On a warm Friday morning in central Fresno, a dozen small children are playing in a shoe.
This is nothing new; children have played in shoes, castles and cottages in these parts since 1955. But thanks to a community effort that raised nearly $500,000 and donated almost 13,000 volunteer hours in six months to renovate Roeding Park’s iconic Storyland, these kids are enjoying a much nicer shoe.
“We received checks for thousands of dollars, and we received notes handwritten in crayon with $2 inside asking for us to please save Storyland,” said Scott Miller, chairman of the Storyland/Playland board.
“So many people contributed in different ways. If you want to thank someone for this, thank your neighbors.”
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Miller was flanked by vice chairman Bruce Batti at the 10 a.m. news conference before the official grand opening. Batti thanked several key donors and groups that contributed to the restoration effort. He specifically praised the Daniel R. Martin Family Foundation, which donated $200,000. Pinocchio’s Theater will be renamed the Daniel R. Martin Children’s Theater in honor of this gesture, he added.
$500,000The amount raised to renovate Storyland and Playland so far.
Batti drew the crowd’s attention to the Kyle Express, the park’s beloved train, which resumed its duties at noon Friday.
“We don’t need high-speed rail,” he said, referring to the California high-speed rail route that will run along the Golden State Boulevard side of Roeding Park. “We’re proud to run low-speed rail right here.”
Fresno City Council Members Oliver Baines and Esmeralda Soria also spoke at the event, as did Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea and Fresno County School Superintendent Jim Yovino. Each wore green plastic keys tied around their neck with a simple ribbon. The keys, a Storyland tradition, activate the boxes that tell different stories throughout the park.
However, 10-year-old Jaida Jacobie stole the show. Jaida donated her birthday money – and a little extra from her own pocket – to the cause. In all, she contributed $500.
“I had my seventh birthday at Storyland, and it was amazing,” she said. “I would hate for it to close. I had that experience when I was a kid, and they should, too.”
At 10:30 a.m., the gates to Storyland officially opened to the public.
Several field trip groups from Edison Bethune Charter Academy and the Central Unified School District were the first groups to enter. Around 100 grandparents, parents and young children followed closely behind. They encountered a clean, green park checkered with brightly colored characters from fables and nursery rhymes.
A green caterpillar of “Alice in Wonderland” fame greeted each at the entrance and asked them to find the other story boxes throughout the park.
Storyland officials did not have a visitor count by the end of the day; by early next week they hope to report the full weekend total.
$300,000The additional amount needed to reach the Storyland/Playland board’s funding goal.
Some of the older students noticed the changes.
Darien, a first-grader from Edison Bethune, said he visited the park last year on a kindergarten field trip.
“I saw a big bad wolf, and I got scared,” he said. “And the pirate ship was awesome.”
The ship, a fantastic wooden-and-metal re-creation on a rubbery blue ocean, now has real sails – a gift from Tent City Canvas House in Fresno.
Luis Figueroa, 4, said his father brought him last year.
“It was bigger last year,” he said. “But it’s been lots of fun.”
The park has undergone a noticeable facelift, but the job isn’t finished. Some of the story boxes still aren’t working properly, which Miller said has been a struggle for volunteers.
Several of the story readings need to be recorded over again, he added. The current stories and character voices were recorded by KMJ radio 580 talk show host Ray Appleton about 16 years ago. (Ray Appleton is Bee reporter Rory Appleton’s father.)
One of the first families through the gate discovered this work-in-progress immediately. A little girl ran right for the “Three Little Pigs” story box, inserted her key and turned it – nothing. Her mom took a turn with the same result.
“Sorry baby, this one’s broken,” she told the toddler. The family moved down the cement path to Humpty Dumpty’s wall, where the young girl turned her key and learned of a great fall.
To donate to the Storyland/Playland restoration, visit www.savestoryland.com.
Playland is expected to reopen in April.