Local artist restores Tampa Fairyland statues, helping revive lost theme park

Ask a typical Tampa resident what the city’s first theme park was, and many would probably cite Busch Gardens. Yet, even before Busch Gardens opened its doors in 1959, there was another theme park in town that has long since become virtually forgotten. Its name was Fairyland, and it was one of the most popular Tampa attractions for young children and their families for nearly 40 years beginning in 1957. 

Fairyland was a free theme park that was attached to Lowry Park Zoo and enchanted its young visitors with scenes from several popular nursery rhymes and Grimm’s fairytales, including “The Three Little Pigs,” “Humpty-Dumpty,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel” and “The Old Woman That Lived In A Shoe.” Visitors passed from Lowry Park Zoo to Fairyland via the Rainbow Bridge, a colorfully painted concrete bridge structure whimsically arching over a large water fountain. 

Traces of Fairyland began disappearing when Lowry Park Zoo was closed for extensive renovations beginning in September 1987. Fairyland was eventually rebranded as Fun Forest before the attraction was razed in 1996 to make way for expansions to the 63-acre zoo. For years afterward, those who lovingly recalled Fairyland had assumed all traces of the attraction were lost forever. 

Rediscovering Fairyland 

Mario Núñez, host of The Tampa Natives Show on Frontier 32-Spectrum 635, is a longtime friend of Tampa history. But even he couldn’t have been prepared for the historic revelation he was about to make four years ago when visiting the City of Tampa Recreation Department to find where his grandmother was buried at Marti-Colon Cemetery in West Tampa. 

“While in the office of Katharine Walker-Herbert, I noticed a picture of Rapunzel’s Castle in Fairyland on the wall,” Núñez recalls. “I made reference to it and its importance to Tampa natives. Mrs. Walker-Herbert closed the door to her office and in a hushed voice said, ‘we still have most of those figures.’ I was amazed completely to learn that our beloved Fairyland still existed at all,” he says. “I was so excited that without realizing it, I was asking if there might be a way that I could get to see them – my mind was racing conjuring up the possibilities. To see them again would be tantamount to jumping in a time machine and being eight years old again,” says the 58-year-old Tampa historian. 

The Fairyland relics had been sitting for many years in a City of Tampa storage yard, leaving the aging figures to the unforgiving elements of time. 

“I had the perfect vehicle to garner support for a restoration effort as creator and host of The Tampa Natives Show,” says Núñez. “All I had to do was merely mention that the lost relics were found and everyone wanted to learn more.” 

Artist Jason Hulfish and Richard Gonzmart.Richard Gonzmart, who operates several local restaurants, including Columbia Restaurant, Goody Goody, and Ulele, was among the first individuals Núñez reached out to. “I called him immediately and asked him to come on the show so we might discuss it.” 

Gonzmart, who pledged to help rescue the relics from their sad fate behind a warehouse, entered a city auction in January 2017 to purchase virtually every remaining Fairyland statue the city still owned. In all, Gonzmart spent nearly $30,000 buying 11 fairytale scenes, including their respective figures and pieces. But even after intense bidding wars against other parties on several items, the hard part had barely even begun after the last Fairyland lot crossed the auction block into Gonzmart’s hands. 

The 60-year-old fiberglass figures would need to be lovingly restored, most of them quite extensively. Enter local artist Jason Hulfish.

Sprinkling magic back into Fairyland 

Gonzmart is no stranger to collecting historic relics. He owns multiple classic musical instruments, such as a vintage Höfner violin bass autographed by former Beatles star Paul McCartney showcased in the Goody Goody dining room. 

“The person I have maintain and work on my guitars told me about Jason [Hulfish],” Gonzmart says. “He explained how Jason had done work for the bedrooms of the children of [musician] Don Miggs. I contacted Jason, we met, and knew he was the best person anywhere for this important project.” 

Hulfish, who has been handling the Fairyland restoration for months, is working magic in the eyes of Gonzmart. 

Artist Jason Hulfish.“Jason is a master,” says the Tampa restaurateur and philanthropist. “The restorative work he had done on the three pigs [of “The Three Little Pigs” scene from Fairyland] and Jack of the beanstalk surpassed my expectations. He is now working on Jack’s beanstalk as well as Humpty Dumpty.” 

A Clearwater native who attended the University of South Florida as a pre-med chemistry major, Hulfish says his art techniques are self-taught. 

“I believe artistic skills are only learned by ‘doing’ and ‘observing’,” says Hulfish, whose followers keep up with him on his Facebook page, among other social media outlets. 

“I have been working in art most of my life, but professionally for the last 10 years.” His skills had left an impression on Gonzmart, who made the initial call to Hulfish. “We had a brief phone conversation where I like to believe we hit it off on more of a personal level,” says the namesake owner of Jason Hulfish Design Studio. “We only briefly spoke about the project and art.” 

For Hulfish, the Fairyland endeavor has been a unique experience.

“We are most known for our fantasy-themed children’s rooms,” he says. Yet this isn’t the first time his exceptional artistry has thrust him into the limelight. “We have also worked on TV shows such as Extreme Makeover Home Edition, Treehouse Masters, and are regulars on Bar Rescue. Our unique skill sets of design, sculpture, and painting have recently brought us restoration projects from Weeki Wachee and now, of course, Fairyland.” 

