You can still visit the California amusement park that inspired Disneyland — here's what it's like today
A little-known but much-beloved amusement park in Oakland, California, pint-size Children's Fairyland may have provided Walt Disney with some key inspiration for his Disneyland theme park.
The tiny theme park opened five years before Disneyland in 1950. It features a collection of fairy tale-inspired rides, exhibits and performances that seem Disney-esque in their style and stories, but in a much smaller setting.
Walt Disney's visit to Children's Fairyland in 1954, and perhaps a few other times, likely gave him a couple of ideas for the mood, features and operations for his Disneyland project in development at the time.
Today, you can still visit the quaint park to enjoy its retro charms and decades-old rides and judge for yourself whether Disney borrowed some of its ideas. You may declare, as Disney did, that Children's Fairyland remains a "swell" place to visit for adults and their kids.
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Disney drew inspiration from Children's Fairyland
The 10-acre Children's Fairyland property by the shores of downtown Oakland's Lake Merritt was the brainchild of local businessman, Arthur Navlet.
It opened after the Oakland parks program raised $50,000 for Navlet's proposal to create "a storybook theme park, featuring fairy-tale sets, farm animals and live entertainment," according to the park's website.
The theme park offered visitors a fun escape from everyday life through interactions with costumed characters, rides and various storybook dioramas.
Walt Disney visited Children's Fairyland in May of 1954 when Disneyland was still under development. "With his own enterprise in mind, he studied design, cost of operations and technical aspects" of the park, according to an Oakland Tribune news story from the time.
"The man who has delighted millions with the charm he has built into motion picture cartoons was in turn delighted with Oakland's Children's Fairyland. Walt Disney, readying to build his own Disneyland in the Southland, visited Oakland to see firsthand the playland operation which has given this city one of its great tourist attractions," read the Oakland Tribune story.
During his visit, Disney rode the park's Jolly Trolly, a colorful miniature train launched in 1954 and still open for rides in 2022. Other areas he likely saw while at the park include The Alice in Wonderland Tunnel (which was created a year before the release of the Disney animated film) and the Peter Pan-themed Jolly Roger Pirate Ship.
After spending the day in the park, Disney was hooked. So much so that he hired Children's Fairyland's then-director Dorothy Manes to become Disneyland's youth director. He also recruited the park's chief puppeteer to work for him.
The concept of Disneyland was created prior to Disney's visit to Children's Fairyland. However, it's clear he gained some inspiration from what he saw in Oakland. His experience at the park combined with Dorothy Mane's nearly two-decade tenure at Disneyland helped pave the way for the magical world he'd build at his Anaheim, California, park.
Related: Disneyland vs. Disney World: Which is the better park to visit?
What it's like to visit Children's Fairyland today
Even after seven decades of operations, Children's Fairyland remains popular with local Bay Area families and visitors. The park runs summer camps, theater programs, sleepover events and even adults-only parties.
Beyond its various events, the park continues to be a haven for younger kids. While nobody will mistake Anansi's Magic Web (Children's Fairyland's miniature Ferris wheel) for Space Mountain or its small petting zoo for Disney's Jungle Cruise, its array of kid-appropriate rides and animals make it an ideal place to bring little ones.
In addition to The Alice in Wonderland Tunnel and The Jolly Roger Pirate Ship, which remain at the park today, kids can play like cowboys in Old West Junction, clamber through the Fairy Music Farm Tunnel and zip down the park's sizable Dragon Slide. The puppet programs of yesteryear are still present, too, so adults and kids alike can continue to see fairy tales come to life at Children's Fairyland's intimate outdoor theater.
The old-school charm of the park's offerings provides a pleasant break from the high-tech attractions of Disneyland, giving kids the opportunity to embrace their youth and act on their imaginations in a simple way. Plus, the entrance fee of $15 per person is much lower than what you'll pay in Anaheim, making the park a budget-friendly way to pass the time.
You may not see Mickey and Minnie while at Children's Fairyland, but all the park's vivid sets, play spaces and critters are bound to spark some creativity in your kids. Perhaps they'll even gain some inspiration of their own and one day outdo Disney's fantastical concept.
Related: 11 regional theme parks that are closer to home but just as fun as the big names