Joshua Tehee

Fresno's Storyland celebrates grand reopening

Alice’s courtyard inside Storyland. The fairy-tale theme park reopens Friday, Sept. 4
Alice’s courtyard inside Storyland. The fairy-tale theme park reopens Friday, Sept. 4 The Fresno Bee

There was little doubt that Fresno’s Storyland park would see its grand-reopening weekend.

There were questions, obviously, when the park – and neighboring Playland – failed to open this spring for the first time in 50-plus years, and word came that it needed $500,000 to repair tree-damaged sidewalks and irrigation systems, to improve landscape, attractions and bathrooms, and cover operations costs at a time when attendance was lagging in a big way. But the fairy-tale themed amusement park, which opened on Belmont Avenue in 1961, has always been subsidized by the community.

That emotional equity comes in handy.

Think about someone like Elaine Robles-McGraw, who volunteers as the park’s operational director — a job she took one week after retiring from the city of Fresno.

Most days, she’s at the park by 6 a.m. By the time she leaves, it’s dark outside.

Most days, means most days. Robles-McGraw has been working seven days, almost 75 hours, each week to prepare for the reopening.

“I’m all in,” she says, and means it in a way that few would comprehend. “There is no place I’d rather be right now.”

Robles-McGraw grew up in the neighborhood. Storyland was her playground – the place she would sneak off to on Saturday mornings, instead of going to catechism. Her first stop was always the Chapel, its windows colorfully decorated with the story of Noah’s Arc. There, she would ask for forgiveness.

Her story is not unique.

This is the draw of Storyland. It’s the reason that news of the closure was met with a flurry of letters to the editor and its own editorial. It is the reason that the park has raised almost $500,000 since March, and that more than 170 people donated time last weekend in a last push to renovate Storyland before Labor Day weekend.

For now, there are no new attractions, though Bruce Batti, vice chariman for the Storyland/Playland board, which was installed in March to oversee the park, guarantees at least three when the park opens for Spring.

Sadly, the Jack and the Beanstalk slide won’t be one of them, Batti says. Eventually, he hopes to bring the iconic swirling slide back, but it will cost six figures to do it right. It will likely be remade as Repunzel’s castle in the mean time.

Much of the work so far has been cosmetic. Everything got power washed and new coat of paint, if needed. Rotting wood and water-stained windows were replaced.

Now, when you look inside Grandmother’s house you can actually see the Big Bad Wolf. It is a stuffed animal and doesn’t look too menacing, but it’s dressed like granny and tucked in bed.

There is new landscaping and the concrete streams have been resealed and are flowing again. The pirate ship has new sails and the park’s train is also up and running.

And yes, the story boxes still work — with an insert and twist of Storyland’s iconic plastic keys.

Those keys are part of Storyland’s new branding, Batti. The dragon that stand at the entrance to the park has a red key in its hand. You’ll notice a keyhole is a visible part of the S on the park’s reworked logo.

“It’s iconic,” Batti says.

Many Fresnan’s probably have at least one Storyland key tucked away in a closet somewhere. Batti expects to see more than a few of them will come to the reopening keys in hand.

You can always buy a new one. They will be available for $5, Batti says.

Of course, the facelift goes beyond the attractions.

The new Storyland is focused on a total customer experience. That means storybook characters, such as Prince Charming, wandering through the park, and concession stands will have food that you will actually want to eat, Batti says. It means exit surveys to find out what works and what doesn’t.

It also means working alongside the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in cross promotions, such as offering discounts and planning special event days around Halloween and Christmas to mirror zoo’s schedule.

It used to be the two attractions competed for people’s attention, dollars and love, says Scott Miller, who serves as board chair for the park.

Now, the two work in tandem. In fact, it was the zoo that put the Storyland/Playland on this path. In March, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corp. agreed to help the park designate its new board of directors and now holds two permanent spots on that board, Miller says. One is for the zoo’s CEO. The other for its corporation’s board chair.

Still, some will wonder if Storyland is even viable entertainment, quaint as it is.

For Batti, there is no question. Storyland is by design, a place where parents and children interact directly. That creates lasting memories in children, Batti says. Add to that the park’s literary bend, and Storyland is and will always be viable, he says. And other cities have similar parks that do well, Batti says: Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, for example.

That said, the new board is well aware of the undertaking ahead. It knows that while the community support runs deep, even emotional equity is ultimately a finite thing.

“We are hell bent on not spending more than we make,” Batti says.

Happily Ever After Party

  • 6 p.m., Friday, Sep. 4
  • Storyland, 890 W. Belmont Ave.
  • Tickets: $25, for adults only