Maintaining the grounds at a popular theme park

Storybook Land, Egg Harbor Township, N.J., embodies the dream of Esther and John Fricano Sr. and has been owned and operated by the Fricano family since its inception in 1955. John Fricano Jr. is current president, but also pitches in with a shovel when needed. “We’re all working owners, just like our parents,” he says. “They started very small, with 5 acres of ground, a vision, a lot of ambition and tireless effort.” As the dream grew, so did the park. The family has acquired a total of 50 acres over the years; 20 are currently devoted to park space. The remainder accommodates behind-the-scenes needs while providing the option for further growth.

John Fricano, president of Storybook Land, carries out the family tradition of enhancing the natural setting with colorful landscaping to delight park visitors.
Little details matter at Storybook Land. Here, a “tree” of potted impatiens adds more color to the landscape.

It takes a lot of dedicated people and year-round effort to handle the long season. Storybook Land opens the first weekend in April (or sooner if Easter falls in March) and closes December 30. Fricano says, “Most of our work is done in-house. When we’re in full, weeklong operation during the summer, we have 80 people on payroll in varying capacities to handle the rides, food service, cleaning, maintenance, painting and landscaping. Everyone has their area of specialty but will do whatever it takes to get things done.”

Working with the woods

The Fricano family has opted to develop their park within the natural landscape, working around the old growth of primarily black, white and red oaks and the pines native to New Jersey. The result is a park that is nearly all shaded.

Wide pathways wind through the trees, providing shade for park visitors.

Plantings are added to build on that landscape theme and create season-round interest. Fricano incorporates flowering trees such as cherries and dogwoods for spring color, crepe myrtles for late summer flowering and Japanese maples for their foliage color and delicate form. He’s added azaleas and uses rhododendrons, which do extremely well in the oak-leaf enriched soil. Butterfly bushes, daylilies and assorted ornamental grasses thrive in certain areas.

Color themes are repeated with mass plantings of annuals. For spring, that’s around 200 flats, with a mix of impatiens, new Guiney impatiens, begonias and some wave petunias for the sunny spots. “We now have around 350 14-inch baskets and 50 or so 20-inch baskets custom-planted by the same grower who supplies the flats, Kube-Pak Garden Plants from Allentown, N.J.”

The shade poses problems for the lawns. Fricano knows conditions won’t support the manicured, golf course look, but he does want full coverage in the grassed areas. That takes continual adaptation with the differing soil types and microclimates and the effect of changing shade patterns.

“We overseed in mid-September with a transition blend of fine-leaf fescues,” he says. “We start spring cleanup as soon as the ground thaws enough to allow it. We’ll either dethatch or heavy rake, then put out a slow-release 18-0-3 fertilizer and overseed with a blend of perennial ryes, so it’s all ready to go as the soil warms. We use a preemergent only where it’s needed. The type, rate and timing of our other turf fertilizations vary with the area and seasonal conditions.”

IPM practices are used for weed, insect and disease issues, making control applications only as required and with the least-invasive products possible for the situation. He says, “Our pH is a little low, so we apply lime twice a year, once in December or January and at a lighter rate in the spring. We’ll have some moss issues if we don’t lime. We used Lesco, and now John Deere Landscapes, as our basic supplier.”

The landscaping crew uses seven John Deere Gators and one ProGator, all equipped with dump bodies, hitches to pull trailers and an assortment of hand tools to rake, mulch, plant or prune. Two Gators have snowplow attachments, and one is equipped with a water tank and pump.

The crew uses RedMax backpack blowers and a ride-on sweeper to clear the walks and parking lot. For mowing, Fricano says, “We use a five or seven-day rotation, depending on how fast the turf is growing. If we need to raise or lower the height of cut to adapt to conditions, we’ll keep all the turf within that area at the same height to maintain a uniform look. Because of all the trees and plantings, we’re limited to walk-behind mowers. One is a 36-inch John Deere; the remainder are 21-inch Hondas.”

The entire park is irrigated, with three wells for the water source. One well is equipped with a 24-station Irritrol clock with remote; the other two have 12-station clocks. Currently, there are 32 zones. Fricano says, “We want the turf as dry as possible for the early mowing so, unfortunately, we need to run our cycles relatively early in the evening to cover all the area. Though we have rain sensors, it can be tricky to get enough water for the flowers without too much for the turf. We’re constantly adjusting for conditions and plant needs.”

Storybook Land rides, like these Olde Tymers cars, are designed to fit within the natural landscape.
Storybook Land is known for its cleanliness and high level of maintenance, as well as its beautiful setting and family-friendly atmosphere.

Because so much work is handled in-house, the array of equipment is extensive. There are two forklifts, a Cat Excavator and a skid steer loader with several attachments, including a posthole digger, four-way bucket and general-purpose bucket. There’s a brush cutter, a stump grinder, one 66-foot high-reach lift and a 35-foot lift for smaller areas, a fleet of small 2 and 3-yard dump trucks and an assortment of walk-behind blowers.

“We’ve been recycling our grass clippings, leaves, seasonally-culled plants and other organic debris since long before ‘being green’ was cool,” says Fricano. “We have the space on-site and off-view to dump the materials. We create windrows that we turn every six to eight weeks. Once a year, we have the batches that are mature enough screened. We use it as topsoil and topdressing within the park.”

Holiday magic

For Halloween, summer plant beds are replaced with mums. The staff builds a maze incorporating 1,500 bales of hay, none stacked more than three bales high, with pumpkins, cornstalks, mums and decorations. A hayride winds through the Halloween section. It starts adjacent to an area created for families to select and decorate pumpkins.

At the same time as that conversion is underway, staff members begin decorating for Christmas. By Thanksgiving, when that process is completed, over a million lights will be put in place. Summer flowers are replaced as they begin to decline, with all annuals removed by the first frost. All of the flowerbeds and most of the shrubbery beds throughout the park become areas for artificial trees or other Christmas decorations. Any open soil is covered with pine branches and lights so the bare ground never shows. Santa and his helpers return to Santa’s House at the North Pole created within Jingle Bell Junction.

Fricano says, “Our biggest challenge is keeping everything on a timetable. We go from the routine summer schedule to the Halloween set up and schedule, while working on the Christmas set up and major leaf cleanup. That’s our most hectic time, and it’s the most fun, because the families love it, and so do we.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.