Arto Monaco and the Land of Makebelieve

A man who loved making children happy

Story by Matt Rennell
Photos provided by Arto Monaco Historical Society

Castles should always be in the dreams of children. That is what Arto Monaco, a children’s theme park pioneer, believed. On November 15, 1913, Monaco, the creator of the Land of Makebelieve was born in AuSable Forks, New York.

"He had just as much imagination and talent as Walt Disney, he just didn’t have the same opportunities.”

Monaco was raised in Elizabethtown until the age of eight. In 1921, he and his family moved to Jay, New York, where his father, Louis, would transform his boss' old grocery store into Louie’s Restaurant.

Arto Monaco and the Land of Makebelieve
Arto Monaco lived until the age of 90
As he got older, Monaco found that school was not for him. In the early 1930s, he dropped out of high school. After hearing this, family friend and well-known artist Rockwell Kent enrolled Monaco into the Pratt Institute, a prominent art school in Manhattan.

In 1937, Monaco graduated from the Pratt Institute and went to work in Hollywood. He worked as a studio artist for many companies, including MGM Studios, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Disney.

In 1941, Monaco was drafted to fight in World War II. While in the military, Monaco was credited with leading the Training Aids division, which made painted signs with instructions on how to perform specific military operations. When the war ended, Monaco received the U.S. Army’s Legion of Merit.

After the war, Monaco returned to Jay, where he began to build toys for children. While in Jay, Monaco was introduced to Julian Reiss. Reiss asked Monaco to help him create Santa’s Workshop. Monaco agreed and helped design the layout for the amusement park.

"Arto was very laid back. He was a very unique individual. He had the ability to envision something through a child’s eyes."

While creating Santa’s Workshop, Monaco met Bob Reiss, the son of Julian Reiss. Bob was home for a brief period of time from the Navy. He asked to help in the creation of the park and was told to assist Monaco. "Arto was very laid back. He was a very unique individual. He had the ability to envision something through a child’s eyes,” he said.

After Santa’s Workshop was complete, Monaco began thinking about opening his own amusement park for kids. He wanted to create a place were children were free to do whatever they wanted.

Then in 1954, Monaco opened up the Land of Makebelieve. It had a castle, a riverboat, a train, numerous fairy tale houses, and a stagecoach, as well as an old western town. In the Land of Makebelieve, parents were encouraged to let their children do what they wanted. "He had just as much imagination and talent as Walt Disney; he just didn’t have the same opportunities,” said Reiss.

Little buildings in the Land of Makebelieve
The Land of Makebelieve was
open for 25 years

For 25 years, the Land of Makebelieve was a favorite place for the children of northern New York to visit. However, in 1979, due to the flooding of the AuSable River, the Land of Makebelieve was forced to close. Over the previous 25 years, the park had flooded 11 times, but the last one was the most damaging. The fairytale houses that weren’t ruined by the flood have since moved to the Great Escape, an amusement park in Lake George, New York.

After the closure of the Land of Makebelieve, Monaco did not sit back and relax. In addition to illustrating 17 children’s books, he made many toys and games for children across the North Country. “He was a terrific talent,” said Reiss. “He was a very humble man and never exploited his talent financially as much as he could have. He was a man of complete honesty.”

On November 21, 2003, nearly a quarter of a century after the Land of Makebelieve closed, Arto Monaco passed away at the age of 90 in Saranac Lake, New York.

After his death, a group of friends and family members established the Arto Monaco Historical Society. Their goal is to preserve his artistic creations, celebrate his memory, and to secure his legacy for future generations.

Do you have any memories of the Land of Makebelieve?

Arto Monaco Historical Society
P.O. Box 102
Upper Jay, NY 12987


Arto's Artwork

During his life, Arto Monaco built many toys for children. Here are some of the toys that he created.

Toys designed by Monaco

Children's toys designed by Monaco

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