Welcome to The Abandoned Carousel, the show where I tell the story of the most interesting abandoned amusements and theme parks in the world. This week, we’re returning to the Adirondacks for our intermittent miniseries on the parks in the area. I’m talking about the Gillette family and the Magic Forest, in Lake George NY, where a polarizing collection of vintage rides and fiberglass figures stood.
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Arthur Gillette: Beginnings
Arthur Gillette was a man with a mechanical mind.
As a child, Gillette visited the Savin Rock Amusement Park. In his early adulthood, he did handyman jobs, operated small small roadside stands, and fixed equipment and machinery. All the while, he dreamed of opening up an amusement park like the one of his childhood.
Gillette’s Pontoosuc Lake Beach Carnival
In 1946, Gillette assembled a crude carousel completely out of spare parts. It allowed for three riders. He operated the carousel at North St / Maplewood Ave in Pittsfield, just down from Pontoosuc Lake.
The ride was popular, so that winter, he rebuilt a vintage wooden carousel with his brother. They decided to take a chance at the amusement park business for good. In 1947, they operated the carousel at Pontoosuc Lake Beach. Within the next several years, he added a pony ride and a boat ride to the annual summer carnival setup.
As the carnival continued to prosper, Arthur and his brother opened the Gillette Brother Shows, a traveling amusement company, which is still in operation today. They traveled with their company throughout the East coast in the late 40s and early 50s, and continued to do well.This book is a great resource on this park and other small NY parks. (Click for more information.)
Lake George Amusement Park and Carson City
Arthur was getting tired of the traveling, though. He decided to set up the Lake George Amusement Park back in Lake George, NY. This small park opened up in 1956. There is little available information about it. We know that the park was only open for one season. In 1957, the land prices rose too high, and Gillette had to sell the park. A hotel developer ultimately purchased the land.
Not one to stay idle, Gillette quickly latched on to a new idea. This time, it was Carson City, a western theme park which he opened in 1958. This was one of the largest replica western villages at the time.
But Arthur Gillette really liked Lake George, and he kept thinking about the pre-Christmas Santa’s villages he’d set up in small towns around Massachusetts. The children had always loved seeing Santa, and were always sad to see him go. So why not, he thought, why not have Santa around for longer?
Christmas City, USA
Christmas City opened up in 1963. Arthur Gillette had found an old car junkyard in Lake George, the prime spot for an amusement park. He cleared away hundreds of cars to create his theme park. He even had to fill in a giant hole in order to create the flat lot where cars now park for the day.
In particular, Christmas City had its roots in a promotion Gillette did in Albany several years earlier. Santa was a huge draw during the Christmas season. Gillette knew he had something special, and set up Santa’s home that children could visit during the rest of the year.
Christmas City was located on Route 9, and drew crowds from both Albany and New York City. Its motto was “Christmas City…a village of warmth and love…where on the warmest day you will find a cool breeze blowing pine needles to the ground.”
Opening Day at the Park
On opening day, the park had log cabins, a museum, a “tilted house” challenging guests to walk on its uneven floors, a gift shop, and a chapel. This chapel was a real chapel, marking the first (but not last) time that Gillette would rehome an item or attraction.
The chapel had previously been located in Renssalaer, where the state department was taking it down for highway construction. Some sources name the chapel as “Chapel in the Pines” and others as “Sacred Heart”. Gillette moved the chapel to the Magic Forest piece by piece, where it still stands. Every item in the chapel is original, including the pews, altar, pulpit, and stained glass windows.
Christmas Theming at Christmas City
Christmas City, of course, wouldn’t be complete without Santa, Santa’s house, and Santa’s reindeer. Animals wandered freely throughout the park in the early years. There were sheep, goats, llamas, and of course reindeer. Visitors could pet and feed the animals, as well.
The park was themed and overlaid in a Christmas-y style, with gingerbread and fanciful lights. Beyond the buildings, there was little theming or landscaping. Gillette saw the natural forest environment, with its many large trees, as one of the most important things about the park.
Even in the first months the park was open, Gillette knew he was missing something. Visitors kept asking where the kids rides were. In the middle of the 1963 summer, the first year in operation, he added a few rides, including a small merry-go-round and a “chair-o-plane” (where riders swing in a circle on a merry-go-round type structure).
Officially Magic Forest
By 1965, Gillette loosened the reins on the Christmas theme, officially changing the name to Magic Forest and Indian Village.
