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AMUSING THE NEIGHBORS : A Non-Tourist's Guide to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm

March 19, 1992|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Is the theme song to Disneyland's long-defunct Carousel of Progress forever embedded in your memory?

Did you ever make out on the Journey Through Inner Space?

Do you remember the fuss when Knott's Berry Farm decided to start charging admission, a whole dollar, to Ghost Town?

Can you recite the jokes on Disneyland's Jungle Cruise a half-beat before the ride operators?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above, you must be a local. And for locals, Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm have always meant quite a different thing than they have to tourists.

Avoiding tourists, in fact, becomes something of a game, and the tips gleaned from years of hitting the parks are sometimes protected like state secrets. Getting on the major attractions without standing in long lines is the objective, and planning ahead is the key.

In a way, the two theme parks are rooted in different chapters of the county's history. Knott's came out of the rural past--it really was a berry farm, after all--and Disneyland, carved out of the orange groves, virtually created the tourist-mecca present.

Ever since the park opened in 1955, people have come from all over the world to go to Disneyland, erstwhile home to the world's most famous rodent. While the park was a far-off destination for most kids, youngsters growing up in Orange County got used to seeing the Matterhorn from the freeway and hearing the fireworks on summer nights.

To go somewhere on vacation and tell kids you met that you lived near Disneyland was to be granted an aura of instant celebrity, especially for kids of the '50s and '60s--when Walt was still alive and "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" was in its heyday, and before the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida diluted some of Disneyland's luster.

Of course, just living nearby didn't guarantee endless trips to the park, but a steady stream of out-of-town visitors helped.

Which brings up a curious phenomenon: When locals take out-of-towners to Disneyland, they tend to show it off with unmistakable pride, as if they built the place with their own hands. (My dad was no exception, and his status as an immigrant only intensified his patriotic fervor. When we went to Disneyland, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and "America the Beautiful" were mandatory stops.)

While Disneyland sprang full-blown into the world, its opening-day broadcast live on television (with Ronald Reagan serving as one of the hosts), the evolution of Knott's has been more organic.

Walter and Cordelia Knott started selling their berries from a roadside stand in 1928. In 1934, Cordelia began selling chicken dinners; they started the old ghost town in 1940, thus giving birth to the sort of roadside attraction that once dotted highways across America (a perfect complement to the California Alligator Farm right across the street).

Things started getting serious in 1952, when Walter bought the Denver and Rio Grande narrow-gauge railroad and brought it to the farm. Admission to Ghost Town remained free until it was enclosed by a fence in 1968; for a kid in those days, when the Western was still a breathing TV and film genre, the ultimate in cool was to strap on a pair of toy guns, put on a cowboy hat and stalk the streets.

Since then, Knott's has followed the Disneyland model to a large degree, dividing the park into different areas with themed rides and attractions and mixing in live entertainment. Still, Knott's has managed to keep Ghost Town, with its shaggy-dog attractions (the Haunted Shack, Mott's Miniatures), at its funky core.

But enough reverie. The parks long ago outgrew their naivete and have become monolithic, moneymaking machines. Visitors descend by the millions, and that's where being a native--or at least thinking like a native--comes in handy.

Of course, amusement park veterans do not always relinquish their secrets easily. An informal survey of The Times newsroom brought a few defensive reactions.

"I spent most of my youth perfecting how to avoid big crowds and long lines at Disneyland," wrote one colleague. "The last thing I'm ever going to do is to tell some tourist my trade secrets that took years to develop."

Without his help, then, here goes.

General tips

Some of these pointers are fairly obvious, but we'll pass them along anyhow. First off, this is the off-season, so not only are the parks less crowded, they have both cut prices temporarily in an attempt to attract locals.

Weekends now are fairly manageable. For instance, the peak line last Saturday at the Knott's Log Ride (one of the most popular attractions) was a tolerable 25 minutes. Weekdays, of course, are even better, and if the day is threatening rain, that should pretty much guarantee you have the park to yourself. But spring break, next month, is an especially busy time, and the crowds will continue to build through summer.

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