As the animals whirl round and round, the world beyond the carousel melts into a blur of colors and sounds. Reality hangs on the melody of a 1913 Wurlitzer organ.
No matter which seat you choose, you are riding history and a dream. Each hand-carved, wooden animal in the menagerie has its own story and symbolism. In fact, this unusual carousel in Nederland is a many-layered swirl of stories and symbolism.
On the surface, it’s colorful, playful, whimsical and fun. After all, this is the Carousel of Happiness, and the sign at the front door urges:
“We are open for rides. Don’t delay joy.”
From the outside, 20 Lakeview Drive is already a curious building, wooden with 12 sides. It sits next to a row of old train cars converted into a coffee shop (you can smell its fresh mini donuts in the air). Circus animals painted on the train seem to be eyeing the entrance of the carousel.
Step inside the Carousel of Happiness. You immediately notice the quirky gift shop filled with puppets and gifts, and you hear that old organ. Its cheerful tune feels like a step back in time.
What you may not realize is you are standing inside the mind of U.S. Marine Scott Harrison.
Harrison, originally from Texas, served in the Vietnam War. While in service, his sister sent him a small music box. When he wound it up and pressed the boxless mechanism against his head, he could hear it playing Chopin’s “Tristes,” and the sweet jingle reminded him of a lighthearted, innocent carousel at the fair. When the terrors of combat, death and firefights felt like too much, Harrison would wind up that music box and hold it to his head, letting the music calm him. While listening, he was temporarily transported out of the battlefields as a machine-gunner by imagining the most beautiful carousel spinning in a mountain meadow.
“I had a vision that was the exact opposite of where I was. It helped me survive the war,” he says.
Across the world, a different kind of survival story was also unfolding. It was the tale of The Carousel at Saltair.
The Carousel at Saltair was designed in 1910 by one of the most famous carousel makers in the day, Charles I.D. Looff. His creation went to Salt Lake City, Utah, where it ran for nearly 50 years.
But not without a fight. The carousel caught on fire multiple times and was ravaged by wind storms. It was struck by lightning. In one storm, a roller coaster was blown on top of the carousel. It was rebuilt with two rows of animals instead of four. Another time, the Carousel at Saltair was the lone attraction to survive a massive park fire, miraculously untouched by the tragedy.
In the late ‘50s, the park declared bankruptcy and the carousel was given to a school, where it served people with mental and physical disabilities. They enjoyed it for 27 more years. But in the ‘80s, an investor bought the carousel. The animals had good resale value (only a few hundred wooden carousels remain in the country today), so he picked them off the ride and cast aside the empty frame. It sat abandoned and unused, soon headed to a scrap metal yard.
Until Harrison heard about it.
He was long back from battle and had long since lost his beloved music box (left behind after he was injured and sent to a hospital in Japan), but the fantasy still lived in his mind. He had moved to Nederland, built a house for his family and used the scrap wood to build three carousel-style animals: a rabbit, panda and giraffe. His carving was self-taught, and he had no experience repairing amusement park rides, but he knew he needed to bring it to life: a beautiful carousel in a mountain meadow.
He and a friend took two weekends to disassemble what remained of the carousel’s frame and drive it to its new home in the Colorado mountains. Here, it would transform into the Carousel of Happiness, but it would take 26 years.
“It was a labor of love,” says Mary Heinrich, the community outreach manager for the carousel. “He worked full-time with Amnesty International and was a father with two kids. This was something he would do in the evenings and weekends.”
He taught himself how to use knives, chisels, gouges, power tools and wooden mallets to craft 56 different animals, and not just the regular horses (although there is one pony). His first carving, the rabbit, now lives on the sign in front of the carousel. Harrison eventually made an alpaca, bear, calico cat, camel, cheetah, cow, coyote, deer and dolphin — and that’s just to the letter D.
Each animal has a story worthy of its own chapter in a book. A gorilla inspired by a real gorilla he met in then-Zaire. A snake wrapped around a giraffe based on an ancient sculpture a friend saw in Botswana. A donkey for a miner friend who used donkeys to pull his carts. A white “ghost” camel expressing Harrison’s feelings about the Gulf War. And hidden inside the box-style core of each animal is a special poem, story or piece of art.