Magic Forest and Indian Village
As the name implies, he added an Indian Village in the same year. This was a “standard” park feature at the time, and was seen as “okay” back then (even if it wasn’t). Obviously today, this is problematic at best.
Yes. Local Native people staffed this part of the park.
Yes. They genuinely informed visitors about some aspects of Native culture.
Yes, it was still problematic.
Interest in the village waned over time, and that part of the park was later closed.
Magic Forest: Island of Misfit Rides
For a couple of decades, Gillette’s Magic Forest truly was a place of constant change and delight. Arthur’s son Jack joined the park management team, fully taking over the park in 1979. Both Gillettes quickly realized how popular the kiddie rides were with park visitors. Additionally, they realized that with their solid mechanical skills, rides could be acquired much more cheaply from defunct theme parks and just fixed up. So over the years, the Magic Forest went from two rides to twenty five.
Acquisitions from Other Parks
In 1964, the Gillettes purchased several rides from a shuttered amusement park in Burlington, Vermont. (I’ve been unable to determine which park this was.) These rides include the Skyfighter, the Whip, and a heavier-duty aluminium merry-go-round.
The first Ferris wheel arrived in 1978. In 1979, Arthur sold his part of the Carson City park further up in the Catskills, choosing to focus instead on Magic Forest. (Carson City stayed in business through the mid-90s.)
In 1987, Kaydeross Park in Saratoga, NY closed in order to make way for luxury apartments. Seen in this 1985 promotional footage are a few of the rides that came from Kaydeross to the Magic Forest: the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Paratrooper, kiddie cars, and a replacement Ferris wheel.
A ride called “Chaser” came from an auction at the defunct Lincoln Park in North Dartmouth in 1988, after that park’s 1987 closure.
In 1990, the Scrambler and a mini merry-go-round arrived from Nay Aug Park in Scranton, PA, where the amusement park shuttered its rides to become a standard city park.
In 1991, the giant spiral slide arrived from Angela Park in Pennsylvania, which had closed two years prior.
The kiddie turtle ride, a smaller version of the classic Tumble Bug ride, came from Maple Leaf Village in Niagra Falls after that park closed in 1992. The asking price? $5,000.
Gillette never met an old amusement ride that he couldn’t find a home for, bringing rides in from at least seven or eight other theme parks. This scavenger philosophy extended not only to rides, but to what the park is perhaps best known for: fiberglass figurines.
Magic Forest and the Fiberglass Figures
In 1960, Bob Prewitt stumbled upon a treasure trove. He was a cowboy, an entrepreneur, and he wanted to make fiberglass horse trailers. Prewitt wanted to create a lighter horse trailer, as the trailers at the time were very heavy. He made a fiberglass horse to help sell the trailers. Well, it turned out that people wanted to buy the horse more than the trailers. Bob quickly cottoned on to what the customers wanted, and began making a wide range of realistic fiberglass animals: cows, horses, etc.
These animals were particularly popular with places like restaurants, meat markets, dairies, and rodeos. Prewitt’s animals continued to sell well, and he began expanding the types of figures he produced.
Prewitt sold his molds to International Fiberglass around 1963. The company was incredibly successful over the next decade, likely because of their ability to create almost anything a customer desired. International Fiberglass employed talented sculptors and painters, who could alter any sculpture to the customer’s unique specifications. People call their most famous productions “Muffler Men”, which we’ll likely do a full episode on later. For now, simply know that the Muffler Men were twenty feet tall sculptures of human figures, usually holding objects, and originally were used for roadside advertising.
International Fiberglass destroyed most of the molds when they folded in the early 70s. The interest in the figures waned, and the original fiberglass figures fell by the wayside – shoved in garages, barns, the woods, the back 40.
Fiberglass Figures Come to the Magic Forest
So the story goes that on a trip to a junkyard in Knoxville, TN for car parts for their Corvette restoration hobby, the Gillettes found some intriguing fiberglass figures, which they hauled back to Magic Forest.
And thus began a new collection. “It was just fun going across the country buying stuff,” Jack Gillette said. “I’ve counted over 600.” Gillette was able to repair these figures just like he repaired rides, so he brought them all home, wherever he could find them.
