Look, sometimes when I’m thinking of titles, there’s one obvious low-hanging fruit, and nine times out of ten, that’s the one that calls out to me. We’re both just going to have to live with that, I’m afraid.
Welcome to Wanderland is a little 150 page graphic novel about a kid who gets magically transported into the real-life version of the backstory of a theme park ride she loves. As she explores the fantasy land and discovers she can change things in the accompanying park, the story opens up to explore her relationships with her friends and family, as well as her connection to the park where she spent her childhood.
A charming and often amusing story, don’t be fooled by the child-friendly art style; Welcome to Wanderland is for everyone, and holds a special fondness for anyone who has found themselves fascinated by obscure theme park lore.
3P Reviews Series: Welcome to Wanderland
Audience Assumptions: None
Content Warnings: Minor mention of imprisonment, kidnapping; reclaimed use of the term “queer.”
Star Rating: ****
Part One: The Theme Park Fan, the Meat-Lover, the Captain, the King, and the Stink Monster
Welcome to Wanderland is a one-off middle grade fantasy novel similar in a lot of respects to Lumberjanes. While it doesn’t have a lot to do with summer camps, its cast of characters navigate humorous magical adventures while forging strong bonds along the way.
The setting of the story revolves around the fictional Wanderland Park, an aging theme park that’s a stand-in for Disneyland. Protagonist Bellamy Muñoz used to go there regularly as a child and has since grown into an obsessive fan who knows all of its ins and outs, its history and deep lore… and also the disappointment the park has become in recent years. While she still loves visiting and her brother even works there as an actor, Bel is at an age where her encyclopedic knowledge of an amusement park makes her an outcast. The lack of upkeep and crass commercialization by the current owners also means that the park itself has lost some of its magic for Bel.
That is, until she stumbles upon a hidden door on one of the rides that opens up to a fantasy landscape. The park’s most famous ride revolves around the magical kingdom of the elegant princess Lark Riverstone, and this is the place Bel has traveled to. Soon, she starts to run into characters from the ride. Mistaken for a mage when she opens the door, Bel is promptly imprisoned by the ride’s antagonist, Princess Syla, before being rescued by the ride’s main character.
Lark Riverstone is a bit different from her theme park counterpart, ditching the frilly dress and high heels for a jacket and boots. She now goes by the name Riot, preferring to be seen as a meat-wielding punk princess than a delicate maiden. She and Bel have a laugh escaping her sister Syla’s castle, and forge a fast friendship as they wander around the wilderness trying to get Bel home. Eventually, Bel notices that this world is more than just an inspiration for Wanderland Park; it has traces of the old attractions worked into its landscape. Her knowledge of the park’s history comes in handy, and soon she’s reworking branches of a forest to form magical doorways back to the park.
When Riot expresses curiosity about her world, Bel invites her to see it, making the doors a rare two-way street. She gives Riot a tour around Wanderland Park, her home, and her school, and over the next few days and weeks, they open up to each other about their respective home lives.
Riot is the last in line of her fourteen siblings, behind even her banished nemesis, Syla. She used to get along well with her oldest brother, Sebastian, but she fears he doesn’t even remember her now that he’s king. She feels unimportant by comparison, but tries to dismiss it as part of her crafted punk personality. She’s always been an outcast herself and has few close friends to speak of, save a friend back home she has a crush on.
Bel has a very different personality than Riot, being much more patient and studious, but she relates on several levels, especially the matter of not having friends. She also has a close relationship with her brother, Michael, who does most of the job of raising her since their parents aren’t around much anymore, but most of her daily social interaction involves awkward exchanges in the hallways at school and getting into fights with strangers on obscure fan forums.
As the girls move freely between the two locations, Riot finds joy in the messy chaos of Bel’s world and Bel starts to realize she can use magic in Wanderland to change the look of the park. With Riot’s help, Bel studies as a proper mage to update the park as she always dreamed. She cleans up old rides, adds new hidden features for nerds like herself, and begins to plan out elaborate new attractions. Eventually, she comes across the world’s only other mage, Borta Norling, creator of Wanderland Park.
Norling used to use the portals to create the beautiful park in its heyday, but eventually his magic started to falter and left in stranded in Wanderland. Bitter about the time he’s lost and the daughter he’s been separated from all these years, Norling nonetheless starts to train Bel and hone her abilities. His powers start to return, and Princess Syla kidnaps him to make him do her bidding.
The final third of the book plays out largely as you might expect: Princess Syla uses magic to steal the throne from Sebastian, then kicks her enemies off to a remote island. While it takes up the expected page space, and has plenty of nice exchanges among the protagonists that shore up their relationships, the finale ends up a bit lacking in substance. Riot secures a ride back to the kingdom, the group storm the gates, and Bel talks to Norling to convince him to see the joy he once had for Wanderland, the fantasy place and the theme park.
