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Life’s ups and downs just a carousel ride away

By Jennifer Dix Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday October 28, 2000

It’s not quite opening time for the merry-go-round at Tilden Park this sunny Saturday morning, but already toddlers and parents are arriving in eager hordes.  

Several small children press against the metal gate that surrounds the carousel and peer in at the painted menagerie. “I’m going to ride on the dragon!” shouts one little boy. “There’s no dragon,” a smaller boy says scornfully. “Yes, there is,” the first insists. “See?” He points to a fantastical green creature with the head and claws of a griffin and a long serpentine tail. 

Matthew Thomas of Albany is here with his son, Henry, who is 20 months old. This is Henry’s second or third visit to the carousel, and “he’s just getting okay with it,” says his dad. He has overcome his initial trepidation and is happy today to ride on a horse with his father close beside him. Dad is drawn to the carousel for his own reasons: nostalgia for his own childhood visits to amusement parks, and an appreciation for the historic 1911 structure. 

“It’s got old-world charm,” he says, noting the detail on the carved figures and the painted roof. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”  

The entire setting seems to conjure up days gone by. Set in a wooded grove where the air is permeated with the smell of eucalyptus, the carousel is next to an old-fashioned candy shop, where visitors can purchase everything from popcorn and candy to sparkly stickers to Beanie Babies. There’s a vintage organ within the carousel enclosure (played on Sundays), and decorations change continually with the seasons. This month there are jack-o-lanterns and straw bales and swags of artificial colored leaves. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, the carousel will be decked with holiday ornaments and lights, and special family entertainment is offered nights until Christmas Eve. 

At the heart of this year-round festivity is Terri Holleman Oyarzún, a cheerful mother of four who seems to believe completely in the magic of the place. Oyarzún and her family have managed the Tilden Park carousel since 1992, when she took over from longtime operators Jeanette and Harry Perry. 

Oyarzún calls her transition to carousel operator “one of those cosmic, karmic things.” She was working as a probation officer when she stumbled upon her new job.  

“I came up here with my kids one day and it was closed, with a sign saying the Perrys were retiring,” Oyarzún recalls. Her first reaction was dismay. “Then I started thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I could do this.’” 

It was the beginning of a new life that Oyarzún calls “pretty much a 24-hour commitment.” With a small staff that ranges in age from teens to retirees, she runs the carousel, the gift shop, and the summer concession stand at Lake Anza. Any given day may find her cleaning or retouching the carousel animals, driving down the Peninsula in search of the perfect holiday decorations, or climbing struts to repair the carousel mechanism. On top of that, she and her husband, Egon, run Goats R Us, an Orinda ranch that raises goats for hire to graze brush and reduce fire hazards. 

But Oyarzún wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ll be doing this forever. I’ll go until I can’t go around anymore.” 

Her youngest son, 9-year-old Zephyr, has never known any other life. When not in school, he helps with the ticket sales and the upkeep of the antique carousel, polishing the brass poles and repainting the horses’ hooves – ”and sometimes the saddles,” he adds. 

Oyarzún delights in pointing out highlights of the carousel. Built in 1911 by the Herschell-Spillman Company, this is a merry-go-round in the “County Fair” style, with muted colors and a kind of primitive country charm. The side of the animal that can be seen from outside the carousel is known as the “romance side,” and is more elaborately decorated than the inside. There is a lead horse, more lavishly carved and bejeweled than the others. She is nicknamed “Rosie,” for the red rose in her bridle, and is a particular favorite with little girls. 

“Can you guess which figure is the most valuable?” Oyarzún asks.  

There’s so much to choose from. The mythical sea monster? The spotted giraffe? The stork, with a tiny baby carved in its saddle? 

None of these, as it turns out. It’s the frog – or frogs, to be more precise. The Tilden Carousel has two of them. What makes them unique is that they are clothed, in cheerfully painted britches and jackets that suggest Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows.  

All the staff are “very protective” of the historic structure, Oyarzún says, and their shared enthusiasm makes the people who work at the Tilden carousel something of an extended family. Oyarzún likes the fact that the merry-go-round draws all kinds of people: not just children, but adults with special needs and the elderly. For her younger employees, she says, it provides valuable exposure to a broad spectrum of humanity.  

“They learn that there’s nothing wrong with being different,” she says. “It’s the cycle of life. It’s all part of being human.” 

Oyarzún clearly derives great satisfaction from her job. “I think the best part of this is presenting something where families can make memories,” Oyarzún says. “Usually children don’t know what their parents go through; life can be hard, with worries and struggles and bills to pay. But you can come here and know that life can be okay… Life can be just a ride on a merry-go-round.” 



The Tilden merry-go-round is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends during the school year, with extended hours Nov. 24-Dec. 23. For more information, call 524-6773, or visit the regional parks website at