Could Jackalope Junction, a Western-style steampunk theme park, find a home in Ramona?
Greg Schumsky has a vision for San Diego — not the city or the suburbs, but the backcountry.
He wants to build Jackalope Junction, a 20-acre theme park with Western and steampunk themes based on characters he created — notably Jackalope Jim, a sheriff in the turn-of-the-century town who wields his Jules Verne-style blaster with a cybernetic arm.
Visitors to Jackalope Junction would walk into a Wild West town with a variety of destinations — Rabbit’s Tale saloon, the Junior Deputy School, a blacksmith shop, restaurants and gift shops, Schumsky said. They could go to the Country Fair to check out the large Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and other attractions or mosey over to a large lawn area for a picnic and live music.
Overnight experiences would be available as well. Families could have sing-alongs at a big fire pit, sleep in teepees or covered wagons and head to the chuckwagon in the morning for breakfast, he said.
Schumsky, a Jamul resident with 40 years’ experience in interactive design, video, film and animation, has been working on the idea for what he calls his story park since 2019. The timing isn’t the greatest with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he acknowledges. But he said he believes the small, intimate nature of his park — Disneyland, by contrast, sits on 500 acres — along with the need for families to get outside and reconnect once the pandemic subsides, will draw visitors.
“I want to bring back things that are missing from our world, that have disappeared because of the internet and digital devices,” said Schumsky, 57, who formed Acorn Entertainment Group to develop what he hopes will become a Jackalope Junction franchise.
“I want to have something where you’re walking into a living, breathing town. It’s a funny world. Animals live with humans. All the people who work there will know the story of Jackalope Jim. You’ll hear gossip, hear stories and discover more about the town.”
The steampunk elements — lots of gears, steam-powered devices and even the cybernetic arm — will add dimension to the park, Schumsky said. The town’s story also has fantasy elements, including gems discovered in mines that power lights and blasters (guns), and special crystals that propel visitors back in time to enter Jackalope Junction, he said.
What Schumsky didn’t expect is that friends in the theme park business and others from around the world would reach out and ask to get involved.
Last month, Denmark-based AdventureLAB announced it was joining Schumsky and his team to help strengthen the story-focused strategy for the park and support the story development and implementation.
Klaus Sommer Paulsen, founder and chief executive of AdventureLAB, which works with theme parks, museums and other businesses, said he heard about Jackalope Junction from a friend and thought it was a unique idea with potential.
“We are bringing steampunk together with folklore critters, a Western theme, which really works the way we are approaching it to make it a unique world,” Paulsen said in an interview. “But underneath that layer of the setting there is a lot, especially with Greg’s writing, about standing up for yourself and helping friends.”
Schumsky’s favorite place to go while growing up in La Mesa was Marshal Scotty’s Playland Park, a Western theme park in El Cajon that featured a miniature Tilt-a-Whirl, a water slide, a roller coaster, a 20-foot-high Ferris wheel and pony rides.
He was there on opening day in 1967 with his parents and older brother.
“They had the covered wagon where you had your birthday and they had a little train, like the one at the zoo, all the typical amusement park rides,” he said.
Marshal Scotty’s closed in the late 1990s. But the ruins, including the original Ferris wheel, remain.
On trips to local markets, Schumsky and his wife, Lisa, would pass what was left of Marshal Scotty’s. That’s when the idea for Jackalope Junction started to form.
“I’d think to myself, ‘Gosh, it’s a shame what horrible shape the park is in,’” Schumsky said. “It would be really neat if there were a new little park there. But better, for the lack of a better word.”
He put together plans for a small park with a $30 million budget for the property, but the deal fell through last summer.
At that point, he said, he realized his park had to be in a rural area — and he wanted it to be in San Diego County, where he grew up.
Schumsky said that in recent months he’s been scouting areas in Ramona, Jamul, Poway, Fallbrook, El Cajon, Valley Center and outside Santa Ysabel.
“It’s got to have that Western feel to it,” he said. “It can’t be plopped in the middle of a city. It’s got to be in a place where you hear crickets and it’s dark enough at night that you can look up and see the stars.
