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Oregon community raises over 400K to save family-owned amusement park

As the economy slowly begins to pick up, many businesses are still facing a rocky year ahead. Special correspondent Cat Wise has a story about one family-owned business, an amusement park named Enchanted Forest, that has taken one hit after another but is hanging on with support from the community.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the economy slowly begins to pick up, many businesses are still facing a rocky year ahead.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise has a story about one family-owned business that has taken one hit after another, but is hanging on with support from the community.

  • Cat Wise:

    Happy moments, from a time before masks and social distancing at Enchanted Forest, a small amusement park nestled on a wooded hillside just south of Salem, Oregon.

    Normally this time of year, the park would be filled with the spring breakers. But after an exceptionally turbulent year, capped by a devastating winter storm in February, this unique and much-loved park is closed and struggling to survive.

    Enchanted Forest was built by hand by this man:

  • Roger Tofte:

    I'm Roger Tofte, creator of Enchanted Forest.

  • Cat Wise:

    Tofte, who recently turned 91, purchased the park's 20 acres in the early 1960s while working as a draftsman for the Oregon Highway Department.

    He spent seven years, during his free time, building the park's storybook-themed attractions, and brought them to life with his artist's eye. In August of 1971, he opened the park to the public.

  • Roger Tofte:

    When we started, we didn't have too much. But we had the Seven Dwarfs, and lion, and the witch, and things like that. I think we charged 50 cents to go through.

  • Cat Wise:

    Over the years, Tofte added to those attractions with the help of his four children and other family, who now help run the park. Around 100,000 visitors came each year, strolled through the quirky Western town, got soaked on the log ride, and blasted evil characters in the Challenge of Mondor, which took Tofte seven months to create.

    He took me for a spin on the ride during our recent visit.

    Part of the ride is taking these blasters and aiming them at things?

  • Roger Tofte:

    Yes.

  • Cat Wise:

    OK.

  • Roger Tofte:

    They are infrared guns. And we shoot at these blue spots.

  • Cat Wise:

    We shoot at the blue shots. I think I got one.

    Tofte's oldest daughter, Susan Vaslev, is co-manager of the park.

    How would you sum up the past year?

  • Susan Vaslev:

    Challenging. I just keep thinking it's another challenge, it's another challenge, it's another challenge.

  • Cat Wise:

    The first of those challenges, the pandemic.

  • Susan Vaslev:

    Before COVID, we had no debt. We were a thriving family business. Things were great.

    Then we were forced to shut down, so we had zero income coming in. And an amusement park is very expensive to run.

  • Cat Wise:

    Later in the summer, when government COVID regulations eased up, they were allowed to reopen, but at greatly reduced capacity.

    Then came the wildfires. As the Beachie Creek Fire encroached on surrounding communities in early September, family members scrambled to save important documents and memorabilia, unsure sure if the park would survive.

    And, nearby, a family tragedy unfolded. Roger Tofte's 13-year-old great-grandson, Wyatt Tofte, and his grandmother were killed by the fire outside their home. Wyatt's mother survived, but was badly burned.

  • Susan Vaslev:

    The horrible tragedy of trying to save Wyatt and Peggy, and not being able to. The world could not have lost two more beautiful people, you know?

  • Cat Wise:

    The Tofte family were hoping for a better year ahead, but damage from the ice storm set back their reopening plans.

    Enchanted Forest is one of many small businesses around the country that have been devastated by the pandemic and other events over the past year. Many have had to get creative in order to survive.

    And that's what's happened here too. The Tofte family has reached out to the community for support. And there has been a big effort to save this beloved park.

    In October, Enchanted Forest started a GoFundMe campaign, which has now raised more than $400,000 from nearly 8,000 donors. Many have taken to social media to express what the park has meant to them and their families.

    That money, combined with other fund-raising efforts, like a new buy-a-brick program, and government COVID relief funds have allowed the park to continue to operate, but just barely.

    Vaslev says they have had to let some staff go, and the park has taken on debt.

  • Celina Lopez-Cruz:

    When you walk in, you just know that every piece was touched and made with love.

  • Cat Wise:

    One of those rooting for the park is 23-year-old Celina Lopez-Cruz, who worked at the park for five seasons and met her now-husband there.

  • Celina Lopez-Cruz:

    If Enchanted Forest were ever to go away, it's going to not be a loss to just me and my family, but it's going to be a loss to the whole community. It's just been a part of our community for such a long time.

  • Vera Keller:

    There are so many similar institutions which are facing these same pressures.

  • Cat Wise:

    University of Oregon history Professor Vera Keller has been tracking what's been happening at Enchanted Forest and other cultural institutions across the state.

    She says, if some don't make it, the impacts could be wide-ranging.

  • Vera Keller:

    It's so important for our identity as Oregonians here in the state to have these places that we have had shared experiences in, like the Enchanted Forest. And it's around those places that we can come together. Even when we disagree about, say, taxes or other political issues, there is an important social and cultural function that they serve.

  • Cat Wise:

    Can you make it another year?

  • Susan Vaslev:

    That is the big question. Until we are past the point where we have to social distance and sanitize between each rider, we cannot get back to normal.

  • Cat Wise:

    For his part, Roger Tofte is optimistic about his park's future.

  • Roger Tofte:

    Yes. Yes, I'm pretty sure it will survive.

  • Cat Wise:

    Tofte and his family hope to reopen later in April.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Turner, Oregon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important to see these uplifting moments in this pandemic.

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