June 21, 2016
Located in the ski resort area of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, the Land of Oz opened in 1970 with hopes of turning the area into a year-round destination. Built by Grover Robbins, the same man behind the still-operating Tweetsie Railroad just 30 miles away, it was the epitome of a themed park with one single theme throughout – Dorothy’s journey from Kansas to Oz. Mr. Robbins, however, never saw the park open. He passed away just a few months before opening day.
The park’s original design placed guests in the role of Dorothy. Guests entered in Kansas to explore Uncle Henry’s farm and petting zoo before being swept away by a twister and dropped in Oz. The journey then led through Munchkin Land, Scarecrow’s Farm, to meet the Tin Man, the Lion’s Den, an aviary (for some reason), the Wicked Witch’s Castle, and finally to the Emerald City – all the while following the yellow brick road. The Emerald City held a large amphitheater surrounded by shops of all kinds from hats and candy to souvenirs and cheese – yes, a store devoted to cheese. Emerald City was also home to the lone ride in the park – the Balloon Ride. This was a modified ski lift with balloon-themed vehicles to carry guests around the mountain for a bird’s eye view.
Though Land of Oz had a strong opening, the next few years held many problems for the park and, in 1980, the gates to the Emerald City were closed for good. Through the years much of the park has disappeared whether through redevelopment, land sales, vandalism, or disrepair and neglect. Thankfully, the current owners are dedicated to preserving what is left and restoring what is possible. They have even succeeded in finding what they believe to be the last balloon in existence from the Balloon Ride. Ongoing vandalism from “urban explorers” is one of the main concerns to maintaining the park. Though fenced and marked as private property, many are determined to take home a piece of the yellow brick road, so piece-by-piece, the road disappears.
In present day, the park opens on a very limited basis just a few times each year. The largest event each year is Autumn at Oz where all of the Oz characters return along with vendors, face painting, and everything needed to throw a party. This event is one of the primary ways the owners raise funds to maintain and restore what is left of the Land of Oz throughout the year. Dorothy’s house can also be rented for overnight stays and Oz weddings are also popular. We were able to visit for Journey with Dorothy – a special event taking place each Friday this June. This is a much smaller affair than the extremely popular Autumn at Oz when the crowds descend in droves and guests and employees alike try to recapture the spirit of the bustling theme park. Journey with Dorothy is more of a private or small group tour through the grounds but still with some special show elements thrown in.
Visitors to the Land of Oz must take the chair lift to the top of Beech Mountain which also offers bike trails, disc golf, and a bar with incredible views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The tour began by meeting the Mayor of Munchkin City and a visit to the Judy Garland Memorial Overlook.
After hearing some of the history of the park, we moved on to Dorothy’s Farm. Here is where you’ll find a museum dedicated to all things Wizard of Oz and Land of Oz along with some various pieces that were able to be rescued from the original park such as the Horse of a Different Color and Miss Gulch’s bicycle. Of course, Dorothy’s house is still here as well. Though the outside still looks like an authentic farm house, the inside has been updated through the years as it was once used as a residence and now is rented for overnight stays – Dorothy now subscribes to satellite TV!
After touring the farm and the museum. the Mayor of Munchkin City began taking volunteers, whether willing or not, to be cast in a production of The Wizard of Oz throughout the rest of the tour. With so many parts, around a quarter of the guests on the tour were able to become part of it themselves – props, costumes, and scripts included!
The show began in front of Dorothy’s house as she makes her first appearance. When the storm starts brewing, she lead us through the house into the storm cellar. This portion of the trip, though obviously done on a minimal budget, is quite ingenious. After going through the main house, we entered a long darkened hallway with ramps leading down. While video of a twister played on the walls, a smaller model of the house dangled and spun from the ceiling. We then exited into a mirror image of the house but with the obvious difference that this house had been through a tornado. From here we exited into Oz and followed the story of the movie with as much accuracy as the remaining portions of Oz would allow.
Note: From here it’s getting a little picture heavy!
This is the end of the tour. Sadly, the Emerald City itself has been lost and the gates open only to a small path next to a road. While we were never able to experience the Land of Oz as it was intended, being able to see what has been preserved of this grand dream is a lot of fun. The cast from Land of Oz itself clearly show their love for and dedication to the story, history, and maintenance of the park that remains, and bringing in the guests to join the experience adds a lot of laughs – for those of us not chosen at least. The whole tour lasted approximately an hour and forty-five minutes – well worth the very reasonable admission cost.
If you have any interest in theme park history or The Wizard of Oz, the Land of Oz is a great place to visit if you have the opportunity. If you do visit, just make sure to leave Oz as you found it – yellow bricks and all.
Check out our video with clips and highlights from Journey to Oz!