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Enchanted Forest Celebrates 50 Years of Magical Memories

By Annelise Kelly

Anyone who's ever driven Interstate 5 (I-5) south of Salem has no doubt caught an intriguing glimpse of Enchanted Forest, one of the last hand-built, family-owned theme parks in the country. First the sign, with a turreted castle topped by Humpty Dumpty, comes into view. Crane your neck for a peek at a gabled Elizabethan half-timber building, catch a quick glimpse of a fairytale castle among the trees-and whoops! You're around the curve, duly enchanted.

Over the last 50 years, plenty of families from Salem and beyond have made this iconic Oregon theme park a destination. Today's guests represent generations: Kids who were captivated by its charms in the 1970s have brought their children, and now return with their grandchildren. This low-key vintage amusement park echoes back to an era of simple pleasures and pre-corporate entertainment. It has outlived the many other small-scale independent parks which once dotted the country, surviving and thriving long enough to celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer with founder Roger Tofte still very actively involved in the business.

The Magical History of Enchanted Forest

Humpty Dumpty at the Enchanted Forest amusement park
Humpty Dumpty is a popular attraction at the Enchanted Forest amusement park just outside of Salem. Photo courtesy Enchanted Forest

In August 1971, Oregon's artisanal, hand-crafted theme park opened its doors for the first time, the culmination of seven years of effort by Tofte. He recalls getting the idea on a family car journey to Minnesota in 1964, when they passed theme parks "and there wasn't much to them," he said in a 2008 interview with Travel Salem.

A tireless and compulsive creator with a background in visual art, he launched the project in his free time in the mid-1960s. Tofte started building his first life-sized sculpture, inspired by the Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater nursery rhyme, out of concrete while working full-time at the Oregon Department of Transportation, supporting his wife and four small kids while fixing watches on the side-all to save up and pay for concrete by the bag, which he hand-mixed in a wheelbarrow.

The initial set of attractions that comprise today's Storybook Lane took seven years of committed effort before he was ready to invite the public.

On day one, admission was $1 for adults and $.50 for kids; in all, 75 visitors arrived that day. Within a week, the place went viral in '70s style, welcoming 1,000 guests the following Sunday. Soon Tofte could focus on his passion project full-time, building new attractions while the park was closed for the winter season.

As the decades passed, construction continued and the park expanded. Tofte's children grew into roles of responsibility. Three of the four currently work at Enchanted Forest, and one is an architect who contributes to park projects in her professional capacity.

The first addition was a Wild West town, then a haunted house and a comedy theater showing fairy-tale-based musical comedies written and directed by Tofte's daughter, Susan Vaslev. Two thrilling rides were added-the Ice Mountain Bobsled and the Big Timber Log Ride-along with a carrousel and kiddie rides. The Old Europe Village showcases Tofte's skillful concrete work, as well as his son Ken Tofte's animatronic humans and animals. The cave-like Jolly Roger Inn offers a cool respite where a dayglow water fountain, choreographed and scored by Vaslev, delights pizza-eating audiences.

On August 8, 2021, Enchanted Forest will celebrate 50 years of making magical memories for the child in all of us. There will be cake.

Enchanted Forest Faces Numerous Challenges in 2020-2021

The Old European Village is a popular themed area at the Enchanted Forest amusement park. Photo courtesy Enchanted Forest

While this family-run project has encountered challenges, the past year has topped them all.

The enterprise started 2020 debt-free, but soon faced a crippling shutdown with COVID-19 restrictions. Then, the wildfires in September 2020 caused severe smoke disruption and two tragic deaths in the family. February 2021 brought devastating ice storms, which dropped trees and damaged attractions during the winter shutdown. Finally, the park's reopening in spring 2021 was delayed and at reduced capacity due to continuing public health restrictions.

For the first time, the Tofte family feared they might lose the Enchanted Forest for financial reasons. When the prospect of crowd-funding arose, "we learned we couldn't because we're a for-profit business," says Susan Vaslev, who co-manages the business with her sister Mary. However, rules changed in the face of COVID-19, attorneys gave them the go-ahead, and the park received an avalanche of support.

"Especially lately with all the problems we had the last year, it's been quite gratifying that so many of our friends have come through with the GoFundMe," says Vaslev. By the time Vaslev closed the fundraiser in June 2021, it had garnered more than $466,000 from more than 8,000 donors.

"We have such a warm, almost magical feeling about the support we've been given," says Vaslev. "When the community comes to our park, our whole family's working all the time. We've developed relationships with a lot of people because they're getting to talk to my dad, to family members. I think a lot of people feel ownership of the park, they feel like a part of it. It is part of their history. So it definitely feels like it's a community gathering place. And there's just so many people that have memories here and keep making new memories."

Today, the park is finally back open at full capacity, facing the fresh challenge of hiring, training and staffing in a compressed schedule. While a few indoor attractions have been closed and food service has been simplified, the Toftes are grateful to be ramping up for a successful 50th anniversary season.

Visiting Enchanted Forest: What to Know

The Snow White Witch's Head castle is one of the most famous sites at the Enchanted Forest amusement park. Photo courtesy Enchanted Forest

The hand-built charisma of the park endures. Built on the shady north slope of a hill just east of I-5, the dense wooded character of the location contributes to its charm. Winding paths cultivate a sense of wonder and mystery as guests wander through thematic areas, including Storybook Lane, Tofteville Western Town, and the Old Europe Village. The entire park is stroller-friendly, although some steep, narrow paths demand athletic parents. The Enchanted Forest website offers details on wheelchair access.

Guests can buy reasonably-priced refreshments (a slice of cheese pizza and a chocolate milk costs less than $6) or bring food to the picnic area, just inside the main entrance. Snag one of the tables partially enclosed in quaint cross-timber mock cottages surveying the picnic area, and pretend you're Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins.

Admission is $15.25 for adults and $13.75 for children and seniors. Rides cost $2 to $4 each. Buying admission online is highly recommended. As of this writing (July 2021), tickets go on sale five days in advance and are for specific entry times. Check the Enchanted Forest website for updates on attractions that might be temporarily closed-such as the Kiddy Train, which was struck by a tree over the winter. Until the park is fully staffed, it may be closed one or two days per week.

Your adventure begins with the official Willamette Valley Travel Guide. Request your complimentary printed guide or download a digital guide today.

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