In 1954, Charley and his late wife, Margaret, invested $75,000 on five acres on the east side of U.S. 9 between Lake George and Glens Falls, launchng Storytown, U.S.A., an amusement park themed by the Mother Goose rhymes. On the eve of its debut, Charley says he was uncharacteristically doubting himself. “I sat on the Mother Goose hill and I cried and I thought, ‘What have I done? I’m not gonna have anybody pay and see what I’ve done.’”
But when the park opened, the result was just the opposite. “The first day people came in droves. When we tried to count the money, somebody’d open the door, and money would blow all over the place.”
Not only was Charley doing big business, he was making connections and friendships that set the stage for much bigger success. Even before Storytown opened, “I was in the brook with waders on, cutting brush, and the boys came in and said, ‘Arto Monaco’s here to see you.’ He was driving a Corvette. I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, he’s got money.’ But he told me it was his partner’s car.”
Monaco told Charley that he intended to open his own theme park farther north in the Adirondacks, in his hometown of Upper Jay, and he, too, was thinking of calling it Storytown. Charley recalls, “I said, ‘You SOB. I hate you.’ But Arto said, ‘Wait a minute. I came to meet you. I want to be your friend. There are a thousand other names.’”
Arto, an industry pioneer in his own right who has the same zest for life as Charley, instead titled his park The Land of Make Believe. “He’s been my good friend for 40 years,” says Charley—and business associate as well. Arto designed and built many of the houses and attractions not just at Storytown but at other Charley Wood properties.
“I plowed all the money back into things, improvements,” Charley says of Storytown’s success. On the hill above Storytown, he created Ghost Town. “I used to stand up on the hill and look down on the cars in the parking lot, and the men were all smokin’ cigars and leanin’ against their cars, talking to other men. I said, ‘I gotta get them in here.’” So he built Ghost Town and Dan McGrew’s Saloon. “We had a sign that said, ‘No Women Allowed.’ And we had a bar where a man could take his son for a beer. We only served root beer, but we made it a real ‘man’s bar.’”
Five years after founding Storytown, U.S.A., Charley opened an entirely new park, Gaslight Village, “Yesterday’s Fun Today,” four miles up the road in Lake George Village. While Storytown always closed for the day by 5:30, Gaslight Village was the late afternoon and nighttime attraction.
Charley never lost fervor for his original park. In 1982, he changed the name of Storytown to The Great Escape. In 1986, he installed The Raging River, adding the waterpark dimension.
In 1989, Charley sold The Great Escape to International Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), which then owned the Ice Capades and Harlem Globetrotters and was looking to branch into amusement parks. “They came and made an offer I couldn’t refuse,” says Charley. “I had dreamed of doing what Six Flags has done—of buying other parks. I wanted to control a number of parks, so this was my chance.” The $36 million price was paid half in stock, which became virtually worthless after IBC subsequently filed for bankruptcy. That was the bad news. The good news was that Charley was able to buy back The Great Escape, plus Fantasy Island park in western New York.
He kept improving The Great Escape, most notably when he bought the vintage wooden roller coaster, The Comet, from Crystal Beach, Ontario. “I bought that in a teeming rainstorm. It was one of the oldest and greatest roller coasters in the country, and it had a wonderful reputation, so I bought it.”
Then another suitor called—Premier Parks, since renamed Six Flags. Charley says he was paid $37 million—$36 million for the park, $1 million for his serving on their board for four years—and this time it was all in cash.