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Seth Kubersky visits Pennsylvania's Roadside Attraction

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At Walt Disney World's Disney Hollywood Studios theme park, there sits a small attraction that's mostly overlooked by tourists as they trample toddlers in their mad rush for Toy Story Mania FastPasses. One Man's Dream is a modest museum devoted to the creator of Mickey, stocked with objects and reproductions supposedly associated with the Old Moustro, like a school desk salvaged from his Missouri grammar school with a "W.D." of dubious provenance carved into its wooden surface. Among these pseudo-artifacts you'll find one object that Walt Disney not only indisputably owned, but painstakingly built with his own two hands.

Granny Kincaid's Cabin, a miniature diorama of a pioneer home inspired by the 1949 film So Dear to My Heart , features tiny rugs that Walt hand-braided himself and a fireplace built of pebbles he collected. According to Disney historian Jim Korkis, this deeply hands-on project was more than a historical footnote. Intended as the first element in a traveling exhibit to be called Disneylandia, this intricate model was the spark that eventually inspired Walt to build the Disneyland theme park we 
know today.

Today, Disney's corporate memory-keepers point to Granny Kincaid's Cabin as an example of Walt's uniquely innovative mind and singular attention to detail. But last week, while driving through the wilds of eastern Pennsylvania on a pilgrimage to visit my wife's parents, I stumbled across a strikingly similar creation that not only pre-dates Disney's diorama by several decades, but dwarfs it in scope by many orders of magnitude. In the small city of Shartlesville, Pa., one man's dream has been welcoming visitors since before your parents were born - and still only charges visitors $7 (unlike the $80-plus you'll spend to get into an Orlando amusement park). Welcome to Roadside America , aka an alternate-universe Disneyland by way of Pennsylvania Dutch country.

The Roadside America story began at the turn of the 20th century with 10-year-old Laurence Gieringer and his younger brother Paul who were looking for playtime distractions in an age before iPhones, television, talking pictures or even radio. Climbing to the top of Mount Penn, the boys looked down on their hometown of Reading, Pa., and decided to recreate a miniature version of the town laid out below them. With the encouragement of their parents they began building tiny houses out of wood in their basement, beginning with the Highland Hotel, which they could see from their backyard. Paul eventually abandoned the hobby and entered the priesthood, but Laurence continued creating with the help of his wife Dora and their children Paula and Alberta.

By Christmas 1935, Gieringer's project attracted the attention of local newspapers, and in 1938 a 1,500-square-foot public exhibit was established at nearby Carsonia Park. National magazines and newsreels heralded Gieringer's work as "The World's Greatest Miniature Village" and "the most unique and detailed masterpiece ever evolved by the ingenuity of men." In 1953, two years before the opening of Walt's Anaheim park, Gieringer's greatly expanded attraction opened in its current location, and it's been enthralling school children and their parents ever since. Gieringer passed away in 1963, and his wife died in 1973, but the Bernecker family (descendants of the Gieringer's daughter, Alberta) maintains the display as the treasured heirloom it is.

After pulling off the highway into the patched-asphalt parking lot, you enter an unspectacular building with the ridiculous slogan "Be prepared to see more than you expect" emblazoned on a sign in peeling paint. Pass the coin-operated vintage player-piano into the gift shop stocked with toy trains and Christian kitsch, and pay the grandmotherly attendant at the aging cash register. Step through a pair of black curtains and you emerge into another time and place. Sprawled before you sits the most intricately detailed miniature city you've ever imagined, complete with majestic mountains, running rivers and thousands of hand-painted inhabitants. Architecture includes everything from 18th-century colonial settlers' cabins to mid-century modern coal-mining machinery, all built to an exact 3/8-inch scale. The push-button operated mechanical effects, which allow guests to activate an array of speeding locomotives, braying donkeys and circling bi-planes, all electrified before the advent of digital switches and computer controls, are astounding. And don't forget to stick around for the hourly Night Pageant : overhead lights dim and an ancient slide projector casts images of Jesus and the American flag on the wall to the strains of Kate Smith's "God Bless America." It's as cornily comforting and inspirationally eye-moistening as anything Walt ever cooked up.

Before leaving, I stopped in the adjoining Pennsylvania Dutch Gift Haus and Lunch Counter to buy a birch beer from the Gieringers' granddaughter. Sifting through the shop's random stacks of old books for sale, I stumbled across echoes of this attraction's spiritual connection to Orlando's amusements. I'm now the proud owner of a Magic Kingdom souvenir photo book circa 1989, and a rare 1973 copy of Natural History magazine, featuring Stephen Jay Gould's groundbreaking essay on the infantile evolution of Mickey Mouse. Even in Pennsylvania, it seems, it's a small 
world after all.

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