When the Land of Oz opened in Beech Mountain, North Carolina in 1970, newspapers called it the top attraction in the South East.
“The balloon ride wasn’t even open yet, and they were named the top tourist attraction literally the next day by the Washington Post,” said park spokesperson Sean Barrett.
The Land of Oz had the makings of a great permanent staple in North Carolina, but its reign was short-lived.
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Chapter one: Trouble from the Start
Tourist moguls and brothers Harry and Grover Robbins were developers for Carolina Caribbean Corporation in the 1960s. They were looking for a way to turn the ski-town Beech Mountain, North Carolina into a year-round attraction, so they hired Charlotte designer Jack Pentes to take a look at the land.
“When he [Pentes] got up here, he said the trees reminded him of the trees in the Wizard of Oz, so it was Oz from that moment on,” Barrett said.
It took two years and 44,000 glazed yellow bricks to build the park, but just a few months before it was scheduled to open, something went wrong.
“Grover Robbins, unfortunately, passed away in March of 1970 right before they opened,” Barrett said. “It hit the creative team very hard because they were all very close....when they lost Grover, they were devastated.”
Without Grover’s pull with Carolina Caribbean Corporation and his vision for Oz, the park dropped down the priority list for the company.
Chapter two: Fanfare, fantasy, and fire
Despite Grover’s death, the Land of Oz opened on June 15, 1970, to all the expected fanfare. Actress Debbie Reynolds cut the opening-day ribbon with her daughter Carrie Fisher, and thousands of visitors poured onto the yellow brick road.
“With Debbie Reynolds cutting the ribbon, that definitely created a buzz. At the time, she might have been the biggest celebrity to be here. Mohammed Ali also came at one point,” Barrett said.
The excitement was brief. Five years after opening, Carolina Caribbean Corporation filed for bankruptcy after a bad business deal in the Caribbean. Shortly after, a fire that is suspected to be arson, destroyed the Emerald City, engulfing many of the MGM film’s original costumes that were on display. Some believe Judy Garland’s original Dorothy dress that was donated by Debbie Reynolds was among the items that burned, while others speculate that it was stolen.
“After the fire hit, Carolina Caribbean let go of Oz and another company came in,” Barrett said. “The attention to detail was lost. People who worked there still loved it, but there was a very clear divide between 1975 and 1976 as far as quality and experience.”
By the time Oz opened for what would be its final season in 1980, soundtrack recordings were breaking down during performances, and the magical land has lost its luster.
“Jack [Pentes] actually came back to see what it would cost to renovate the park and reopen it. But, the sum of money was just too much to want to invest, so they closed the park altogether.
When the emerald gates closed in 1980, Oz was left to its own devices. The park endured harsh mountaintop winters, decay, and looters.
“It was just up here. People vandalized it, broke in and did whatever they could.”
Chapter three: The return of Oz
When the park stopped operating, the hype behind the attraction never died. New managers began reopening Oz for special events like Autumn in Oz and more recently, June’s Journey with Dorothy.
The weeds have been pulled. The yellow bricks are repainted, and the magic has once again returned to oz, even if only a few days a year.
Barrett says that they’re constantly looking at ways to improve and restore the park, so people can once again experience the wonderful Land of Oz.