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We’re Not In The High Country Anymore

Photo by Ashley Poore.

By Harley Nefe

Over the Rainbow

Somewhere over the rainbow – at an elevation of 5,506 feet in Eastern America’s highest incorporated town of Beech Mountain – there’s a place like no other that comes to life every September.

People travel from all around the world to experience the magic unfold from the pages of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” series and to be immersed in the memorable scenes of the 1939 MGM film “The Wizard of Oz” while also embracing the environment of the Appalachian region at America’s Original Wonderful Wizard of Oz Theme Park.

While the mountainous terrain of the High Country hardly resembles the flat plains of Dorothy Gale’s back yard in Kansas, the unique atmosphere of the location of the Land of Oz makes the adventure of meeting well-known characters like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion unforgettable. Even more so, the opportunity to visit various areas along the yellow brick road, such as Munchkinland all the way to Emerald City, doesn’t occur very often; the Land of Oz only holds its annual Autumn at Oz Festival across three weekends each year, making it much more special.

Once upon a time, however, the Land of Oz was a fully functioning theme park that operated between 1970-1980. It was built by Grover Robbins, Jr. and his brothers, Harry and Spencer, through their company Carolina Caribbean Corporation in the late 1960s. 

An original Land of Oz ticket from the 1970s shows the different attractions that captivated guests visiting the park.

Grover, a Blowing Rock native, along with his brothers brought about many successful tourism ventures that would come to include Tweetsie Railroad, Hound Ears Club, a St. Croix beach resort, as well as Beech Mountain Ski Resort. But the Robbins brothers wanted another attraction to keep visitors coming to Beech Mountain year round.

“The Robbins brothers are the ones who started to develop tourism in this part of the state,” explained Sean Barrett, Artistic Director at Land of Oz. “They had started to build Beech Mountain Ski Resort, and they wanted something to do with the land in the summer because they wanted to create year-round employment.”

Back in the 1950s, the Hufty family had purchased acreage on the peak of the mountain to grow apples, but the harsh ridge-top climate proved to be ill suited for an orchard. Carolina Caribbean Corporation then took the opportunity to strike a deal with the Huftys for a 40-year lease on the property for a theme park.

Sean continued, “The Robbins brothers brought Jack Pentes here, and he was a Charlotte-based designer who helped them with Tweetsie Railroad, and he saw the trees and the grass and said that it reminded him of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’” 

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck…when I first saw that long emerald grass that had never been cut, the trees with those twisted arms that picked off their apples and threw them at the Tin Man,” Jack told Oxford American magazine in an article published in 2001. 

A Land of Oz souvenir book from 1971 reported that Jack tramped over the mountaintop, and over and over it again. After rounding the face of a pinnacle, he saw a small cave. “That is where it was, I think, that I realized, ‘This is the Land of Oz! The Cowardly Lion’s cave is even where it’s supposed to be!’”

The Robbins brothers then commissioned Jack to design the park, and work began on the 16 acres atop Beech Mountain.

“Jack was very detail oriented, especially in regards to kids,” Sean described. “He loved kids. When he was designing the park, he actually walked parts of it on his knees so that he could design things from a child’s perspective.”

The designer poured all of his creative energy into the park’s layout, carefully positioning the 44,000 bricks that make up the three-quarters of a mile winding yellow brick road around the mountain’s natural features.

“They started building it in the summer of 1969, and they finished construction in the summer of 1970,” Sean said. “So, they built the whole park in a year, which is crazy if you think about it, but somehow they did it.” 

To avoid copyright infringement, Carolina Caribbean Corporation avoided direct references to the 1939 MGM film, instead choosing to call the park Land of Oz. Jack used L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books, which were in the public domain, as inspiration.

“The story is that they wanted to create their own Oz,” Sean described. “There are a few things throughout the park that are not a part of the stories or movie.”

