Have you ever wanted to visit the Land of Oz? This is your chance.

The former theme park in Beech Mountain (2.5 hours from Charlotte) — complete with the yellow brick road — reopens every Friday in June. (Tickets are already sold out for this Friday.) Tours with Dorothy will take place every hour from 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., according to WGHP-TV, and tickets cost $12.50 plus $10 for a roundtrip lift ticket.

Tickets go on sale on the Land of Oz website the Monday prior to each tour.

Though Land of Oz is not an amusement park anymore, those who label it abandoned are mistaken, caretaker Cindy Keller told the Observer last year. It still throbs with life at times.

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On the first weekend of October, it hosts its annual “Autumn at Oz” festival that attracts sellout crowds of 8,000. People show up dressed as classic characters: scarecrows, tin men and dozens of Dorothys in gingham.

Every summer the park is rented out for whimsical weddings, birthday parties, family reunions, even book club meetings. One year the International Wizard of Oz Club convention was held there, attracting 300 of the club’s royal historians.

“Marriage proposals, marriage proposals that didn’t go well,” Keller says. “We get a lot of good stories.”

Whenever she discovers a website declaring Oz abandoned, she asks for a retraction, but to little avail.

“This year, we have suffered more trespassers and vandals than in any year before,” Keller said last year.

Lasted a decade

Land of Oz was built atop Beech Mountain by the Robbins brothers, Harry, Grover and Spencer, founders of Tweetsie Railroad in Boone, N.C.. They were looking for an attraction to bring summer visitors to the ski resort.

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Charlotte artist Jack Pentes, who died last year, designed the park. Visitors would enter a five-eighths scale replica of Auntie Em’s house, get shooed into the cellar to escape an onrushing cyclone and pop out in the back, where the house was re-created askew.

First thing they’d see is the legs of the Wicked Witch of the East sticking out from under the porch, ruby slippers a-sparkle.

From there, they’d wander down the Yellow Brick Road, led by a Dorothy, and meet the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in turn. Dorothy and her entourage would do skits and sing songs written by Charlotte composer Loonis McGlohan.

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On opening day, June 15, 1970, 4,000 people turned out, and the attraction drew 400,000 the first summer, making it one of the leading attractions in the Southeast.

But crowds ebbed through the decade. Land of Oz couldn’t compete with newer, slicker destinations such as Disney World and Carowinds, and the gas crisis dealt it a blow. It closed in 1980.

New life for the park

For a decade, the park sat unused and overgrown. In 1991, Keller was hired to help market luxury housing being developed on Oz’s fringes by Emerald Mountain, named with respect for the Emerald City.

Keller and her husband moved into a three-bedroom apartment built in Uncle Henry’s barn, which housed a petting zoo in the park’s heyday. Gradually, she oversaw restoration.

“It was a little sad and neglected,” says Keller, 55. “Years of vegetation had covered the Yellow Brick Road and our first few years were basically excavation.”

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As part archaeologist and part treasure hunter, she used an old souvenir map to pinpoint various features, and Oz came back to life.

“This is a magical place,” says Jana Greer, who’s active in Ashe County Little Theatre.

Dressed as Dorothy and crooning “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Greer, 30, has led tours of Oz for 10 years and never grows tired of watching Oz’s enchantment work its spell.

“People come here,” she says, “to let their inner child out to play.”

Photo: Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer

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