Editor’s note: Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions have eased, but businesses may ask you to wear a face cover – bring one along and be patient and kind if asked to wear it. It’s also wildfire season – plan ahead and do your part to prevent wildfires.
Tucked into the forested hills just south of Salem sits a sprawling 20-acre property that has become something of an Oregon legend — not just because its colorful castles and lifelike characters are an homage to the nursery rhymes and children’s tales of our collective memories. It’s also because nearly every magical structure, mechanical puppet and thrill-inducing ride was imagined or designed by one enterprising Oregon family.
The fantasy-inspired playland is Enchanted Forest, the iconic amusement park that celebrates its 50-year anniversary this year. The 50th anniversary comes after a crowdfunding campaign raised more than $400,000 to help keep the park in business amidst its temporary closure during COVID-19 and following extensive damage to the park from a Feb. 12, 2021 ice storm that affected parts of Portland and the Willamette Valley. Supporters added even more donations to the park following the ice storm. (Check the Enchanted Forest website and Facebook page for reopening updates as well as celebration details, and see their crowdfunding page for ways to help.)
Imagination Come to Life
For Roger Tofte, the 91-year-old creative mind behind the attraction, Enchanted Forest was a labor of love. After noticing some theme parks on a road trip to Minnesota, he got the idea to create his own near his Salem home. Tofte bought the 20-acre plot of land in 1964 for $4,000.
Loading sacks of cement into his Volkswagen Beetle, Tofte began building the wondrous pieces for the attraction one by one. He started with a concrete pumpkin fashioned after “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater.” Many of his earliest creations now make up Storybook Lane, a corner of the park where you’ll find Little Miss Muffet, Hansel and Gretel, and a slide down the home of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. He did the work in between his work as a highway draftsman, repairing watches on the side as a way to help fund his project.
“At first I couldn’t get anybody convinced — even my wife was against it,” Tofte says. “I just was sure it would work, so I just kept plugging away.”
After seven years of building, in 1971 Tofte opened the doors to the park to a crowd of 75 people who paid the entry admission of $1, or 50 cents for children. Today Enchanted Forest includes a Western town and an English village; a log ride with a 40-foot drop; and a water-light show. From the very beginning, Enchanted Forest was a family affair — meant for families and run by an Oregon family — which is a tradition that continues today.
“We grew up in the park,” says Susan Vaslev, Tofte’s oldest daughter and co-manager of Enchanted Forest. “Every building, every creation, every stroke of paint on the walls — I either did it or watched it being done.”
At the age of 14, Vaslev manned the entrance and gift shop while her three siblings ran the hot dog stand, cleaned tables and cleaned up trash throughout the park. They pitched in whenever something needed to be done, Vaslev says, but they also got to follow their passions. Vaslev, who is musically inclined, wrote all of the music that plays throughout the park and is the writer, director and costume designer for the plays performed in the comedy theater. “At 17 I had my own theater,” she says. “I’m very lucky.” Roger Tofte and six other members of his family still work at the park today.
Keeping the Dream Alive
When COVID-19 protocols delayed the park’s opening for the season in 2020 and reduced its visitor capacity, Vaslev and her family began to worry about covering the fixed costs of maintaining the attractions. They launched a GoFundMe account, increased the amount of merchandise items sold through their website and started a Buy a Brick program and offered private group rentals to help buoy them through. With each donation and purchase, park-goers shared stories and memories that spoke to how deeply ingrained Enchanted Forest was in the childhoods of generations of Oregonians.
“To have people give you their story of how much it means to them, how much it means to their family … it’s special to be part of that,” Vaslev says. “They want to make sure we’re here for their grandkids, for future generations, to have the same experience that they did.”
With protocols in place to keep everyone safe, Vaslev says, they’ll do everything they can to keep Enchanted Forest open. “This has been our whole life,” she says. “We will give it every single dime and ounce of energy and creativity that we have.”
If You Go:
Entry to Enchanted Forest must be purchased online, with tickets going on sale a few days in advance. Among a number of COVID safety precautions, park guests must undergo temperature checks and wear face coverings. Also, keep in mind that some of the amusement park’s attractions are temporarily closed.