However, even in the beginning years of the park, Land of Oz performed the song “Over the Rainbow” in its Emerald City show because the composer who wrote all of the music said that they couldn’t have The Wizard of Oz without “Over the Rainbow,” so the park received licensing rights for the music.

“When they were building the park originally, they wanted Judy Garland to cut the ribbon, but she passed away the same summer that they started building the park,” Sean shared. “So, Jack designed a space known as the Judy Garland Memorial Overlook. It used to have a bronze bust of her in the center of it, but that was stolen in later years.”

In addition, the park had possession of several valuable movie props and memorabilia thanks to a massive auction MGM held in 1970. A Robbins brother went to Los Angeles to grab as many of the film’s original items as possible for the park’s museum to prepare for the season ahead.

On June 15, 1970, a crowd of 4,000 people attended opening day at Land of Oz, including celebrity special guests Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher. However, sadly, the man who first envisioned the theme park would not live to see it. Grover died on March 4, 1970, just three months before Land of Oz opened. His grave marker to this day still lies on a side path off the yellow brick road though.

In its first year, 400,000 visitors flocked to Land of Oz, making it the leading tourist attraction in North Carolina. Land of Oz quickly became a top-quality experience during its first five seasons and competed against Walt Disney Land. 

“Then Walt Disney World opened in 1971, and they were sending representatives up here to see why the park was so successful without having a lot of rides,” Sean said. “They didn’t understand it.”

In 1971, the park became the second most popular tourist attraction in the eastern United States, behind Walt Disney World.

Then by the mid-1970s, Carolina Caribbean Corporation wasn’t doing so well. The company suffered because of the recession and gas crisis, and in 1974, it was forced to declare bankruptcy. Attendance at Land of Oz had dipped to a dismal 66,000 in the 1975 season, and tragedy struck once again in December 1975, when a fire burned down the Emerald City theater, and the museum was ransacked.

Along with the Judy Garland memorial, there were a few original costumes from the film that were stolen, including one of Judy Garland’s Dorothy dresses as well as a few of the Wizard costumes and some Munchkin pieces.

“Supposedly, these items were recovered, but nobody knows where they went,” Sean said.

“They then thought the Land of Oz was going to close forever,” Sean further explained. “But the park transferred to the mortgage holder, Tri-South of Atlanta, and they came in and booted the whole creative team. They rebuilt Emerald City in about four months, but it was a cheaper, lesser version of it. They also hired someone to run the theme park, but he had never worked with performers or in the entertainment industry before. The quality of everything went quickly downhill, and they started investing all of the money they were making into the ski resort, and Oz became an afterthought and more of a nuisance.”

Jack Pentes, the designer of the park, developed a plan to expand and renovate the attraction. He estimated the cost of repairs would be around $3 million, but the new owners weren’t willing to make the investment. The park ended up closing after its 1980 season, and despite multiple efforts to open it back up in the mid 80s, it never happened.

The park property returned to the ownership of the Hufty family, as when the lease was broken, they received their land back. 

“They didn’t know what to do,” Sean said. “They were in real estate, and nobody wanted to come up here. The park was done; it was run into the ground. The whole park was supposed to be bulldozed, and they were going to build condos and a whole gated community up here instead. However, that fell through, and Oz was kind of saved in that regard.” 

Between 1985 and 1988, parts of the park were demolished due to excessive vandalism and decay. Included in this was the Emerald City amphitheater stage, gift shops, and balloon ride. However, much of the park was saved including the Gale farmhouse, barn, and most of the yellow brick road. 

Starting in 1988, a reunion of original park employees, known as the “Ozzies,” ignited yearly re-openings, which has since become known as the Autumn at Oz Festival, which aims to celebrate the legacy of all things Oz. Autumn at Oz is the world’s largest Wizard of Oz festival, and it is celebrating over 50 years of magic. Funds from this, and other events, have gone back into restoring and maintaining the park for future generations.

Sean shared, “Our heart is in the Autumn at Oz Festival.”

