History of the Park
“It is a miracle to find a theme park in the middle of a great urban area that is so natural, so original, so enduring, so educational, so uncommercial. Happy hours are rationed in this world, so I’m grateful to the people who provide them.”
- Art Gray, former child visitor to Fairyland
Enchanting children for more than 70 years
The year 1948 was a prehistoric era for children’s entertainment. There was no Disneyland or Nickelodeon TV, and most amusement parks catered to thrill-seeking teenagers. The few “kiddielands” in the U.S. included a simple carousel, pony ride, and cotton-candy stand.
Oakland businessman Arthur Navlet had an idea to change all of that. The well-respected nursery owner took his proposal for a storybook theme park, featuring fairy-tale sets, farm animals, and live entertainment, to the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, a group dedicated to civic betterment (and still in operation today). They loved the idea.
With the support of Oakland’s parks superintendent William Penn Mott, Jr., the Breakfast Club and the citizens of Oakland raised $50,000 to build Children’s Fairyland on the shores of Lake Merritt.
In the beginning
In 1950, the year Fairyland first opened:
- Admission cost between 9 and 14 cents
- Costumed guides led children through the fairytale landscape
- All of the fanciful storybook sets were created by local architect William Russell Everitt
- Businessman Arthur Navlet, who owned a successful nursery, designed the gardens — some original plantings still thrive today
- Walt Disney visited and incorporated ideas from Fairyland in his “magic kingdom,” which opened in Anaheim in 1955
- Walt Disney also hired Fairyland’s first executive director, Dorothy Manes, and one of our puppeteers, Bob Mills
The park thrived, and in 1956, the City of Oakland Parks and Recreation Department hired Burton Weber to promote the wonders inside Fairyland’s gates. Mr. Weber created a program for young children called Fairyland Personalities, which is still part of our Children’s Theatre program.
Achieving nonprofit status
But it takes more than goodwill to sustain a place like Fairyland, and by the early 1990s, our park needed help. In 1994, with help from the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, we applied for and received 501(c) (3) nonprofit status. Now we can apply for grants, receive bond funds, and solicit donations to further our mission to provide a safe, family-centered environment that stimulates young children’s imagination and creativity. It’s been our goal ever since we opened on September 2, 1950.
Best of all, Fairyland has been able to maintain its modest admission price, making it one of the Bay Area’s most affordable options for family entertainment. Through generous grants from local foundations and corporations, we waive the cost of admission for some 4,000 low-income children each year.
The park today
Children’s Fairyland continues to hold fast to its founding vision — to be a magical fantasy world where young children can create, imagine, play, and learn. We believe that with the support of families, businesses, and community groups who believe in our mission and in the boundless potential of young children, Children’s Fairyland will enjoy many years of “happily ever after.” Find out how you can support Fairyland.