Once upon a time, kids in the rest of the country could only imagine walking through a real-life fairy tale forest. But kids from Jersey actually got to do it. The Fairy Tale Forest was the stuff of little-kid dreams. The children’s amusement park was built in 1955 by Paul Woehle Sr., a German immigrant who settled in Oak Ridge.
It took Woehle two years to complete the forest — he built the entire thing by hand with the help of his two sons and some local craftsman.
Fairy Tale Forest was dedicated to European fairy tales, including Mother Goose, Cinderella, The Three Little Pigs, Peter Pumpkin, Rapunzel, Hansel & Gretel, Pinocchio, The Rabbit School, The Seven Kids, Br’er Rabbit, Gulliver and American folklore stories including Frosty the Snowman and the Wooden Soldiers (in colder months).These were the stories that Woehle’s mother read him as a child and those tales inspired him to bring the tales to life for his kids and other kids in the neighborhood. And it’s our NJ Vocabulary word of the week.
Fairy Tale Forest– Noun. A magical place where fables came alive
Example: “I remember going to Fairy Tale Forest on a school field trip.”
“I loved this place as a kid,” says Dianna, a New Jersey native who now lives in Florida. “My grandparents took my sister and I every year for our birthdays. After we moved, we would visit them during summer break and know a visit to the forest was guaranteed!”
The outdoor theme park was fifteen acres of imagination come to life with ‘enchanted woods,’ life-sized gingerbread houses, a field of giant mushrooms, Rapunzel’s tower, castles, a giant shoe (for the old woman and her kids), the Lilliput Village of Gulliver’s Travels and more. As you walked through the ‘forest’ along the winding road, you encountered different sets and scenes from classic tales. Come face-to-face with the candy house that enticed Hansel and Gretel, get up-close and personal with Rapunzel’s prince, or skip through the mushroom field on the way to the forest’s iconic giant shoe. Visit in winter and see Frosty, sip cocoa and meet Santa himself in his very own workshop nestled in the forest just for the season. “I loved going during the holidays,” says Kaitlyn, a Wykoff resident who visited every year during her youth. “I really believed Santa lived in Fairy Tale Forest. Where else would he live?”
The place was magic. Even Mariah Carey thought so. In 1993, the pop star picked Fairy Tale Forest as one of the locations for her music video, ”All I Want for Christmas Is You”. While the indoor scenes were shot at home, the outdoor scenes were shot at the Forest with Carey’s then-husband Tommy Motorola appearing as Santa Claus.
Woehle was able to experience the height of the forest’s success before he died in 1996, at the age of 94. He left the property to his granddaughter Christine and she did her best to keep his vision alive. The place eventually closed in 2003 — the appeal of modern amusement parks proved too popular to sustain the more relaxed charm of this walk-through model. Eventually both natural wear and tear and vandalism played a part in the Forest’s slow disappearance. In 1997, though, she decided to revamp Fairy Tale Forest and breathed new life into it with a remodel that restored the sets and scenes back to original form.
“He was kind of like my mentor,” said Christine at the time. “He came from a family of 11 children. His mom used to read them stories all the time around the fire in the kitchen. He always had the idea to bring it to reality.”
The park stood open another eight years before it shut down for good. Christine and her family instead opened a storage facility called Shoebox Storage in honor of the iconic giant shoe that still stands today. In the summer of 2015, the family briefly ran a farmer’s market on the property, appropriately called “Once Upon a Veggie” with proceeds going toward the restoration of Fairy Tale Forest. Yes, the family is giving it another go and hopes to have the place open by summer of 2017. Their Facebook page is already blowing up with requests for camp visits, school trips and more.
“I can’t wait. I took my son the very last day they were open. Now, I can’t wait to take my daughter,” says one eager fan.
Fairy Tale Forest, we’re rooting for everyone to live happily ever after.