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Being more than a mile high around the pinnacles and through the glens marked by centuries-old, wind-twisted trees atop Beech Mountain, the Land of Oz truly lies over the rainbow for visitors of all ages to enjoy. 

With the park being based on one of the true classics of American literature, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, which was published in 1900 as well as the 1939 MGM film that USA Today deemed, “The greatest children’s movie ever made,” the stories of Oz have since stirred the imaginations of young and old alike across generations as it holds a special place in nearly everyone’s heart.

“Who doesn’t love ‘The Wizard of Oz’ movie?” asked Cindy Brown, who first started working at the Land of Oz in 1974 and played the role of Dorothy. “Everybody loves it. And back then, you waited; the movie only came on once a year, and you had to wait for it, and so that made it even more special. I’ve always loved Oz, and I think that’s a big part of the success of it.”

Photo by Ashley Poore.

At the park, guests are able to follow the adventures of young Dorothy Gale and her dog, Toto, as her farmhouse is swept away by a tornado. They find themselves in a strange land called Oz, where they encounter enchanted forests and endless surprises. But the most wondrous adventure of all begins when Dorothy and her new-found friends go in search of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

“It was Dorothy’s longing that she wanted somewhere better, to be taken away from that sepia-colored humdrum world,” explained Walter Krueger, who plays the role of the Wicked Witch at Land of Oz. “I feel like a lot of us mirror that in our own minds, and we have this humdrum feeling about us. We’ve been through so much with the pandemic and uncertainty in our world. And the world has grown very black and white and sepia colored. I think that longing for a better place, a place where dreams really do come true is a universal feeling that is felt by all, especially currently at this moment.” 

The annual Autumn at Oz event brings the well-known fairy tale to life, and in order to reach the wonderland, visitors can travel whichever way their heart desires – by taking the shuttle buses up the mountain or to ride the ski resort’s lift blue-sky high.

Before guests can embark on the journey to meet the beloved characters, one of the first places they must visit is the fountain of youth.

“Jack Pentes’s concept of the fountain of youth was that everybody that walked by it could forget about being an adult and go back to their childhood and relive the stories and memories,” explained Sean Barrett, Artistic Director at Land of Oz.

Throughout the park, the entire history of Land of Oz and interesting trivia facts can be found on panels all around.

“A lot of the customers don’t realize that the people portraying the characters and the people doing the lighting and the people doing the sound and all of that – they are all die-hard Wizard of Oz fans – every single one,” Walter described. “This is literally a love letter from fans to even more fans to share. There’s not a single person on our cast who has no clue of the history or the legacy that follows this story and Baum and his creations that he made.”

By the entrance of the park, people can find Professor Marvel by a wagon, reading fortunes and greeting everyone in Kansas, and Miss Gulch with her basket searching for Toto.

Glinda the Good Witch

From there, the path continues to Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s farm, complete with a replica of Dorothy’s house and a barn that used to be a petting zoo back in the day. Following a show by the barn, Dorothy will sing “Over the Rainbow” before being available for photos.

“I love singing ‘Over the Rainbow,’ and I love the crowd reaction of that because it’s a really special moment,” shared Steph Twomey, who plays the role of Dorothy at Land of Oz.

Morgan White, who also stars as Dorothy, shared, “Just seeing the age groups of people where this means everything to them. You see kids who are five years old all the way to 80 years old – it makes their life. I had a lady tell me, ‘I’ve been waiting for this my whole life to meet you.’ The interactions you have – having those special moments with people really makes it rewarding.”

After Dorothy’s performance, the crowd is led inside the house.

“The house was built for the park,” Sean described. “It’s a prop. We go through and redecorate it and restage it. There’s a bunch of Easter eggs throughout the house. There are pictures of L. Frank Baum, who wrote the book, and his mother-in-law Matilda Gage, who encouraged him to write the story down. There were 14 books he wrote for Oz, and then he wrote dozens of other books.”