In 1981, the Great Danbury Fair closed. This was a long-running agricultural fair in Danbury CT, dating back to at least 1821. By 1869, the fair had a regular schedule, large fairgrounds, and was open for ten days every October. The fair satisfied guests reliably every year until around 1974, when the owner John Leahy died. The organization fell into disarray, and it wasn’t long before the entire fair closed. Leahy hadn’t made provisions for the fair in his will, and the only way to pay the estate taxes for the venue was to sell the property. Three years later, the Danbury Fair Mall was built on the site.
On a snowy and rainy week in April of 1982, hundreds of buyers came to an auction for the various rides and attractions from the fair. Of course, Jack Gillette was there. He actually spent several days in Danbury, prior to the auction, negotiating for a large number of the fair’s original Prewitt and International Fiberglass figures. It isn’t surprising that he scored big time. “It took more than 20 truckloads to bring everything up that we purchased from the fair,” Gillette said. “We actually had to clear-cut five acres of land to make room for all the exhibits.”
The most famous of these stood in the Magic Forest parking lot, not far from the original Santa Claus and the pink building that has always served as the park’s entrance. It was the 38-foot tall Uncle Sam, supposedly the largest in the world.
Uncle Sam became a symbol for the Magic Forest park, drawing in guests from the road, just like the Muffler Men of yore.
Expansion and Collection at Magic Forest
Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Gillettes continued to expand the Magic Forest amusement park. Brad H on Yelp said of Magic Forest “Everything is very old and super-cheesy, but that’s what is so cool about it! It has character and old-fashioned charm.”
The Fantasyland park in Gettysburg, PA, a popular local theme park, closed. The Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center took its place. Gillette purchased a walkthrough attraction from there which told the story of Cinderella.
England Brothers’ Windows
In a log cabin near the chapel, a collection of animated bears and squirrels frolicked, moving on and around houses and tree stumps. These came from Pittsfields’ “England Brothers” store, which was like the region’s Macy’s store (at least in terms of holiday windows). The delightful animals that once cavorted in windows displays at England Brothers were rescued by Gillette and put on display at Magic Forest.
Disney’s Snow White
Inside a castle-shaped building sits a vintage piece of Disney’s early years. Yep, tucked away in this creaking, retro ‘60s era park in upstate New York is a piece of Walt Disney history. Several displays are inside that castle building, each depicting animatronic Snow White and the Seven Dwarves characters. The room also features a giant fiberglass tree (purchased for $10 as part of the Danbury Fair auction, of course).
The sign nearby reads: “Snow White. This exhibit was made by Disney for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The animation is one of a kind. Replacement parts and figures are unattainable, and must be custom made.”
Despite the sign, these figures are not made by Disney and are not from the 1939 World’s Fair. Remarkably, they’re even older.
The Old King Cole Papier Mache Company
In 1935, Disney had licensed its characters to the Old King Cole Papier Mache Company of Canton, Ohio, for the purposes of interior advertising displays, like those in windows. In 1937, this company made a series of displays featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for Mandel Brothers department stores in Chicago. These vintage window displays are what now sit at Magic Forest, some 80 years later, the only such surviving examples.
How’d they get to Magic Forest? Arthur Gillette collected them, of course. Somehow the displays came into the hands of the Coleman Brothers carnival in the early 1960s. When they shuttered their carnival business in the mid-1960s, Arthur purchased the Snow White displays for his park.
Snow White at the Magic Forest
In the early years of the park, the displays were moved to and from a storage barn at the beginning and end of each season. This movement deteriorated the displays, and actually completely destroyed one of the original ten scenes as a result. The rest, however, remain in excellent shape. Artisans at the park refurbished most of the characters and backgrounds, adding new clothing and paint. The figures themselves are all still the original papier mache. To describe the scale of these displays, each of the dwarves fits into clothing sized for six-month-old children. They’re pretty impressive!
The animatronic figures move from the action of custom wooden cams and bolts: 1930s high tech! Magic Forest staff have rebuilt some of the original parts from scratch. Best Buy doesn’t sell these pieces! Overall, these animatronics still run primarily on their original mechanics. This section of the park is well-maintained and quite unique.
In 1995, Gillette expanded the park’s boundaries, even relocating rides. He purchased a new ride, the blue goose, from a carnival auction in 1998. The safari train went past many of Gillette’s figures, arrayed in the forest amongst the pines. On “Fairy Tale Trail”, visitors walked past a number of different fairy-tale dioramas, each illustrated with large, fairly horrifying fiberglass figures.
