The Magic Forest, a storybook amusement park located in Lake George, New York, looked abandoned for years before it officially closed. Hundreds of fiberglass figures strewn about the heavily-wooded park were faded by decades of sun and exposure to the elements, covered in spider webs and other forest detritus. Fairies were missing fingers, buttons used to activate animatronics were broken, and, when I put a quarter into a prize machine, I received nothing in return.
It’s a miracle that the Magic Forest, which opened in 1963, outlived its expiration date by several years—maybe even decades—but nothing lasts forever. The magic finally ran out last year when longtime owner Jack Gillette sold the park to a local contractor, Ruben Ellsworth. Ellsworth plans to reopen the space as Lake George Expedition Park with all-new attractions, including dinosaurs.
After Ellsworth decided to take the park in a different direction, Gillette contacted Joel Baker, owner of the Muffler Man restoration company American Giants, to help facilitate the sale of all of those fiberglass figures. Baker first visited the park in 2012 while he was researching Muffler Men (the park had four).
“I was impressed by the amount of original International Fiberglass figures there,” Baker says. “It was an amazing collection of original pieces—the largest I knew to exist.”
He was tasked with finding buyers for all of the pieces in the Magic Forest’s diverse collection. He cataloged the items, helped set prices, and listed them on his website. The sale began last November, and Baker was shocked with the level of interest. In the beginning, “I was getting over 30 emails a day,” he says.
The pace has slowed, but each week he continues to get inquiries. “The majority of the items have now sold and most of the well-known, larger items are gone—like the big animals and Muffler Men—but there are still plenty of items online for those that are interested.”
Own a piece of history
Before Chuck E. Cheese, video games, Six Flags, or Disney World, parks like the Magic Forest used to be the place to take your kids. Like most relics of another time, however, these low-tech parks—if they still exist at all—are becoming harder to find.
When I visited the Magic Forest in 2015, the woman at the ticket counter tried to dissuade us—two adults with nary a child in sight—from entering. Undeterred, we assured her that we were willing participants in the charade that the park was still a viable tourist destination. In fact, we were in love with the idea that we could actually achieve time-travel for less than $30 per person.
Modern amusement parks just can’t compete with the thrill we got when we realized—perhaps too late—that our body weight was testing the load-bearing limits of one of five rides said to accommodate adults. For as long as I live, I won’t forget how it felt to teeter on the brink of death, slowly ascending on a rickety Ferris wheel that appeared to have been built from the mismatched pieces of a garage sale Erector set.
Or, if I do forget, perhaps my lapse in memory is due to the literal high we got as we were nearly asphyxiated by fumes from the diesel tractor pulling us through the park. I’d gladly trade a few more brain cells to take that so-called safari ride again and spend a few more precious moments with the mangy menagerie of animals scattered throughout the woods. Where else can you see Esso tigers and Sinclair Dinosaurs peacefully coexisting with pink flamingos and polar bears?
Luckily, anyone with the money and means to drive to Lake George can still own a piece of history. “You just don’t get that opportunity every day,” says Baker. He says that all of the figures lived diverse—and sometimes many—past lives before they came to the Magic Forest. They came from Woody’s Fiberglass in Tennessee, Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in New Hampshire, a mini-golf course in Ohio, and the Danbury Fair in Connecticut. Unfortunately, for each figure whose origins are known, another’s backstory has been lost over time.
Sometimes, Baker would get ten emails expressing interest in a single item before he could even list it as sold. “There was this crazy little tiny squirrel that was literally the smallest figure I listed and everyone wanted that thing,” he says.
One family contacted him about a fiberglass teddy bear. They had visited the Magic Forest for years and always taken their kids’ photo with that particular bear. “When they heard about the sale they purchased that teddy bear and it meant the world to them,” Baker says.
A lion-head drinking fountain (and lion-head trash can), a caveman family, Ma and Pa Kettle, an Esso tiger, a 15-foot Santa, a one-hump camel, a skull, and several other pieces are still up for sale. Prices range from a few hundred dollars into the tens of thousands. For just $12,000, you can literally be the old lady who lived in a (20-foot-tall) shoe—old lady and five fiberglass children included.
“I am very grateful to the Magic Forest for essentially saving all this original fiberglass all these years, and also for calling us rather than an auction house who could care less about anything other than the money,” says Baker. “Our website found buyers who truly have a passion for saving these kinds of things.”
Animals and astronauts
Animals and astronauts are headed to a campground in Iowa, and Story Land in New Jersey purchased a castle, a Robin Hood figure, and several animals. The Muffler Men—a Paul Bunyan, a Mortimer Snerd, a clown, and Pecos Bill—were among the first items to sell. Three of the four fiberglass giants were purchased by Atlantis Plumbing in Dallas, Georgia. Baker is surprisingly sanguine as he watches the collection split up and scatter around the country.
Most of these giants had already stood at a handful of locations before coming here so it is not surprising they are on the move again
“Having worked with these giants for almost 10 years now, I know that nothing ever stays the same,” he says. “Muffler Men and fiberglass figures are notorious for moving around the country. Because they are giant, it feels like they will never leave, but the truth is they are well-traveled for as old as they are. Most of these giants had already stood at a handful of locations before coming here so it is not surprising they are on the move again.”
But it’s hard not to become despondent and dig in your heels when it feels as if the world you love is rapidly disappearing. The Magic Forest felt like it was from a different time not only physically, but spiritually. The women at the snack bar were putting together a puzzle in between filling orders, and when we found that the gift shop had closed before the park did, they allowed us to come back the next day (for free) to shop for souvenirs.
Sometimes I wonder if we really saw Lightning, the last remaining diving horse in the country, take his famous (and some may say inhumane) dive twice the day we visited, or if it was all a mirage. Maybe what we actually saw was the ghost of Rex, the park’s original equine entertainer and Lightning’s father—or perhaps it was all an elaborate magic trick performed by the resident magician, Jimmy Brown (who also doubled—or rather, tripled—as the park’s lone emcee and balloon animal artist).
The Magic Forest was a theme park that remained untouched by time—and when we visited, almost nothing about it made sense anymore. Its fiberglass figures had long ago dug in their collective heels—and hooves—as the world evolved around them. Although they eventually paid the ultimate price, maybe the lesson is that we should celebrate the park’s existence and persistence—and not ignore the consequences of resolutely resisting change.
But the future doesn’t have to be dark for analog attractions like the Magic Forest: “I feel like disappearing Americana is not as much a problem as it was just 10 years ago,” Baker says. “It still happens, but I feel that awareness is growing about the importance of saving and restoring these pieces—I like to think that today it is more about relocating Americana rather than disappearing Americana.”