The family that has run the Tilden Park merry-go-round for 21 years is likely to lose the contract this month. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Tilden Park’s cherished antique merry-go-round will continue spinning — but possibly in a different direction.

For the first time in 21 years, the East Bay Regional Parks District could, at its March 18 board meeting, approve new management and operation of the Tilden merry-go-round. This could spell the end of the merry-go-round’s Christmas Fantasy tradition, a month-long holiday extravaganza the current operators began 16 years ago.

Terri Oyarzùn and her family have managed and operated the 103-year-old carousel and its crew of colorful wooden animals since the previous operators retired in 1993. When her second 10-year contract expired last year, and EBRPD put the merry-go-round out to bid, Oyarzùn was among three potential operators who submitted proposals, but hers was not ultimately selected.

District staff are recommending that the board approve Sycamore Concessions Corporation as the new operator under a five-year contract with an additional five-year renewal option. The couple who run Sycamore Concessions, a company with about 50 employees, is originally from the Bay Area but currently oversee operations within Columbia Historic State Park in Tuolumne County.

Mimi Waluch, District operations manager, said the District was not dissatisfied with Oyarzùn’s management, but Sycamore Concessions simply “scored higher” than the other two operators when evaluated for experience, financial resources, and enhancement plans.

“They have business experience, they have maintenance experience,” Waluch said.

This is the first time the merry-go-round has gone out to bid since Oyarzùn took over operations. When her initial contract expired in 2004, the District skipped the Request for Proposal (RFP) process, approving an additional 10-year agreement for Oyarzùn.

Waluch said that was an unusual decision and that the current process is the normal way to proceed.

“With all our concession agreements, when they come to the end of their term, we go to RFP,” she said.

Oyarzùn and her staff were devastated to hear that their proposal was not selected.

“It was very sad to me that they felt there was a better bid,” Oyarzùn said. “I’ve given the majority of my time, energy, effort, and resources to the merry-go-round. I absolutely am very devoted to it, and to the public that comes up there.”

Oyarzùn said she and her staff have developed relationships with the visitors over the years.

“The knowledge that we have, the time we’ve spent, and the connection we have with the people who took care of the merry-go-round before us will be lost,” said manager Alex Aguirre, who has worked for Oyarzùn since she took over the carousel. He lives above the merry-go-round’s food concession area with his three daughters.

Christmas fantasy: Tilden merry-go-round. Photo: Nancy Rubin
The month-long Christmas fantasy at the Tilden merry-go-round is likely to be a thing of the past under new management. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Oyarzùn, who also owns the grazing company Goats R Us with her husband, described her relationship with some of the District staff as one of “deteriorating communication and cooperation on both ends.”

Outside safety inspections — routine preparations for an RFP, according to Waluch — did turn up “several conditions that needed attention” in the fall. Prospective operators were asked to explain in their proposals how they would address the safety issues.

Additionally, the District asked all operators to detail how they would increase revenue, Waluch said. Ticket pricing — currently $2 per ride — has been a bone of contention in the past, according to Oyarzùn.

“Our prices are very low, and I know that,” Oyarzùn said. “I enjoy the idea of catering to our community and part of that is keeping our prices down. The merry-go-round is so much more to me than a job or a business.”

So much more that she considers her employees “a rich extended family.”

New management does not necessarily mean new employees.

“We’re not sure what the transition is going to be,” Waluch said. “It’s just day-to-day operations.”

While the Christmas extravaganza as it is currently organized is likely to go, the Sycamore Concessions proposal does include a different type of holiday event. The District did not have details of exactly what it would be, but said it was probably going to be different.

“It’s a wonderful site, and it’s going to remain a wonderful site,” Waluch said.

Sara Colburn, a Berkeley mom of two, said she would be “extremely sad to see our merry-go-round run by a  corporation, who would undoubtedly raise prices and scrap the wonderful Christmas fantasy.”

The recommendation will go before the full District board on March 18. The operations committee approved the change in management on Feb. 20.

The Tilden Park merry-go-round was built in New York in 1911, and made its way to Berkeley in 1948 after stints elsewhere in California. The District has owned it since 1976 and it earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Tilden merry go round in Berkeley celebrates 100 years (07.25.11)
Tilden’s Merry go round at heart of seasonal spectacular (12.06.11)

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...