Soaking up culture in Anaheim? Sure!

Somehow Anaheim, California, is just not one of those places you expect to go for a cultural weekend. But hundreds of thousands of families do it every year.

In the Anaheim context "culture" does not mean drama, concerts, and museums. But when you consider the really American contributions to world culture, Anaheim has them.

And what are these contributions? Theme parks. Chicken dinners and berry pie. baseball. Convention-going.

Don't loft your nose in the air. Nothing is more American than that lineup!

Anaheim was once as obscure as Azusa and Cucamonga. Then a quarter-century ago, Disneyland put it on the map.

According to the hallowed legend of today, everyone thought Walt Disney was crazy when he broached his amusement park idea. Everyone was sure Disneyland would fail. Anaheim? Who'll go way out there to shake hands with mickey mouse?

that's not quite the way they tell it 10 miles up the road in Buena Park. "When we heard that big corporation was coming in, we got down on our knees and prayed," says Virginia Knott Bender. "We were afraid we'd lose our business!"

In those days Knott's Berry Farm was a folksy, locally renowed chicken-dinner place on the highway between Los Angeles and Balboa/Newport Beach. Sometimes there was a wait to get seated and so Walter Knott, now 89, added a Ghost Town you could walk through while waiting. Knott's mother had come to California on a wagon train, and Ghost Town was his way of both saluting his pioneer forebear and trying to keep restaurant patrons from getting impatient.

Now, 24 years after they were all down on their knees, the Knott family has more than met the challenge of Disneyland. The two parks are quite different. Both are thriving. There may be some dispute as to which was the first "theme park" -- Ghost Town, opened in 1940, or Disneyland's magic Kingdom, which first attracted visitors in 1955. But the Anaheim- Buena Park area of California's Orange County is where the "theme park" concept first took physical shape.

One is not being merely facetious in describing these theme parks as important -- even unique -- American contributions to world culture. that's because the motivating impulses behind them seem intrinsically American.

Disneyland is a triumph of American ingenuity and corporate organiztion. Reconceiving the amusement park concept, Disneyland people "imagineered" (to employ the Disney slogan) and built a superclean, totally controlled environment.

It really is superb family entertainment. In its field it is something that became a necessity -- and a model almost as soon as it was invented

The flip side of "imagineering" is that after several visits Utopia gets to seem awfully structured. IT begins to have a corporate feel. "Attention to detail" seems a hang-up. The Benevolent Imagineer has you eating a lot of junk food, and most of his employees seem a little brainwashed -- as lacking in real personality as all those singing robots. It gets to be a joy to hear the Jungle Cruise guide parody his patter, to see the street sweepers backhand trash into dustpans with their brooms.

Knott's Berry Farm, America's third most popular amusement park (after Disneyland World), exemplifies a very different kind of American spirit. Knott's is a triumph of family grit and the American free-enterprise system helping the little guy.

In 1920 Walter Knott started the business on 20 acres. He grew berries, developing one bred by his neighbor Rudolph Boysen, and his wife, Cordelia, sold produce and pies at a roadside stand. During the depression, Mrs Knott started a tearoom to help make ends meet. there the Knott children -- who still run the business -- helped in the kitchen, waited on tables, and sold merchandise.

Knott's still has a folksy feel. there are even trees in the parking lot. It seems to have just growed.

The property now 200 acres, lacks the structured, designed engineering of Disneyland. Foot traffic must be halted, for example, while the train and stagecoach rides make their rounds.Disney imagineers would never have allowed that. Nor would they have contenanced two very scary, very popular roller coaster rides that simulate nothing at all.

Knott's has some definite strong points. The chicken dinner is a first-class meal. Now serving 1.45 million of them each year,the restaurant uses the same menu and recipes Cordelia Knott used on her firt seven chicken-dinner customers 45 years ago. "People won't let you change these things," Virginia Knott Bender notes. "They want them just the way they've always been."

The free shows are first-class, too. On a recent visit my wife, son, and I saw a 45-minute ice show in the Good Time Theater, part of a disco show in the classify redecorated Cloud 9 ballroon (the decor is a little surprising, because the building outside resembles an airplane hangar) and a funny, expertly performed demonstration of Hollywood Stunt- fighting.

Given the Disney reputation for showmanship, you don't expect to come away feeling that Knott's has the better shows. But so many Disneyland productions feature the singing or cartoon-character robots that it's refreshing to see live people performing.

Last, here's a certain Old West authenticity about some of what's happening at Knott's. Outside a log cabin the day we were there a woman was demonstrating how to card and spin lamb's wool into thread. We watched her for about 10 minutes, because seven-year-old Paul was interested.

Later he panned for gold in a miner's sluice and has a grain or two now in a tiny plastic vial. I can't recall a single Disneyland activity that involves a participant in quite this way.

With Anaheim now promoting itself as one of the three or four top convention sites in the country, there is a variety of places to stay -- from campgrounds to luxury hotels.

Seeking to adapt the theme park idea to its own situation, the Disneyland Hotel has recently opened a $4 million Water Wonderland for the public as well as hotel guests. The complex includes an artisans' market, restaurants, and a watersports marina. Nightly during the summer there are a free dancing waters show and demonstrations of Polynesian dancing from water-borne craft.

But what caught Paul's fancy at Water Wonderland were the "koi," the white-spotted, yellow, orange, and red carp so treasured by the Japanese. Some 400 koi swim in the pools, the fish valued at an average of $50 each.

While Paul watched, a man came to feed them. Because he looked interested in the fish, the keeper gave Paul a handful of meal. As koi bobbed up below his hand, Paul dropped the meal into the water a couple of grains at time

And, for all i know, that was the best "ride" of the weekend.

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