“And it would be nice to keep it where people on the Ferris wheel are not looking down at the houses next door,” he added. “I want to keep it where you feel like you are in a whole new place altogether, removed from your problems, at least for the day.”
In addition, a rural location would make it easier to develop a farm at the park that could feature information about 4-H clubs and allow local clubs to give talks and demonstrations on raising animals and growing vegetables, he said.
Ramona resident Dave Harbour read about Jackalope Junction online and was so impressed that he volunteered to help Schumsky find a site for the park. On Feb. 26 he put out an informal poll on the Ramona Community Forum Facebook page to see what residents thought about putting a 20-acre theme park in town.
The response was quick — and before long the post had 349 comments.
Many of the commenters liked the plan and the potential for job creation, but there were fears about traffic on state Routes 67 and 78 and problems with fire evacuations, Harbour said. Others said they worried it would be a massive project, like Disneyland, and overwhelm the town.
“There were people who said they came here to get away from people, and those that don’t want any growth at all,” Harbour said.
Schumsky said he has had discussions with county officials about the park but hasn’t focused on a particular site.
“I’d rather have a majority of yeses,” he said. “It’s a gain for wherever we build it and a loss for those where we don’t build it.”
Schumsky is looking for investors and has set a $30 million to $60 million budget. The planned admission price is $25 per person, with about 2,000 visitors a day on a reservation system and 500 walk-ins to ensure the park doesn’t get overcrowded, he said.
Jackalope Jim is Schumsky’s Mickey Mouse. But he has more of a back story than Mickey, and his ability to overcome hardships and heartbreak is the foundation for the story park, Schumsky said.
Jim was born without an arm to an antelope father and a jackrabbit mother, he said. As a young jackalope, he went into a cave after an earthquake, found some gems and took them home. Later, his grandfather, a blacksmith and an inventor, created the cybernetic arm for him using red gems to power it. His father, a gunsmith, made him a blaster powered by green gems that worked with his metal arm.
“He’s 10 and he becomes the fastest draw in the West,” Schumsky said.
However, one night, bandits entered the house looking for the gems, which they thought were valuable, and killed his parents, according to Schumsky. Jim escaped and embarked on a lengthy quest to find the bandits and avenge his parents’ deaths.
Going from town to town, he became a lawman at each stop, ending up at the abandoned mining town where he thought the bandits were holed up.
Jim eventually gave up his thoughts of vengeance, Schumsky said. He settled in the mining town and decided to help rebuild it, befriending several characters with their own stories to tell.
Jackalope Jim’s story is a lesson for children in “old-fashioned values,” according to Schumsky.
“We want to teach kids about how to adapt and persevere and at the end of the day how to be someone who is a force for good change,” he said. “It takes him some time to grow, as it does for all of us.”
Schumsky said he initially envisioned Jackalope Jim as an older, grizzled version of Huey Lewis or James Taylor. The image went through some changes and he eventually settled on an illustration done by his friend Victor Navone, a Pixar artist and San Diego native.
“I saw it and said, ‘That’s our guy,’” Schumsky recalled.
Andrew Porter, creative director of Firefly Creations in the United Kingdom, is another theme park designer who has offered to help Schumsky with his characters and attractions.
Plenty of theme parks have roller coasters that break records, Porter said, but there is a place for Jackalope Junction.
“I saw the photos, the renderings, I heard the stories and I just thought, ‘What a wonderful, innocent sort of design,’” Porter said in an interview. “And how refreshing it is to see someone that’s creating a very heartwarming theme park.”
Porter said he believes theme parks can help break children out of their shells if you get the characters right.
“Children can look up to them and they can gain confidence from them and take that into their socialization skills when they leave the park,” he said.
If all goes well, Schumsky said, the park could open in two to three years, hopefully on his birthday, July 28.
It’s a big undertaking, he said. But he expressed gratitude to the friends and colleagues who have come on board to help him put his vision together.
“It seems like every time I’m at the point of ... burning out, someone reaches out,” Schumsky said.
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