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Knott's Berry Farm Expands, Adds Dolphins

January 14, 1986|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Times Staff Writer

Knott's Berry Farm, the theme park where chickens and ducks still parade the grounds, has netted an unlikely addition to its menagerie.


Competitive pressure is forcing Knott's of Buena Park into the as-yet-uncharted waters of marine life. The theme park plans to build a 1,200-seat marine stadium this year as the fourth stage of a five-year, $25-million renovation plan. The facility, along with other improvements during the year, will cost more than $2 million.

With amusement parks nationwide veering away from the costly iron and steel thrill rides, more and more are turning to less-expensive forms of entertainment, ranging from marine and animal shows to singing and dancing extravaganzas.

"We can now say: 'Hey, we've got a little bit of everything,' " said Jon Pugh, Knott's director of design and planning. "You don't need to go to Sea World because you can see it all here."

Knott's is not the first area amusement park to set dolphins next to thrill rides. Magic Mountain in Valencia erected its Aqua Theatre six years ago. In peak season, the 1,150-seat stadium hosts seven dolphin shows daily. "It's the most successful show in the park," said Sherrie Bang, the park's public relations manager.

"A dolphin stadium at Knott's might seem like an orange in a bowl of apples, but it still makes sense," said James Harmon, partner at Management Resources, a Tustin consulting firm for amusement parks. "People go to Knott's for reasons other than riding thrill attractions. Knott's has been known for years as a park very strong in entertainment."

Knott's, the former berry farm founded 66 years ago by Walter Knott, is coming off its most successful attendance year ever, said Jim Hardiman, the park's public-relations director. Although the privately owned park does not release attendance or sales figures, attendance in 1985 was up nearly 9% from the year before. That increase has certainly been boosted by Disneyland's 30th-anniversary bash, which attracted visitors from around the world to the area.

The marine stadium is scheduled to be completed by June. It will replace the Starlight Pavilion in Knott's' Roaring Twenties theme area. Plans have also been drawn for a revamping of that part of the park, including new buildings, fresh landscaping and improved lighting. An International Bazaar, with goods from a dozen countries, is planned in the outdoor retail center known as Knott's Market Place.

Major upgrading began at Knott's in 1983, when Camp Snoopy opened at a cost of $10 million. In 1984, the park spent $5 million to revamp the Market Place. Last year, $2 million was pumped into a renovation of the park's Ghost Town, and a renovation is scheduled for the Roaring Twenties area this year.

Mexican-Theme Update

The final part of the five-year plan will be completed in 1987 with work on the park's Mexican-theme area, Fiesta Village. Park officials say that, before the end of the decade, they also expect to build another theme area at Knott's.

"Most theme parks are becoming more aggressive," Harmon said. "They're broadening ways to increase attendance through entertainment."

One way that Disneyland hopes to spark new interest in 1986 is with the Michael Jackson video, "Captain Eo." The multimedia show is scheduled to premiere March 14 at a 700-seat theater now under construction in Tomorrowland. The Magic Kingdom will also extend its prize giveaway program this year. The park has handed out more than $12 million in prizes so far this year.

But Disneyland has no interest in a marine show, spokesman Al Flores said. "Keep in mind, most of our attractions are geared towards mechanical shows," he said.

Besides the dolphin show, Knott's will host an ice show next summer that will feature former Olympic stars. Melodramas and variety shows are also scheduled. "The name of the game is entertainment," Pugh said.

Along that line, the park now hosts live rock entertainment in indoor and outdoor theaters. Knott's has catered to teen-agers in recent years by building two teen nightclubs and booking top rock acts into the park.

Parents and Teens Sought

But it is children and parents--not teen-agers--who are the new focus of the park's attention. It is families who are mostly expected to attend the 30-minute dolphin shows, Pugh said. The dolphin pool is being built so that it can be used for other spectacles, such as swim shows and diving competitions.

The dolphin show will feature characters from the Peanuts cartoon strip. Cartoonist Charles Schulz has signed a multiyear contract with Knott's for use of his Peanuts characters.

Not everyone, however, is impressed with Knott's' planned dolphin show. "I think amusement attractions ought to do what they do best," said Bill Thomas, vice president of marketing at Sea World in San Diego. The Knott's dolphin show "would be like us getting into the ride business," he said.

There are many dolphin shows in the United States, Thomas said. "I could put one in my own backyard. But dolphins don't bring people to Sea World--it's our killer whales and a number of one-of-a-kind exhibits," he said.

Thomas said he does not think that the new Knott's exhibit will hurt Sea World's business.

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