Arto Monaco (1913-2003) was a theme park designer and owner, a toymaker, and--according to his friends and family--a child who never really grew up. He is probably best known for his designs for theme parks, which include Santa's Workshop (opened in 1949) in Wilmington, NY; Storytown (now Great Escape) in Lake George; and the Land of Make Believe (his own theme park lasting from 1953 to1979) in Upper Jay, NY. Characterized by child-sized buildings and plenty of room for free imaginative play, Monaco's many parks were innovative designs which helped inspire the massive parks of today.
Artist Rockwell Kent encouraged Monaco to attend Pratt Institute early in his life, Later, John Steinbeck and Lewis Milestone suggested he move to Hollywood, where he worked at Paramount, MGM, Warner Brothers, and Disney Studios. During this period he also designed prototype toys for major toy manufacturers and moonlighted as interior designer for many top movie stars. Enlisting in the army in 1941, he distinguished himself as Master Sergeant and was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1943. He also married Glad Burrell of Ausable Forks, NY, in 1941. Throughout his career his interest in children and creative play led him to develop and build his own lines of toys. He was among the first to coin the phrase "educational toys," and used that term when he advertised his creations. According to his friends, he was "not really interested in making a profit," but rather much more concerned with the education and amusement of children.
For some time, Monaco ran a "factory" in Upper Jay, with his brother and wife as the chief employees. The wooden toys they produced, marketed as educational toys, were sold at a few high-end retailers. These toys were generally vehicles or circus-related figures. The factory operated only a few years, but Monaco continued to make wooden toys throughout his life. He exhibited these, and allowed children to play with them, at his Land of Make Believe theme park.