By Alex Tresniowski
April 03, 2000 12:00 PM

His neighbors knew something was up when Matt Roloff parked his pirate ship, the Roily Polly, next to his pond. Or maybe it was when he built the 32-ft.-high tree house. Or was it when he put an Old West town in his backyard, complete with an authentic general store and jail? “The neighbors,” says Roloff, “were like, ‘What are these crazy little people up to now?’ ”

Roloff, 38, doesn’t care if you call him little. After all, he’s a 4’2″ dwarf (and his wife, Amy, 37, is the same size). But crazy? Not according to the many grateful children who regularly revel in his grand creation—a fantasy playland on his 35-acre farm in Hillsboro, Ore., 18 miles west of Portland. Fed up with just missing the height requirement for most amusement park rides, Roloff, a high-end software salesman, spent four years building his own whimsical Disneyland, a place that—in addition to the tree house et al.—features a 70-ft.-long mine shaft, a soccer field and 300 ft. of underground tunnels. Roloff built it all on a scale that suits his size, making it equally ideal for his four young children and their ever-growing circle of friends. “It’s like a kids’ paradise,” says Cindy Steele, 34, whose son Michael, 9, is a frequent visitor. “It’s fun to play there even as an adult.”

Roloff’s quirky fantasyland, some of which he assembled himself, is all the more remarkable considering his condition. Though his parents are not dwarfs, he was born diastrophic—a form of dwarfism that causes bone and joint deformities—and endured more than 10 surgeries as a child growing up in San Francisco. He also spent many months in a full-body cast. “I can remember being in so much pain that I wanted my legs cut off,” he says. Yet even then, Roloff displayed the defiant, can-do spirit that is his trademark, pedaling a paper route on a modified bicycle and speed-hobbling on his crutches. “Other parents would say, ‘My child wants crutches now because of your son,’ ” says his mother, Peggy, 58, an art teacher.

After working as a movie extra (he played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi), Roloff became a computer-software designer and now sells multimillion-dollar software to companies. On a 1989 business trip to Oregon, he chanced on a run-down farmhouse in Hillsboro. Envisioning his field of dreams, he plunked down $185,000 and got to work. Most of the playground was built on the cheap; Roloff bartered with contractors for some of the work and fashioned his western town out of old wood and recycled shingles for only $18,000. (He makes sure his attractions meet zoning regulations and keeps the visits from neighborhood kids limited for insurance reasons.)

Currently on the drawing board: a tower of terror, a sports court and a brand-new barn with rope swings. “I’m just really into barns,” explains Roloff, who relies on crutches and a golf cart to get around. And while the world’s ultimate backyard may be his chance to “relive some of the things from his childhood he couldn’t do,” says wife Amy, the main beneficiaries are the couple’s children, Jacob, 3, Molly, 6, and 9-year-old twins Jeremy and Zachary. (Only Zachary inherited his parents’ dwarfism.) Watching the kids frolic with friends in the world he created is Roloff’s sweetest reward. To them, he says with obvious pride, “I’m like the coolest dad around.”

Alex Tresniowski

Alexandra Hardy in Hillsboro