By Jim Tortolano
Orange County is Ground Zero of themed amusement parks. The first one in the nation, arguably, was Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. The first major park was Anaheim’s Disneyland, and the OC has seen water parks, safari parks, alligator farms and more.
But the most unusual park, and the one whose decline is most shrouded in tragedy, is the Japanese Village and Deer Park in Buena Park. What started as a place of tranquility met its end amidst an episode of heartbreak.
The Deer Park opened in 1967 on a 32-acre site on Knott Avenue, close by the Santa Ana Freeway. It was the brainchild of Allen Parkinson, who also owned the Movieland Wax Museum on Beach Boulevard in Buena Park.
Inspired by a deer park in Nara, Japan, Parkinson brought a little corner of Nippon to Orange County. It featured koi ponds, a five-acre Japanese garden, a classic tea house, pearl divers and martial arts exhibitions.
But the principal attractions of the park were the beautiful deer, 300 of which were imported from Japan. Tourists could buy biscuits and hand-feed the tame creatures.
Sound like a pretty good idea for a Pacific Rim area? Maybe, maybe not, at least not then. The park was sold to a Newport Beach firm in 1970, and then sold again in 1972, to Six Flags.
Declining attendance was cited as reason for closing the park in 1975, but not before tragedy struck. More than 200 deer tested positive for tuberculosis and eventually the whole herd was destroyed.
The park had a new life, though, in 1976 when it was re-opened as Enchanted Village where hundreds of creatures, from giraffes to tarantulas, were exhibited. The innovative ‘friendly” style of interaction with animals – as opposed to the presentation of animals in zoos – by new operators headed by animal trainer Ralph Helfer was different, but the attendance didn’t meet the cost of the renovations and daily operation.
Enchanted Village closed in the fall of 1977 and its Bridge of Enchantment, Wilderness Theater and Amazon Cliff Divers passed into history. Most of the area once occupied by the deer park and village has since been developed into a business park.
Sources: Wikipedia, micechat.com and “Early Amusement Parks of Orange County,” by Richard Harris.