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Figurines from former Fairyland in Tampa may return to public

TAMPA — These fairy tale princesses have seen better days.

Stored behind a city warehouse near MacDill Air Force Base, Snow White's face is melting. Sleeping Beauty's has caved in.

These life-sized figures made of fiberglass and concrete now seem more suitable for a horror movie than a tourist attraction.

But Mario Nunez excitedly dances from one to the next, envisioning the statues as they looked when he was a kid, not as they do decades after being discarded.

"They're beautiful. Imagine her eyes a pristine blue," Nunez, 58, said of Snow White. "They just jumped out at you."

The statues were once part of Fairyland, a 15-acre North Tampa park with a winding walking path that took visitors on a journey through storybooks. The characters that children met at the park, which shared space with Lowry Park Zoo, included Peter Pan, Three Men in a Tub and Peter Rabbit.

Fairyland was razed in the late 1980s and the figures have since sat in or outside a warehouse, crumbling from age and the elements.

Now the city plans on auctioning them off in mid January.

Nunez is not happy about it.

He thinks the characters should be refurbished and placed somewhere to once again be enjoyed by children. There is no guarantee the winning bidder will share his vision. So he wants the city to give the statues to him to ensure a happy ever-after.

"This is part of our history," he said. "It should not be for sale."

He wants the statues in a public park or perhaps in different locations throughout the city.

"It could be a scavenger hunt," said Nunez, 58. "Find the characters."

This is not his only effort to salvage a piece of the city's history. Nunez also is on the hunt for the large, hand-painted illustration of Al Lopez that once adorned the West Tampa stadium named in honor of the baseball Hall of Famer. When the stadium was torn down in 1989, the sign had already been removed.

Nunez has reached out to viewers of The Tampa Natives Show, which he hosts on a local cable network, to help find the illustration. He also asked them to help him acquire the Fairyland figures.

The response has been tremendous, Nunez said. "Everybody is in place and ready to go."

His team includes Brenda Piniella Rouse, 57, a resource development director for the Rotary's Camp Florida, which helps people with special needs. She is helping Nunez start and then manage a non-profit to finance the restoration and storage of the characters until a permanent home can be found.

"Why would they be auctioned?" Piniella Rouse said. "What are they worth? How much will the city get? They are like that ratty teddy bear that is missing an eye and has a torn paw that no one wants unless it is their own. The only value they have is sentimental. So give them the right home."

Also helping is Linda Hope, 73, a local historian and owner of the weekly Penny Saver newspaper. She will seek needed funds and local artists willing to help.

"I used to take my kids to Fairyland," she said. "They had a rainbow bridge you walked over to get to a playground. Kids felt like they were walking into another world."

City Council member Yvonne Capin wants to give the group a chance. Cancel the auction, she says, and hand over the fairy tale characters.

"Why not?" she asks. "I've seen the city give away a lot more."

As a child, Capin used to go to Fairyland Park. Years later, as a mother, she took her daughter there.

"A lot of people may think it was cheesy," Capin said. "To us, it was magical."

Fairyland was built in the 1950s as a free complement to Lowry Park Zoo. In its heyday, which lasted into the 1980s, popular nursery rhyme music would play throughout.

Rapunzel peered out of the tower that held her captive. The big bad spider looked down on Little Miss Muffet. The shoe where the old woman lived was 20 feet high. Children could climb Jack's bean stalk or sit inside the mouth of Willie the Whale.

"This was our Disney World," Nunez said. "This was our place."

Fairyland was dismantled in 1986 to make way for a larger and more modern zoo.

"I thought the characters were gone," Nunez said.

When he looks now at the storybook characters tossed haphazardly behind the warehouse, he can't help but chuckle.

Only two of the homes built by the Three Little Pigs have survived the elements. Ironically, it's the brick one that is long gone.

And in the far corner lies Humpty Dumpty, flat on his back.

"He fell off that wall," said Nunez said. "But we're going to put him back together again."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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