History of Orange County

Walter was first, Walt was second

The front gate at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park.

The front gate at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park.

By Jim Tortolano

When you think of the pioneers of the theme park business, the first names that come to mind are Disneyland and Walt Disney. But to be technically accurate, you have to give credit to a different Walt(er) and an entirely different enterprise.

Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955, but Knott’s Berry Farm, established by Walter Knott in Buena Park, can trace its history all the way back to 1920, and its incarnation as a theme park to 1940.

While the Magic Kingdom was master-planned by Disney’s “imagineers,” the Farm grew into its role as an amusement park incidentally and perhaps even accidently.

Starting in 1920, the Knott family (led by Walter and Cordelia Knott) began selling berries, pies and preserves from their farmland along what was then State Route 39 (better-known today as Beach Boulevard).

In 1934, the family opened a tea room, which evolved into the famous Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. It was such a success the proprietors started adding attractions to amuse customers while they waited to be seated. That was the birth of the Ghost Town in 1940, the point as which historians say the farm-eatery crossed the line into entertainment.

Walter Knott in 1948.

Walter Knott in 1948.

Entrance to the park was free until 1969. By then Knott’s Berry Farm was well on its way toward becoming a full-fledged amusement park. In the 1970s, perhaps in an effort to fill a different niche than nearby Disneyland, the Farm added roller coasters and other attractions, including Camp Snoopy, Bigfoot Rapids and Fiesta Village.

Although Knott’s was certainly a business enterprise, it had a political dimension. Unlike Disneyland, Knott’s was strictly non-union. The Knotts constructed a scaled-down replica of Independence Hall, from where conservative political ideology was promoted.

Walter died in 1981 at the age of 91; Cordelia in 1974. The Knott family sold the farm to Cedar Fair Entertainment Company in 1997, despite an offer to purchase reportedly made by Disney.

The new owners have added more thrill rides, and built an adjacent “Soak City” water park. While Knott’s never eclipsed the success of Disneyland (and its spinoffs), it remains one of the most-visited theme parks in North America, and employs about 10,000 people during peak times.

“Knott’s Scary Farm” is the park’s marketing approach in October for the Halloween season; it’s “Knott’s Merry Farm” for Christmastime.

It has also served as the “anchor” of an entertainment zone along Beach Boulevard in Buena Park that includes other themed attractions such as the Movieland Wax Museum.

Not the biggest, but perhaps the first. Knott’s Berry Farm, built on fruit, chicken and the Old West, is surviving and prospering into the new century as it approaches a century on the Orange County landscape.

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times, http://www.knotts.com


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