Geeky States of America: Story Land, New Hampshire

All Images: Sarah Pinault
All Images: Sarah Pinault

People who live in New Hampshire have a claim to fame as the home of fantasy. At least according to the Morrell family, who founded Story Land in Glen, New Hampshire in 1954 with the motto “Where Fantasy Lives.”

If you are looking for a way to explore classic children’s stories with your family then look no further. What began with a set of fairy tale dolls purchased in Germany led to a small collection of colorful buildings and characters. Slowly, attractions and rides were added and now a thriving theme park nestles alongside the magnificent White Mountains.

Most of the park’s attractions are grounded in traditional fairy tales. My toddler was able to meet and chat with Mother Goose, accept a Story Land sticker from The Old Woman in the Shoe, and spend a good half an hour playing in Heidi’s house, chatting with her grandfather.

He would have had a similar experience in the fifties, though back then he would have received a pin instead of a sticker. Tradition comes together with simplicity. These character actors are not in over-the-top costumes, nor do you have to line up to meet them. They are just there, interacting with families. Though he was somewhat intimidated by his meeting with Cinderella, my son talked about her for days.

The people are not the only characters jumping off the page. We also visited with the Three Billy Goats Gruff and the Three Little Pigs. In the “For Little Dreamers” area, children can interact with nursery rhymes by playing One Two Buckle My Shoe, being baked in a pie with four and twenty blackbirds, or they can even sit on a tuffet awaiting a spider. These are simple but highly effective attractions; no high-tech here. The ball pool, originally home to two live seals, could easily occupy the most rambunctious of toddlers for hours.

Story Land maintains its commitment to the written stories beloved by children and has regular events featuring characters that are not part of their main attractions:

August 21 – 24 Curious George
August 28 – 31 Toot & Puddle
Sept. 2 Toot & Puddle        *Labor Day
Sept. 7 & 8 Corduroy
Sept. 14 & 15 Winnie the Pooh
Sept. 21 & 22 Olivia
Sept. 28 & 29 Olivia
Oct. 5 & 6 Cat in the Hat
Oct. 12, 13 & 14 Eeyore         *Columbus Day weekend

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Beyond the fairy tale, Story Land offers the elements of a larger theme park. Dr. Geyser’s Remarkable Raft Ride, Bamboo Chutes (a log flume), and the Polar Coaster offer children and adults the theme park experience. At just the right height, my son went on virtually all the rides. We rode Bamboo Chutes for half an hour before we managed to get him away from it. For me, this was a great moment. It was his first log flume, and the log flume is one of my favorite rides in any park. As he had enjoyed his first roller coaster at Thomas Land in the U.K., he was especially looking forward to the Polar Coaster. As it turns out, this particular ride lasted too long for a three year old. He wanted to get off, not because he was scared, but because he was bored! Although we did not ride on the rafts, mistakenly thinking he was too short, he had a great deal of fun watching other people, and yelling out warnings to them about upcoming rain clouds.

Story Land’s commitment to family entertainment is evident across the park. Toddlers, teenagers, and adults interact with each other and with the attractions. But beyond this, the setup and conveniences offered are outstanding.

There are four areas in the park set aside for moms. These are quiet, well-ventilated spaces, each with a fan and a few rocking chairs. You can nurse in comfort, take a few quiet moments with your baby, and change a diaper without interruption. I spent some time in there with the littlest Pinault, while the other boys went on more rides. It was nice to sit in a rocking chair to feed my infant, instead of on a wall or in a plastic cafeteria chair. The park also offers misting tents, where a thin mist helps visitors cool down. My youngest, at four months old, thought this was  hilarious. Personally, as someone who overheats easily, these tents were heavenly. You can rent strollers or wheelchairs and you can even leave your pet in one of 26 free kennels. You don’t have to leave anyone at home on a trip to Story Land.

An obsessive fan of all things Disney, I was drawn to the history behind this home-grown park. Bob Morrell, the park’s creator, was also inspired by Disney and in 1981 undertook one of his most adventurous projects: a dark ride. For over a decade, until it was closed in 1998, Space Fantasy (which later became Voyage to the Moon) operated within the confines of a fabric covered dome. Based loosely on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (again, another story based ride) riders blasted off to their celestial destination. The ride was closed due to a combination of high costs and low usage. It was replaced with my son’s second favorite part of the park: Professor Bigglestep’s Loopy Lab. While an enclosed ride did not appeal to the Story Land crowd, the hands-on Loopy Lab with its foam balls and compressed air cannons remains one of the park’s most popular attractions. From a parenting perspective, it is a nice cool place to let the kids run off some steam for a little while. Maintain close visual contact: there are two exit points!

