EarthWorld amusement park to open June 6th

The traditional concept of the 'theme park' - with its bustling retail sectors, colorful molded synthetic decor, and ever higher, faster and more convoluted rides, will get a new twist on Saturday, June 6th , as EarthWorld makes its grand debut. EarthWorld is the first venture of the ad hoc non-profit company Diversity Amusements and Recreational Ecology Initiative (known as DARE-I), which has been planning, shaping, and implementing plans for the first all-natural theme park since its founding in 2000.

"We believe people are eager for an alternative to the neon and plastic and other artifice, not to mention the commercialization, of the typical modern theme park experience," says DARE-I Executive Director Siobhan Willingham, "and we are committed to not only challenging the current concept of the amusement park, but to fundamentally changing the way people relate to the world around them."

That's a tall order, given attendance figures at traditional amusement venues like Disney, Six Flags and King's Island that annually run into the tens of millions. But even if the turnstiles at EarthWorld donŐt spin up to that standard, Willingham believes the venture will be self-sustaining due to its commitment to environmentalism.

"There is virtually nothing on-site that is not either recyclable or biodegradable," says Willingham, "and that means our operating costs remain very low."

A comprehensive tour of the facility seems to confirm Willingham's assertion: dirt paths traverse and encircle the entire park, and all signage and construction - of which there is very little - is wood.

"Several of our park attendants do have rubber-soled boots," says Willingham, "but we try to discourage that. And the boots don't remain in the park, of course."

Without the usual rides and characters and commercial plazas, what exactly is there to see and do in EarthWorld?

"We have an abundance of trees, and now that it's spring, we have a wide variety of wildflowers growing right along the paths," says Willingham, "the trees have moss on the north side, there are songbird nests, and if you look very carefully among the underbrush you'll see everything from chipmunks to squirrels to rabbits - there's an amazing diversity of life in the park - and that's what we're all about: diversity. Biological diversity."

Willingham is also eager to tout some of the park's less 'active' attractions.

"We have one of the largest exposed granite boulders in the county - it's kind of the centerpiece of the park," explains Willingham. "Farmer's Rock," as the six foot high stone is called, is also responsible for the park's largest budgetary outlay: "We had to scrub quite a bit of graffiti off the rock before we could open - that's one of the reasons we weren't able to open by Earth Day - and we anticipate that (graffiti removal) will be a significant ongoing expense."

The other major expense in Earthworld's budget is maintenance of the wooden fence that separates the park from its (dirt only) parking lot, and from other vacant lots in the area.

"That's the only real barrier in the park," interjects Assistant Director Melanie Morris, "the rest of the park is barrier free, including the swamp."

Morris is responsible for monitoring "the swamp," a 400 square-foot area on the park's northern boundary that accumulates standing water when it rains, and is home to tadpoles, newts, and a wide variety of insects.

"I don't think you could drown in there, unless you passed out, but you could certainly lose a shoe," says Morris, "and we do have a strict leave-nothing-behind policy."

So what makes EarthWorld different from, say, a State Park, or any other woodlot?

"It's the people," says Willingham, "the people - and the commitment to sustainable ecology. And diversity."

The park's success, however, will depend on more than just the commitment of the twenty-seven highly motivated members of its staff. Since the park has no web site, no gift shop, no admission fee, and cannot accept any public donations due to a clerical error in its charter, it is compelled to charge a $22 per-vehicle fee for parking.

"It sounds a little steep," says Morris, "but if you look at it as kind of a 'carbon-footprint tax,' it fits right in with our mission."

"And I believe, when you see everything we have to offer here adds Willingham, "you'll agree we're worth it."

EarthWorld's opening day - they're calling it 'E-Day' - is Saturday, June 6th. The park is open 24 hours a day, and admission is free. Carpooling and sturdy footwear are both strongly recommended.