Hoping to survive until next year, Enchanted Forest appeals to visitors for help

Roger Tofte, creator of Enchanted Forest, stands next to the witch’s head on Tuesday, October 27. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

On a chilly October morning in Enchanted Forest, Roger Tofte stood next to the color-splashed Tiny Tune Train ride and leaned over to cover a replica castle in a black plastic sheet.

Enchanted Forest, an iconic theme park located just south of Salem, is preparing for winter. The Gingerbread House, Crooked House and other structures are wrapped in plastic, as well as Humpty Dumpty and storybook figures scattered throughout the park.

Closing Enchanted Forest for the season is a familiar ritual for Tofte, who built the park in the 1960s with his four kids in mind. But this year has been different.

Enchanted Forest would normally be flush with cash right now after a summer of families streaming in to ride the Ice Mountain Bobsled Roller Coaster, search for Mondor the Wizard, brave the Haunted House or check out other attractions.

State pandemic restrictions sharply cut into the park’s income and Enchanted Forest is unexpectedly in debt. On Monday, Enchanted Forest launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $500,000 the family-run park said it needs to survive until next season.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Enchanted Forest had raised over $120,000 from donors. Many left comments on the GoFundMe’s page reminiscing about happy childhood memories from the iconic theme park that first opened in 1971.

“It’s very expensive to run a theme park,” said Susan Vaslev, a daughter of Roger Tofte who helps manage the park. “Just buying wheels for rides, it’s tens of thousands of dollars.”

The park is depending on things being normal and visitors willing to venture out, said Vaslev. Regardless of what next year brings, the family insists it’ll find a way to stay open.

Before the pandemic, Enchanted Forest’s parking lot was overflowing each summer, she said. The park, where three generations of the family work, even cut advertising because it had no trouble attracting visitors and no trouble paying bills, she said.

“People coming out here just seemed so happy and really loving it,” she said. “Things just seemed to get better every year.”

The park usually opens for the season in March, attracting several thousand people a day. This year, the park wasn’t allowed to open until June because of state restrictions intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus. When it did open only 250 people could be at the park at once, including staff. Slides, face-painting and other attractions were also closed.

Derek Vaslev, a grandson of Roger Tofte who also works at Enchanted Forest, said it was exciting to have visitors return. But the 20-acre park felt like “a ghost town,” he said.  

Seeing its revenue drop, Enchanted Forest cut more than half of its 200 seasonal employees, said Mary Tofte, Susan’s sister, who also works at the park. Neither had exact numbers on the park’s finances, but said it’s in the red. 

In the past, she said the park would take out loans to build new rides or attractions that would steadily pay for themselves. This time, she said, there are no rides to pay off the debt.

 “Everybody can only survive so much debt,” said Vaslev.

While supporters reached out earlier wanting to donate to Enchanted Forest, Vaslev said that the family decided to wait until the season was over and figure out how much it needed before launching a GoFundMe.

Vaslev said that the $500,000 is the minimum amount Enchanted Forest needs to make it to next season. The park also began auctioning off original prints by Roger Tofte depicting scenes from Enchanted Forest, as well as old tickets, signs and memorabilia.  

While Enchanted Forest is closed until next spring, there are still bills to pay.

Property taxes on the park are due in November, as well as insurance payments. The fall and winter are also when park employees disassemble its rides, some down to the last bolt for cleaning and maintenance, said Derek Vaslev.

While closed, Enchanted Forest brings in outside companies to inspect the rides for cracks or other possible safety hazards, he said. Normally, he has a crew of six or seven to help. Now, he has two, said Vaslev.

Earlier in the pandemic, Enchanted Forest unsuccessfully asked the state to allow small groups to visit the park. Susan Vaslev said that they take sanitization seriously and could accommodate more people safely.

Roger Tofte, 90, said the situation is stressful but he keeps a positive attitude.

When he purchased the land for the park in 1964, he had a state job working on highways. He spent his free time building the storybook figures for the park in the family’s backyard and hauling bags of cement up to Enchanted Forest’s future location.

He took on extra work to pay for his dream, including commercial art and fixing watches. During the noon hour, he’d drive around with watches up to his elbow that he was either picking up or dropping off.

“In those days, I didn’t really have any timeline,” he said. “Now we’re in a whole different ball game.”

Tofte continues to press on. While out in the park, he pointed to attractions, such as the bumper boats that were closed this year, noting that he’ll know next year if they can be reopened.

He said he even daydreams about expanding and adding new attractions.  

  Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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