Magic Forest offers retro fun, and lots of it

Maybe it is magic, that forest that shelters the Magic Forest Amusement Park in Lake George.
Uncle Sam towers over the main entrance of Magic Forest in Lake George on Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Uncle Sam towers over the main entrance of Magic Forest in Lake George on Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Magic Forest

Maybe it is magic, that forest that shelters the Magic Forest Amusement Park in Lake George.

While many other small amusement parks have faded into history, at the Magic Forest, the merry-go-round still spins; sheep still eagerly await little hands full of food pellets; and the story of Cinderella is told over and over again.

This year, the park celebrates its 52nd season, holding its own in the shadow of the much larger and flashier Six Flags Great Escape, which sits less than four miles down the road.

The Magic Forest is a quirky place, patched together with bits and pieces of fairs and amusement parks past. A 38-foot-tall fiberglass Uncle Sam statue purchased in 1981 from the Danbury Fair in Connecticut greets visitors in the parking lot. A sign on the fence surrounding the figure boasts that it’s the world’s tallest Uncle Sam. There are other figurines obtained from the now defunct Danbury Fair, too — an Alfred E. Neuman that has been transformed into a farmer, and a zoo’s worth of fiberglass animals.

Kids squeal on a Tilt-A-Whirl obtained when the Kaydeross Amusement Park on Saratoga Lake shut down in the 1980s to make way for luxury housing units.

There’s a huge rabbit from a place in Tennessee and cartoon character figurines from somewhere near New York City.

Park owner Jack Gillette ticks off the names of the parks he’s watched come and go since his father, Arthur, opened the Magic Forest in 1963: Frontier Town in North Hudson, Brown’s Beach on Saratoga Lake, Time Town in Bolton Landing, Fairyland Village in Saratoga Springs.

“I bet you there’s 25 within 100 miles of here that have gone out of business or changed hands,” he said.

He’s buddies with Dave Hoffman, owner of Hoffman’s Playland in Latham, which closed last year. Hoffman’s equipment was sold to Huck Finn’s Warehouse in Albany, which now runs the rides in its parking lot.

Hoffman’s and the Magic Forest shared many of the same rides, and the parks’ owners used to help each other out with repairs and advice.

“I used to enjoy going down there myself, especially in the spring and late fall when I’m closed, and just sit and listen to the music, the merry-go-round, and talk to [Dave],” Gillette said.

The Magic Forest doesn’t advertise much. Pamphlets promoting the place are available at local tourist destinations. The business also relies on the towering Uncle Sam to attract the attention of passers-by.

Gillette said he stays in business by catering to the under-10 crowd and by keeping the admission price reasonable. He also finds ways to economize, repairing and restoring the rides himself and refurbishing the fiberglass figurines.

The park employs between 30 and 40 workers. All wear many hats, Gillette said. The man who makes balloon animals doubles as the magician and is also the announcer for Lightning, the diving horse.

“I’ve done everything here. The only thing I’ve never done is play Santa Claus,” Gillette said.

On a recent Wednesday, the man who plays Santa got pressed into running a ride because one of the ride operators was sick.

Santa has always had a big presence at the park. Back when it first opened, it was called Santa Land USA. Visitors got to meet the man in red and visit his sleigh barn and hideaway. Over time, Saint Nick lost some of the spotlight. A Native American village was added to the park, along with kiddie rides and a circus show. Jugglers, dog acts, macaw shows, acrobats and a tight rope walker came and went.

“We were the first to have dolphins in New York State, back in the 1970s,” Gillette noted.

Now Lightning, the diving horse, leaps into what was once the dolphin pool. The only other live entertainment offered at the park is a magic show.

There are plenty of other attractions to keep visitors entertained, including 18 kiddie rides and 7 for older kids and adults. All are vintage favorites — motorcycles, helicopters and friendly looking animals that go around in circles; a tall, twisty slide; a Ferris Wheel; the Scrambler.

The park encompasses about 24 acres of land, much of which can be viewed during the park’s 20-minute safari train ride.

Paved walking paths lead through the woods to crooked fairy tale houses and displays where the likes of the Mad Hatter, Rip Van Winkle, the Headless Horseman and the Pied Piper can be found.

Fiberglass figures are everywhere. Gillette estimated that there are around 700. Some of them, including the Headless Horseman and various fantastical creatures, might be scary looking to little kids.

“Well, some fairy tales are scary,” Gillette reasoned.

The most modern figures found in the park are those of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants; a representative from the Rugrats cartoon; Blue, the dog from the television show “Blue’s Clues”; and several other not-quite-vintage cartoon characters.

Gillette said he feels no pressure to modernize further.

“Definitely if you’re 45 years old and want to go back to your childhood, this is the place that has the rides and the atmosphere,” he said. “If you come here as an adult and expect that I’m going to entertain you and make you happy, you’re coming to the wrong place. If you come as an adult with your children and expect to have a good time with your family and kids, enjoy what they’re doing, you’re gonna have a good time. It’s that simple. You’re not going to get the thrill rides, but your child can go on every ride.”

Frank Monopoli of Seaford, Long Island, took his children, ages 4, 7 and 9, to the Magic Forest in early July. They visited last year, and the kids voted to return instead of going to the Great Escape.

“I think it’s nostalgic,” Monopoli said. “I think it’s something we remember as kids, so I think it’s nice to show them that. And the kids have a ball. Plus the fact that it’s shaded. It’s a fun place to go. They love the diving horse and the magic show.”

Four-year-old Adriana tugged at her father’s shirt.

“We need cotton candy. That’s what we did the last time,” she reminded him.

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