Once inside the house, guests will find Auntie Em in the kitchen baking.

“We added a radio, so she’s listening to music, and an old-fashioned weather alert comes on the radio to get people to the cellar,” Sean said.

Then everyone goes down through a dark, descending maze, where sights and sounds simulate an incoming tornado.

Be careful to avoid the Wicked Witch of the West on your journey to Emerald City.

“We have these huge fans that blow, and we have a projector with sound effects,” Sean said. “The murals in that room are original to the 1970s, but we had an artist come in and repaint it. The colors are so vibrant now, and we have been very excited to share this part of the park.”

When the storm is over, visitors are led to the other side of the house, where the walls and floor are skewed crookedly, and everything has been upturned. 

“The house is actually on two 15-degree angles, so it’s an optical illusion,” Sean explained. “So, you feel like you’re about to get your grip, and the house throws you in the other direction.”

When exiting the house, visitors are shocked to find the house has landed in Oz and on top of a pair of legs with black and white striped stockings – the Wicked Witch of the East!

Looking ahead lies Munchkinland, with its colorful houses and flowers. 6,000 poppies get placed into the ground to create this view. And you can’t forget about the yellow brick road!

“We paint the yellow brick road each season,” Sean said. “Originally, the bricks were glazed bricks, and they were so slippery that back in the day, they would tell people to walk barefoot if it rained.”

Guests then embark on a fun-filled journey down the yellow brick road where a Lion sings, a Tin Man talks, and a Scarecrow dances.

Alex Pineiro, who plays the Scarecrow, said, “I love seeing the looks on people’s faces when they see me for the first time, and it melts my heart when kids (of every age) call my name and run at me with open arms to give me a hug! It truly is magical and brings out the inner child in everyone!”

After meeting the Scarecrow, visitors run into the Tin Man, who could use some help with his oil can. 

Matthew Lewis, who acts as the Tin Man, provided some brief history of the character costumes, which have drastically changed over the years. 

“The character costumes used to have these helmet-like features for the principle characters that had to be worn, and they were very hard to breathe in and very bulbous as far as limited mobility, but they all had a theme,” he described. “So, I see why they were constructed that way because at that time – the vision for the park was slightly different than what it is today.”

Sean added, “When you see the original costumes, they were cool at the time, but people look at them now and are like, ‘Those are scary!’”

Matthew continued, “But versus the newer costumes that we have now, which were designed by Austin Scarlett from ‘Project Runway’ – they are more true to the movie version of the vision for the park. The colors are more accurate, the fabrics are more accurate. There are finer details that they have now; however, the Tin Man is a very physically limiting costume as far as doing just general things. But by just wearing it around, practicing, and having rehearsals, we saw the areas that we could utilize to make them more comfortable, which has been a big thing this year. My costume is great. I mean yeah, I’m in a metal Tin Man costume, but it’s breathable and as comfortable as you can be. As far as movement, it’s a lot more usable this year, and I think that has a lot to do with that we got to meet with Austin, and he’s really taking into consideration that we’re going to be in them for eight hours, we’re going to be dancing in these pieces, and they need to be functional and comfortable. It’s been very fortunate that he’s been here.”

Joe Shipbaugh, who is the Cowardly Lion, gave his insight about his feline attire. 

He said, “Although it’s great fun bringing the Lion to life, that costume is miserably hot! I can’t imagine how Bert Lahr – the Cowardly Lion from the 1939 MGM film – felt in his costume. His lion suit was approximately 90 pounds and made of real lion pelts. Mine doesn’t weigh anywhere near that much, but when performing in the sun and having a prosthetic muzzle glued to my face all day, it makes me question why I do it.”

Joe continued, “My answer to that is our guests. Seeing them light up makes me forget all of the uncomfortableness that comes with the job, and when they say, ‘This is the best day of my life,’ they may truly mean it.”