Restoring the Fairyland figures hasn’t necessarily been easy. The statues were removed from Lowry Park Zoo more than two decades ago, years before the advent of cell phone cameras could provide thorough visitor imagery of the classic attraction. 

A collection of relatively few old images is providing the bulk of photographic guidance in restoring the Fairyland figures to their former glory. 

“We are restoring them from old photos that many Tampa residents have provided on a Facebook page called ‘Save Fairyland','' says Hulfish. “Most of the photos are in black-and-white or are of poor quality, so in the instances where we have photos, we are using them. Otherwise we are documenting the existing color combinations and restoring from them.” 

One instance where old photographs of Fairyland have been particularly instructive is in instances where entire parts of the figures or their scenes are missing. “Jack from ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ was missing his axe, but we were able to reconstruct from a photo provided by the Save Fairyland page.” 

Hulfish is also receiving restorative guidance from Gonzmart and his team. 

“They have given us some creative license to put our spin on the figures,” says the artist. “For instance, we combine a little airbrush work over the hand painting. This technique helps add dimension and personality to the characters that makes them a little more interesting and relevant to today’s patrons.” 

He says the restoration process, which he suggests could last months longer, has been challenging but enjoyable. “It’s really cool to work on pieces of history while at the same time bringing back life to these characters that many dismissed as trash. It is a lot of hard, messy work and we expected that.” 

As decades of old paint and grime are carefully removed and new life breathed back in, some of the characters are growing on him. 

“I like the spider [of “Little Miss Muffet” fame]. He’s super creepy and kind of weird,” he remarks. He’s also grown a professional fondness for one particular princess and her gourd-inspired chariot. “I like Cinderella and the pumpkin carriage from a restoration and challenge standpoint -- they will really take some effort.” The egg-shaped Humpty Dumpty has also cracked a spot among Hulfish’s Fairyland favorites. “He’s super cool, too.”  

Many Tampa natives and others who visited Fairyland likely have personal favorites they wish to meet again. And while Hulfish invites visitors to his studio, he says the recovering Fairyland figures aren’t receiving visitors just yet. 

“When it comes to the Fairyland pieces there is a little bit of an unveiling the Gonzmarts have planned, so we are trying to keep the figures out of the public eye until they are ready.” 

Fairyland lives again

Finding Fairyland at Tampa Bay History CenterA few of the Fairyland figures that have yet to be restored are on display at the Tampa Bay History Center in a limited-run exhibit called “Finding Fairyland.'' The exhibit, which continues through May 21 showcases figures such as the Three Little Pigs, photographs of Fairyland, and other relics of the lost Tampa theme park. 

Soon, if all goes as planned, they will be on display again near Gonzmart’s Ulele restaurant along the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River. 

“The plan is to have the scenes placed around the property of the Ulele,” Gonzmart reveals. “For example, when arriving off Highland Avenue and coming down the stairs, the beanstalk will be placed in-between the handicap access ramp toward the grounds. It will be visible from the street,” he details. 

“Cinderella in her carriage will be placed near the spring with new customized steps leading up to the carriage so that children might sit inside next to Cinderella to post for photos,” he continues. “Each scene will have the original storybook with a short story for parents to read to their children or for children to read with the additional scan of a QR code -- it’s the 21st century meets the past.” 

Meanwhile, the nostalgic Núñez hopes one more Fairyland icon will be rebuilt. 

Fairyland Rainbow Bridge.“One can only hope, and imagine, that there might yet be another form of the Rainbow Bridge constructed,” he says. “It would be totally fitting and create another amazing opportunity for families to gather and photos be taken. After all, it was only after crossing the Rainbow Bridge that you found yourself among the characters of Fairyland at Lowry Park.”

For Núñez and many other native Tampans who, like him, visited the theme park in their youth, Fairyland still holds a warm spot in the heart – a place that existed in a far simpler time and in a much smaller version of Tampa. 

“Personally, Fairyland held all the magic and wonder that many kids see today at Disney World,” he remarks. “It was our own Disneyland.” He recalls the early Lowry Park Zoo as a fun attraction, but Fairyland as the “centerpiece” of it all. “Life-sized fairytale figures you could touch and be photographed with -- it was a magical place.” 

Details are still coming together on when the Fairyland figures will endear their magic Fairyland figurinesupon the public once more, though Núñez says he is “hearing plans of a spring 2018 reveal.” Whether or not that will come to pass is unknown. “We are hearing whispers of an Easter Sunday sunrise service surprise,” he says. “A resurrection of a different ilk.” 

Regardless of when the Fairyland unveil happens, Núñez already likes what he’s seeing coming out of Hulfish’s design studio. 

“[He’s] a man whose airbrush skills are exceeded only by his inventive improvisational work in the creative art world,” Núñez says of Hulfish. “Many of these characters had suffered grotesque damage at the hand’s of the city’s neglect, but Jason has already proven with his restoration of The Three Little Pigs that many of these beloved characters will look better than their original selves.” 

Hulfish, humbled by the recognition his Fairyland efforts have earned him so far, clearly understands the responsibility he and his team have assumed by taking on this historic project. 

“We are completely flattered that we were chosen for this project, mainly because we know how much the restoration of Fairyland means to Richard Gonzmart and his family, as well as the restoration of Tampa history,” he says. “Our hope is to restore the figures, preserving the feel of the past and improving them for the future.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.