The park had over 1000 of these figures at its prime, so it’s hard to do the topic justice. Suffice to say there were many, many figures at the Magic Forest, some in disrepair, and all a little bit off-putting. A visitor (Keleia76 on Reddit) said: “The figures are absolutely scary. I’m not being hyperbolic. They actually chilled me. Spiderwebs in the eyes, missing face chunks, missing hands or fingers, and honestly, even if they were intact, their actual design looked as though it may have been conjured in the mind of a demon.”
Many of the figures have glassy eyes and feature push-buttons, where visitors could hear some of the darker children’s fairy-tales.That was, of course, if the buttons were working.
Magic Forest’s Train
It wouldn’t be a theme park without the train ride, of course. Is that our new rule here at The Abandoned Carousel? Maybe. This time, it’s an Arrow “Old No. 9” train – Magic Forest’s train was only one of seven such trains in existence. Another is just down the road at Storytown USA, which we’ll cover at a later date. At the Magic Forest, the train chugged down a bridge over a ravine, past many fiberglass figures in the forest, and finished with a ride through a rickety mine tunnel. For many visitors, the somewhat shaky structural quality of the bridge and mine tunnel marked the largest thrills at the park.
Magic Forest’s Live Acts
In addition to the rides and ever present fiberglass figures, there have always been performances at the Magic Forest, as well. Santa Claus was popular in the early years, due to the Christmas theming of the park.
In 1972, Gillette installed a dolphin show at the park. This was a short-lived attraction, running only until 1975. Other acts followed, including dog acts, circus acts, aerial shows, and magic shows. Eventually, park management filled in the ravine at the park, next to the stage, in order to allow for more seats in front of the performance area.
The Diving Horse
One of the things that Magic Forest is known for, aside from the plethora of slightly bug-eyed, off-kilter fiberglass figures, is the Diving Horse. The last diving horse in the country, they say.
What is a diving horse, you might ask, as I did when I started researching this place. Well, settle in. Back in 1881, a man named Doc Carver was crossing a bridge on his horse. The bridge partially collapsed and the horse fell into the water, which apparently inspired the idea. He came up with the diving horse concept, and set up at Steel Pier in Atlantic City. The acts had a circus-like quality, as “diving girls” would leap atop the galloping horse as it reached the top of a 40-60 foot tower, and then sail down into the water on the horse’s back.
This is obviously a polarizing topic. Animal rights activists protested the diving shows in the 20s and 30s. Arnette Webster French, a horse diver from the Steel Pier attraction, said “Wherever we went, the S.P.C.A. was always snooping around, trying to find if we were doing anything that was cruel to animals. They never found anything because those horses lived the life of Riley. In all the years of the act, there was never a horse that was injured.”
The Steel Pier act was nonetheless permanently shuttered sometime in the 1970s. A brief revival in 2012 didn’t get very far after strenuous animal rights protests. “The president of the Humane Society of the United States stated: “This is a merciful end to a colossally stupid idea.”
The Diving Horse at Magic Forest
All the same, a horse diving exhibit opened at Magic Forest in 1977. First starring Rex the Diving Horse (for over 18 years), and later Thunder, then Lightning, the diving horses would walk up a ramp, 9 feet off the ground, and jump into a pool of water. Their trainers reward them with a large bucket of oats. The diving horse jumps twice daily, two months out of the year, and only during dry weather.
Animal rights activists regularly protest the show; veterinarians inspect the horses and the show even more regularly, to ensure the humane treatment of the animals. Reportedly they do it of their own free will, motivated solely by the oats at the other end.
The last of an era for the diving horses has come, however you feel about the act. Lightning the Diving Horse performed at Magic Forest for 24 years. In the summer of 2018, Lightning, now with a white face, refused to jump. And that was that. He still resides at Magic Forest to pet and feed, but the diving show is no more.
Magic Forest: Less than Magical?
As visitors post about Magic Forest online, people either love the place or hate it. The park caters to the smallest of visitors for whom standard theme parks are overwhelming and somewhat inappropriate for. The outdated visuals and somewhat run-down aesthetics can be a small price to pay for a park where your three-year-old can ride almost every single ride at the park.
However, others have certainly recounted less than positive stories about the park. It’s definitely true. The park is outdated and problematic in areas. People find the sculpted figures frightening, are put off by the ride operators operating multiple rides simultaneously, and so on.
Visitors in recent years have described broken figures, covered in spiderwebs. There are tales of broken audio recordings in the Fairy Tale Trail, stories about how the train engine was so poorly maintained that it spewed clouds of toxic fumes back at the first several rows of riders. Visitors complained about the short opening times of the gift shop, and of course, complained about the diving horse.