Matthew agreed and said, “It’s really cool to see all the families that come through and the little kids that come through and they are dressed like you, or they come and bring you things. Getting little gifts from kids is the cutest thing.” 

Apart from Dorothy’s crew on the yellow brick road, there’s some other characters at Oz that guests may bump into.

Vanessa Schilling started playing the Wicked Witch of the West at Land of Oz 13 years ago.

She shared, “After 13 years, there are too many favorite moments to count! Every day you come off the road excited to tell cast mates about a great interaction or something you did or said that you were proud of. It’s just a blur of emotional encounters with amazing people, some combating disabilities that make them feel like they don’t fit in the ‘normal’ world, but they shine like rainbows in Oz. Those are the moments I have to work extra hard to stay in character because if you think mascara runs when you tear up, you’ve never seen a green witch cry! However, I don’t get to see many engagements at the witch’s castle for some strange reason.”

Walter Krueger also stars as the Wicked Witch and has been at the Land of Oz for 16 years.

“There’s always something new added in each year,” he described, “The Wicked Witch was given her own 3-5 minute show with the Flying Monkey, where she once again reiterates her mission of wanting those slippers. It’s comedic, it’s fun. I still play her very much how you remember her in the movie, but I give her a little bit more depth and range in the irony that surrounds her.”

Walter explained, “She finds joy in getting what she wants, and she has this ultimate plan, and it’s kind of disrupted by something that many of us would look at as ironic. I think she’s very self aware of the situation that she’s in. Her henchmen are monkeys, so she can’t really rely on them. She’s very much frustrated and caught in a flux where she needs these shoes, and the only thing that’s getting in her way is an innocent farm girl who has absolutely no clue that she’s really holding up this woman taking over Oz.”

The Wicked Witch is Walter’s favorite Oz character.

“A lot of the favorite moments I have are the interactions with a lot of the guests you meet,” he said. “You meet such a plethora of fans, and a lot of them are young children or older adults who are children at heart. It’s a very special thing to find nowadays.” 

Walter continued, “It’s a lost magic in a world that is so uncertain. I would say the best interactions I ever had were with children or adults who get tears in their eyes when they see you. You are this representation of this lifelong character, they have grown up knowing and loving and sharing with their family, and that is something very special.”

In addition to these roles, there are many other cast members who are involved with the Land of Oz and help bring the magic to life to everyone around them.

“We have a lot of the original actors from the 70s come back to work the event,” Sean said. “All of our Glindas are original Dorothys from the 70s, and a lot of times, their daughters will come and play Dorothy.”

Cindy Brown is one of the Glindas who started at the park playing Dorothy originally. 

Her favorite part about working at the Land of Oz are also the people and the children she encounters. 

“They have no doubt in their mind that that’s who you are, and you never break character because they truly believe that’s who you are, and it makes them pretty happy,” she shared. “Life is hard, but we are an escape for two or three or four hours or however long people want to be there, and they can leave that trouble. If we can give people a respite from all that is not so easy in this world, I think that’s the best thing.” 

Another great part about Autumn at Oz is the finale of the whole event. Nearing the end of the park, guests reach the gate to Emerald City, where there is a show. The stage area can hold around 125 individuals. 

“This is always really exciting for us because in the first year of 2017 when my team came in and took over, we added shows in Kansas, and then we added the Emerald City show, and then there are shows on the yellow brick road,” Sean said. “It’s been a progression to create a fully well-rounded theatrical event from beginning to end.”

However, that’s not all. Before people leave, they have the opportunity to visit the newly built Over the Rainbow observation deck. 

“It’s one of the highest points on the east coast,” Sean described. “You can see five states from up there. It’s so stunning, and it adds to the whole experience!”

He further said, “Overall, we’re always doing a lot of maintenance and renovations and upkeep, which we are really excited about. We try to add a lot of new elements each year, so it’s a new experience.”

