America’s First Theme Park: Berries, Chicken, & Ghost Towns

Long before Walt Disney sat on a park bench at the carousel in Griffith Park and began to imagine a magical place called Disneyland– or at least that’s how the legend goes — two pioneers had already created America’s first theme parks. Their names were Walter Knott & Will Koch.

Walter Knott & Wife and original Knott’s Berry Farm building. Courtesy of Santa Ana Public Library.
Santa Claus Land advertisement. Courtesy of c86.tumblr.com

At 31 years of age, with $250 dollars in his pocket and a beat-up Ford Model T, Walter Knott and his family moved to Buena Park, California.

The Knott’s rented a 20 acre berry farm and in 1923 built a roadside stand to sell their berries and jams to passerby’s. Again nothing, remotely theme park-ese. One of their early employees described this stand as a “lean-to with palm fronds.”

Modern Day Boysenberry Pie at Knott’s Berry Farms

Two years after the re-discovery of the Boysenberry, they struck gold.

Mrs. Knott started to serve her fried chicken dinners on her wedding china to Tea Room diners. The dinners were just $0.65 cents. Word spread, and in just a few weeks, the Tea Room was filled with people. In 1937, they were serving 1,774 chickens a day. Guys, that is insane. In 1938, after building two more dining rooms, there was up to a 4 hour wait time for their meals — especially on Sundays. According to employees, Mr. Knott dreaded Sundays.

However, little did they know, there was a mouse neighbor moving in just 10 years later. And that little Mouse just so happened to be one of the Knott’s close family friends.

Disneyland Opening Day (1955). Courtesy of designingdisney.com

Mr. and Mrs. Knott did attend Disneyland’s Opening Day.

And they saw some familiar attractions, particularly in Frontierland and Main Street. Little did they know at the time that Disneyland’s original imagineers had visited Knott’s Berry Farms in the months prior. In later interviews, Mr. Knott recalled that he remembered thinking that Disneyland was so packed they should go home and shut the gates- send the employees home- as everyone was at Disneyland. However, they returned home to find the parking lot packed and the Chicken Dinners still flying like every Sunday. 1955 was the best year the Knott’s had had up until that point — just went to prove that maybe they needed some competition.

This competition certainly inspired new attractions and ushered in an unmatched golden era of new attractions including an Indian Village, Haunted Shack, and a Bud” Hurlbut” carousel.

Who was Bud Hurlbut? Well, he was an imaginerer before there was even imaginerers. Walt Disney himself would come to Knott’s frequently to see the master’s work — including Calico Mountain Ride and the Timber Mountain Log Ride. Both rides that would spawn out of Mr. Knott’s and Bud’s fruitful collaboration that ended only with Mr. Knott’s death. He was also the creator of a themed queue area!

Bud Hurlbut (left) and Walter Knott (right) riding the Timber Mountain Log Ride, Knott’s Berry Farm, 1969
Knott’s Berry Farm Timber Mountain Log Ride circa 1970's

By the time of Mr. Knott’s death in 1981, America’s First theme park had changed dramatically.

There were new lands like Fiesta Village, an exact replica of Independence Hall, new coasters like the Corkscrew, and just 2 years later- the Camp Snoopy area provided the park with a mascot. Mr. Knott also started the first Halloween attraction at a Theme Park. A three night engagement in 1973, just recently celebrated it’s 45th year in 2017. Since then, Knott’s Scary Farm has inspired constant spinoffs.

At first, they were offered to sell the park to the Walt Disney Company to become Disney’s America — which had failed to be built by Washington D.C.

Plans for Disney’s America by Bright Star Films (YouTube)

Hello! My name is Austin & I am a product manager, career coach, and podcast host.

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