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Ten years before the opening of EPCOT and its World Showcase, Story Land opened A Child’s Visit to Other Lands, a themed area of the park that includes architecture and landmarks from Morocco, Africa, the Netherlands, Mexico, Switzerland, and the Arctic.

To continue the overriding storybook theme, fairy tales that emphasized each culture, such as Arabian Nights, were included. My eldest had great fun climbing inside the Flying Carpet Sandwich Oasis. While visiting Mexico we panned for gold. We visited the North Pole, an actual pole of ice in front of the Polar Coaster. One of the more frequently used cultural themes in this section comes from The Netherlands. There is an attraction in which you fly in wooden shoes, and then there is the story of the little Dutch boy where each child can help prevent a flood by blocking the dyke with a finger. The main street also contains Dutch buildings.

Education and hands-on involvement are key points in many of the attractions at Story Land. For example, in a replica of an old town hall your child can have his or her picture taken, and then purchase a driver’s license. This is suitably located near the antique cars. Nearby, the animatronic Farm Follies teach about the earth. Stony Morrell was an aspiring farmer and environmentalist, and wanted Story Land to educate children through entertainment. The show teaches children how the garden grows and in recent years has begun to encourage recycling. My two-year-old sat through the presentation twice, perfectly still. It was a miracle.

The price for admission in 1954 was only 84 cents; today, it’s decently priced by modern standards at $28 per child over the age of two. While food is available at several locations, families are encouraged to bring a picnic into the park to save on lunch. Retail outlets are few and far between, and souvenirs range in price from a handful of change to a week’s allowance. We left with a squashed penny album to commence a new collection, one pound of Jelly Belly jelly beans, and a book. At the epicenter of the park is a costume store where visitors can purchase all manner of fantasy apparel for the whole family, including capes, crowns, and wands. If my mother-in-law didn’t make capes, I would have made an investment that day.

In the Images of America history of Story Land, Jim Miller notes that a cornerstone of the park’s business philosophy was to frequently add simple props that appealed to children and created a lasting memory, even if it did not generate a measurable return on investment. If, like me, you are somewhat of a theme park geek, Story Land is full of secret gems if you care to look closely and talk to cast members:

  • The spider’s web from Little Miss Muffet hung from a real tree between 1954 and 2001. When an annual inspection discovered that the tree was becoming fragile, the decision was made to preserve it in some way. Massachusetts artist Justin Gordon and Story Land artist Donna Howland carved  a colorful sculpture from the tree; it stands to this day in its original spot.
  • The shoelaces on the house of The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe are made from the firehose of Freddy the Fire Truck, the first amusement ride that the Morrell family built at Story Land.
  • The original merry-go-round at Story Land was based on the controversial children’s story Little Black Sambo.
  • The no smoking policy at Story Land was years ahead of its time, introduced in 1961.
  • The swan boats, a fixture in most theme parks, were originally a fleet of whales. They were changed to be more in keeping with the theme of the castle area.
  • The antique German carousel was originally steam-powered and in the late 1800s toured the Bavarian countryside. It found its home at Story Land in the early 1960s. Pay close attention: Unlike most carousels that turn counter-clockwise, this carousel turns clockwise.
  • The Huff, Puff, and Whistle Railroad may be mechanized now, but originally it was a steam-powered train.
  • Until 2000, the model cars were gasoline operated. Unhappy with the quality provided by outside vendors, owner Bob Morrell built them in-house so that a second row could be added for parents to take a back seat to their driving children.
  • The bronze sculpture of two children peeking into the pond near the Great Balloon Chase was installed in 1989 as part of the park’s 35th anniversary celebration and is titled “The Winds of Imagination.”
  • The leaking water tower in Dr. Geyser’s Remarkable Raft Ride was originally a working tank that once powered the park’s steam train.
  • The Bamboo Chutes flume ride may seem simple, but it cost over $1 million to construct in 1993 and includes seven miles of wiring, 23 tons of steel, and 1,500 tons of concrete.
  • The lift and drop for the flume ride is not artificial; it was constructed along the lines of an existing hillside.
  • When the Crazy Barn, a tilting, spinning elevated barn, opened in 2003, it was the only ride of its kind in the U.S.

Admission was provided for review purposes.