The Enchanted Forest--a family-owned, outdoor theme park in Turner, Oregon--suffered many emotional and financial strifes and setbacks due to COVID-19, extreme weather events, and other challenges that threatened the stability and longevity of the beloved business.
Built just off the highway in Turner, Ore.—a near-perfect halfway point between Portland and Eugene—an inviting pink castle and a 100-foot ice mountain are just a few of the attractions hidden from passing motorists on Interstate-5. But beneath the canopy of trees that seems to encompass most of this region, the green gates and ticket booths that would typically give way to life-size storybook villages, well-known fairytale characters, and curated outdoor scenes complete with handcrafted animatronics have long been tarped over and shuttered.
Behind its mythical façade, one of Oregon’s most popular local attractions is struggling to keep up with ongoing park expenses in the wake of COVID-19 limitations. The 20-acre, family-owned theme park, normally brimming with childish excitement and parental nostalgia at nearly any time of day, is devoid of the beloved patrons that give it life (and pay the bills).
A limited number of full-time staff remain, including a couple managers and a handful of maintenance techs. The park itself is deserted, the only sound the constant washing and repairing of rides.
The Enchanted Forest, built in 1971, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in August provided finances can last.
“We were a thriving family business, we owed no money, had no debt,” said Susan Vaslev, co-manager of the park and daughter of its creator, Roger Tofte. “We thought it was going to be a very short shutdown, a month or something.”
But both the virus and public health governance had other plans. By the time the park would’ve opened for the 2020 season, on March 24, Governor Brown shut down all amusement parks in the state to curb the newly feared spread of COVID-19.
Devastated by a guaranteed loss of income and thus the potential forfeiture of everything they’ve worked for, the family quickly scrambled to find new ways to keep their treasured business afloat.
However, come late June, the Enchanted Forest would be allowed to reopen, hosting a maximum of 250 total guests and employees while strictly abiding by sanitation protocols and COVID-19 guidelines. Normal numbers hover around 2,000 guests at any one time.
“10 percent of capacity,” said Vaslev. “You cannot pay the bills on that.”
While operating with limited capacity, many of the park’s popular features were closed, including beloved dining venues and popular high-touch rides and attractions.
Not only was the Enchanted Forest increasingly sinking into debt, the Santiam Fire, part of a string of West Coast fires beginning in late summer of 2020, took the lives of two of the family’s close relatives, Wyatt Tofte (13) and Peggy Mosso (71).
“That was really devastating to us, and we still needed to run a business at the same time,” said Vaslev. “It was so smoky out here. There were so many people dealing with trauma. There was heartache all over Oregon.”
Despite these harsh setbacks, the team persisted. While the Enchanted Forest was able to get some amount of government financial relief, this wouldn’t last longer than about three months. The family auctioned off much of Roger Tofte’s original artwork, increased the amount of Enchanted Forest merch in their online store, and even created a buy-a-brick program to help garner donations to pay off the park’s debts. The support from the community was overwhelming.
“What was so magical and heartwarming was the stories that came with [the donations],” said Vaslev. “How much it meant to everybody, how they were donating so we’d be here for generations to come.”
“The Enchanted Forest reminds me of home and the amazing memories I made as a kid,” said Evan Harvey, a long-time resident of the area. “The owners put their heart and soul into a place that’s part of many people’s childhoods and lives.”
After working out technical details, the family also began a GoFundMe, requesting $500,000 to carry the park until it could open again in the spring of 2021. Vaslev credited the team’s proactivity, suggesting that all of their fundraising methods combined will likely get them through ongoing expenses such as ride maintenance and park upkeep.
“We’ve never gone to people for help before, and to see that response is incredible,” said Vaslev. “I am very optimistic because we have good support from the community.”
Sage Kiernan-Sherrow, an outspoken lover of the park, wrote: “The Enchanted Forest was a childhood staple of mine that grew into an adult obsession. It’s a treasure unique to Oregon and it would be a shame if it disappeared.”
Oaks Amusement Park in Portland, another popular theme park for locals, has remained closed as well, only boasting a socially distant roller rink and rentals for the 2020 season. Amusement parks and similar facilities in Oregon remain closed at least through March 3, 2021, according to an executive order extended by the governor.
While still closed for the foreseeable future, Vaslev is hopeful they will be open for their upcoming 50th anniversary. Instead of only one day of grand festivities, the Enchanted Forest family plans to do a full week of smaller celebrations for the major anniversary in August, potentially with a virtual component for distant observers.
“The celebration will mean more than ever because it will mean we made it that far, through COVID,” said Vaslev. She remarked that perhaps it will mean the most for her father, 91-years-old and still working on the park through it all.
While garbage bags and plastic tarps still cover much of the park’s most notable pieces, social distancing reminders are still plastered to outdoor auditorium seats, and masks are donned by the few full-time staffers still working, Vaslev and her family remain optimistic about the future of the park.
“There is an energy behind the scenes to all of this. I think we band together and everybody helps in the way they are most helpful,” said Vaslev. “We will make it through this.”