Bold $95-million vision for Fresno’s Storyland-Playland

Planners have proposed a $95 million upgrade to Fresno's Storyland and Playland amusement parks.Planners have proposed a $95 million upgrade to Fresno's Storyland and Playland amusement parks.Two longtime Fresno entertainment parks are slated for a transformation that planners hope will result in the two venues being upgraded into one highly successful regional theme park.

Storyland, a walk-through park of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and Playland, a family amusement park with rides and attractions, have been fixtures in Roeding Park for more than 50 years. The neighboring Fresno Chaffee Zoo has recently increased attendance with its new Sea Lion Cove attraction, and the Storyland-Playland team is hoping for similar results when its proposed project is completed, with a goal of doing so by 2020.

A revamped Beanstalk slide at Storyland is part of the expansion plan.A revamped Beanstalk slide at Storyland is part of the expansion plan.“We needed something awesome for Fresno,” said Eric Tienken, a member of the Storyland-Playland 2020 Vision Team. “With what’s going on at the zoo, and what we hope to accomplish at Storyland-Playland, it will rival anything around.”

Storyland is a park of Mother Goose stories and nursery rhymes that opened in 1962 and features such timeless favorites as Goldilocks & The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs and Alice in Wonderland. Playland is a small family amusement park that opened in 1955 and features attractions like the Willis B. Kyle Express Train, the Big Rocko Ferris Wheel and a 3,500 square-foot splash park called Splash Junction.

The 2020 Vision Team plans to develop story-driven theming of buildings, lands, rides and characters that will result in a unique experience for guests and lead to longer and more frequent visits. The capital needed, which is currently estimated at a daunting $95 million, will be sought from private supporters, donors and sponsors.

Guests will enter the park through a main entrance beneath an elevated train station. Attractions will include the Valley Farm Experience, dubbed “Crazy Acre Farms,” an “edutainment attraction that will teach children about Valley agriculture, organic farming and more.” The Boardwalk, reminiscent of famous boardwalks such as Coney Island and Atlantic City, was inspired by Zapp’s Park, a Fresno attraction during the early part of the last century, and will feature a variety of exciting rides, carnival games and concessions.

“This isn’t just $95 million worth of roller coasters,” Tienken said. “More literacy and arts will be added to the entertainment.”

At Storyland’s entrance, guests will walk across a covered bridge while Adventure Tour boats and the train pass beneath. The boats from Adventure Tours will take visitors to exotic locations and other areas of the park. The Western Mining Town attraction is a replica of an actual settlement from the Gold Rush days; visitors will be able test their aim at a shooting arcade or pan for gold. A replica of Sutter’s Fort, a two-story adobe structure that was built between 1841 and 1843 in Sacramento (and where gold was discovered just down the road) will also be among the many attractions.

Current Storyland attractions will be upgraded and moved to new locations. These include The Three Little Pigs, The Old Lady Who Lived In a Shoe and Beanstalk, which is based on the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Guests currently climb to the top of the attraction by a ladder inside the beanstalk and the glide down a spiral slide; the new Beanstalk will allow guests to ascend by spiral staircase and descend in green spiral tubes.

“One of the key components is education,” said Gregory Baxter, a member of the Storyland-Playland board of directors and part of the 2020 Vision Team. “We’ll have five lands, and along with the Western Mining Town will be the Native American Village and a large outdoor amphitheater.”

The Native American Village will be historically accurate, with exact replicas of the dwellings that Valley Native Americans lived in, which are different from the standard tepee depicted in most westerns. The Amphitheater will be located at the far north end of the park and would accommodate such events as concerts, live theater, seminars and movies at night.

“It’s almost breathtaking,” Baxter said.

A replica of a 200-year-old Spanish mission, the “California Mission,” will house a wedding chapel and event center in addition to including the park’s administration offices.

Birthdays are very popular at the park, Tienken said, with Pirate Cove being one of the largest birthday venues. The goal is to have 15 locations for birthdays in the park, with large family restrooms to replace the smaller restrooms currently in use. 

A 120-foot tall hot air balloon that is tethered and rises 300 feet is in the works as well. When the balloon is lighted and aloft at night, Fresno residents will be able to see it from virtually anywhere in the city. The gondola will hold 35 guests who will have a panoramic view of the city.

“You’ll be able to see the entirety of Fresno,” Tienken said, adding that Fresno has the perfect weather and wind speeds for “balloon days.”

Tienken said that he considers Storyland-Playland 2020 Vision to be more like a journey that has stops along the way than a direct destination. The park will remain open while the changes are taking place.

“It’s a process, so certain things could change along the way,” Tienken said. “The plan could evolve.”

The new park will be one-third larger than the existing park, and the 2020 Vision Team would like to see the park’s train route run through the adjacent zoo. The outline of the new park is also noteworthy; it will be roughly the same shape as the state of California.

The team’s goal is to have the entire project completed by the year 2020. There is ample space outside the park for new hotels as well.

“In terms of redevelopment, it will upgrade the whole area,” Baxter said.