Surely you know America's first theme park, the one a guy named Walter built in Southern California.
Every family has its share of tales told around the dinner table at special gatherings. Here’s one my family likes to tell about me: When I started first grade, my mom took me to school and introduced me to my new teacher, Sister Bernadette. Sister noted that I was tall and asked if I planned on being a basketball player when I grew up.
"No, ma’am," I told her solemnly. "I want to be a train robber."
I don’t know who was more horrified, my mom or Sister Bernadette. The thing is, I wasn’t kidding. I did want to be a train robber. Just like my Uncle Bob, who, fresh out of high school, got a job sticking up the old steam-engine train at Knott’s Berry Farm, the onetime berry-growing enterprise that’s now a 70-acre theme park in Buena Park, Calif.
With his black cowboy hat and red bandanna, Uncle Bob would fire off a few rounds from a heavy Colt.45. I always thought that had to be the most exciting job in the world, and according to Uncle Bob, who later went on to sell life insurance, it pretty much was.
Many people just naturally assume that Disneyland, which is seven miles down the road from Knott’s, was the first American theme park. But the truth is Walter Knott beat Walt Disney to the draw by a good 15 years. Only Knott, a berry farmer who named and marketed the first boysenberry, didn’t set out to define and dominate the world of family entertainment. He simply hoped to ride out the Great Depression.
In 1934 Knott’s wife, Cordelia, started serving 65-cent chicken dinners on her wedding china at their farm stand tearoom. Six years later, as many as 5,000 were coming for Sunday supper. So in 1940 Knott built Ghost Town, his Old West theme park, to give people something to do while waiting for a table. Disneyland opened a decade and a half later, in 1955.
The parks are just 10 minutes from each other and both were started by guys named Walter, but the similarity ends there. Disneyland is as polished as an animatronic Cary Grant. Knott’s Berry Farm is a rumpled Barney Fife. You go to Disneyland at the crack of dawn to minimize the wait for Pirates of the Caribbean. At Knott’s you show up whenever you feel like it and ride a coaster or two, but you also spend time watching a working blacksmith.
And while the train robbers like Uncle Bob may not be real, the train is. Before Knott christened his Calico Railroad in 1952, Ghost Town’s locomotive ran on the Denver & Rio Grande, the last operating narrow-gauge train in the United States. Knott also imported an old schoolhouse built by Iowa farmers in 1879. And he built his own brick-by-brick replica of Independence Hall—complete with a cracked 2,080-pound Liberty Bell.
Of course, not everyone comes to a theme park for steam-powered trains and an Old West boot hill where, if you stand on the mythical grave of one Hiram McTavish, you might hear his heart beat (thanks to an audio hookup). But that’s OK. For thrill-seekers, Knott’s has roller coasters galore, from GhostRider, the ultimate 4,533-foot-long wooden wonder, to the Sierra Sidewinder, which dips, banks, and nosedives while its cars spin on their axes. And for tots there’s Camp Snoopy, where the rides are as tame as the barnyard chickens that still wander around Independence Hall.
You can find plenty of homespun delights dating back to the park’s roots: funnel cakes and sarsaparilla, pulled taffy and boysenberry punch. And the restaurant still serves Mrs. Knott’s famous fried chicken along with hot buttermilk biscuits—and, of course, a slice of boysenberry pie.
In short, Knott’s is the real deal. Even though the park was purchased by Cedar Fair Entertainment Company in 1997, it still has the "comfortable, laid-back feeling of a family-owned, traditional amusement park," says Tim O’Brien, author of The Amusement Park Guide and someone who’s been to nearly 500 parks in 18 countries. "It hearkens back to a simpler era."
I recall that era with fondness every time I ride the steam locomotive through Ghost Town, as I wait for a train robber to burst open the door of my imagination.
Photography courtesy Knott's Berry Farm
This article was first published in July 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.