As culture changes, Story Land stays the same, and that's why it's still a hit

Sep. 9—At Story Land, Mother Goose lives in Mother Goose Manor — near London Bridge, which is falling down.

Wearing a purple dress with matching apron and cradling a stuffed toy goose, she's a storybook character come to life — a fairy godmotherly, grandmotherly soul whose mission is to widen eyes, warm hearts, and spark imagination that never grows old.

"It's my chance to let the children know how important they are, how loved and cared about they are," said Sharon Goldsmith, 77, of Fryeburg, Maine, who has played the grand dame of nursery rhymes for 15 years at this story-themed park in Glen, a blend of old-fashioned and new.

"Today I have families who have been here before" — frequently or maybe just twice. Goldsmith chats eye-to-eye with youngsters who return when they're older and taller. And Mother Goose remembers them. "I'll say, 'Oh my gosh! Welcome back!'"

For 70 years, Story Land's interaction, innocence and make-believe have captured parents, children and anyone young at heart. In a world of nonstop online entertainment and social life, a wonderland for little and bigger kids still wins over winsome and wistful people of any age, including generations of the same family, tourists returning summer after summer and fans from around the Northeast and as far away as England and Japan.

In 2014, the wooden roller coaster Roar-a-saurus arrived, followed in 2019 by Raptor Safari Ride's tour of dinosaur land.

Next year, Moo Lagoon water play area opens for little people. Daily cabaret performances by Peter Pan and Tinkerbell include traditional favorites, as well as pop songs by Taylor Swift, Twisted Sister and Pink.

Small children can still drive antique cars on a track.

This year the park sold 10,000 season passes, a number similar to a popular regional ski resort. Alec Guth, 25, who works at a Hannaford supermarket in Massachusetts, has visited 28 times this year and more than 200 times in his life.

"It's what we create inside. Once you come inside the yellow fence, it's fantasy land," said Jack Mahany, 73, who has worked here for 34 years, mostly as a train engineer. "You don't worry about what's going on in your regular lives."

"Everywhere here is Story Land real. I think people still long for the past and simpler times," Goldsmith said.

"Parents can relive their childhood with their children," said Eric Dziedzic, the park's general manager.

"Each kid I talk to gets individual attention and it feels personal, " said Raul Calderon, 22, of Waterbury, Conn, who played Peter Pan this summer. "Once we take a picture together, they feel like they've been welcomed into a group."

"We create memories with small rides for little people," said Mahany, who twice a week runs the locomotive — formerly steam-powered, now electric — that he drove here at age 17, "the only ride that goes somewhere. Boys and girls still love trains."

Passing the test of time

The park, started with $5,000 on 80 acres along Route 16 in 1954, has come a long way from the novelty storybook dolls brought back from Germany by an American soldier after World War II.

Frau Van Arp's dolls remain on display, as does Freddie the fire truck, the park's first attraction, which was purchased for $1 from the Hillsborough Fire Department when the park opened.

For a long time, Heidi's grandfather (from the children's book classic, "Heidi") enthralled children with trained goats. Cinderella, Mother Goose, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell still captivate audiences — including a teen who recently hopped on stage with Peter Pan to do the worm dance.

Cinderella, Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and Mother Goose still receive fan mail, gifts of children's artwork and occasional invitations to family events.

"Peter Pan is a kid who never grew up," said Calderon. "Peter Pan and Tinker Bell believe in the spirit of being young forever and having as much fun as possible. To the kids, I'm one of them."

One teenager gave him a telescope made from a toilet paper roll, which Calderon warmly accepted as Peter Pan.

He spends roughly 45 minutes between his two "Sail Away" cabaret shows, joking, cavorting, playing hide-and-seek, and sometimes riding the Roar-a-saurus, even though roller coasters are not his thing. "I think it's the youthful energy that kids love. In Neverland, we all stay the same age. We never grow up."

When children ask if he can fly, he says, "Yes, but not in the park."

A mother figure

"I have friends who have been coming for 15 years," said Goldsmith, Story Land's Mother Goose. Children tell her about their favorite rides and what they like to do in real life.

"I've gone to birthday parties year after year," she said, and one or two high school graduations. "I have a 20-gallon container of pictures and stories that children have written about their lives and what's happened in school."

The connection sparks when she explains the original Mother Goose. Elizabeth Goose, who lived in 1800s England, encouraged her daughter-in-law to write, and bound her nursery rhymes into a book.

"Mother Goose wants children to know that all their hopes, dreams and thoughts are important," said Goldsmith, who once ran a day care.

A blind boy comes each week with his grandmother to visit Mother Goose and hold her stuffed goose, Lucy.

"They look at me as someone who is there to make them feel special. They feel that someone listens to them," said Goldsmith, "like what happens to them matters."

Teenagers return to sit in Mother Goose Manor's oversized chair, which makes them feel tiny.

A Cinderella story

This year, Grace Nowak, 24, of Cincinnati, played childhood's best-loved princess, attired in a ball gown, white gloves, sparkling shoes and an up-do wig with a tiara.

Some girls asked, "Are you actually Cinderella?" to which she instinctively replied, "Touch my arm. You can feel I'm real."

When she's enthroned at Cinderella's castle, "Some like to climb you like a tree, flop themselves into your skirt, or just touch your hand. Kids are wild, but they're also so sweet," Nowak said. "I imagine what I would say to them if I were a princess."

"To do it right, you were making little kids' stories come to life," said Pam Gralenski of Shelburne, who played Cinderella at Story Land in 1980 when she was 14. "I would sit down to get to their level and they would show me the bracelet they had on. The little girls' eyes twinkled."

One day, at nearby Jackson Falls, a little girl recognized Gralenski on her day off. "You caught me," she said. "I was escaping the castle to go swimming in the river just like you."

Bob Morrell, the park's founder and longtime owner, used to tell newbies, "Now I know you're all going to fall in love this summer. But it doesn't last."

Gralenski eventually married Doug, the young man who drove her Cinderella coach, now retired as a game warden in northern Coos County.

Happily ever after

In the 1990s, when a girl wrote to Story Land saying she was sad she didn't get to see Goldilocks' Three Bears, the Gralenskis sent her a photo of Doug holding a black bear cub, with a note saying that Little Bear got stuck in a tree and the game warden rescued him.

When teddy bears and blankets were left behind, "you could tell when they were well-loved," said Gralenski, who worked at Story Land for 41 years and retired as assistant general manager. "They were mailed back with a note: 'We took good care of them.'"

Gralenski believes the park is still a big draw because the focus remains on families and children 2 to 12.

"There's not a lot of things for kids in that age group," she said, adding, "It was always much more than a job."

"We still emit that aura of a 1950s roadside attraction," said Mahany, the longtime train engineer. "It's encompassed me. I'll do what I do as long as I can do it."

At Story Land in 1968, he met the girl he would marry.

One day, when the regular guy was on break, he was asked to drive the (motorized) horse-drawn pumpkin coach to Cinderella's castle.

"I looked at Cinderella and fell in love," he said. "It took me a whole summer to go on our first date."

She's still his Cinderella, after 52 years of marriage.