Friday, February 23, 2018

The Islands of Knott's (Part I)

Detail from ride concept art, with Tiki and volcano added by author based on comments by Bud Hurlbut.
The greatest tiki theme-park ride of all time was nearly built in the last place you'd expect: The Old West-themed Knott's Berry Farm, in Buena Park, California. And at least a few reminders of that unrealized dream can still be found today. The lush tropical vegetation and Tiki-style picnic huts of "Jungle Island" (now called Knott’s Lagoon) are just a tiny hint of what was and what almost was.

The story of Knott's Berry Farm is a fascinating and complicated one, beginning with an actual berry farm in the 1920s, a wildly-popular chicken dinner restaurant (and diversions for waiting guests) developing in the 1930s, and a replica "Ghost Town" appearing in the early 1940s. But aside from rides on the Butterfield Stage, there weren't any real rides at Knott's until the 1950s, when ride builder and operator Bud Hurlbut approached a skeptical Walter Knott with the idea of putting in a Carousel. Ultimately he sold him on the idea. This hand-shake deal led to a second ride, and a third, and eventually to a decades-long business arrangement with Bud having the concession for most of the rides at Knott's. His most legendary achievements there were the Calico Mine Ride (1960) and the Timber Mountain Log Ride (1969) -- both of which are signature Knott's attractions to this day. Bud dreamed up, financed, built, owned and operated both of these landmark rides. 
Bud Hurlbut inspects a scene in his new Calico Mine Ride, 1960.
It was in the midst of those prime "thinking big" years -- when the mine ride was still incomplete -- that Bud began planning a South Seas "land," with an elaborate and ambitious South Seas Island Boat Ride.  In their book, Knott's Preserved, authors Chris Merritt and Eric Lynxwiler describe the area: "Clearly inspired by Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, the developing Lagoon area across Beach Boulevard would become home to an exciting tour around tropical islands with thrills along the way."

It was all to be built on land Knott owned on the opposite side of Highway 39 (Beach Boulevard) from the rest of "the farm."  Plans (shown below) were drawn in April of 1959.
Drawing of islands for Hurlbut Amusement by Dick Bagley, courtesy Christopher Merritt
In early January, 1960, Russell Knott, Walter's son and a key manager of the Farm, stopped by Bud's shop and found him mulling over ideas for the South Seas ride. He asked Bud to focus on getting the mine ride finished first.  But just days later, Bud and his associate, Dick Bagley, (who had worked on designing Disneyland's steam trains) were out eyeballing the proposed South Seas area again. Bud would also go for walks on the land with his wife, Lou, and his dog, Beagle, turning over the possibilities in his mind. Still perpetually steeped in the mine ride project, his mind naturally turned to mountains and caverns. Whatever else the boat ride had, it should certainly have both of those. But he really didn't have time to do more work on the project until the mine ride was completed. 

When the Calico Mine Ride opened on November 22, 1960, it was an immediate booming success. And it also allowed Bud to get back to his other plans. By Thanksgiving, he was already starting to think about the South Seas ride again. By New Years Eve he was discussing plans once again with his employees.
Exterior of the newly opened Calico Mine Ride, circa 1960.
In early 1961, Bud went to work creating the new ride's waterways, building up its islands, and planting the banks with tropical-looking foliage.

 “...I got a couple of bulldozers, you can see all the passageways in there," Bud told Chris Merritt in a 1998 interview. "One was the South Seas with the big volcano and lava running down. I was kinda concerned on how I was gonna make lava red hot running down. I don’t know if I ever really got that all worked out or not…”

Later concept art, referencing South Seas plans, showed an Island village scene, with thatched huts on stilts and outrigger canoes on the beach. And the ride almost certainly would have included waterfalls, large tikis, and a variety of fake wildlife.
"Leftover" South Seas Island Boat Ride scene in background of later "Fur Trapper Ride" concept art.
Bud said the ride "would have been pretty much like the Jungle Cruise." But the addition of tunnels and a huge erupting volcano hint at the way Bud's ideas tended to grow and become more elaborate over time. The boats would actually pass through caves UNDER the volcano, and one can only guess what the inventor of the beautiful stalactite/blacklight cavern in the Calico Mine Ride would have cooked up for the volcano's interior.  Just as the mine ride project grew from a straightforward dark ride into a multi-story mountain with special effects and many elaborate scenes, certainly the South Seas ride would have grown into something very special and unique.
Aerial photo of graded "islands" in South Seas area at Knott's, 1961.
Bud not only carved out the islands for the boat ride, but also an adjacent peninsula which he'd already identified as "Jungle Island." It's long been unclear what his plans were for Jungle Island, but according to an August 1961 article in Amusement Business magazine, Bud's plans for the overall area included not just the boat ride, but also "others in a South Sea theme." Dick Bagley served as the project's design engineer. 
Detail of Hurlbut map of proposed Jungle Island features. Courtesy Stack's Liberty Ranch
In 2018, the Facebook feed for Stack's Liberty Ranch -- an in-progress theme park museum and movie ranch -- posted two small portions of a March 19, 1959 "preliminary drawing" by Bagley for "Knott Jungle Island" featuring "some suggestions for points of interest, trails and signs." Elements depicted among the presumed tropical foliage included a climbing tree, a "boysen-berry bog" with a large plastic berry, a 10-foot by 15-foot "Knott's Cabin," a "Giggling lions den", "gay stepping stones," an underpass tunnel, another tunnel through dense brush, and such landmarks as "Laughing Springs," the "Chocolate River," "Ice Cream Cove," "Angry Cross-Roads," "Whispering Creek," and more.
This drawing for the South Seas Island Boat Ride appeared a few years ago on Ebay.
But something happened, and suddenly the whole South Seas project was on hold. The" islands" just sat, with no water around them. In another interview, for "E" Ticket Magazine #35, Hurlbut told Merritt, "We got as far as digging the troughs... and then we abandoned the idea because we had some other more important things to do."

Today, Merritt says that during his many conversations and formal interviews with Bud, he was never given a definitive answer about why the South Seas project stopped. John Waite, an longtime employee and good friend of Bud's,  said the subject was never raised. He says he was only aware of the project because he once saw a "neat sketch of the boat" that was to be used for the ride. (Evidence suggests the final boat design would have looked similar to Disneyland's Jungle Cruise boats, but possibly with thatched awnings.)

Today, there's little known evidence of the great South Seas project at Knott's. The sources cited in this article and a single crude tiki mask -- which I acquired at Bud Hurlbut's (home) estate sale -- provide some evidence of his interest in the Polynesian theme.
Bud Hurlbut's Tiki mask. From the collection of Chris Jepsen.
Next time: Part II -- What Became of Jungle Island!?!

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