Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who were childhood friends in Oakland, have their own memories of visiting Fairyland as kids. Credit: Children's Fairyland of Oakland

Back in June, the Oaklandside visited Fairyland to report on the health and safety improvements the park is making so it can reopen during the pandemic.

Since then, popular local destinations like the Oakland Zoo have been able to reopen at a limited capacity, while others like Chabot Space and Science Center and the Oakland Museum have pivoted to virtual programming.

While Fairyland’s reopening is still in the works, the amusement park’s executive director, Kymberly Miller, has been busy finding creative ways to bring in revenue, while also making sure that Fairyland—once its doors do open—represents the cultural backgrounds of all Oaklanders. 

With those goals in mind, on September 26, Fairyland will debut “Celebrity Storytime,” a digital series of fairytales read by well-known Oaklanders. Although the tales are being made available to the public free of charge, Fairyland is also using the launch as a fundraiser and asking for donations.

Oakland-born artists Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs will co-host and emcee the evening of readings by celebrities and teachers from diverse communities in Oakland and the Bay Area. “We are excited because this is connected to equity at the park,” said Miller, “and what it means to have representation in storytelling.” 

Getting Casal and Diggs to participate happened organically. “Rafael is a passionate human, and it has been really fun to work with him,” Miller said. “He reached out to us when he saw that we were suffering this summer and asked how he could help.”

It’s not surprising that Casal, who now resides in Los Angeles, wanted to help. He and Diggs both remain rooted in Oakland. Their critically acclaimed 2018 film, “Blindspotting,” which the duo co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in, dealt with themes of gentrification, police brutality, and gun violence in Oakland. The film was recently picked up by Starz to be developed as a spinoff TV series, which Casal and Diggs will co-write and produce. 

“I saw [Fairyland’s] post on Instagram about some of their fears about closing, and the idea that Fairyland wouldn’t exist in the future if some serious action wasn’t taken,” Casal said. “I sent them a DM saying, ‘Tell me how I can help.’” 

Soon after, Casal was on a Zoom meeting with Fairyland’s team, developing the idea for “Celebrity Storytime.”

From that initial conversation, Casal reached out to Diggs. “I called Daveed while we were brainstorming, knowing that this is something he was really going to love,” Casal said. “This is something that really engages with the community in the way that we want to. It is something that we have been thinking about in the last few years: the Bay Area as a multitude of fairytales.”

Casal and Diggs, who were childhood friends in Oakland, have their own memories of visiting the park as kids.

“I remember watching a lot of the puppet shows. I would stay there for hours when my mom and my dad would take us there,” Diggs recalled. “I have memories of playing on the dragon and the pirate ships, those were my go-to spots. And the key was always a special thing.”

The Puppet Theater at Children’s Fairyland. Credit: Pete Rosos

The celebrity storytime event isn’t the first time that Diggs has helped the park in a time of need. During his theatrical run with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival in the late 2000s, Diggs got word that the park’s talking boxes—audio stations that are activated by magical keys that park goers can purchase—were still playing the original cassette tapes he listened to as a child, and the audio quality had become poor from decades of heavy use. “I ended up talking to the person who is responsible for converting the audio to digital while still keeping the same mechanism,” Diggs said. 

For Casal, the magical key is more than just an item that unlocks fairytales. “The Fairyland key is the kind of thing that you have contemplated getting as a tattoo multiple times in your life,” said Casal, who spent a lot of time in the parks around the lake. “I worked at the Lake Merritt boathouse as a teenager,” he said. 

He also knows what Fairyland represents for children and families without the financial means to go on vacation. “We weren’t rich kids. We weren’t going to Disneyland,” he said. “But in the Bay, we had this little theme park that to me, felt huge as a little kid. We were immersed in magic.” 

Neither Diggs or Casal have kids of their own, but both have family members and friends who still live in the Bay Area and are affected by the park’s ongoing closure. 

“I would love for them to be able to have this,” said Diggs, “pretty much [like] all of us who grew up in the Bay.”

Fairyland’s historical significance extends far beyond Oakland. The park, which opened in 1950, served as one of Walt Disney’s inspirations for Disneyland. 

Diggs sees Fairyland as a unique place in Oakland where education, child development, and community-building intersect. “There’s a lot of history there, and it has existed holding essentially the same core values and doing the same work for 70 years,” he said. “The idea of coming back with a reenergized artistic mission, telling homegrown fairytales, and promoting children’s storytelling in our own community is really exciting and feels really necessary.”

For Miller, it was important that the first virtual reading be free to all “during these crazy times,” and that the digital content “complement early childhood learning.”

The digital library will include popular tales already known to Fairyland visitors, and new stories that will inspire future installations and puppet shows at the park. 

“We are excited to use this library as an incubator,” Miller said. “While maintaining what’s really magical about Fairyland, this kicked up the idea to refresh some of the stories and incorporate that into the park.” 

Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs hope that this first installment of ‘Celebrity Storytime’ inspires others to get involved. Credit: Children's Fairyland of Oakland

The event on September 26 will feature local teachers, some with books of their own, in addition to notable Bay Area celebrities like Casal and Diggs. “It’s a platform that allows them to share that work, and that is really exciting to me,” said Diggs. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here—people are doing the work.” 

For Casal, whose sister is an elementary school teacher, it was crucial to make sure that teachers’ voices were included. “She is one of the first people that I called, and she gave us access to so many [stories] that she already works with,” Casal said. “This is about activating existing work and finding a way to make it more widely accessible.” 

Casal and Diggs hope that this first installment of ‘Celebrity Storytime’ inspires others to get involved. “It will be like a rite of passage: You’re doing something great, you come through Fairyland and contribute a story or a song,” Casal said. “You do something for the young people of the East Bay who, like us, grew up going there. Everyone has a Fairyland story.” 

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.