We were winding through a dark passage in a caravan of teacups when, all of a sudden, the teapot that was pulling us stopped dead in its tracks. There was nothing to do but get out in what appeared to be a rabbit hole, complete with a life-size mannequin Alice in Wonderland falling right into it.
"I hate to tell you, but they forgot to punch my ticket last time so you can follow me bacause I know the way and I'm not scared," said a real little girl, leading us through the passages with their behind-glass tableaux of playing-card people, the trial of the Knave of Hearts and the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.
Alice in Wonderland, Ali Baba, Huck Finn, Mother Goose, Little Toot -- storybook rather than comic-strip characters -- make up the permanent population of the Enchanted Forest, a vintage theme park near Ellicott City that many adult Washingtonians remember from when they were kids.
The storybook characters live in thatched cottages, castles and gingerbread houses set in a gently rolling woods complete with lagoons and a lake. Ducks and geese roam at will and a real rabbit inhabits the Easter Bunny House. There are several playgrounds and ten rides, all of them tame enough for toddlers. The attractions may be a bit too tame for the eight-and-over-set, who see through the enchantment to the artifice.
"See, they use that light -- it's called ultraviolet -- to make the jewels look like jewels," pointed out eight-year-old Laura as we cruise an underground cave in Ali Baba's Magic Mountain.
My own children mistook the Middle Eastern setting for a Nativity scene, but Laura had heard The Ali Baba saga.
"You see there was this thief and he cut this man up and put him in a sack . . ." she regaled, and we sailed past a scene about a blind beggar.
Fearing subterranean pallor, we surfaced for a ride in Cinderella's pumpkin coach.
"Bye, Miss Jackson! Bye, Miss Jackson!" chorused a group of children wearing tags with the phone number of their daycare center. When the giant white mice and the pumpkin were filled with kids, the coach began its stately procession through the park and across the most to Cinderella's castle, a three-story permastone structure.
There are antique cars to drive -- usually into a fence -- and a moon walk to bounce on and Huck Finn's Fishin' Hole to try your luck in.
"I saw one and it just went right past my pole," said a child, learning fast the mystique of "the one that got away."
"Do you get to eat the fish if you catch one?" asked another child.
"Do you have to?" asked his friend apprehensively.
"Mommy, it's not working," said seven-year-old Tabetha, giving up fishing after a five-minute try and leading us to the raft ride to Robinson Crusoes Island -- which, in the Enchanted Forest, is connected by a bridge to Mount Vesuvius. While Little Toot cruises under Mount Vesuvius, kids slide down the volcano and end up back on the mainland -- just in time to go on safari.
"We are now entering Jungleland," intones our guide as the caravan passes under a Trader Vic's-type gate and into an eclectic bamboo-and-poison ivy rain forest, complete with elephants, a python, alligators, totem poles and "natives" wielding tomahawks. Many of the ersatz animals moved. The baby elephant gave itself a bath; a crocodile attacked a hippo, which counterattacked; two monkeys -- hearing our warning screams -- shinnied up a vine to escape another crocodile.
"I saw the little thing that made them go up," said Laura, unwilling to suspend disbelief but enjoying it all anyway.
Meanwhile, back in fairyland, Sleeping Beauty was just waking up behind a glass window in her castle wall.
"The prince is ugly," announced Tabetha.
"She's not so pretty, either," agreed her friend. "She looks like Medusa."
For the five-year-old, though, no ugly realities pierced the veil of enchantment. Wide-eyed, she asked: "Can we come back tomorrow?"