I Grew Up in a Theme Park

My Real Memoir

Yes, I’d created my own thrill ride as a kid. But it all started long before that. Long before there was a Disneyland, or the term “theme park” had even been coined, there was a stretch of highway leading from the edge of Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. And it all started there…

With a berry.

A farmer named Boysen had created a new but commercially unsuccessful hybrid. So, in 1932, he gave his last wilting plants to a neighbor, Walter Knott, who began selling baskets of “boysenberries” to beachgoers. To make ends meet, his wife Cordelia also sold chicken dinners. And then she tried making pies out of the new berries, and…

The pies were heavenly!

I know because decades later, we moved to a new suburb just minutes away. Plus, I had family ties there (see below), so as I grew I watched Knott’s Berry Farm grow, as well, from a roadside attraction into one of America’s biggest theme parks. Walter, as much a showman as a farmer, had started adding additional attractions for the waiting customers. By the 1940s he’d transplanted the entire Gold Rush-era ghost town of Calico next to their restaurant!

“America’s First Theme Park” was my home away from home. I’d “pan for real gold” there. Stroll past the Church of Reflections, where my parents had gotten married! Visit the Calico General Store where my Grandma Johnnie Belle worked in authentic 19th century costume. My friends and I would spend summer and weekend days there, nibbling stick candy or pure maple sugar (my wife adds one to my Christmas stocking every year), putting pennies on the tracks and watching the steam locomotive flatten them.

We’d watch old-time “mellerdrammers” at the Bird Cage Theatre—where future stars like Steve Martin got their first acting gigs, and where some of my own acting students would later get their first breaks. My buddies and I were in line opening day for Knott’s first theme ride, the Calico Mine Train, craning our necks to look down the bottomless mine shaft and at all the glittery plaster stalagmites and stalactites. Walt Disney was there too, making notes.

As young teenagers, we’d “cruise for chicks” at Knott’s (we never had the guts to actually speak to any). Years later, two of my comedy acts, Isaac Air Freight and Mitch & Allen, would headline Christian nights at Knott’s (and Disneyland, too, but that’s another story). Zoom ahead further, and my kids, our family’s fourth generation at Knott’s, would experience their first roller coaster ride on the GhostRider, one of the world’s longest and tallest wooden roller coasters!

I can’t wait for our fifth generation of not-yet-born grandchildren to visit. Of course, Knott’s isn’t free anymore, so they won’t end up living there like their Grandpa Mitch did. And to think…

It all started with a berry.

My Real Memoir is a series. To read the next one, click here.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
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34 Responses to I Grew Up in a Theme Park

  1. Great read. I remember the Boysenberry as a syrup.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Boy did this bring back memories, Mitch. I was growing up just up the road in Long Beach during the times you describe and Knotts was part of our family fun, too. When we first moved to LB from Kansas City, we used to take drives “out into the country” by driving down Katella. Cruising past all the farms, stopping to buy strawberries, asparagus, fresh tomatoes… It reminded us of our family farms in Kansas and Arkansas…not the same geography, but the same kind of folks and farm-fresh everything. Knotts required a small detour, but it was a treat to go there for all the reasons you’ve named. When I started dating, it was an affordable, fun date—much more affordable than that other theme park in Anaheim. Thanks for taking me back.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. And to think this Iowan visited there in 1962 with Grandma Leora (the same heroine of “Leora’s Letters” (WWII–five sons served, only two came home) and “Leora’s Dexter Stories” (Depression Era). I’d just graduated and she wanted to go to the other Leora Wilson’s graduation (cousins Leora was born 11 days after I was, during the war) in central CA. But Leora also had siblings in S. Calif., so that’s how we got to visit Knott’s Berry Farm in 1962! This farm girl had never been to anything like that before!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh what fun, we are rather envious.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Mitch. What fun memories and history too. Like pick1solution stated, I remember Boysenberry syrup–a delicious treat!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Mitch for entertaining us with another blast from your storybook past. Consider yourself fortunate for having lived your formative years in the Golden State.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mark Johnson says:

    What a great story, Mitch. Never been to Knott’s Berry Farm, but I recall Johnny Carson joking about it from time to time on the Tonight Show many moons ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Neese says:

    In 1961, my mom, dad and I (plus 2 extra paying passengers) headed to California in our 2 door 1958 Chevy Biscayne on vacation. I was 10. For northwest Iowans, California was exotic and otherworldly. We saw a Dodger’s game, tried Chinese food for the first time and went to Disneyland. But my favorite part of our trip was spent at Knott’s Berry Farm. I still have a small wooden crate filled with bubblegum that look like oranges which I never opened. On the side of the tiny crate reads, “This is the crate of oranges I promised to send you from California.” Your close knit ties with Knott’s on a daily basis makes my memories even better. Thanks Mitch…

    Liked by 2 people

  9. murisopsis says:

    Now that’s a story that is worth hearing and retelling! I hope your descendants get to hear it from your lips!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. That must have been such fun for a kid!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. robstroud says:

    Spending some of my youth in Socal, thanks to Uncle Sam and the USMC, I have some fond memories of Knott’s Berry Farm too. Never knew I would be able to count as a friend a member of Knott’s Berry Farm royalty!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. leendadll says:

    I waa recently wondering if anyone remembered panning for gold. Or the house with optical illusions (similar to Winchester Mystery Spot).

    I grew up within walking distance. Annoyed that my parents never let me go to a concert when The Silvers performed.

    We used to feed the ducks at Independence Park, chase chickens in the parking lot, and ride the cars down at the S/E corner of the parking lot. Did you eat at Sambos?

    My BFFs mother made hand crafted dolls, her father made extremely elaborate dollhouses… both sold at the shops outside the entrance.

    We also went to Dland hotel a lot to walk around the attreactions, ride the monorail (locked in the back car), eat ice cream, and watch the fireworks and dancing waters show.

    Did you ever park at the hotels “behind” Disney, off Ball Rd to watch the fireworks… where they looked like they’d fall on you?

    Everything’s changed so much around Disney, esp the streets, that I drive that area now and can’t figure out where I am.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mitchteemley says:

      I remember the Mystery Shack well. And, yes, hanging out at Independence Park, eating at Sambo’s, and much more (did you ever visit the Movieland Wax Museum?). We could see the Disneyland fireworks from our rooftop, and sometimes caught them overhead as we drove by on the freeway, but, no, I never tried watching them from one of the hotel parking lots. I have a long history with Disneyland too. Yep, things change!


      • leendadll says:

        I still hear the fireworks in Long Bch. When I lived in Fullerton, we’d watch them from my neighbors roof – but not when I was in Anaheim (Magnolia & LaPalma)

        I think I went to the wax museum once… but I could be imagining that, my parents considered it a tourist trap.

        What about the Alligator Farm?!?

        Liked by 1 person

      • mitchteemley says:

        Rings a bell, but I can’t recall if we ever went there. Do you remember the Japanese Deer Park? I don’t think it was open very long. My wife grew up in Fullerton, btw.


  13. leendadll says:

    One of my fave jobs was in early 20s, working nights in the old Knott’s barns doing data entry of handwritten msgs for holiday gift orders of jam.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Matilda Novak says:

    i LOVED Knott’s Berry Farm as a kid.
    Better than Disneyland.

    Just sad when it changed and went all Creepy.
    Love that you did gigs there!
    Looking forward to reading about those “Christian Nights”.
    Mrs Knotts Chicken dinners were great, too!
    And we Always got boysenberry drinks when we went to Knotts.
    That was the First thing, always.
    Thank you for sharing your story as you do.
    It makes me Happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Little seeds grow big trees. Nice post, Mitch!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. That’s pretty cool! What a fun way to grow up. ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Ann Coleman says:

    Everyone has to grow up somewhere, and Knott’s Berry Farm sounds like a great choice!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. gpavants says:


    Love Knott’s. Great family memories for sure. It sure has grown since then. Do you like it still more than the other amusement park?


    Liked by 1 person

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