If you haven’t gotten a chance to experience the Land of Oz yet, cast member Alex Pineiro said, “Make plans to go! It’s such a unique experience and a must see if you’re a Wizard of Oz fan. We have an incredible cast and crew who work so hard to make the experience one that our guests will remember forever. There’s truly no place like Oz!

Photo by Ashley Poore.

There’s No Place Like Home

Much like the many guests the park sees at every festival, the cast and crew members of Land of Oz also travel from all over the world to deliver a magical experience to visitors each year. Every person involved with the park has a unique story of how they found themselves there. However, while they reflect over their experiences over the years, they all agree that there’s no place like Oz. 

Cast member Morgan White shared, “I’m thankful for the opportunity to be a part of Oz. Whether it’s a guest or a worker there, everyone talks about the magic of Oz, and there is really a magic that draws you in when you work there, and you can’t leave. So many people have been there for so long, and you don’t want to leave, you don’t want to go home. I’m thankful for that.”

Morgan is the reason Matthew Lewis landed his role as the Tin Man. 

“Morgan has been a really good friend of mine for about 10 years now, and we did Wizard of Oz in school together when we were going to college back on the coast,” Matthew explained. “She was Dorothy, and I was the Tin Man. So, it all started there, and then down the line after she had moved away, she contacted me, and I contacted Sean, and I was very interested.”

He continued, “That was really exciting for me because I knew I was going to be working with people who worked for Disney, worked for other parks like Dollywood, worked for big places like Broadway, and meet all of these really influential people.”

 Sean Barrett is actually based in New York City, and he started out as the Scarecrow in 2001 when he was in high school. He continued with the organization all throughout his late 20s until there was a shift in management in 2017, and he was offered the title of Artistic Director.

“What Sean has done to change the park from what it was – it’s night and day,” Morgan said. “The incredible work that he had done on the event is indescribable. Just the way the event gets better and better each year – it becomes more touching for the guests, something more to experience. I have so much pride for what the park is and who the park has doing what they’re doing. I’m very proud of everybody. It’s amazing.” 

Walter Krueger, who plays the Wicked Witch, reflected on Land of Oz over the years,

He said, “In the beginning, it was more of a smaller event that was intimate. People came dressed in costumes and had pictures taken. Then performances started to be added in and music, and replicating the costumes better – continuity was better. There was a lot of landscaping and cleaning up the property. As you could imagine, it became quite unruly over the years from neglect. Sean and Miles Rice have really gone in there and carved out the old paths for all the actors. Breathing new life into something that was already there, it just needed a bit of dusting and a shining.” 

Walter travels from Chicago, Illinois every year to be involved in the festival. A fun fact about Walter is that he has the second largest Wizard of Oz collection in the world of roughly 30,000 items valued at half a million dollars. He has been a lifelong fan of Oz for over 35 years.

“I’ve been collecting items ever since I can remember,” he said. “I kept coming across little clippings about this amusement park that once existed and had since closed. I never thought that it would come back or that I would be working there. That kind of hooked me into being a lifelong fan.”

Walter also founded the internet’s largest fan group for the Wizard of Oz, and it’s called Wizard of Oz Collectors United. The group has close to 14,000 members from all over the world.

“There are people everywhere who are just fans of the film and the sentiment of the story,” Walter said.

Photo by Ashley Poore.

And many of these fans work at the park.

Steph Twomey, who has worked at the Land of Oz for seven years, claims that she grew up a really big Oz fan.

“I have loved the Wizard of Oz since I was three, and I really loved Dorothy,” she shared. “When I was in college, one of my childhood friends had posted on my Facebook wall that there was an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park, and so I was like, ‘I need to find out more about this.’ I did research on it, and I realized it wasn’t abandoned, and they had an event every year called Autumn at Oz, and so the next year I went as a guest, and I loved it. It was so fun, and it was such a magical experience, and after I came back, I really wanted to get involved by working with the park.”

Many cast members that have gotten involved in the Land of Oz have done so by having personal connections with other participants.

