What would it be like if you were suddenly thrust into Dorothy’s adventures in the Land of Oz? For “Wizard of Oz” enthusiasts, it’s a dream come true that can be fulfilled at Beech Mountain, N.C. But, like every special wish come true, it won’t last long.
By Kathy M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher
“Autumn at Oz” only runs three weekends, Fridays-Sundays, each September. This year’s last performance is Sept. 25, and all Saturday tickets are sold out, so check LandofOzNC.com for availability.
What can you expect? Visitors arrive via ski lift cable cars or shuttles from parking areas, then enter the park while passing by a large Fountain of Youth to encourage a mindset of youthful enthusiasm.
That’s easy when the Gales’ Kansas farmhouse (Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s) comes into view, cornfield and all, as well as the traveling wagon of the mysterious Professor Marvel.
Guests step inside to see Auntie Em’s crocheting in a basket by her rocker, and then into Dorothy’s meager bedroom where even the books on the shelf nod to Oz author L. Frank Baum. The fireplace mantle holds a framed photo of Judy Garland as Dorothy posing with actress Clara Blandick (Aunt Em).
Attendees move through the kitchen, taking it all in before opening a door that leads, a few steps down, into the “tornado,” a delightful reimagining of the film sequence but with neon renderings on all the walls highlighted by black light. There are flying pigs, uprooted trees, swirls representing debris, and an image of the Wicked Witch of the West on her broomstick, with the words “Surrender Dorothy” in the film’s skywriting style.
On the other side, visitors step into portions of the house, now at a slant and with furniture strewn about, then finally out into the daylight where they suddenly find themselves in the Land of Oz. Look to the side of the outer steps to spot exposed feet wearing ruby slippers — Dorothy’s house has fallen on the Wicked Witch of the East. Yikes.
The rest of the park is paved, of course, with a wide pathway of 44,000 yellow bricks, and at various stations there are skits and performances by those beloved main characters, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and that blasted witch with her flying monkeys. Colorful flowers are everywhere, plus you’ll pass Munchkin Land, see the Poppy Field (4,000 poppies), and even the Wicked Witch’s castle with her massive crystal ball outside.
Land of Oz is an interactive, immersive theatrical experience with performances on the yellow brick road every 15 minutes, and, at the end, in Emerald City, every half hour. Of course, there are souvenirs for sale, plus face painting and food and craft vendors. We posed in the balloon basket with Dorothy and Toto for a keepsake photo.
How it began, then ended, and was reborn
The dreamchild of Grover Robbins and park designer Jack Pentes, Land of Oz opened in 1970 to great fanfare. A crowd of 4,000 looked on as Debbie Reynolds cut the ribbon with her daughter Carrie Fisher. It was quickly named a top attraction in the Southeast, drawing 400,000 during its first season. There was even a balloon ride rigged in the ski lift. (Remember how the great Wizard took off and left Dorothy, who had to chase after Toto, so she missed lift-off?)
When Pentes looked around the location, he said the emerald grass and beech trees looked like Oz. The goal was to expand the seasonal ski business with a new year-round attraction. The design was unique: Pentes examined the then-natural hiking path on his knees, so everything would be at a child’s perspective. Impressively, only one tree was destroyed in the creation as the team worked diligently to retain the mountain’s natural landscape because of its beauty.
It was an immediate success, but unfortunately, the development company declared bankruptcy by early 1975. Later that same year a fire destroyed the park’s Emerald City; sadly, even some of the original MGM film costumes were lost, and the on-site museum was ransacked.
By 1980 it was considered a “tourist trap,” but the cost to maintain it became overwhelming. When it closed, it fell into further disrepair and eventually vandalism, especially of those yellow bricks on the winding road. There was a one-day reopening in 1991 and some gradual attempts to consider restoring the property. Later, annual reunions of original park employees were eventually opened to the public, and topped out at 8,500 attending in 2009. By 2013 the park added “Journey with Dorothy” as a weekly tour. In 2019, the park celebrated with the cast of Broadway’s “Wicked” to honor the movie’s 80th anniversary; however, COVID-19 brought closure yet again in 2020, but the park was open in 2021.
The Newly Refreshed Land of Oz
The 2022 resurrection is complete now, with refreshed costumes curated by Project Runway Season 1 finalist Austin Scarlett, as well as that newly restored original 1970s psychedelic artwork inside the “Kansas Twister.”
Perhaps most exciting are the eight performances by the characters along the yellow-brick road, for the first time since the 1970 original park opening. Also, one of the park’s original 1970s metal balloon set pieces from the original ride has been refurbished.
The new “Over the Rainbow” Overlook, at 5,506 feet (accessed via many stairs), offers a stunning view of five states — N.C., Tenn, Va., W. Va., and Ky. There’s an added charge for it and the ski lift, in addition to the $55 admission ticket.
Artistic Director Sean Barrett’s enthusiasm for the revamped Land of Oz is contagious. He played the Scarecrow role here from age 15 until his late 20s. “It’s fun and we love it,” he notes. “It’s very humbling to be involved in something that means so much to people.”
“Wizard of Oz” enthusiasts know just what he means. It is the most watched film of all time, according to the Library of Congress.
(Word of Note: There’s a lot of walking required at the theme park’s mountain setting There are many stairs and elevations, and no elevators or moving walkways.)