Rekindling a fairy tale dream in Howard

Hopes arise for reopening of Enchanted Forest park

December 01, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

As Howard County officials consider beautification plans for the U.S. 40 retail strip in Ellicott City, others are pondering the fate of a tiny corner - the Enchanted Forest, the former storybook-themed amusement park that holds a fond place in the memories of many local adults.

Only 2 or 3 acres remain of the site, which opened in the mid-1950s as "Maryland's answer to Disneyland on the East Coast," according to a 1955 Variety account.

Attendance at the park, which originally featured rides and attractions for younger children based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales, peaked at 300,000, but later declined in the 1980s. It closed in the late-1980s and was sold to JHP Development Inc. The park reopened briefly in the mid-1990s.

But while attractions such as the Old Lady's shoe are now showing their age, one thing has remained steady - hope that the park can be reopened.

Some see a restored park as a possible boon to the commercial strip.

"You talk to many adults in this area and their eyes will widen if you mention the Enchanted Forest," said Ned Rogers, president of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation. "My personal vision is that this could really be a draw and not just for preschool kids."

Interest has arisen in other arenas. Souvenirs are regularly sold on online auction sites such as eBay. Recently, a newsgroup formed to reminisce, share photographs and debate whether it could be reopened.

Meredith Peruzzi, 23, mentioned the theme park on her Web site and later started the newsgroup - which has 39 members - for those interested in Enchanted Forest.

"People don't really realize what was there," said Peruzzi, a Vienna, Va., resident who grew up in Columbia.

Hints of what the Enchanted Forest once was are visible from U.S. 40.

Ole King Cole, for example, directs drivers into the shopping center that was built on most of the property.

Peruzzi said she would also like to see the park saved in the name of historic preservation. People traveled from all over the region to enjoy the park's amenities, she said, including Cinderella's castle, the Crooked House and Willy the Whale.

Today, the area is overgrown and many of the structures are falling apart. The tail of the dragon above the entrance gates is broken, and "No Trespassing" signs are posted on the fences that surround it.

"It would be nice to have a living park again rather than something that's been steadily deteriorating," Peruzzi said.

Howard's Department of Planning and Zoning recently commenced a study of U.S. 40's retail-commuter corridor, which includes the Enchanted Forest. At last month's committee meeting, several members stated that U.S. 40 needed more entertainment and recreation venues to keep it viable. The committee will continue to meet to consider suggestions for the corridor, which the Department of Planning and Zoning expects to develop into a report by next fall.

Reopening the park is not a new idea - a group called Friends of the Enchanted Forest tried to rally support to open the theme park in 1999. Although they collected $380,000 in pledges of time and money, the effort wasn't successful.

"When there's no money, there's nothing you could really have but a dream," said Rick Lepski, co-chairman of the Friends of the Enchanted Forest.

After JHP Development bought the park, the County Council rezoned most of the 32-acre area of Enchanted Forest so the new owner could build a shopping center to be able to afford to maintain the attractions. Part of the covenant signed with the nearby residents' association called for the park to be reopened with limited hours and rides.

Although the shopping center thrived as the rest of U.S. 40 evolved into a retail center, the park did not. JHP opened an indoor play center called the Family Fun Jungle in 1992. Then, the amusement park reopened, without rides, in 1994. The Enchanted Forest Shopping Center was sold again in 1997, this time to Lutherville-based Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust. That company was purchased this year by Kimco Realty Corp., which is based in New Hyde Park.

The amusement park "right now is not in our short-term plans," said Tom Simmons, managing director of Kimco's Mid-Atlantic region.

"Some groups have approached us in the past - never with any serious financial commitments, however," he said.

Historic preservation of the Enchanted Forest may be a possibility, said Mary Catherine Cochran, spokeswoman for Preservation Howard County, a nonprofit advocacy group. If it were designated a historic site, "you have access to a whole other pot of money," she said.

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