Hordes of gleeful visitors lumbered through Children’s Fairyland on Friday night—bellowing Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes as they scaled the iconic pirate ship and crawled into Willy the Whale’s open mouth.
But this wasn’t a typical day at the park. For the first time ever, the spell that has been cast over Children’s Fairyland for 60 years was broken: adults were allowed into the park without a child. Last Friday for three hours, close to 1,200 adults, most of them in their 20s and 30s, marauded the historic wonderland. Some visited for the first time, others for the first time in more than 20 years.
“I think everyone’s been to Fairyland at least once in their life when they were little, and when they turned into teenagers, they thought it was the stupidest thing in the world,” said Adam Barrett, in his 20s and one of the grownup visitors to the park. “And now we’re back again.”
The fundraiser was called “Fairyland for Grownups”, and was a partnership between Children’s Fairyland and Oaklandish, a local clothing company, that has worked with Fairyland before to produce a line of park-themed T-shirts and memorabilia. The proceeds from the event went towards the park’s Outreach Project, a fund created to help low-income children and families afford admission to the park. “It’s part of our responsibility to make sure that every kid that wants to come to Fairyland can come here,” said C.J. Hirschfield, the park’s executive director.
Children’s Fairyland was built along Lake Merritt in 1950, and, according to Hirschfield, was the original storybook theme park in America, predating Disneyland. “(Walt Disney) spent a lot of time here and he even hired our first executive director and puppeteer,” she said Friday night while donning a silver tiara. “And five years after we opened, he opened Disneyland.”
Many of the park’s original structures still stand, such as the old lady in the shoe house and the Wonder-Go-Round, an “Alice in Wonderland” themed carousel. Since its opening, Children’s Fairyland has also followed a strict rule: No child is admitted without an adult and no adult is admitted without a child. “Beyond safety reasons, I think the philosophy was that we really wanted this place to be a place for families,” Hirschfield said, “where they could be together and interact. So that’s been a rule since we’ve started.”
While the park allows adults to attend their annual fundraising gala, they have never reached out to this particular demographic – people in their 20s and 30s who went to Fairyland as a kid. For $10 ($15 at the door), visitors aged 21 and over were granted full access to the park they are barred from by day—with unlimited beer to boot.
“I walk by here everyday to go to work, but I was never allowed in here until tonight,” said Brian Kennedy, a fan of the dragon slide. “I was expecting it to be like some kind of bad acid trip, but it reminds me of being at Marine World when I was 8 years old.”
Fairyland may be even more fun to visit as a grownup, said Barrett’s friend, Sergio Flores, who was wearing a newspaper cone hat that he had made especially for the night. “I really think it looks cooler now than when I was seven years old,” he chimed in.
Strands of fairy lights twinkled overhead in the park and an oversized sound system pulsed ’90s hip-hop music from the balcony of the Fairyland Hotel, a prop building in the center of the park. Bodies swayed to the music, cotton candy was devoured, and beer gushed out of kegs into plastic cups.
“We’ve found that people in their 20s and 30s who grew up in Oakland and came to Fairyland, love Fairyland, and they’re very proud of it,” Hirschfield said. “We thought there might be an interest in that and, well, we had no idea the level of interest.”
The event’s 800 pre-sale tickets sold out within days, and on Friday, another 400 people lined up outside of the park hoping to get in to the night’s events.
“We were expecting a lot of people, but this was really shocking,” said Natalie Nadimi, Oaklandish’s community outreach coordinator.
Although the rides were closed—such as the Jolly Trolley and the mini Ferris wheel— attendees still had fun frolicking around the park.
“Clowning is clowning, even if it’s for a 21-and-over crowd, or for 5-year-olds,” said Bunny Zlotnika, a circus performer who was wearing fairy wings and remembered visiting the park as a child. “They tend to like a lot of the same things.”
The park’s iconic plastic Magic Keys, which turn on the musical story boxes throughout the park, were also on sale for $2.
“I can say with some degree of certainty that if you grew up in Oakland, somewhere in your drawer, or your mom’s drawer, or your grandfather’s drawer, there’s going to be a Magic Key,” Hirschfield said, “and it still will work.”
As the music died down and the beer kegs were drained, the partygoers ambled towards the exit, bidding a goodbye to Fairyland and its youthful accoutrement.
“We’re feeling the love,” Hirschfield said. “It’s a pretty safe bet that when we talk to Oaklandish after this is over, we’ll be talking about another event.”