Yes, you really can follow the yellow brick road.
Actually, it’s encouraged in Chittenango. The small town, just east of Syracuse, is home to yellow brick sidewalks, tigers, bears and Oz Stravaganza.
I promise that’s not a typo. It’s the name of Chittenango’s biggest event of the year, celebrating everything that has to do with “The Wizard of Oz” series. The town is the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Oz series, and Oz Stravaganza is just one way the town embraces that tidbit.
Every year, usually around the first weekend in June, the event kicks off with a townwide parade. People dress up as characters from the books or from any of the spin-off stories: Glinda, Dorothy, the Wicked Witch of the West, flying monkeys, the tin man, etc. The rest of the weekend is filled with carnival rides, fireworks, special events and guest speakers on all things Oz.
When I was growing up, a few actors who played “munchkin” characters in the 1939 movie would visit just about every year (unfortunately, the last surviving “munchkin” actor, Jerry Maren, died in June). This year, Baum’s great-granddaughter came as a guest speaker along with a host of people from the cast and writers from Broadway’s “Wicked.”
Oz Stravaganza remains extremely popular, even in its 40th year. Thousands of people attend. We’re talking over 20,000 people in a town with a population of less than 5,000.
But even if you miss the Stravaganza, there’s plenty of Oz to see.
There’s the Yellow Brick Road Casino, which weaves in Oz into its decor as well as its games and restaurants. They’ve got the Winged Monkey bar, Dorothy’s Farm House, Wicked Good Pizza and Heart and Courage Saloon. Like I said, everything is Oz related.
According to Scott Flaherty of the executive director of the Madison County Tourism, since the casino opened three years ago, it’s driven more and more tourists to the heart of the town, and more specifically to the All Things Oz Museum.
“The Oz museum attendance has doubled. It’s one of the cutest places,” Flaherty said.
Upon entering, visitors must walk through curtains (a reference to “the man behind the curtain” or the Wizard of Oz himself). The museum is filled with Oz memorabilia and artifacts, including costumes from the original production of “Wicked,” and props from “The Wiz,” from 1975. The curators also brought in costumes from the 1939 movie produced by MGM. The museum is also working to restore the Baum/Neal home in Syracuse, which was where Baum met his wife Maude, who inspired him to pursue being an author.
You’ve probably been waiting to see where the lions, tigers and bears are going to show up.
They live just a few minutes outside of town at this place called The Wild Animal Park. Those three species are just the start. The park is also home to gray wolves, cheetahs, giraffes, peacocks, owls, monkeys, emus, frogs, snakes, camels, etc.
It’s a pretty incredible operation, bringing in hundreds of people just about every weekend, not only just to look at the animals but to interact with them as well.
“There’s a parakeet room,” Flaherty said. Visitors can purchase a bit of bird food and walk through the room, which holds quite a few of the colorful birds that are comfortable enough to eat right from visitors’ hands.
On July 28, the Wild will get a little wilder this summer with their first brewfest. They’ll be serving beer, wine and food, while special tours and shows take place.
If you’re looking for something not Oz-themed, head to nearby Chittenango Falls.
Nestled in Chittenango Falls State Park, the scenic view is easy to get to and the 167 foot waterfall is deafening, if not impressive. There’s also plenty of trails to take down to the bed of the fall.
Along the way, you just might find a rare snail that has only been found in Chittenango. It’s called the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail and it’s relatively small (coming in at under an inch long). The pinkish-yellow hue of its shell makes it easily identifiable, so if you’re heading down the trails, keep an eye out.
A blacksmith demonstration at the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum.
If you’re still looking for a good place to walk or bike (and learn a bit about history), your best bet might be the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum. The towpath is perfect for a relaxing bike ride and there are plenty of places to picnic along the way. The museum itself has blacksmith demonstrations and guided tours. If you’re there on July 21, they’re hosting a Pig and Swig event that celebrates local craft breweries, with BBQ and live music.
But even the canal leads us back to Oz and L. Frank Baum himself. Though there’s a bit of a historical debate about this, records indicate that Baum’s family likely used the canal to transport goods.
“Benjamin [Baum’s father] operated a barrel factory in Chittenango and it appears that barrel staves and heading were brought to Chittenango from Western New York by the Erie Canal and it is reported barrels were once sold to a distiller in the Albany area,” said village historian Charles Albee.
In Chittenango, all roads really do lead to Oz.