A Historical Roller-Coaster Ride Through Some of OC’s Less-Than-Famous Theme Parks

As the county that can boast being home to both America’s first theme park and the world’s most famous theme park, Orange County history is closely intertwined with that of amusement parks. And while the one park with a mouse and the other with a beagle continue to draw tourists from the world over, OC has played host to a variety of bizarre and unique attractions that didn’t survive. And when you read about the crazy shit these places offered, it makes sense none of these joints has a place in today’s litigious society. To wit:

California Alligator Farm. The Los Angeles Alligator Farm originally opened in 1907 in Lincoln Heights before it was renamed and relocated across the street from Knott’s Berry Farm on La Palma Avenue in Buena Park in 1953. The park entertained locals and tourists alike with a congregation of alligators and other exotic reptiles. Visitors could take photos sitting on an alligator’s back or even feed the hungry gators raw chicken—imagine that happening in 2017! It operated until 1984, when the deadly combination of plummeting attendance and an expired lease shuttered its gates (Wally Gator just didn’t have the sex appeal he did in ’62 anymore). A Knott’s overflow parking lot now sits where the gators used to roam (or lounge idly in the sun until feeding time, whatever).

Japanese Village and Deer Park. Everybody smoked in the 1960s—even the fish! Buena Park’s Japanese Village and Deer Park reportedly had a $700 50-year-old koi fish named Old Gold who was trained to take puffs on cigarettes and even play poker to amuse visitors. The park was opened on Knott Avenue in 1967 by Allen Parkinson, who also opened the now-shuttered Movieland Wax Museum in the same city. Inspired by a deer park in Nara, Japan, the main attraction was some 300 docile and majestic Japanese deer, which attendees could hand feed biscuits. They had a Sea World-like marine mammal show, with trained dolphins and sea lions performing tricks for treats. The Deer Park only operated for eight years before the new owners, Six Flags, shut it down in 1975. Toward the end of its run, some 200 deer were diagnosed with tuberculosis and died. The most tragic cervine story since Bambi. . . .

Lion Country Safari. File this one under shit that would not fly today: a 140-acre pseudo African safari with real exotic animals and no fences. The only thing between you and the animals was the frame of your Buick—and yes, the animals would come right up to your car. To be fair, cars were a lot sturdier then—I wouldn’t place a whole lot of confidence in a Honda Fit pitted off against the weight of a 400-pound lion. But back then, lions would jump on the hood of your car, and giraffes would put their noses through your window in search of treats. No convertibles allowed, though. Irvine Meadows Amphitheater was built next door in 1981, and by 1986, the savannah of Irvine had been replaced by Wild Rivers water park. Now, both attractions have been shuttered to make way for—what else?—more beige apartments.

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