Stories from Park Workers
Former park workers have posted on Reddit, alleging that some of the park workers were constantly high, since they knew they’d get paid no matter what. A quote about the condition of the Ferris wheel: “If it was too hot, the tar on the cable will slip, and the chairs would slip off the landing while unloading, resulting in people being slammed face first into the platform.” However, there have been no major incidents at the park, which is certainly an exceptional track record given how long Magic Forest has been in operation.
The park isn’t unblemished. Management hired a known registered sex offender, without doing background checks. That didn’t go over particularly well.
And Jack Gillette himself made some waves, particularly in the late 90s and 2000s. He was described as more interested in restoring his Corvettes than in repairing park rides. Several times, he ran afoul of the local government over property disputes, saying that they inappropriately removed boulders from his property, and that they wrongfully used his property for a public snowmobile and biking path.
In 2013, he sued Warren County over these alleged misuses of his personal property. The suits were finally settled in 2018, with Gillette reportedly receiving $150,000 (reportedly less than the costs of the legal fees) over the five years in compensation.
Sale of Magic Forest
Late in 2018, local papers started reporting that Magic Forest was being sold. The deal had reportedly been in negotiations for several years, but couldn’t proceed due to the pending lawsuits. Once the suits were taken care of, the sale was free to go on.
Gillette officially sold Magic Forest at the end of 2018 for $2.5 million dollars to Ruben Ellsworth, “the son of a family friend”, owner of the local business “Ellsworth & Sons Excavating”. Gillette was ready to retire, and Ellsworth had a set of plans for the park that pleased the local county government.
Ellsworth is turning the park into “Lake George Expedition Park”. Part of the park will be a scaled-down Magic Forest. A much larger part of the property will become Dino Roar Valley. This dinosaur themed park will have a large walking trail featuring twenty life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, as well as dinosaur themed shows and additional paid activities.
But Ellsworth didn’t want the majority of the fiberglass figures that Magic Forest has been so well known for over the years. Up for sale they all went. American Giants, known for its restoration work with Muffler Men, was put in charge of the sale, which you can find on its website.
Reportedly, many of the figures were purchased by Storybook Land in Egg Harbor, NJ. Several of the larger Muffler Men are headed to Dallas, TX, where they’ll advertise for a plumbing company.
Uncle Sam Returns to Danbury
The largest of them all, 38-foot-tall Uncle Sam will be returning to Danbury, CT. He was originally a resident of the Danbury Fair. “Danbury – that fair in 1981 and ’82 – the things I bought took my amusement park to another level and allowed me to go even beyond that in two or three years. It really made my park. I thought it was only fitting for it to go back.”
The city of Danbury purchased Uncle Sam for $50,000, including the fence and its support pole; officials estimate that transportation, lighting, and refurbishment for the statue will cost another $50-100k. Moving the statue was reportedly difficult. Movers had to remove one of Uncle Sam’s hands in order to fit under an overpass on the three hour drive between Lake George and Danbury.
Refurbishment has been ongoing over the winter of 2018. The paint covering the entire statue was stripped completely off. Interestingly, restorers found that Uncle Sam originally had a different face. His face was paper-mached over with newspapers sometime in 1975 to give a different shape. “His old face has some crazy eyes” is the quote.
Uncle Sam’s new home is in front of the Danbury Railway Museum, where they plan to unveil him officially at a Fourth of July celebration in 2019.
A New Era for Magic Forest
“The Only Living Girl In New York” blog said: “I love, love, loved the Magic Forest—a theme park that has remained untouched by time, become abandoned while it’s still in business and is completely unaware of how cool and marketable it actually is—and I hope it continues to forget that it should have closed years ago and remains in Lake George forever.”
Magic Forest isn’t abandoned. In its later years, it has certainly seemed as such, with the lack of lines, lack of crowds, and lack of maintenance. But Magic Forest is certainly coming to the end of an era. The sale of its iconic vintage fiberglass figures and massive changes earn the Magic Forest a place on this podcast. The modern era is coming to this retro park, and it will no longer be trapped in the 60s. Lake George Expedition Park opens for the season this weekend: how much of the Magic Forest will remain?
The retro, kitschy feeling is much of what made Magic Forest special. Only time will tell as to whether the Magic Forest portion of Lake George Expedition Park sticks around.
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