendance peaked at upward of 300,000 visitors a year in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But it began to decline with the advent of Kings Dominion in Ashland, Va., and other large-scale regional theme parks, which siphoned off visitors.

Mr. Pechter said he believes there is a market again for a simple, "wholesome" theme park without all the high-tech trappings and that JHP is aiming to appeal to families with children aged 2 to 8. Although there are plenty of entertainment options for older children, he said, the Baltimore area has very few places to take smaller children.

"We feel that there is a real niche for children under the age of 8 and parents in search of a safe, family-oriented environment," he said. "We think that's missing. There are more high-tech places, but we don't want to compete with them."

Although the park has always been a seasonal attraction, open only during warmer months, JHP expects to add an indoor "fun house" that will enable at least part of the park to be open year-round. The fun house is being built as part of the shopping center and will help frame a new entrance to the theme park.

In recent months, Mr. Pechter has been working with a craftsman, David Lambard, to fix up buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Mr. Pechter said he expects the low-tech nature of the park to help keep admission prices to about $3 to $4 per person.

Asked whether he thinks parents will drop their children off at the Enchanted Forest while they go shopping, Mr. Pechter said that is not really the idea.

"I hope the parents will go through and read the nursery rhymes with them," he said.

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