Executive Director of Children's Fairyland Kymberly Miller stands by the entrance to the theme park and discusses the ways the theme park is adapting to the difficulties of the pandemic. July 6, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

On September 2, Children’s Fairyland will celebrate 70 years of entertaining kids and parents inside its magical gates, but for the Oakland theme park at Lake Merritt, the milestone will look very different than it otherwise would have due to the pandemic. 

Fairyland closed on March 13, two days before Alameda County’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. At that time, lacking financial reserves, the park had to furlough all of its 56 employees.

Kymberly Miller, the executive director of Fairyland, worked hard to ensure employees were able to come back at the end of April, including two horticulturists who maintain the 70-year-old garden inside the park. Part of the team also helps care for Fairyland’s 15 animals, including miniature horses and goats. Miller was able to secure a small business loan for Fairyland through the federal CARES Act, an assistance program for businesses impacted by the pandemic. Other local institutions like the Oakland Zoo and the Oakland Symphony have benefitted from similar relief  loans. 

Miller said Fairyland is important to support because it’s more than just an amusement park. “Fairyland is a lot more complex than people think. It is a place for children and their families. But for Oakland, it is also this foundational, informal, early learning spot.” 

But as with the Zoo and Symphony, Fairyland’s loan has run out and the theme park is again facing financial hardship. 

how to help fairyland

Donate to the Fairyland Fund.

The park was supposed to reopen in mid-July, but a rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the state has forced counties to put their reopening plans on hold. In the past two weeks, California has seen over 93,000 new cases. On June 29, Alameda County Health Services Agency hit pause on the first phase of the region’s reopening plan that would have allowed Fairyland to welcome back its visitors.

Since March, Fairyland has lost over $1 million in revenue. Fairyland’s annual operating budget typically runs around $3.2 million dollars. Animal care alone costs the park approximately $20,000 per month.

Because of the safety protocols that the park has to follow, many of the features that parents and kids normally enjoy will be closed or off-limits, once the state and county allow Fairyland to reopen. This includes the puppet show and the rides.

The famous shoe at the entrance to Children’s Fairyland. Credit: Pete Rosos

Miller has been working diligently to add improvements and safety measures throughout the park. Under normal conditions, Children’s Fairyland has a capacity of 2,500 people. Once it reopens, that number will be limited to 700 people at any given time. To break up crowds and prevent the spread of germs, the park will have two separate open shifts: from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. During the hour that the park is closed, staff will sanitize its surfaces, and different employees will work each shift. New sanitation stations have been set up throughout the park and only one family at a time will be allowed to enter bathrooms. Social bubble circles have also been drawn onto the grassy areas of the park, similar to what was done at Dolores Park in San Francisco, to help people maintain a safe distance.

Some areas will be off limits. The indoor gift shop will be replaced by an outdoor vending area. The Fairy Music Farm Tunnel will remain closed, and sliding down the Jack and Jill Hill on cardboard sleds will not be permitted. 

“We don’t want to change so much because of the pandemic that we are not who we were,” Miller said of the noticeable changes, but the park will follow public health guidelines from county and state medical officials to determine when it’s safe for rides and performances to reopen. 

Miller said guidelines haven’t always been clearly communicated by government officials to cultural institutions, so to cut down on any possible confusion, Children’s Fairyland has teamed up with the Oakland Zoo, Chabot Space and Science Center, and the Oakland Museum to help each other navigate the pandemic and figure out how to safely reopen. 

“Some people call us the big four,” Miller said. “We fell in step together right before the pandemic as we started reading the tidbits of what was happening.” Members of the four organizations meet weekly to discuss policy changes coming from public health officials. “That kind of collaboration, of support for leaders in a complex city like Oakland, has been invaluable.”

New safety protocols are not the only changes coming to the Fairyland. Since the park closed down, other upgrades were also implemented, like replacing the old model water fountains with bottle-filling stations.

Although Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland Kymberly Miller and her staff are thrilled to be back with kids roaming around all eight acres of the park, she said it is not enough from a business standpoint. Fairyland, said Miller, needs community support. July 6, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Making sure kids of all backgrounds see themselves in the park

Another project that Miller has been working on since before the pandemic is finding ways to diversify Fairyland. She wants the park to be a place where children of all backgrounds feel welcome.

“We were starting a strategic planning process with equity at the center because people don’t realize how much work Fairyland could be doing,” Miller said. “It’s two fronts: accessibility and representation. There might be some in Oakland who might feel like Fairyland is not for me. We want to change that because Fairyland is for everyone.” 

On the issue of accessibility, Miller said more information about Fairyland needs to be presented in languages other than English. The park will partner with other local organizations to spread information about its amenities and programming. All of the written materials for the reopening will be provided in English, Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, and Mandarin. 

Miller wants to make sure that children from all backgrounds see themselves in the park and its stories. “Most of the stories represented in this park are northern European tales,” she said. “How do we become flexible in representing our constituency? Not getting rid of those tales, but mixing in with those tales and those of the people of Oakland and their heritage.”

Miller also said the park’s  puppet show will be revamped. There is a committee of Oakland librarians who have been helping diversify the content of the show, which is a family favorite. 

Entrance fees are also going to be temporarily reduced, although the new price has not been decided yet.

The park has already reopened partially for its summer day camp, which kids can attend for up to three weeks at a time, based on current public health guidelines. 

Although Miller and her staff are thrilled to be back with kids roaming around all eight acres of the park, she said it is not enough from a business standpoint. Fairyland, said Miller, needs community support.

“Hopefully, there is enough money to help us through the pandemic,” Miller said. “We want to make sure that the community knows that we are in need. We want to be part of the gold standard in safety.” 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.