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The Region

New Knott's Ride Puts an Old Chapel in Motion

September 14, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

A historic chapel rescued from demolition by Walter Knott in 1955 will be moved out of the Buena Park theme park that bears his name to make way for a $3-million roller coaster and other new rides.

A final service at the Church of Reflections will be held Oct. 5 before the pews, stained-glass windows and steeple are torn out, moved and reassembled across Beach Boulevard on a site just northeast of Knott's replica of Independence Hall. The chapel is expected to reopen in November.

Despite being located near the park's noisy stagecoach area where faux gunfights and train robberies are enacted hourly, the church has continued to conduct Sunday services over the decades. Weddings and services are sometimes disrupted by the rumble of roller coasters and screams from riders.

But the building stands in the way of park expansion. Last Sunday, Knott's Berry Farm general manager Jack Falfas told congregants that the chapel would be disassembled and moved outside the amusement park's gates.

In a letter to church members, Falfas acknowledged the church's role as part of the history and tradition of the amusement park. But he stressed that "to remain a strong competitor" in Southern California's theme park market, capital investment is a "necessity."

A new, as yet unnamed addition to the 160-acre park will be introduced in 2004 at the chapel's current location.

That plan includes the Rip Tide roller coaster, which will premiere next spring. The two-minute ride will carry people 59 feet into the air inside a floorless gondola and spin them head over heels.

The chapel was built in 1876 and became the First Baptist Church of Downey. Knott, a preservationist, moved the chapel to his Buena Park berry ranch when a declining congregation threatened the church's survival.

With easier access and available parking, the upcoming move will give the church an opportunity to grow. Currently it is in the middle of the park, in a shaded area near an artificial lagoon called Lake Reflection. Congregants must vie for parking with Knott's guests, enter through the park's turnstiles and be escorted by security to the church.

"The move will provide more people to experience services because the access will be much greater," said Susan Tierney, a park spokeswoman.

Knott's is paying for the relocation and renovation. Cedar Fair LP, headquartered in Sandusky, Ohio, bought the theme park in 1997.

The chapel -- which has about 70 members -- is thought to be the nation's only active church within a major theme park. Tierney said that it has served as a place of worship for a small, nondenominational congregation that includes park employees and their families. It is also a popular location for weddings and other events.

Church members were generally optimistic about the move, Pastor John A. Johnson said, though some long-time congregants expressed concern over the loss of the picturesque location. Johnson said he is looking forward to relocating because it will put the chapel in an uncluttered, park-like setting, the way it was when Walter Knott had it reassembled. "We had our talks about this and everyone decided that this is really a win-win situation both for the park and the church," Johnson said.

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