Lake George, New York
Most fairy tale theme parks eventually suffer the fate of a fabled cursed kingdom. We spot their blistered, sagging entry gates on lonely back roads, or squeezed between the Amusements of the Month in some overdeveloped Mecca. A bean pole droops, a gingerbread house caves in, a Humpty Dumpty falls one last time.
Then there are the fairy tale worlds blessed with good fortune, as if every child who ever visited used up a secret wish on its behalf.
Magic Forest is one, aided by a combination of prime location and classic clean kid fun. Probably nowhere else is the disturbing world of children's' fairy tales brought to life more vividly.
The World's Largest Uncle Sam looms in the center of the parking lot, and other friendly icons beckon from the heavily wooded knoll where the Magic Forest lives. Visitors passing through the garish fairyland entrance building are inundated with choices, as paths curve away into clusters of statues, rides and brightly painted cottages.
All the classic cautionary tales are here, displayed in miniature within wooden shelters, or lurking in the woods along serpentine trails. About 20 dioramas -- accompanied by audio at the push of a button -- bring to life the Three Little Pigs, Jack Sprat, Hansel & Gretel, assorted princesses and woodsmen...
Magic Forest opened in 1963, the brainchild of Arthur Gillette, who wisely built his fairyland along a major highway (Route 9) and just south of the town of Lake George, a magnet for summertime and weekend crowds from New York City. Today, many roar obliviously north on the interstate, but enough families exit to keep MF hopping, under the management of Arthur's successor, Jack Gillette, since 1988.
Magic Forest probably has the longest running permanent "Diving Horse" show since Atlantic City's Steel Pier burned down. Rex the Diving Horse leaped on cue into a pool for many years; now his son, Lightning, takes the plunge twice a day.
There are plenty of unnerving fairy tale statues along the wooded trails of Magic Forest -- an impressive collection of contorted bodies, asymmetrical faces, weird leers, and bulging eyes. The Spider Man is a creepy top-hatted arachnid, maybe not so scary in a world of chest-bursting aliens and zombies. But we bet this up close encounter will come back in someone's nightmares....
Uncle Sam is 38 feet tall and formerly stood at the Danbury Fairgrounds in Connecticut. When the Fair went out of business, Jack Gillette bought him in April 1982 (along with dozens of other statues) and stood him in the Magic Forest parking lot. Also guarding the minivans and SUVs is a large Santa Claus, reportedly the most popular statue on the property. Both are protected with Clear Coat, as are all the statues in the Magic Forest.
Mixed among the dioramas are giant statues of American icons, several of them reworked Muffler Men: Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Smokey Bear, the Statue of Liberty, a big Indian, a couple of space-walking astronauts.
The dark, woodsy allure of classic fairy tales is part of Magic Forest's charm. In fact, kids seem oblivious to the creepiness of this place, and so do the adults, for that matter.
Two Muffler Men are particularly disturbing. One, a giant clown, has to be the most remodeled MM in the world. The other is a Happy Half-wit with an Amish beard and hat, holding an ax just opposite the Little Miss Muffet display.
We have an awkward moment -- not uncommon for us -- when we ask a passing manager why the grimacing, Amishized Alfred E. Neuman holds an ax. She doesn't understand our concern, and is probably wondering why grown men traveling without children are in her park in the first place.
"His head is the way we got him. We put an ax in his hands and made him a woodsman."
Actually, that helps to explain a lot about this place. It's perfect.