LIGONIER — A doorway beckons visitors to pass through a book made of concrete that stands some 28 feet high. The simple verse on its open pages reads in part, "Here dreams are real … and so are your story book friends."
There are no massive roller coasters, bumper cars or swings that spin visitors high in the air at this 17-acre attraction, tucked into the rolling mountains of western Pennsylvania.
But for the little ones in the family — or anyone who is simply young at heart — you will find Mother Goose, Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood waiting to play at Story Book Forest. Part of the larger Idlewild amusement park, Story Book Forest this year is celebrating 50 years of making the characters and scenes in nursery rhymes from Alice in Wonderland to Snow White come alive.
"Everyone can enjoy it, because it taps into what everyone can relate to," said Jeffrey S. Croushore, who has worked at the park for about 13 years and wrote a book about its history.
Story Book Forest was built in 1956, an era when many children's parks based on storybooks were sprouting up around the country. The Pennsylvania attraction was created by Idlewild's then-owner C.C. Macdonald and Arthur Jennings, who was a performance clown at the park. Jennings had always said he wanted to create a theme park "based on emotion rather than motion."
The result was a winding path through a wooded area dotted with scenes from the most beloved nursery rhymes. The Good Ship Lollipop sits floating in a lagoon, Mary Mary Quite Contrary sits in front of her watering-can shaped house, and Snow White gives apple stickers to children who visit the cottage of the seven dwarfs.
Outside, the larger Idlewild and Soakzone park features more traditional amusement fare, such as games, rides and waterslides. Visitors can even ride a life-size red trolley through Mister Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe, an attraction designed by the late Fred Rogers.
In 2005, Idlewild was named the second best kid's park in the world by readers of the trade journal Amusement Today. Only a handful of the children's storybook lands still exist across the country.
Visitors to Story Book Forest enter through the giant book and are greeted inside by Mother Goose, played for the past 11 years by Beverly Leonatti.
"I love seeing the kids come up the path and they are so excited. Some days they'll stop in their tracks" when they realize she's not a statue, said Leonatti, dressed in a blue and white dress and holding a stuffed goose named Bartram Clarence which she introduces to each child.
Mother Goose's son … actually, Leonatti's son, Brandon, is general manager at the park owned by family-operated Kennywood Entertainment Corp. Her husband plays the part of Gepetto at the park, proudly displaying his toy creations — including Pinocchio — in his workshop to visitors.
Brandon Leonatti said what distinguishes the park from others is its emphasis on family. Small parking lots skirt one side of the park, so patrons can park for free close to picnic areas. In a longstanding tradition, families leave small grills and picnic baskets full of goodies on wooden tables while they enjoy the park, then return later to feast.
He said generations of families have been coming to the park, making it a fun experience for kids as well as their parents and grandparents.
"When they come here, they have high expectations of us," Brandon Leonatti said.
Theresa Rohaly sits in a rocking chair playing the role of the old woman who lived in a shoe. One by one, kids approach her and sit next to her in a small orange chair. Behind her, a giant shoe has openings where kids can explore.
"You can go in, sweetie, and check it out," Rohaly tells wide-eyed 3-year-old Katrina Thompson as she licks a lollipop. "You might even want to live here."
Katrina's grandmother, Dianne Thompson of South Park, smiles as she encourages the girl to go into the shoe house. Thompson snaps pictures of the tiny girl along the way.
"The story books are really coming alive because we just started reading these to her," said Thompson, who was visiting the park for the first time.
Rohaly has been working at the park for eight years — and has loved every minute of it.
"This is the best job I've ever had," the gray-haired Rohaly said. "Where else can you sit in a rocking chair all day?"
If You Go…
Idlewild and Soakzone Park: Includes Story Book Forest. Located on Route 30, Ligonier, Pa.; http://www.idlewild.com or 724-238-3666.
Admission: Funday pass is $23.95. Senior Citizens pay $15.95. Children 2 and under are free. Admission after 6 p.m. is $11.50. Free parking.
Hours: Through Labor Day weekend, but closed Aug. 28-Sept. 1. Open weekends in October for Halloboo, featuring trick-or-treating and special fall-themed events for children. Park gates and Story Book Forest open at 10 a.m. Rides and attractions open at 11 a.m.