Disney-inspired Woody's Golf Range in Herndon celebrates 30 years

By Gregg MacDonald
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, July 22, 2010; VA17

To enter a certain part of Herndon, a passport and strong sense of adventure are required.

Unlike its surrounding suburban Fairfax County landscape, the topography of this place is a Borneo-like jungle, and its inhabitants are witch doctors, Komodo dragons and man-eating gorillas. Visitors are warned that "no one has ever gotten out alive."

One man rules this territory. Thirty years ago, he began building it with his own hands. But he credits another with the spark for its creation.

"If it weren't for Walt Disney, none of this would be here today," said Woody FitzHugh, 52, of Perils of the Lost Jungle miniature golf course, a popular attraction at Woody's Golf Range. Newsweek magazine recently named it as one of the top five mini-golf courses in the country.

FitzHugh was born in Alexandria in 1952 and grew up in McLean. In 1955, when Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Calif., FitzHugh's family took him there. He was only 3, but the experience stayed with him.

"I fell in love with the animatronic characters," Fitzhugh said. "Their arms and heads moved and their eyes rolled and they seemed so real I loved that."

Sixteen years later, after graduating from Langley High School and while attending Hampden-Sydney College as a sophomore, FitzHugh discovered golf. After obtaining a degree in psychology, he worked for five years as an assistant golf pro at the Washington Golf and Country Club in Arlington. In 1979, he earned his PGA tour card and began touring professionally.

The following year, he decided to combine his passion for golf with his lifelong Disney fascination. He bought 30 acres of pasture in the Dranesville area, off Route 7, in Herndon.

"An opportunity arose, and I went for it," he recalled. "There was nothing out here then. It was just an open field."

In October 1980, he opened Woody's Golf Range with the concept of creating something unusual and exciting for serious and miniature golfers.

"There were so many boring mini-golf courses out there consisting only of concrete and carpet," he said. "I wanted to create something better."

The next several years were tough financially, but his dream to re-create the awe he had experienced as a child at Disneyland still was alive, FitzHugh said. Meanwhile, the range expanded to include driving ranges, a gift shop and baseball and softball batting cages.

In 2000, FitzHugh attended a convention of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions and purchased his first animatronic character, an alligator that shoots a stream of water from its mouth at unwitting mini-golfers as they walk past the 17th hole.

The $12,000 investment soon paid off, he said, because attendance quickly rose and remained steady.

"I decided then to create a storyline," he said. "A jungle passage that was closed off in the 1940s because it was too dangerous. Golfers need a passport to enter and have to maneuver through all the lost jungle's obstacles as they progress through the course."

The obstacles include vampire bats, poison frogs, blow-dart-spewing natives, witch doctors, tarantulas, killer bees and a man-eating gorilla. Along the way, animated guides "Nigel Bogey" and "Charlie Wallnut" provide golfers with tips and quips as a bellowing Tarzan swings across the complex on a vine.

A round at Perils of the Lost Jungle costs $9.75 for adults and $8.75 for children younger than 13. Michelle Franken of Chantilly is among those customers. She recently navigated the course with her two young sons.

"We had never been here before," she said. "I had no idea it was so animated. . . . It's like an amusement park."

"It really is an amazing place to work," said 17-year-old Reed Hernandez, who has been wearing a pith helmet and checking golfers' passports since March. "This is the most elaborate and dynamic putt-putt course I have ever seen. It sure beats flipping burgers or working at Starbucks."

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