Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
I remember Phantasia Forest. I bet I’m one of the few people willing to admit that, and I’m probably the only person who remembers it for all the good instead of all the bad.
I’ll never forget the summer it opened – the summer of 1954. I knew I was in for something special when I saw those massive, brilliantly-colored mushrooms decorating the parking lot. As I marched past the cement toadstools, I came upon a castle. Yes, an honest-to-goodness pink castle. My eight-year-old brain practically exploded.
The first thing that greeted you on the other side of that castle was a sculpture of Humpty Dumpty. He sat perched on his stone wall, pointing you towards the winding path that stretched from one magical scene to the next.
As you walked along, you saw a statue of the Pied Piper leading away a group of hypnotized children. Then there was a big fibreglass shoe with crooked windows and a plastic slide.
Beyond that, you found yourself in front of a two-storey house – only this was the house from “Hansel and Gretel.” The walkway was lined with monstrously large candy canes. Gumdrops were scattered across the gingerbread walls. Chocolate balconies overlooked the garden, and a chimney in the shape of an ice cream cone poked out of the sugar-frosted roof.
You could get lost exploring the gnome village – all those rustic huts and leering faces. Eventually, you arrived at Old MacDonald’s Farm, which was a petting zoo with rabbits, goats, pigs, ducks, sheep, you name it. If you wanted, you could even hitch a ride in Cinderella’s pumpkin coach!
Of course, employees were dressed up everywhere you looked – Alice, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, Tom Thumb, even Mother Goose herself. It was a living tribute to the imagination.
You have to understand something – before Phantasia Forest came along, theme parks didn’t exist. Back then, you were lucky to find a few kiddie parks here and there, but frankly, they weren’t much. Some old merry-go-rounds, a couple of dusty ponies, and a bunch of picnic tables covered in bird crap – that was it.
Phil Ballard dreamed of something bigger. Phil was a local businessman. Owned a few different stores around town. Everyone seemed to know Phil. Everyone loved him. Every town probably has a Phil Ballard – the upstanding citizen, always quick with a smile and a handshake.
Kathleen, his wife, was like that too. She came from a prominent family and spent a lot of her time volunteering, working with charities, hosting fundraisers. I remember my parents going to a few of those. All in all, Phil and Kathleen were the perfect couple – they had money, friends. The only thing they were missing was a little bundle of joy to call their own.
It took him a while, but Phil managed to secure twenty acres of land just off the highway. In a year, he had a park dedicated to all the classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The place was an instant hit. I remember the crowds of tourists – I’d never seen so many out of town license plates before. We must’ve had thousands of visitors that summer. It was a huge boost to the local economy. The hotels and restaurants all cleaned up. Newspapers were mentioning us all over the country. If Phil was a hero before Phantasia Forest, then he was a downright saint afterwards.
There was a rumor that a fellow by the name of Walt Disney had dropped by for an afternoon, looking to find some inspiration for his own little park. I’m not sure if that story is really true or not, but it should be.
Phil even had some of the employees dressed as his own original characters – a wacky lamb with the legs of a spider, a man with three twisted heads stacked on top of each other, and a cheerful little imp who wore a blood-red robe and always carried his trusty cat o’ nine tails. I don’t think any of them ever spoke, but that’s what gave them their charm. “Ballard’s Bozos,” Phil called them.
I was having so much fun that summer, I did my best to ignore the silly things some of the other kids were saying – like how the costumes for Phil’s characters didn’t have any zippers. Apparently, the rumor started when the kids overheard a few staff members talking about how no one knew who was really underneath those oversized masks.
I can’t blame the kids, but the staff should’ve known better. So Phil hired some outside help and didn’t tell anyone – it helped maintain the fantasy. Brilliant idea.
Much harder to ignore, though, was the news of Kathleen’s death. She had drowned in her bathtub after overdosing on some medication. It hit everyone like a sledgehammer. Phil, God bless him, shouldered his grief with grace and dignity. He was still the same old Phil – always smiling, always quick with a handshake.
After a few weeks, things started to feel normal again. But then came that weekend in August. I went to bed after a glorious Saturday at Phantasia Forest, expecting to do the whole thing all over again when I woke up. How wrong I was.
At first, the news said that eight kids had gone missing, but my friends told me the number was really nine. I guess numbers are beside the point. Kids were missing, plain and simple. I didn’t know any of them, but they were children just like me – innocent little children, gone in the blink of an eye. Everyone had a theory – kidnappings, runaways, mass suicides, ritual sacrifice, freaking alien abductions.
The only thing the poor youngsters had in common was their last known location – Phantasia Forest. Well, of course! All the kids were there. That hardly proves a thing. But for most people, it was enough to get them talking.
They said that Kathleen’s family never believed her death was accidental, that she was even pregnant at the time. Others said she’d been worried about Phil’s behavior for months. He was obsessed with his theme park, one story went. He was talking to himself behind closed doors, went another. The craziest one, by far, was that he believed his Bozo characters weren’t characters at all, but that they had actually climbed in through his window one night and told him to build Phantasia Forest.
What a load of nonsense. I suppose the Bozos even convinced him to kill his wife and unborn baby. The police never found a shred of evidence that Phil hurt Kathleen or anyone else for that matter.
But did the busybodies care about evidence? Not for a minute. They were all convinced that Phil had something to do with those missing kids – he buried their corpses under the gnome village, he turned them into statues, blah, blah, blah.
In less than a month, Phil had gone from the town’s favorite son to the town’s favorite boogeyman. It was all too much for him. The workers found Phil one morning in the gingerbread house. He’d slipped in at some point during the night and hanged himself. No suicide note. The townsfolk got their wish. A good man was dead.
Phantasia Forest was shut down for the winter. It reopened the next spring under new management. Unfortunately, the damage had been done. People stayed away, attendance shriveled up, and to make things even worse, Disneyland opened that same year. Phantasia just couldn’t compete.
The park was shuttered later that fall, this time for good. I kept waiting for it to be turned into a strip mall or condominium, but for some reason, that never happened. Phantasia Forest just sat there, year after year, those beautiful statues and buildings left to rot. You can still see the pink castle spires from the highway, peeking out from behind the treetops. Giant holes pockmark the fake brickwork, giving you a nice view of the skeletal rebar frames.
I’m sometimes tempted to drive down and take a closer look. Fat load of good that would do, though. They had to put up a barb-wire fence to keep out all the vandals. I suppose I should be thankful. Seeing the place abandoned and decaying, it’d just remind me of how much time has gone by, of how that little eight-year-old kid is now an old man with a bad back and an arthritic knee.
But finally, some good news – I just heard a local businessman is planning to renovate the park. He’s going to make it bigger and better than ever before. And I’ll be the first one through those castle gates, right along with my grandkids. They’re going to have the time of their lives – exploring the gnome village, climbing in and out of the gingerbread house, playing with the funny Bozos.
We’ll be there because Phantasia Forest is still a wonderful dream, and like Phil always said, “You can’t kill a dream.”
Credit To – Michael Cahill