Alex Pineiro originally heard about Autumn at Oz when he saw Steph in a show in Nashville.

“I was reading her bio, and she mentioned that she worked at a Wizard of Oz theme park, and I was so interested in it,” Alex said. “I looked it up and thought, ‘How cool it would be to work there!’ A couple years later in 2021, Steph posted about the park hiring, and I submitted for it and started working for the park that year.”

Joe Shipbaugh, who plays the Cowardly Lion, has been good friends with Sean for years and got connected through him.

“One night in a New York City bar, I jokingly told Sean I wanted to be the Scarecrow at Land of Oz,” Joe explained. “After playing the Scarecrow in a stage production of the Wizard of Oz, I thought I was a shoo-in for the part. Apparently not since I was cast as the Cowardly Lion. I gladly accepted the role and quickly fell in love with the Lion, even more than the Scarecrow. It wasn’t until I stepped into his paws that I realized how much more fun that role is. It also doesn’t hurt that nearly every park guest greets me with, ‘You’re my favorite!’”

Photo by Ashley Poore.

However, Joe’s involvement in Oz runs even deeper than having a role as a character. 

“I also play a part in print and social media advertisements as well as souvenir designs as the company’s graphic designer,” he shared. “The design aspect of my involvement with Land of Oz brings me great pride as art has always been my passion.”

With the many different roles that need to be filled and tasks that need to be completed across the Land of Oz, cast members encourage those who are interested to reach out. 

“Just reach out because the worst that they will say is, ‘We want you to come help with the event somehow,’” Morgan said. “We are always looking for people who love Oz and love the park to become more involved. It’s definitely an event that takes a lot of passion to be a part of, so whenever we have people who love The Wizard of Oz or who love Land of Oz specifically, it provides for a really amazing experience. Just reach out, and you will be surprised about the amazing opportunities and the people that you meet. If I had not reached out and emailed the park on a whim, then I would not be who I am today.” 

The Land of Oz cast and crew are more than just coworkers, they consider themselves family.

“When I was starting at Land of Oz, I didn’t realize I was going to meet lifelong friends,” Matthew said. “It’s really fun how you run into the people that you’re going to know for the rest of your life, and it’s for a shared love of Oz.”

Alex, as one of the newest members, agreed and said, “I have always loved ‘The Wizard of Oz!’ It’s such a timeless, beautiful story about the power of friendship. As a kid, I had the Wizard of Oz play sets and plush characters, and there were several years where I dressed up as the Scarecrow for Halloween. Looking back on everything now, I just know little Alex is so proud! Get involved in any way you can. I can’t even begin to put into words how special these past two years have been to me. The people you meet and the bond that you form with the cast and crew is unforgettable. Their passion and dedication to bringing Oz to life is inspiring.” 

Gale to Glinda

From first being cast as Dorothy Gale at the age of 17 in 1974 to starring as Glinda in 2023, local resident Cindy Brown has witnessed firsthand just how much the Land of Oz has changed over the years.

Growing up in Banner Elk, Cindy remembers when she first saw an advertisement in the newspaper about the newly built attraction.

“I was only 17, and it was after my junior year in high school,” she reflected. “They put an advertisement in a paper, and we just showed up for auditions. There was always a big turnout for Oz tryouts. They had different rooms for different characters.”

Cindy shared that mainly college students were accepted, but they must have opened the selection up more because she also received the role as Dorothy.

“I was totally excited, but I was one of the youngest up there, and everyone else was a college student,” she described. “I was just quiet and listened.”

Cindy continued, “I have numerous documents, pictures, and Oz memorabilia from the 70s, and I actually have my original letter from 1974 letting me know I was selected to play Dorothy at Land of Oz.”

The acceptance letter informed cast members on what the expectations were. It read, “Young ladies should have their hair arranged in a neat manner. Makeup should be discreet and in good taste.”

Cindy also kept letters that she received from young girls during her time as Dorothy.

