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Let Them Shop Till They Drop--Into Camp Snoopy : Amusement: Knott's venture into Minnesota's giant Mall of America may set industry trend.

August 07, 1992|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENA PARK — The fried chicken will be just as hot and Snoopy's greeting just as warm, but the new Knott's Berry Farm creation at America's largest shopping mall will be a far cry from the original.

Call it Knott's Berry Dome or Snoopy Under Glass.

In any case, the amusement park opening next Tuesday in the huge Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., is a scaled-down version of the 45-acre Buena Park original that sprang from a Ghost Town theme nearly half a century ago.

But walking shoes will still be appropriate at Knott's in the mall, with seven acres containing 400 live trees and 23 amusement rides and attractions. And it's all enclosed under a glass roof at the nation's biggest indoor bazaar.

Whatever it may lack compared to most giant outdoor theme parks, the new Knott's play world is being monitored by retail developers. If this $70-million indoor experiment succeeds, it is sure to change shopping habits.

"It will be extremely closely watched, and my bet is that it will be successful," said Daniel W. Donahue, chairman of the retail development firm of Donahue Schriber in Newport Beach. "It's another experience in a mall other than shopping."

The Mall of America project gives Knott's a chance to undertake its first park project outside California and to step out of the shadow of Disneyland.

The amusement company also is buying into a risky venture, though it has taken contractual precautions to protect itself. Its effort also isn't entirely new. An indoor amusement park has been one of the draws at the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada.

Camp Snoopy, as the whole park is called, is the hook to coax the mall's target consumers--28 million living within a seven-hour drive--to shop at Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Sears and any of 400 other stores.

Knott's officials say they chose the Camp Snoopy name, even though the park includes other Knott's attractions, to pay homage to Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, who grew up in St. Paul.

In Knott's, developers Melvin Simon & Associates get a recognized and experienced name in the amusement park business. Simon contracted to have Knott's create what became a wonderland of waterfalls, plants, rocks and trails that meander underneath a glass roof.

The rides and attractions include river rapids, a roller coaster and the notorious "kite eating tree" that has bedeviled Charlie Brown all these years. Patrons can wander through the park for free, but must pay $1 to $2.50 for each ride.

"It may well become a pacesetter and a trendsetter for the next 20 years," said Knott's President Terry E. Van Gorder, who settled on the design after touring numerous indoor amusements, most of them flops.

The trees and open skies will give the park the sense of free-spirited fun that has made outdoor parks such a big success, he said. It was built to match the surrounding countryside, not the company's roots in Southern California.

"We surprised the Minnesotans when we did not arrive with palm trees and Hollywood. We built it like their North Woods," Van Gorder said.

Simon paid Knott's to design the park and will continue to pay the company to operate it. Those fees, which aren't being disclosed, will seem relatively meager if the park is a smash, but will protect Knott's from financial calamity. Both companies are closely held, family-run operations.

In either case, Knott's will still gain renown that will build the market for its jams, jellies and other food products outside California. Eventually, it could expand its Mrs. Knott's Restaurant and Bakery chain there as well.

Knott's has rarely ventured out of Buena Park, where founder Walter Knott created a ghost town in the 1940s to occupy guests waiting for seats in his wife's chicken dinner restaurant. He strayed only once, to restore the San Bernardino County mining town of Calico into a minor tourist attraction in the 1950s.

In the last few years, Knott's entertained a much-publicized offer to build a theme park in Indiana, but the deal never went through.

Now the company may have come across the next great step in the evolution of the theme park and the mall--a marriage of the two.

Every city has its own mall, sometimes several. And there is a major theme park within two hours' drive of every major U.S. city.

"The next way to do it was to put them in the malls," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati consulting firm. Mall officials expect that most people will come to the mall to see or play in the amusement park, giving it a leg up on malls whose prime draws are their department stores.

Speigel predicts that the mall will do a strong business in Minnesota's subzero winters, as families come to spend the day shopping and playing at Camp Snoopy. The summer, however, is a question mark.

The developers are planning on 45 million visitors a year, but Douglas Shifflet, president of the D.K. Shifflet & Associates Ltd. travel research firm in McLean, Va., has his doubts about whether they will meet that goal.

He points out, for instance, that the theme park targets younger children and their mothers, yet it will be difficult to entice them to drive a long distance to the mall. Teen-agers probably won't find the rides exciting enough, he said.

Those worries, however, are being cast aside by Knott's officials and family. For the next week, at least, they say they plan to bask in the glow of their creation.

"When you are walking through this park, going up and down hills, it gives you a feeling of not being enclosed," said Marion Knott Montapert, daughter of Walter and Cordelia Knott and a general partner in Knott's Berry Farm. "There was a lot of room left for atmosphere."

And what would Walter think?

"He would be thrilled," she said.

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