Each animal is also a symbol. The bear leaning over a bench (with yin-yang decorated wings) embodies healing, personal health, strength and bravery. (Perhaps a fitting seat for a veteran.) The camel signifies patience and perseverance. You know, like a person who might spend decades bringing an old fantasy to life for others to enjoy.
Some animals (the ones on golden spindles) go up and down while the carousel whirls. Others, like the romantic swan cart, are stationary.
Even beyond the animals, powerful stories hide throughout the building. Take the “Somewhere Else” wall. It’s the only windowless wall of the building, made with a special crushed marble and limestone mixture that’s supposed to allow your imagination to flow through. Parts of carved animals peek through the wall, as if they’re alive and coming or going.
Buried inside the wall: the urn and ashes of one of the carousel’s biggest fans, a woman who died in a motorcycle accident while driving the new bike off the dealership lot, and a blood-stained rock of a veteran who died in Afghanistan. While Harrison was finishing the wall, two strangers knocked on the carousel’s door. They had been on a cross-country roadtrip with the rock, which they had picked up at the scene of an accident where they lost their friend in war.
“They wanted to bury the rock with messages to him, far from Afghanistan,” Harrison says.
They somehow ended up at the carousel, standing in front of the Somewhere Else wall, with another veteran who understood. The rock is part of the carousel now.
“Maybe it’s magic or serendipity. I don’t quite know why. But people react in here,” Harrison says.
Harrison didn’t want to make any ol’ goofy amusement park ride. He wanted to make something meaningful, something that could bring more joy into the world. Just like the music box that he brought to war.
The restoration of the ride itself took time, too, but Harrison managed to preserve the original motor and controller.
On July 25, 2008 (later deemed Twirling Girl Day by the mayor), Harrison broke ground on the building, but he was not alone. Hundreds of community members banded together to raise $700,000 to design and build the carousel’s new home: an eco-friendly structure reminiscent of a circus tent, with 12 sides.
It opened in 2010 on Memorial Day.
Today, it is inexpensive to ride: only $2 a whirl, thanks to the volunteers who keep the cost down. The nonprofit, whose mission is to spread happiness, is open seven days a week. You can even rent the carousel for special events and it has been host to hundreds of weddings, memorials, birthdays and more.
In addition to the carousel (tip: head upstairs where you can watch the inner workings of the ride from above), the building is decorated with interesting art, like a mural of endangered species. Look up and you’ll see small fairies hiding in the eaves. The top of the carousel is lined with historic art from other carousels. While watching the carousel, look up for the egg sculpture and watch it appear to crack and birth a frog who turns into a girl who turns into a swan, an illusion created by the spinning of the ride.
Upstairs, you will also find a puppet theater in a restored band organ facade. And since the Carousel of Happiness is built on memories, if you have a story you want to preserve, you can record it in the Story Catcher sound booth and leave with your own copy on a USB drive, in exchange for a small suggested donation.
Beyond the carousel’s walls, Harrison’s newest project is the Counsel of Kindness, a reflective space at the Medicine Horse Program in Boulder. Harrison noticed that some people would come to the Carousel of Happiness but weren’t at a point where they wanted to feel happiness yet. Or maybe they needed a different way to heal. Twirling and playfulness doesn’t work for everyone.
“He took this to heart and created five huge animals for a more contemplative space for people who are going through a hard time,” Heinrich says.
It’s a private circle for people to meet with family or a therapist to work through things in a quiet space, she says.
“In my eyes, Scott has gone through a lot in his life. He’s made these great, creative ways to deal with the horrors that he saw in war,” Heinrich says. “He’s been so creative in his way to deal with that sorrow and that pain and to heal. How great of him to share his creations and vision with the rest of the world.”
She sees the carousel itself as an inspiration, too. It is also a survivor, but against so many odds, it continues to spread happiness.
“Bringing happiness has always been a part of a carousel,” she says. “Then Scott brought it to life in a whole new way.”