Part Two: Warm Fuzzies
This is not my usual fare. In all honesty, the story really isn’t something I can get into easily, and I considered passing this one up, but I really do think it’s worth a shout-out, and rather than wait until the end of the year, I thought it would be nice to include during Pride.
Most of the prominent characters in this story are explicitly or implicitly queer, the former especially. Riot is the most notable as one of a very small number of trans girls I’ve seen in fiction, and a tomboy to boot. Often, being gendered correctly hinges upon adhering to the gender binary, particularly for characters who are solidly men or women, but Riot’s character design is kind of brilliant in that it manages to convey her as having traditionally masculine traits while simultaneously being unmistakably a girl. It’s a tricky line to walk given how culturally-dependent gender presentation is, but she’s a lovable character with a fair bit of depth just under the surface. Her feelings around her crush and old friend, Captain May, also make up a large part of her personal arc, with a satisfying happy ending that we so rarely get with gay characters.
Sebastian is also trans, being much more traditionally masculine in his role and giving off big “dad” energy. He only really enters the story for the final third, but he’s also delightful and gets some of the best lines in the book. He too has hidden depths, both related to his identity and beyond it. He is Syla’s twin brother and one of the only characters who sympathizes with her, banishing her with a castle and workforce to serve her — and he still keeps in touch early on in the book, trying to mitigate her more destructive tendencies. While the story doesn’t really know what to do with its antagonist other than lock her away, Sebastian’s attempts to present Syla as an ordinary person who has made bad decisions prompts a meaningful conversation between him and Riot.
Bel and her brother Michael are both suggested throughout the story to be queer, though in more ambiguous terms than Riot and Sebastian. Michael dresses as Riot’s Disney princess counterpart, complete with the ballgown and fancy gloves (to Riot’s horror), but he uses he/him pronouns and otherwise has a male presentation throughout the story. I get the sense that he’s just into drag rather than trans. There’s a point where Bel mentions covering for what sounds like a date he had in high school with a guy, and Michael is heavily queer-coded, but the story seems content to leave him at that. He doesn’t appear to have a boyfriend, and neither he nor Bel talks about his sexuality explicitly.
At one point, Michael asks Bel if she’s into girls because she seemed to be dating a girl at her school last year and is now spending a lot of time with Riot. She tells him that she’s not really into girls, or anyone, suggesting she’s part of the ace spectrum. I’d really like to see more series actually use the term “ace” or “asexual” to normalize it, and delve into the intricacies of the identity, but given how few ace characters there are in fiction, I’ll take what I can get. It’s nice to have a character try to put it to words in a queer context, and Michael hugs her when she tells him, which is beautiful.
Part Three: Princess Go Brrrr
I am not a huge Disney or theme park fan. Because of that, there’s something I miss in Welcome to Wanderland that other readers might appreciate more. This happens with a lot of good series that just don’t fit into my usual array of interests, be they soap operas, romances, sitcoms, or just stories about a subject matter that doesn’t tickle my pre-existing interests. This is a personal flaw of mine – often, I don’t read widely enough, and the genres I am drawn to sometimes carry tainted legacies. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that quirky romances and colorful cartoons are starting to grow flush with queer representation while many dark fantasies and wry superhero shows are considered subversive if they have even a hint of affection between two same-sex characters.
It’s important to step outside of your comfort zone every once in a while.
Even though it’s not my favorite part of the book, I like that the story of Welcome to Wanderland is about the theme park first. The story is much deeper than its basic premise, but that’s not what will draw most readers in. Themes like isolation, found family, overcoming adversity, and being true to one’s self pervade the narrative in due time, but the reason you gravitate toward a story like this is, first and foremost, because you like theme parks.
This book is designed to appeal to the kid who, like Bel, spends their time binging Defunctland videos and combing the internet for insider secrets about Disneyland ambience. There’s an entire subculture of theme park deep lore enthusiasts who love nothing more than to wander around a park, looking for all of the little environmental details most visitors never notice. While I wouldn’t consider myself among them (I’ve been to a Disney park in my day, but I’m more a museum person), I’ve been around enough of them to know they would be delighted by a portal fantasy about theme parks. The goofy sense of humor and genuinely touching moments throughout the novel share a sensibility with series like Steven Universe and Lumberjanes, and the presence of varied queer characters solidifies it as a worthy compliment to those other series. While it’s only a single book, I think that works in favor of Welcome to Wanderland, since it keeps its concepts tight and focuses on what is most important for the story it wants to tell.
This is going to be at least one kid’s favorite book in the world when they read it, and I think that’s plenty reason to recommend it.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Aesthetics and Style: 6