Driving down Route 40 in southeast New Jersey, I pass bowling alleys, seedy motels, a sign warning of wild turkeys, and a store called “Everything 79 Cents!” I’m following my GPS, but I don’t need Google to tell me I’m about to arrive at my destination. Up ahead, a fairytale castle emerges into view. I see white-and-red towers, topped with flags and an arched doorway flanked by larger-than-life toy soldiers. A red ribbon sign over the entrance confirms that I have not taken a wrong turn; this is not a medieval mirage. I have arrived at Storybook Land.
Storybook Land is a 20-acre, family-friendly amusement and theme park, located in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. It’s just twelve miles from the coast: If you’ve ever driven Route 40 between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, chances are you’ve seen, or stopped at, Storybook Land.
After passing through the castle’s entrance, I’m greeted by a 25-foot-tall Mother Goose statue standing beside her namesake bird. A sign at her feet—and next to a psychedelic, oversized mushroom—offers a greeting: “You are now entering a … storybook world! Follow this path and it will lead you well!”
Visitors may follow whichever path they like, but within the confines of Storybook Land, all roads lead somewhere whimsical.
A family fairytale
Storybook theme parks aren’t made for people like me, a childless woman in my mid-thirties. Growing up in Ohio, I went to my share of amusement parks as a kid—including a now-defunct Sea World and Cedar Point—but I didn’t discover storybook parks until I was well into adulthood. I have no nostalgic attachment to them and I don’t particularly enjoy children. But I can’t get enough of the A-frame cottages, dusty displays, painfully slow animatronics, and oversized, brightly-painted fiberglass and concrete figures.
I’m both surprised and relieved when I pull into Storybook Land on a weekday in late July to find that the main parking lot and several adjacent overflow lots are full of cars. These outdated and largely analog parks are not as common as they once were, and they feel like portals into another time when children were allowed to roam freely without fear; when everyone wasn’t glued to a screen; and when the thrills were tame, deliberate, and handcrafted.
Route 40 itself may be less traveled than it used to be, but in 1955, John Fricano, a World War II veteran and house painter, saw opportunity. Families making the trek to the shore needed a place to get out and stretch their legs or have lunch. Fricano wanted his rest stop to be accessible to families with small children and following the trends at the time, he decided to build a storybook park. What began as a luncheonette and a nursery rhyme-themed playground, has grown over the years to include 15 rides, live animals, a small chapel, a carousel, a train, and several snack bars.
Storybook Land has been consistently owned and operated by the Fricano family for the past 64 years (John died in 2009). Fricano’s granddaughter, Jessica Panetta, is now the operations manager. She says families appreciate that Storybook Land has always been a family business. “My dad, brother, and aunt all work here,” Panetta says. “Our employees are all like our extended family.”
Storybook Land may feel stuck in time, but “we’re always doing something new and we add at least one new thing a year,” Panetta says. The family sources rides, statues, and other items from various places around the country, including other storybook parks that have closed. Mother Goose came from Gettysburg and most recently, a Robin Hood statue from the Magic Forest in Lake George, New York was restored and erected in a shady corner of the park.
Almost everything in the park has a nursery-rhyme or children’s literary connection. Rides include the Tick Tock Clock Drop, the Beanstalk Bounce, and the Turtle Twirl. Storybook Land, located an hour-and-a-half southeast of Philadelphia, has four seats from the city’s now-demolished Veterans Stadium, flanked by previous Phillies mascots, Phil and Phyllis. Almost every trash can is topped with an animal or clown head, and Mistress Mary’s Garden Goodies serves funnel cake and Philadelphia Water Ice out of a building shaped like a watering can.
Children can milk a fiberglass cow, feed real goats, visit the Old Woman who lives in a (surprisingly spacious) shoe, or have a birthday party under the park’s giant birthday cake, repainted every year to reflect the park’s current age. At the push of a button, dioramas with elaborate animatronic figures tell the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Bears, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Although the park caters to children under ten, all of its rides are “adult size, but kid friendly,” Panetta says, and parents are encouraged to ride alongside their kids. “Even on a busy day, lines and wait times aren’t long,” she says. “We’re not about the bottom line here.”
Slow and steady
The thing I notice first and most often about Storybook Land is that it’s exceptionally clean and well-maintained. Other similar parks have aged far less gracefully, but Storybook Land virtually sparkles. Forest debris and harsh weather conditions can take a toll on outdoor attractions. The park’s vintage figures and structures, however, look as new as the day they were created (the Lil Red Schoolhouse is the only original structure still standing). Panetta says that the family prides itself on its reputation, and maintenance is a huge part of that. “People feel safe here,” she says.
The park is open April through December, and has themed celebrations around almost every holiday including Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. In the fall, the park is decorated with haystacks, cornstalks, and pumpkins; guests in search of “nothing scary, just happy Halloween fun” can take a Happy Hayride, get lost in Elmer’s Hay-Mazin’ Maze, and trick-or-treat on select weekends. Santa comes to Storybook Land in December and the park sparkles at night with more than one million holiday lights.
“Families can come back several times throughout the year and there’s always something different happening,” says Panetta.
Panetta says that the family occasionally feels pressure to update its attractions or add the latest game or ride. But at Storybook Land—like The Tortoise and the Hare taught us—slow and steady wins the race. “We try to keep up with trends, but also remain true to the spirit of the park,” Panetta says. “It has its challenges, but patience is what got us here.”
If you go
Storybook Land is open April through December. Days and times vary by season.