“We would always get letters at Oz, so we would take turns and pass them out to all of the Dorothys,” she explained. “Almost all of them say, ‘Please write me back.’ And of course, we would!”

Cindy continued, “I’m so glad I’ve kept these things. Dorothy just became part of my identity. She really did. When you get the opportunity to do something like that, it just instills confidence. It’s fun! It was the best place in the world to work! As you can imagine, if you put a bunch of 18-24 year olds in an amusement park, and they work together – people formed relationships; people got married.”

After Cindy began playing Dorothy, family members and friends started to give her Oz items – anywhere from costumes, dolls, ornaments, and many other keepsakes.

“Oz has been such a big part of my life,” she explained. “I am local and have lived here all my life. Friends and family kept giving me items, so I finally just made an Oz room in my house to display it all. I really don’t think I hardly bought anything in that room.”

If she receives multiple of an item, Cindy will give them away to others.
The last year Cindy was at Land of Oz as Dorothy was 1975.

“After I left, things deteriorated pretty quickly,” she described. “The park really declined. It got into some bad management, and then it caught on fire. But Oz changed, and different organizations got a hold of it. It wasn’t until Sean came in that it skyrocketed, and he really fine tuned things. He’s a really good guy. He’s fabulous and has been the best thing that has ever happened to Oz.”

Cindy continued, “Sean is a stickler for detail. He's incredibly professional, and Sean makes me feel comfortable and capable of whatever I’m doing, and I know he does the same for everybody else. He has a pretty incredible record of things he has done on Broadway. He encourages us, and he will correct and give us feedback and tell us to change things. He’s a good coach. He can coach you through that without making you feel nervous. He’s a good teacher. He has a passion for Oz. It’s Sean’s passion, his talents, and his capability to coach. He sees the big picture and the vision.” 

Now, Cindy has been back at Oz, but this time, starring as the glamorous Glinda.

“The four Glindas now are all original Dorothys,” she said. “We just share that persona of Glinda, and it’s nothing but unconditional love and mothering.”

Natasha Braswell-Ball is another Land of Oz cast member who has performed the roles of both Dorothy and Glinda. 

“It’s so hard to name a favorite moment, but I love connecting with the guests – especially the kids,” Natasha said. “They cautiously approach the yellow brick road in Munchkinland, and once they see me, and I sing the song Glinda sings to the Munchkins to them, ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are. And meet the young lady who fell from a star…’ Their inhibitions seem to fade once they have been serenaded with a friendly voice.”

“I feel like the prettiest and most important person in the whole world when they come running up to me with open arms,” Natasha further described. “My day is always brightened with sweet hugs from the children. I love asking those who wear ruby (or silver) slippers, ‘Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?’ It’s really fun to play with the ones who know the words. You see a lot of people dressed as Dorothy, but it’s really special when I see other Good Witches come up.”

One memory that sticks out in Cindy’s mind is of a woman around 50 years old who came through the park last year. 

“She truly was just shaking, and then she said, ‘Glinda, I have always wanted to meet you.’ She was serious,” Cindy shared. “It has been the best job to have. Look at all the good things that came out of it for so many people, and now I’m watching it all over again when I go up there with this younger group. The Land of Oz is going to great places, and I hope it can expand.”

Natasha added, “It’s wild to think of how Land of Oz resurged – It just gets bigger and better every year! It really adds to the wonder knowing it’s been a cherished experience for guests, and cast members for that matter, for so many years. I feel like I’m part of something really special.”

Natasha further shared her advice to those who wish to visit the magical Land of Oz.

“Be smart, come with an open heart, and have the courage to experience the wonderful world we have recreated up here,” she said. “Get tickets early, show kindness to everyone you interact with, and enjoy the park with a child’s eye and sense of wonder – just as the original designer, Jack Pentes, intended when he created Land of Oz. As Glinda says, ‘It’s always best to start at the beginning…’”