Land of Oz is one of the more peculiar landmarks in North Carolina, or the world.
Modeled on the iconic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, it originally opened as a theme park in 1970 on Beech Mountain, a ski resort about four hours west of Raleigh. The original motivation was to extend the resort's business year beyond ski season.
Land of Oz was a hit right out of the gate, drawing 400,000 visitors its first year and fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations on the East Coast.
But that was Land of Oz's best year, and the park was soon struggling to stay afloat. It never fully recovered from a 1975 fire and finally closed in 1980, its attractions falling into disrepair at the hands of thieves and vandals.
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Just as interest has never waned in the movie, however, Land of Oz has never been forgotten, even though its time was brief. Since the early 1990s, it has opened for a few weekends a year, drawing sellout crowds.
That was the case for the recently concluded summer season, which drew the maximum capacity of 7,500 during weekends in June. With tickets on sale now for the Sept. 7-9 fall season, here are four takeaways.
For tickets and details, call 800-514-3849 or visit LandOfOzNC.com.
1. It's a different experience, depending on when you visit.
The summer season is "Journey With Dorothy," which is essentially a guided tour through the movie's sights and scenes with a singing actress playing Dorothy as your tour guide down the Yellow Brick Road.
September, meanwhile, is "Autumn at Oz." There are still tours one can take, but visitors have more the run of the grounds.
"The June tours are more of a homage to the tours that happened from 1976 to 1980," said Sean Barrett, the New York-based artistic director who has been involved with Land of Oz since 2001. "Last year, we went in and gutted it a little bit, redid some things. When you're in 'Kansas' now, there are three vignette shows happening in rotation. So you're in the middle of a scene while waiting to go through the tornado."
Also of note, tickets for "Autumn at Oz" are more expensive at $40, versus $25 for "Journey With Dorothy."
2. You might find yourself drafted into the cast.
And yes, they have outfits. During this past month's "Journey With Dorothy," I wound up wearing a wig that smelled like an antique store, playing the Cowardly Lion as I led the audience in a sing-along.
"Yes it's sad, believe me, Missy
When you're born to be a sissy
Without the vim and verve
But I could show all my prowess
Be a lion, not a mou-ess
If I only had the nerve..."
Everybody in our group seemed to know every word, of the songs as well as key lines of dialogue. It was not unlike being at a midnight screening of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" with an audience well-versed in all the movie's details.
3. As Land of Oz demonstrates, 'The Wizard of Oz' has remained relevant in the Age Of Pixar.
Young children were just as enchanted by "Journey With Dorothy" as their parents, even though "The Wizard of Oz" first hit movie screens almost 80 years ago. Kids barely old enough to walk were lining up to hug Dorothy.
"Yeah, little girls all run up and talk to Dorothy," said Barrett. "They all know exactly who she is. To me, a lot of the appeal of 'The Wizard of Oz' is that Dorothy is not a princess looking for her prince. She's this everyday girl who happens to go on this crazy adventure, meets awesome friends. And all she wants to do is go home.
"Plus she has a dog, and everybody likes dogs."
4. But ultimately, neither Land of Oz nor the movie are about props.
As with most such artifacts, the point is less the destination than the journey.
"The moral of the story is that everything you're looking for is already inside of you, and you reach your fullest potential while helping others," said Barrett. "We've all felt like we're not loved or smart or brave enough, and the movie touches on that, too. It all combines to make it an ongoing, long-lasting classic."