From the Archive: Closing the Book on Storyland (CAROUSEL 39)
Let me tell you a story …
This is the small story of Storyland, told from beginning to end, and a little beyond. Storyland: a quirky, children’s theme park which opened in 1966 near the town of Renfrew (slightly northwest of Ottawa, ON), founded by Durk and Bonnie Heyda, two immigrants from the Netherlands, on an 175 acre property near the Champlain Lookout in Brown’s Bay — where legendary French explorer Samuel de Champlain made land.
As the story goes, the couple, who were unable to have children, chose to create a space that other people’s children could enjoy. On their property, they began to build ‘story scenes’ based on classic fairy tales as a way to amuse families hiking on their way to the Champlain Lookout — one of the highest points along the Ottawa River, located at the rear of their property. When the park first opened publicly, it featured a windmill, several completed story scenes and a playground. It would be fair to call their ruralcentric Storyland project a bit of a curiosity, a miniaturized, ‘outsider’ version of Disneyland filled with charmingly awkward papier mâché depictions of classic fairy characters. The park was never aggressively marketed, but apparently still managed to find a small but appreciative audience; in the early 70s, it became a popular local attraction. As time passed, the park continued to expand, adding new scenes at a steady rate until 1973 when Durk Heyda suffered a heart attack, and control was handed to family friend John Berkhout.
Berkhout continued to focus on the park’s growth throughout the 80s, adding many additional story scenes, some including moving mechanical figures. At its height, the park featured a mini-golf course, a small water park, live performers, playgrounds, small rides, and staff dressed as fairy tale characters.
Still, the strange little park struggled to maintain an intimate connection with youth culture as time went by. Compared to the allure of video games and the increasingly spectacular nature of childhood entertainment on the whole, Storyland’s homegrown aesthetic seemed a little out of step with the times. Throughout the 90s, the park’s small audience continued to wane.
In 2007, Berkhout announced his intention to retire and in the spring of 2008, he sold the park to an Ottawa businessman and his company, Great North Parks. Storyland struggled on for a few more years, but offically closed after the 2011 season, and was again listed for sale. Following the closure, the site remained derilect, with all of the various attractions continuing to weather on the property.
Finally, in September 2013, after more than four decades at play, the contents of the park were put up for auction with the intention of clearing off the property to make it more traditionally marketable as real estate. On a cool, rainy Saturday, in excess of 500 people attended to help close the book on the Storyland era for good. Those attending the auction of characters, rides and other memorabilia developed by the children’s amusement park left with treasures great and small; large-scale depictions of Snow White, Cinderella’s coach, Rapunzel, Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty and Hansel & Gretel were all sold, mostly to locals with fond memories of the park. The theme park’s most nostalgic attraction — a 12-foot high fiberglas rabbit that greeted visitors at the front gate — was purchased and repurposed by a local businessman, who put it on display in front of his car dealership; this can be simultaneously viewed as a clever marketing ploy, a heartfelt gesture made on behalf of community, and a way to open up a new chapter of this cherished bunny’s tale.
Past the end, there is one postscript worth noting: somewhat ironically, a new kind of fantasy space has recently been erected on the property that formerly housed the Storyland theme park — this time expressly aimed at well-heeled adults. Elements Luxury Tented Camp & Nature Spa was launched in the summer of 2016 by Ottawa Valley entrepreneur Nicole Laframboise. It’s basically a campsite with a decadent twist, and is being offered to wealthy vacationers at five-star hotel rates (ouch!) — here’s how it’s being marketed: “Take a rundown children’s theme park on an 89 acre slice of Canadian Shield; install mega-tents kitted out with king-sized beds, Egyptian cotton sheets and pricey all-natural toiletries; throw in a luxury yoga studio; hire an army of personal ‘wilderness butlers’ to fulfill every whim …”; what you get is, apparently, ‘glamping’ (glamourous camping) — and that’s a whole new kind of story.