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Mermaids, monsters and dragons coming to FantasyWood Festival in Columbia's Symphony Woods

Behind the scenes look at a cover shoot with mermaid Morgana Alba who will be performing at the FantasyWood Festival at Columbia's Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods in May. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun video)

The roar of an engine reverberates off the concrete walls and rattles the bay doors at the back of a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Laurel, empty except for a series of sets and props under construction.

A cobalt blue 1923 hot rod pulls into an open bay door, interrupting Lee Andersen, who was in the middle of explaining how the contraption next to her would become a 40-foot serpentine dragon.

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“Here it is!” she says. “Woohoo.”

Andersen, a Laurel-based clothing designer, calls the car a Tin Lizzie, even though it’s a converted Ford T Bucket and not a Model T. Like the dragon, the hot rod is slated to grace the grounds FantasyWood, a three-day celebration of the whimsical and fantastical set to unfold Memorial Day weekend at Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods.

Conceived nine months ago, the festival will celebrate an amalgamation of things usually left to the realm of imagination.

Though right now it is only plastic tubing, PVC pipe, baseboard and plastic fencing, the dragon appears as though it is emerging from the concrete floor, a sort of Loch Ness monster on land. With the addition of epoxy, fiberglass and paint, it will arch its way across the entrance of FantasyWood.

Also under construction in the warehouse: a Giant’s Garden with life-size flowers, a fairy village and a Mad Hatter’s tea party. Outside the bay doors, a 3,000-gallon tank stands waiting: come festival time, it will feature the Circus Siren Pod mermaid troupe performing their underwater aerobics shows.

The festival is a partnership between ManneqArt, Andersen’s annual wearable art contest; Circus Siren Pod; and Inner Arbor Trust, which manages Merriweather Park. Organizers expect 6,000 to 10,000 people to visit over the three days, with more than 50 volunteers, most in costume, making the event come alive.

The build-out of the attractions started in March. On this day, the hot rod has arrived for a photoshoot with 14-year-old model Lillian Cisna, who is posing for three projects: for her portfolio, for FantasyWood, and for the launch of an upcycled clothing line by a student of Andersen’s.

“We never do one thing at a time,” Andersen says before she rushes off to check on the set-up. “While we’ve got the hot rod, we might as well shoot the jeans with the hot rod. I multitask. You could underline that.”

Andersen’s former employee Becky Hawk says the festival is her “brain baby” – the idea blossomed out of her search for a way to replace a popular fairy festival in Pennsylvania that had ceased operations. As Hawk, who now works for Inner Arbor Trust, brainstormed with Andersen and Morgana Alba, founder of Circus Siren Pod, the idea expanded.

A short-list of the festival’s offerings will include unicorns, ogres, a witches’ cauldron, a 20-foot crashed alien spaceship, goblin games and a castle with performances by a puppet troop. Among the themed food and drink offerings will be the Sand-Witches’ Kitchen, the Wrecked Pirate Bar, a Bloody Mary Vampire Bar and the Brown Bear Beer Bar, with adult libations and “tree-and-root beer” for children.

Ellicott City’s Kinetics Dance Theatre will be among the performers at the festival, along with characters that interact with visitors. Numbers from the Columbia-born musical “Magic Under Glass” will entertain festival-goers as well.

And if that’s not enough to keep them busy, participants can sign up for The Quest, an adventure game of 26 challenges and riddles designed to immerse players in an alternate fairyland while they collect 20 tokens to win. Activities include howling at the Werewolves Den, crystal naming and telling a joke to a six-foot Sock Monster; if the sock monster likes the joke, players receive a token.

The festival will also publicly debut Andersen’s ManneqArt “sculpture on the human form” contest, now in its seventh year, where artists create themed outfits using materials such as magazines, plastic bags, metal and fabric. Each day of the festival, 30 models will wear the one of the 140 creations from ManneqArt’s past and present contests.

“I’m into original art. So what we did was [use] the fantasy thing to introduce the public to original art in a more accessible way. A bit sneaky,” Andersen says. “But what it does is introduce children, through something that they’re comfortable with, to creating original artwork.”

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Laurel-based Alba, owner of the Circus Siren Pod mermaid troupe and entertainment director for FantasyWood, is pulling on her connections and expertise to manage the performance line-up, which will include stilt walkers, Hula Hoop performers and the Florida-based Spark, “one of the best fairies in the country,” Alba said.

“It’s unlike any other Maryland-based festival because it’s running this hybrid between Renaissance-style fair performers and fantasy festival fair performers and high-end corporate level performers,” says Alba, a former circus performer. “This is something the state of Maryland has never seen in its own backyard before.”

While Andersen, Hawk and Alba are managing the entertainment, activities and refreshments, the Inner Arbor Trust is providing logistics and hosting the event. “Lee came to us with this idea where she wanted to take … this idea of a fantasy festival and place it in the woods,” says Nina Basu, President and CEO of Inner Arbor Trust. “It’s a really cool, different type of experience that I don’t think we see in Howard County -- or actually anywhere in this region.”

Other expectations, like Hawk’s, are more basic. “I just want a fun, magical experience,” she says. “There’s a magic these kinds of events have, and I think families being able to share that together and maybe families that normally wouldn’t have gone to an event like this, just getting to experience an event like this is really different. And for children, being able to see a mermaid.”

If you go: FantasyWood Festival

Where: Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, 10431 Little Patuxent Parkway

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. May 25 and 26. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. May 27.

Tickets: $12 for adults, $10 for children (ages 3 to 12) Saturday and Sunday. $10 for adults, $5 for children Monday. Weekend passes weekend passes are $20 for adults, $15 for children. Children 2 and under are free. $9 to participate in The Quest adventure.

More information: fantasywood.org

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