Deep in the woods of Baltimore, a fairytale castle sits empty and abandoned, its battlements and turrets overgrown with leaves. Elsewhere, murals are daubed in graffiti, and a gingerbread cottage slowly crumbles and rots away. Not so long ago, this was one of the region’s top tourist attractions, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Today, the Enchanted Forest has all but disappeared.
Back in the 1950s, America’s entertainment industry, worth billions today, was just kicking into gear. World War Two was over, and servicemen were returning home eager to start families. Meanwhile, the economy was growing, and more Americans than ever found they had bigger disposable incomes.
As families started spending more money on entertainment, canny businessmen began opening theme parks to cater to their needs. And just one month after Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, another, more low-key, attraction launched thousands of miles away on America’s eastern coast.
Located in Ellicott City, some 20 miles west of Baltimore, MD, the Enchanted Forest first opened its doors on August 15, 1955. But unlike its competitors, this park featured no complicated mechanical rides. Instead, the focus was on encouraging children’s imaginations, and the attractions were characters and buildings with a fairytale theme.
The approach proved a hit, and soon the Enchanted Forest had established itself as a popular attraction with residents and visitors alike. And although they added some simple track rides over the years, the park continued to take a charmingly low-tech approach to family entertainment.
“Most of the rides in the park were very simple compared to today’s amusement park rides,” recalled Stacy Nunley, a photographer who visited the Enchanted Forest as a child back in the 1980s. “All around the park were gingerbread man statues and those were favorites among everyone who went there. Cinderella’s Castle was also a favorite.”
In lieu of fancy, expensive rides, the team behind Enchanted Forest created a fairytale land that worked its own brand of magic on the young guests. As well as the obligatory castle, the park also featured a teacup ride that whirled visitors through an Alice in Wonderland-inspired dreamscape and a cavern adventure themed on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Elsewhere, a small artificial lake was excavated so that visitors could ride a tugboat known as Little Toot and explore the realm of Mount Vesuvius. Meanwhile, all-terrain-style vehicles waited to whisk guests away on a safari around Jungleland. And unlike some theme parks of the era, the Enchanted Forest eschewed segregation from the very beginning.
At its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the park welcomed up to 400,000 visitors per season – each paying just over two dollars in entrance fees. However, as time passed, the world around the Enchanted Forest began to change. And as TV, video games and high-tech theme parks grew in popularity, interest in this land of make-believe began to wane.
In 1988 the Enchanted Forest was sold to a developer for $4.5 million. The following year, its gates shut for the first time and over half the park was demolished to make room for a shopping center. And although it opened again for one season in 1994, the attraction closed for good just one year later.
For the next decade, the park was left to slowly decay. And when Linda Harrison Gardner, the daughter of the original owners, visited in 2004, she was dismayed by what she found. By that time, Cinderella’s Castle looked rundown and abandoned, while the fairytale characters appeared broken and worn.
However, work had already begun behind the scenes to preserve the magic of the park for future generations. And in 2005, the Enchanted Forest Preservation Society began the long and arduous task of preserving the attraction’s exhibits. As a solution, many were moved to Clark’s Elioak Farm, a local petting zoo.
In 2011 Nunley returned to the Enchanted Forest to capture what was left of the attraction once loved by children throughout Maryland and beyond. “It was sad to see what had become of this wonderful place,” she explained. “It was sad looking at the decay and knowing it had been allowed to become so bad.”
For Nunley, the park represents a treasured piece of Maryland history. And even though some of the exhibits had already been rescued prior to her visit, she felt sad that more hadn’t been done to preserve the memory of the Enchanted Forest. Apparently, some of the attractions – such as Cinderella’s Castle – had decayed too much to be saved.
Once inside, Nunley and her friend could see that they weren’t the only people who had sought to rediscover the Enchanted Forest. In fact, the exhibits were covered in graffiti that previous visitors had left behind. Clearly, intruders had ignored the many “No Trespassing” signs.
In her photographs, Nunley has captured a fascinating snapshot of the Enchanted Forest after its closure, with its once-glossy attractions now decrepit and disappearing into the overgrown woods. And from the broken gingerbread men to the boarded-up windows, it seems clear that the park’s atmosphere has changed to evoke an entirely different world.
For Nunley, who last visited the park when she was 12 years old, it was a heartbreaking experience. However, she is pleased with the work that has been done to preserve many exhibits and has even visited them in their new home at Clark’s Elioak Farm. “They have done a wonderful job,” she admitted.
Over the years, the petting zoo has opened its doors to the vast majority of attractions that once delighted visitors to the Enchanted Forest. Now restored, exhibits like the Three Bears’ House, the Old Woman’s Shoe and the Mount Vesuvius giant slide are back in use once more, entertaining a new generation of children.
In 2015 Clark’s Elioak Farm acquired one of the most iconic relics of the Enchanted Forest – the grand entrance castle with its pair of red turrets. And the following year, the farm hosted an anniversary party marking 60 years since the original park first opened. Among the guests were surviving members of the Harrison family, along with people who had worked at the attraction many decades ago.
But while the Enchanted Forest has been reborn at Clark’s Elioak Farm, the original site remains a sad shadow of its former self. And in 2017 one of its last great structures – Cinderella’s crumbling castle – was demolished for good. “It was a very sad day for for those of us who had been there,” remarked Nunley. Now, only a statue at the entrance to a shopping center remains – an inadequate tribute to a place that touched so many children’s lives.