The Howard County Tourism Council is receiving at least 20 calls a week eager to know if and when the county's longtime children's attraction, the Enchanted Forest Theme Park, will open again.
But officials haven't been able to get an answer from the park's owners, who failed to open the more than 40-year-old amusement park on Route 40 in Ellicott City for the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of its summer season.
And some -- particularly operators of nearby businesses who live off the park's summertime draw -- fear that the one-of-a-kind park for small children is now closed for good.
Officials of the Towson-based JHP Development Inc. -- owner of both the theme park and the Family Fun Jungle, a related but newer indoor children's recreation center that closed in November -- would not comment yesterday about the park's status.
But JHP's lawyer, David Carney of Columbia, added yesterday that there are no plans at this time to close the park or sell it. "The intention is to open it this year," he said. "When, I'm not sure."
With its bigger-than-life figures taken from well-known Mother Goose stories, the park has been a magnet for area children since it opened in 1954. It closed in 1986 but was reopened in May 1994 by Jeffrey S. Pechter, vice president of JHP and his father, Jack H. Pechter.
They had bought 32 acres along Route 40, including the theme park, in 1988 for more than $4.5 million from businessman Howard E. Harrison III, whose father opened the park.
The Pechters opened a 136,000-square-foot shopping center at the site in March 1992, leasing much of the center's space to Safeway, which sits opposite the theme park.
They also opened a Family Fun Jungle in the shopping center to serve as a new entrance to the park. That attraction closed last fall and already is being replaced with a pet-food supply store and a savings and loan branch office.
Meanwhile, the park appears to be far from ready to reopen this year.
Two painters were repainting Sleeping Beauty's castle white yesterday, but said they didn't have much hope that the park would reopen.
Sleeping Beauty is covered by rust and chipped paint. The park's Little Boy Blue figure has fallen into a pile of leaves.
The lack of information about the park's status is causing consternation at the county Tourism Council, which considers it a prime local attraction.
"It's disappointing and sad to have to tell them, sorry, 'We don't know what's happening with the park now,'" said Dana Fritzges, a guide in the council's offices, said of callers inquiring about the park.
It also has caused rumors among the shopping center's merchants that the park will be shuttered for good.
"To lose the park for good would be a great disappointment and loss for all of us out here," said Freeda Johnson, manager of the Enchanted Forest Diner, which sits across Route 40 from the park.
"It was such a nice, wholesome place to take your kids to.
"When the Enchanted Forest Theme Park first came out, there wasn't anything like the Inner Harbor or any of the other fancy sites to see like there is now," said Ms. Johnson, who's taken her children and her grandchildren there. "It was exciting for kids and parents to go into the park and see the fairy tales they had read at nighttime come to life before them."
Merchants estimate that about 150 children from as far as Virginia and Pennsylvania visited the park on weekends in the summer, particularly when the Fun Jungle was open.
"It's a shame to see both the parks go," Sue Buckholz, a manager at the Little Alexander's restaurant, said of the Enchanted Forest and Fun Jungle.
"The history of the Enchanted Forest passed by word of mouth. All you had to say was 'We're near the Enchanted Forest' and everybody in Howard County and Baltimore knew where you were talking about. The park was a gold mine that drew people for almost all of us," she said.
A candy store in the shopping center closed in February because of the slow business, she said.
Now, instead of 50 customers an hour, her restaurant gets only that many or less a day, she said.
And most customers have one question: When will the Enchanted Forest open?
Yesterday, that was Claire Connors' question, too.
Mrs. Connors, 39, drove from her home in Burtonsville with her 5-year-old son to find to Enchanted Forest's gates closed.
"I thought for sure the park would be open by now, and my son really likes eating at the picnic tables that are white rats," Mrs. Connors said, as she peered through the locked gates of the park. "We've come at least five to six times within the past year because it's a lot of fun for kids to see the life-size fairy tale characters, like Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty.
"I don't think there's any other that could ever be like it," she said. "Maybe it will reopen soon, I hope."