On a recent trip through Pennsylvania, I was able to visit a theme park most people have never heard of.
Randyland lies in a courtyard between two buildings on the northern side of Pittsburgh, just a few blocks away from downtown.
After driving about two blocks on Arch Street, you can’t miss Randyland’s brightly colored buildings that stick out like a beacon of hope on the side of town that isn’t exactly wealthy.
Once outside the gates of the park, you can see a mural of downtown Pittsburgh.
Even the power poles and trash cans have been decorated.
Rounding the corner, there is an open courtyard filled with all kinds of bizarre and eye-popping art. As you browse the collection, a small radio tuned to 89.3 WQED plays classical music adding a level of sophistication to the eccentric atmosphere.
Nearly every inch of Randyland is filled with all kinds of unique trinkets, statues and gardens. All are either donated or bought at garage sales.
Randyland was started by a gentleman named Randy Gilson, who bought the building on a credit card for $10,000 in 1995. After moving in, he realized that the neighborhood needed some TLC. So, on a shoestring budget, he started to build gardens around the neighborhood to try and brighten things up.
Over the years, Randy created 800 gardens, 50 vegetable gardens and eight parks all through recycled materials, donated items and very little money. At first, he had to do much of his work through the middle of the night.
Apparently his neighbors didn’t care for him working on their block and would often call the cops, telling him to scram.
However, Randy persevered and eventually won over his neighbors who realized that while he may be a little crazy, his intentions were pure.
No theme park would be complete without its own character and Randy is the Mickey Mouse of Randyland. While millions of children love Mickey and buy his merchandise and want their photo with him, he’s got nothing on Randy.
Randy has more heart, more charisma, more wisdom and more imagination than Mickey Mouse could ever dream of and no visit to Randyland is complete without a meet-and-greet.
On the day of my visit, a volunteer was working in the garden, pulling out weeds and breathing new life into the planters that make this place so special. Randy is a waiter by day, so I waited in the courtyard for a little while until he finished his shift to meet the man himself.
Right at 3:30 p.m., I see the man himself round the bend. After a quick glance to see only me and my friend in the courtyard, he threw his hands up in the air and proclaimed, “Welcome to Randyland!”
Keep in mind, I have shown up unannounced. I have never met this guy in my life, though I had read up a little bit about him online prior to my visit. He sat down and chatted with us like we were old friends who had known each other since kindergarten.
Over the course of the next hour, he beamed as he told us stories of how Randyland started and people from all over the world have visited his happy home. Much like Walt Disney, he really wants the place to inspire people to go back in their own lives and strive to do bigger and better things.
Randy calls himself a “thinkerer” and loves to chat about philosophy, life and how to encourage people to improve their lives. As he told us, “I am not a rich guy. I am a waiter who makes less than $25,000 a year. When a bill comes in the mail, I don’t open it because I don’t know how I am gonna pay it, but somehow things always seem to work out. Money doesn’t buy you happiness. You create your own happiness.”
After talking for nearly an hour about how Randyland came to be, who he has met over the years and hearing a sneak peak of a song created about him from a famous rock band (he remained tight lipped as to who it was), I asked if there were any favorite pieces he wanted to show me of the street art he has created.
Before I knew it, I was whisked off into his workshop to see his latest project.
Randy has acquired dozens of slate tiles that were headed for the junkyard and painted unique faces on each one of them. Sitting on the wall of his workshop, most of them are hanging up in rows, but not visible to the general public just yet.
He told me that he hopes to have the tiles on display at a children’s museum to help inspire them. Randy even went on to say how he would like to see them displayed, with a fan behind them, so the wind can pick up their various personalities.
No theme park visit would be complete without a souvenir, so very soon guests can have their very own Randyland t-shirts to take home with them. Keep in mind, Randyland does not charge admission. This is a labor of love that is free to the public.
Without question, if you ever visit Pittsburgh, you need to carve out at least an hour or two to visit one of the most unique, inspiring and charming places on the planet. More importantly, you need to actually meet Randy yourself for a healthy dose of philosophy, humor and kindness. Randy Gilson is a force to be reckoned with. Tell him Josh from Theme Park University sent ya!