This is officially the best job in the entire Bay Area 💥👩👩💥

In all my years as a journalist, I never imagined that my serious, on-the-ground reporting would ever be interrupted by a tiny, pastel-green locomotive called the Jolly Trolly. But here I am, sitting and watching it pleasantly chug past me like a character straight out of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” I wave at the conductor while he rings a little bell, joining the chorus of singing birds flying overhead.

I’ve only been in Children’s Fairyland for about 15 minutes, but much to my own surprise, I am already starting to short-circuit with glee — I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt such a palpable sense of whimsy and magic.

For Shannon Taylor and Ari Bird, the two artists in charge of restoring the beloved theme park, this is all just a normal day on the job. Together, they use their craftsmanship to sand, paint and restore — or entirely recreate — the 72-year-old park’s surreal props, rides and architecture.

One of the oldest theme parks in America, Oakland’s Fairyland reportedly influenced some of the biggest theme park franchises we know today. Walt Disney visited it shortly after it opened in 1950, allegedly inspiring his “magic kingdom,” which opened five years later.

Taylor and Bird, covered head to toe in splattered red, white and orange paint, met me outside the Old Lady in the Shoe to give me a tour of the park. The duo agreed it’s a rewarding and therapeutic occupation — and they could never succumb to a traditional 9-5 because of it.

Children’s Fairyland director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor (in orange cap) and painter Ari Bird walk through the theme park’s grounds in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. They work to restore and keep the theme park’s attractions in tip-top shape.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“It’s the most fun job,” says Bird as we walk past Oswald, a bubble-blowing elf sitting on top of a larger-than-life red mushroom. Whenever Taylor and Bird talk about their projects, they always refer to them by their character name: There’s Miss Muffet, the lady in red, the Happy Dragon, Pinocchio and, of course, Ozzy. Bird and Taylor don’t just restore the park’s friendly characters, they breathe new life into their personas (this definitely applies to the park’s older and unfortunately “creepier” cast members).

Like this owl, for instance.

Like this owl, for instance.

Shannon Taylor

It all seemed … well, too good to be true. Was there anything at all that made this job challenging or difficult? Taylor and Bird seem confused by the question, though they do cite some physical challenges. For example, nearly every structure from the pumpkin-shaped espresso bar to the Storybook Puppet Theater is at a jaunty angle, making them hard to access.

“They say there are no straight lines in Fairyland,” Bird says as we walk past the Jolly Roger Pirate Ship.

“There’s a surprise around every corner, which is especially true if you’re trying to put a ladder anywhere,” adds Taylor. She’s not just referring to the slanted, dreamlike architecture though: She says the park is dominated by “miniatures” — miniature ponies, miniature donkeys, dwarf goats, babydoll sheep, chickens and ducks. And when the park closes, they get to wander around and stretch their legs, making the job all the more whimsical.

A park employee tests out the Jolly Trolly at Children's Fairyland in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. Director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor and painter Ari Bird work to restore and keep the theme park's rides and attractions in tip-top shape.

A park employee tests out the Jolly Trolly at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. Director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor and painter Ari Bird work to restore and keep the theme park’s rides and attractions in tip-top shape.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“You’ll be painting and then a little horse is just trotting by you. … It’s inherently therapeutic,” Bird says as she applies yellow paint to a big letter D. Right now, she’s restoring the iconic Fairyland sign that overlooks Lake Merritt, which gets tagged up or worn down by the elements (including small children).

Her shared art studio with Taylor feels like a theme park in of itself: It’s elegantly cluttered with old props and historic screen prints, hand-painted signs and rows upon rows of magic keys. Taylor says they’re part of an “underground network” among employees, but declined to go into further detail.

Children's Fairyland director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor (in orange cap) stands in the art department's workspace in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. There she helps restore and keep the theme park's rides and attractions in tip-top shape.

Children’s Fairyland director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor (in orange cap) stands in the art department’s workspace in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. There she helps restore and keep the theme park’s rides and attractions in tip-top shape.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Behind its pastel gates, Fairyland feels like a secret world tucked away from reality. But even here, there are somber motifs that poke through its magic veil. “Distance is delightful!” says a hand-painted purple sign with a rainbow on it. “Take turns,” says another. In front of us, masked children walk in single-file, careful to avoid getting too close. Park employees, too, are adapting to modern times.

