Marine Animals, Theme Park Rides & Alligators: 3 Classic SoCal Attractions in Photos

A young child has a close encounter with the alligators at the California Alligator Farm. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Recently, scenes from L.A. history have been reappearing a few dozen miles to the south, as the Walt Disney Company completes a makeover of the entrance to its California Adventure theme park. The main entrance now bears a striking resemblance to the Streamline Moderne Pan-Pacific Auditorium, which L.A. lost to fire in 1989. Just behind the entrance's fin-shaped towers, the Disneyland Monorail will soon glide over a replica of the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, which connects Atwater Village with Silver Lake.

These reconstructions of L.A. architecture recall the city Walt Disney encountered when the aspiring cartoonist first arrived in California in 1926, but they also remind us of the place that theme parks and other tourist attractions occupy in Southern California history. With its international stature, Disneyland may be the best known of Southern California's tourist destinations, but the region has been home to several popular attractions, from ocean-front amusement parks to Busch Gardens in Van Nuys.

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Marineland of the Pacific

Before there was SeaWorld, there was Marineland, perched above the coast of the Palos Verdes Peninsula at Portuguese Bend.

Marineland of the Pacific was reputedly the world's largest oceanarium when it opened in 1954. Built at a cost of more than $3,500,000, the park featured two colossal salt water tanks that collectively held more than 1 million gallons of sea water, pumped fresh from the Pacific Ocean below and filtered for sand, algae, and other unwanted elements. Like SeaWorld and other oceanariums today, the park housed a collection of marine mammals, sharks, fish, mollusks, and other creatures of the sea. Dolphins, porpoises, and pinnipeds performed stunts before auditoriums full of tourists, led by the park's star orcas, Orky and Corky.

The park also collected marine curiosities discovered in the nearby ocean waters. For example, when in 1956 divers found a Cuvier's beaked whale off the shore of Santa Catalina Island, far from its normal habitat, they captured the whale and transported it to Marineland, where it was placed in a tank.

In late 1986, Harcourt Brace Jovanavich—the publishing company that also owned the SeaWorld chain of marine mammal parks—purchased Marineland for $23 million and, citing financial difficulties, closed the park a few months later. Harcourt moved Orky and Corky to its SeaWorld San Diego park and tried to rename the pair Shamu and Namu (SeaWorld's stage names for its killer whales) but relented in the face of Marineland fans' protests.

Postcard showing an aerial view of Marlineland of the Pacific, circa 1960. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

A diver feeding the fish and marine life inside the Marineland of the Pacific oceanarium. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

A dolpin performing a stunt at Marineland of the Pacific, 1954. Courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

A porpoise in the bed of a pickup track, on its way to Marineland of the Pacific in 1954. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Main entrance to Marineland of the Pacific. Courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Knott's Berry Farm

Billed today as "America's first theme park," Knott's Berry Farm, as its name suggests, began as an agricultural concern. Farmer Walter Knott and his wife Cordelia moved to Buena Park in 1920 and opened a rural roadside berry stand, selling berries to beachgoers traveling along Highway 39. In 1932, Knott became the first to commercially cultivate the boysenberry, a hybrid developed by Anaheim farmer Rudolph Boysen.

Two years later, facing financial hardship amid the Great Depression, Cordelia Knott opened her Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant. It was an instant success. Three-hour long lines often snaked through the Knotts' property, and by 1940 the restaurant served as many as 4,000 chicken dinners every Sunday evening.

To entertain the hungry diners, the Knotts added various attractions and diversions, from a 20-foot artificial volcano to a gold mine where visitors could pan for genuine gold flakes. In the 1940s, Walter Knott began transporting buildings from abandoned towns of the Old West to create the themed Ghost Town area. Rides, including a restored narrow-gauge railroad and the Calico Mine Ride, followed and in 1968 the Knotts fenced in the theme park and began charging admission.

The Knott family sold the park to Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, an amusement park operator, in 1997. Many of the early attractions have since been replaced by nausea-inducing roller coasters, but Knott's Berry Farm still greets millions of tourists each year—many of whom fill their stomachs at Cordelia Knott's fried chicken restaurant.

Walter and Cordelia Knott's original roadside berry stand, circa 1926. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

The Knotts' berry shop in the 1930s. Until 1947, the roadside attraction was named Knott's Berry Place. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant, circa 1955. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

One of the first attractions at Knott's Berry Farm was an artificial volcano. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Bird Cage Theater inside Knott's Berry Farm, 1954. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Aerial photograph of Knott's Berry Farm in 1961. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives

Ghost Town inside Knott's Berry Farm, 1967. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Walter Knott (front) and ride designer Bud Hurlbut on the Timber Mountain Log Ride on its opening day in 1969. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

In the 1970s, roller coasters made their first appearance inside Knott's Berry Farm. This photo from circa 1980 shows the Corkscrew roller coaster in front of the Parachute Sky Jump ride. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

California Alligator Farm

In Jurassic Park, author Michael Crichton and filmmaker Steven Spielberg imagined an amusement park designed to showcase Mesozoic-era reptiles. Their imagined park had a real-life antecedent in Los Angeles in the form of Lincoln Heights' California Alligator Farm, a gated, exotic zoo where the chief attractions were the bone-crushing "living fossils" that have persisted on Earth relatively unchanged since the Age of Dinosaurs.

The brainchild of Francis Earnest and Joe Campbell, the California Alligator Farm opened in 1907 near the intersection of Mission Road and Lincoln Park Avenue. Earnest and Campbell segregated the alligators by size to discourage cannibalistic behavior, but they remarkably did not separate the gators from their human visitors. As the photos below show, Alligator Farm visitors—including young children—were encouraged to walk or swim among the dangerous reptiles.

If close encounters with the gators wasn't enough, various attractions kept visitors entertained. Alligators climbed to the top of a chute and then took a belly-slide to the pool below. Tourists could also climb aboard a saddled Billy the Alligator—whose gaping jaws appeared in dozens of Hollywood films—for a ride around the farm. The park's operators also staged spectacles such as alligator wrestling and the feeding of live chickens to the gators.

In 1953, the California Alligator Farm relocated to Buena Park, across the street from Knott's Berry Farm. The park closed in 1984, plagued by declining attendance.

1911 postcard from the California Alligator Farm in Lincoln Heights. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Women dine in a pond filled with alligators at the California Alligator Farm. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Exterior of the California Alligator Farm building. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

A uniformed park worker tickles the underside of an alligator's mouth. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Postcard from the California Alligator Farm, circa 1907. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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