A Tale of Two Walts: How an Unusual Friendship Led to Orange County Becoming a Theme-Park Destination

Walter Knott tends to his berries in 1948. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives

In 1940, Walter Knott turned his berry farm from a roadside attraction into America’s first theme park, and one of his biggest supporters was another man by the name of Walter. Walt Disney was simply fascinated by just how long folks were willing to wait in line to eat a fried chicken dinner and visit with a sad-eyed mannequin in a ghost-town jail cell. The two Walters quickly became friends, taking their wives swing dancing and antiquing, and both served on a planning council for the Children’s Hospital of Orange County. By 1948, Walt Disney had already begun brainstorming ideas for a theme park of his own. However, rather than compete, the two men helped each other and put their combined efforts into what would ultimately be in the best interest of the customer.

In 1952, Walter Knott invited Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, to be honored guests at the inaugural run of the Calico Railroad attraction. However, three years before Disneyland opened, Disney took inspiration from much more than just Knott’s steam locomotive. Knott’s Butterfield Stagecoach Ride inspired Disneyland’s opening-day attraction the Rainbow Mountain Stagecoach Ride. Ghost Town (a themed area dedicated to the Old West) became the inspiration for Frontierland, and Disney even obtained Knott’s same 100-year-old Dentzel Carousel, re-theming it to become King Arthur Carrousel in Fantasyland, complete with the same antique band organ. The most notable inspiration for Disney, however, was Knott’s Bottle House and Music Hall, which featured an exotic collection of birdcages filled with automated whistling birds. This attraction was the inspiration for what became the Enchanted Tiki Room in 1963, launching the form of robotics Disney coined “Audio-Animatronics,” now a theme-park-industry standard.

Mr. and Mrs. Knott attended Disneyland’s opening-day ceremony on July 17, 1955, and were delighted. The sudden increase of tourism in Anaheim meant that more folks would be coming to Orange County and exploring what was nearby. The years 1955 and 1956 were financially the biggest for Knott’s Berry Farm up to that point. In 1960, the Buena Park amusement park debuted its first “E-ticket” attraction, the Calico Mine Ride. Disney adored creator Wendell “Bud” Hurlbut’s work and exclaimed to him, “You sneaky S.O.B.!” when he realized the actual queue for the ride was obscured by the façade of the mountain, not only making the line look shorter, but also, for the first time, making the waiting experience part of the attraction. Disney soon incorporated this concept into future rides at Disneyland and started visiting Knott’s Berry Farm more frequently—taking Bud to lunch and brainstorming new ideas with him.

Disney remained good friends with Knott and Hurlbut until Disney’s unexpected death in December 1966. But the relationship between the two parks continued: Knott’s Berry Farm displayed a framed guestbook page with Disney’s entry on it, and Disneyland would occasionally borrow repair parts from Knott’s when its carousel broke down. In 1969, 22-year-old future Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter left his ride-operating job at Disneyland in the middle of the day to attend the opening gala of Knott’s Timber Mountain Log Ride (also designed by Hurlbut), whose inaugural ride was taken by Hollywood star and Orange County resident John Wayne. Exactly one decade later, Baxter would design Big Thunder Mountain, his first ride for Disneyland, which took inspiration directly from the Calico Mine Ride.

By placing Big Thunder’s queue area underneath the train track and adding a tremoring earthquake shaft and an exploding tunnel, Baxter turned Big Thunder Mountain into an homage to the Knott’s ride. Hurlbut’s design of the Timber Mountain Log Ride set the standard for future rides around the world by incorporating theming, scenery and storytelling within a full-sized mountain; Baxter would fully apply Hurlbut’s approach to his work on Splash Mountain in the 1980s, as well as Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye in the 1990s.

As Knott aged into the late 20th century, his youngest daughter, Marion, began taking over the family business; she was instrumental in shaping the park for future generations. In September 1974, she was looking to do something with a huge show building in the area known as the Roaring ’20s. She approached Imagineering legend Rolly Crump, who was no longer with Disneyland, and asked if he’d be interested in creating a new dark ride for Knott’s. Crump’s impressive résumé included the Haunted Mansion, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and It’s a Small World. Having grown up in Southern California and visited Knott’s since he was 9 years old, Crump jumped at the opportunity.

Walt Disney. Photo courtesy Nasawikimedia

For the first time, Crump was given total freedom, and with nobody to answer to, he was quick to experiment with many ideas that Disney would never let him try. For example, mixing black light with incandescent light, an idea he had ever since he visited Buena Park’s Movieland Wax Museum in the early ’60s. The result was Knott’s Bear-y Tales, a wild, 100 percent original, eight-minute psychedelic journey full of animatronic critters including Crafty Coyote, the Knottsenbear-y Family and Doctor Fox. Along with a catchy theme song and memorable scenes such as Frog Forest, Thunder Cave and Fortune Teller Camp, this cherished attraction was also notable for the boysenberry smell that was pumped throughout the ride. Sadly, Bear-y Tales closed in 1986 to make way for Kingdom of the Dinosaurs; it was the only time in history that Knott’s Berry Farm had a Disney ride.

Knott passed away at the age of 91, and in 1997, the family offered its amusement park up for sale. The Walt Disney Co. placed a bid on the property and immediately began drawing up plans to re-theme Knott’s Berry Farm as Disney’s America, dedicated to the history of the United States. The plans called for moving Knott’s entrance across the street to its Independence Hall replica (an oddly placed structure that sits next to the Knott’s parking lot to this day). The new entrance would have been called Presidents’ Square, which would have hosted the Disney attraction the Hall of Presidents (yes, the same one that exists today at Walt Disney World in Florida). The area of Knott’s that currently hosts the Mystery Lodge would have become a Native American land, Bigfoot Rapids would have been changed to the Lewis & Clark River Expedition, and the Roaring ’20s section would’ve become Enterprise territory.

Reflection Lake would have been turned into Freedom Bay and included a full-scale re-creation of the Ellis Island immigration center. Although planners explored the idea of extending the Disneyland Monorail System from Anaheim to Buena Park, they were ultimately unable to come up with practical means for providing transportation between the two parks. In the end, Knott’s Berry Farm was sold to Cedar Fair, largely because the Knott family feared Disney Imagineers would replace too much of what their parents had spent decades developing. Some of the proposed elements of Disney’s America were eventually incorporated into Disney’s California Adventure.

Nearly eight decades after the friendship between Walter Knott and Walt Disney first began, the spirit of that genuine camaraderie between the two men continues to live on at both theme parks. Whether you appreciate Knott’s homespun, grassroots approach to providing themed entertainment or Disney’s reputation for taking inspiration and going well above and beyond, the amazing life’s work and influence of the two Walts will live on forever.

3 Replies to “A Tale of Two Walts: How an Unusual Friendship Led to Orange County Becoming a Theme-Park Destination”

  1. The two Walters also coordinated the days that their parks were closed back in the day when DL and Knotts actually had days each week that the parks were not open.

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