Bird, who was forced to pack up her belongings and leave her job mid-shift during lockdown, is determined to keep her role at the park. In the early days of the pandemic, it faced an uncertain future: Fairyland closed in March of 2020, furloughing all 56 of its employees and losing more than $1 million during the shutdown. Now, Bird splits her time between Oakland and San Diego, driving her truck up to the bay monthly and crashing with friends so she can take on projects weeks at a time.

Children's Fairyland director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor, left, and painter Ari Bird stand in front of paint cans they use in the art department's workshop in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. They work together to restore and keep the theme park's attractions in tip-top shape.

Children’s Fairyland director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor, left, and painter Ari Bird stand in front of paint cans they use in the art department’s workshop in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. They work together to restore and keep the theme park’s attractions in tip-top shape.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Children's Fairyland painter Ari Bird works on painting the theme park's sign in the art department's workspace in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. Director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor (not pictured) and Bird work to restore and keep the theme park's rides and attractions in tip-top shape.

Children’s Fairyland painter Ari Bird works on painting the theme park’s sign in the art department’s workspace in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. Director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor (not pictured) and Bird work to restore and keep the theme park’s rides and attractions in tip-top shape.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Working in the art and restoration department and learning from Taylor, whom she refers to as a “master of materials,” has also informed her own work. “I love weird cartoons and things that are kind of off-kilter,” she says.

And it shows: An artist outside of Fairyland, Bird fabricates anything from 7-foot-tall tube socks to forbidden silica packets for drag performances, music videos and gallery installations. “Baggies,” Bird’s solo show, is currently on view at Oakland’s “lowbrow” Crisis Club Gallery through July. Down the street, Berkeley’s Rolodex Gallery is featuring some of her sculptures as part of its latest group exhibition, “Excursions.”

Children's Fairyland Director of Art and Restoration Shannon Taylor applies some molding clay on an elf in needs of repairs in the art department's workspace in Oakland, Calif. on June 8, 2022. There she helps restore and keep the theme park's rides and attractions in tip-top shape.
Children’s Fairyland Director of Art and Restoration Shannon Taylor applies some molding clay on an elf in needs of repairs in the art department’s workspace in Oakland, Calif. on June 8, 2022. There she helps restore and keep the theme park’s rides and attractions in tip-top shape.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Similarly, Taylor, who coincidentally marked her 12-year anniversary at Fairyland the day I visited, is the new assistant chair of California College of the Arts’ illustration department. Taylor said she never expected to have a job like this, explaining that it “just kind of happened.” After finishing school, she saw a photo of Fairyland on her friend’s Myspace page. Enamored with the park, she started volunteering and realized that both she and her mother went there as kids.

Children's Fairyland director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor (in orange cap) applies some molding clay on an elf in need of repairs in the art department's workspace in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. There she helps restore and keep the theme park's rides and attractions in tip-top shape.

Children’s Fairyland director of art and restoration Shannon Taylor (in orange cap) applies some molding clay on an elf in need of repairs in the art department’s workspace in Oakland, Calif., on June 8, 2022. There she helps restore and keep the theme park’s rides and attractions in tip-top shape.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

She’s still a newbie compared to other Fairyland employees, though. Randal Metz, the master puppeteer, has worked at the park since he was kid, which equates to at least 40 or 50 years, she said.


Even as someone who generally loathes amusement parks, I can see why children and adults flock to them — and why they have such a strong hold on American culture. As this country continues to endure tragedy after tragedy, children deserve to have spaces that shelter them from the increasingly mundane evils of guns and illness. It is impossible to be in a place like this and not ruminate on how we are failing to protect our children, and how, every day, we continue to mourn the ones we have lost.

As I gather my belongings and leave the park, chickens wander in their coop, and the painters and horticulturists and train conductors continue to oil the gears of Fairyland. Here, all is well.

This is officially the best job in the entire Bay Area

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