In the Shadow of the Mouse

Photo by Keith MayAs far as OC attractions go, there's Disneyland, and then there's everybody else. It's actually kind of sad the way everybody else knows that they're everybody else, often going so far as to remind you in their brochures they're situated really, really close to Disneyland, and if you happened to be in the neighborhood sometime, they'd really appreciate it if you could stop by their place, too.

Knott's Berry Farm is the only one that comes anywhere near Disneyland in terms of popularity, but a theme park based around berries is just never going to bring the tourists flocking in the way Walt Disney's Anaheim brainchild has over the decades. As a kid, I was thoroughly perplexed by the place, a kind of Old West theme park (complete with stagecoach rides) that also boasted a life-size replica of Independence Hall. It was wholesome, low-key fun, but you always had the feeling that at the end of a day there, somebody was going to give you a pop quiz about American history and blueberry preserves.

And let us not underestimate the centrality of berries to the whole Knott's experience; for years, the place had a wild ride featuring dozens of animatronic, hillbilly animals making jam as your buggy wheeled among them, a kind of It's a Small Worldby way of Hee-Haw. I vividly recall the summer day when the ride broke down midway through, and I was stranded for a good quarter-hour among the frozen frogs and bears and their abruptly stilled jelly presses. Sometimes, on long, dark nights, I wonder if a part of me is still there. Knott's has always been kind of pokey, but its very lack of slickness is part of its charm.

Once you get beyond Knott's, things get even freakier. Living a hearty but unwholesome existence in the long shadow of the Magic Kingdom, the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum and Movieland Wax Museum make for a cheerfully eccentric pair. If the Ripley's Museum is the weird old uncle who collects shrunken heads and bugs in jars, the Movieland Wax Museum is the spinster aunt who wears lots of wigs and keeps far too many ancient movie magazines around the house.

Ripley's is a treasure trove of goofy oddness, featuring such delights as a version of the Last Supper made of toast, a flea-circus band in fancy outfits and a giant Chinese guy. The place winds all around inside, giving the uncanny feeling it's far more vast on the inside than it looks from outdoors. There are peculiar creatures and doodads leaping out at you around every corner, and the overall vibe is roughly comparable to those dreams in which you wander around abandoned amusement parks at midnight while being pursued by eyeless creatures with voices like Abe Vigoda. In other words, we're talking fun for the whole family!

Movieland features dozens of so-so wax effigies of yesterday's superstars. And I do mean yesterday's: Rowan and Martin, Dick and Tommy Smothers (in a room-sized, guitar-shaped enclosure!), Chuck Connors as the Rifleman. Take your kids to this place, and you'll spend a good portion of the afternoon explaining who the heck these "celebrities" are. But if you've never quite gotten over the icons of your own childhood (including the stuff that was in reruns even then), the place is nirvana. Kirk, Bones and a moldy-looking Spock preside over the original Enterprise bridge; Donny and Marie grin at you with those horsey choppers, just aching to entertain you with some hideous '70s variety-show production number; Christopher Reeve stands resolute as Superman in the Fortress of Solitude. Timelier stars such as Julia Roberts and Keanu Reeves are also featured, but something about the museum makes everybody seem like their days have long since passed. Decades hence, America will have fallen as a global power, the seas will have risen to our doorsteps, and strange machines will whiz our descendants through the brown and blighted skies, yet, in all likelihood, people will still be scratching their heads and wondering who Tom Mix was and what he's doing in this place. The more things change, the more Movieland, bless it, stays the same.

These places don't offer Disneyland's pomp and glitz, but they do offer thrills all their own—and bittersweet nostalgia, too. And jam.

Knott's Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 220-5200. Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, 7850 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 522-7045. Movieland Wax Museum, 7111 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 522-1155.

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