Op-ed: Tilden Park’s Carousel has lost its Christmas spirit

For the past 20+ years the Tilden Park Carousel has been decorated for the winter holidays and has been a wonderland of lawn decorations, free visits with Santa, Christmas tree displays with a different theme for each tree, and of course, rides on the carousel. It has been a major holiday destination for thousands of area families.

As of this year, 2014, the family who has made the carousel a popular, month-long holiday event lost their contract with the East Bay Regional Parks District (for reasons rather murky and unknown…) to another corporation, Sycamore, of Walnut Creek. Sycamore runs several historic restaurants and Columbia State Historical Park. The carousel has been run for 23 years by the Oyarzun family of Orinda. The Oyarzuns are also the “goat people”, who rent out herds of goats to keep grasses down.

Gone is the well-run procedure with two entrances for the carousel. Now there is one gate, with a 40-minute wait line that snakes through half the building and outside. Benches replace the Christmas trees, so weary parents and children can sit when they tire of the long line. The walls are bare, so the only thing to look at is the other bewildered people standing in line. The carousel itself now has several animals that are “out of order”, including my son’s favorite, the “roundabout” where he joyfully darted when he boarded the carousel. However, he and the other riders were asked to move before the ride started.

Gone is the glorious ring of tall Christmas trees, where families would seek out that special, perfect ornament each year. The CAL tree, the rainbow tree, the ocean tree, the cowboy tree, the teddy bear tree…gone. There are still a few small trees, with ornaments that look like they came from Target. Gone is Santa’s little outdoor house, where families can bring their own cameras and have pics taken in Santa’s cosy home. Now Santa is stuck in a corner inside, where the kind saleslady with the tiny dogs should be.

The model train behind glass used to be an amazing display of tall, snowy mountainsides dotted with glowing villages with lit-up windows, tunnels, bridges, tiny people on tiny ice rinks. Now, on a flat table covered with a sheet of fake snow, one meager train loops around in a tiny circle, as a string of colored lights lies useless and pointless in the “snow”. The walls are covered with a few sheets of taped-up wrapping paper.

Inside there were well-managed counters for sales, with more ornaments and Christmas-themed gifts than you can imagine. Mugs, wall-hangings, little toys, jewelry and gadgets. I found special and unique gifts there every year. That space is now…just space.

Gone is the popcorn machine and the candy canes in the hot cocoa. Gone are the magnificent lawn displays, a lit-up, inflatable winter wonderland. (There are a few left, but it’s a small, depressing display compared to what was there before…)

Gone are the real reindeer.


But what’s really gone is the love, planning, devotion, and special touches by the Oyarzun family. Each tree was carefully hung with ornaments, never two of the same kind in the same area; big red bows were carefully tied to trees, with the rounded parts pulled out to make the bows puffy. Once, an employee proudly told me they carefully searched for and selected new items year-round, in preparation for Christmas.

You could see and feel the love in this event. This family truly took care of the carousel like it was part of them. They connected with us, as we would file through the building, eyes sparkling as we noticed every detail; every little bit of decorated greenery that was hung from the ceiling, and beautifully wrapped gifts tucked under the trees.

Now it really feels like a corporation runs it. New signs on the bare walls declare it a Christmas Fantasyland, rather than shelves full of toy animals, racks with funny signs, Christmas earrings, or stocking stuffers.

I don’t believe the signs. The spirit of Christmas has left the building with the Oyarzuns.

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Heidi Ross is a kindergarten instructional assistant, and a happily married mom of three who lives in Berkeley.