Leave the Shopping to Knott's

Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Who could figure the theme behind Knott's Berry Farm--"America's oldest theme park." What do berries, Snoopy and the Old West have in common?

But confusing motifs don't matter to the kids, who, as my 4-year-old will attest, think the park is just fine. And it shouldn't matter to inveterate shoppers, who will find the same thrills in the park's shops that the tots find on the rides.

By now, most Californians know the story of Knott's: Walter Knott began building Ghost Town in 1940 as a tribute to the Old West and as a diversion for the throngs waiting in line to eat at the Chicken Dinner Restaurant, where Cordelia Knott had been cooking and serving her famous fowls for six years.

That Chicken Dinner Restaurant still draws crowds that line up and down Grand Avenue, and it forms the hub of the park's California MarketPlace, a cluster of 32 shops and restaurants just outside the park (admission to the MarketPlace is free). Inside the park are another 30 stores and restaurants, although visiting these shops requires a ticket ($16.95 for adults). For a $17 deposit, visitors can purchase a shopper's pass and dash around the park for 30 minutes for a quick spree. And it might be worth a $17 deposit just to hop over to the funnel cake counter to grab one of Knott's famous fried slabs with boysenberry sauce.

But back to shopping. The park prides itself on stocking merchandise that is hard to find and hard to get. For this reason, Knott's is a good stop to make when you need a very unusual present or when shopping for a very unusual person. Virginia's Gift Shop carries a dizzying collection of bric-a-brac: candlesticks, boxes and charms. But it also is known for its wide selection of limited-edition statues, ceramics and clay figures--some gorgeous, some of the highly ornate variety (Tom Clark, Hummel and Daniel R. Monfort to name a few).

The Western Wear shop carries hard-to-get Stetson and Charlie Horse 1 hats, along with denim dresses, bolo ties and tiny baby cowboy boots ($21.95). For fans of geodes (globular stones with cavities of crystals), the Geode Store, owned by Randy Elliott, is well-stocked, and the park calls Elliott "the largest merchant of geode in the U.S." Here you'll find what the store claims are authentic dinosaur bones, geode key chains, magnets made of gems and all sizes of crystals. The store's biggest seller is the $10-per-pound hunks of Mexican coconut geodes purchased from a big bin in the front of the store.

Abigail's gift store carries wooden canes topped with carved wooden rabbits' heads and snakes for $51; antique replica jewelry by Piddley Links, including a $200 sterling silver charm necklace; La Vie Parisienne brooches and deco-style pins, and large marbles for 75 cents.

But perhaps the most unusual store is found at the Mott Miniature Collection, a museum of 300,000 tiny artifacts that grew from a collection of Cracker Jack prizes around 1914. Eight-year-old Allegra Mitchell's treasured Cracker Jack prizes blossomed into a family obsession after she married DeWitt Mott--an obsession kept alive by her descendants. The Motts' museum, filled with more than 50 miniature displays, sells tiny things, too: antique doll furniture (grandfather clock, $50; wing chair, $65), antique Cracker Jack prizes ($5) and tiny clocks with keys ($65).

Larger but equally unusual items are found around the corner. If you're in the market for a dried cow skull, head for the Gun Shop, which also carries non-shooting replicas of hand guns: model 1911 A-1 Colt automatic pistols for $94.95 and Colt 45s for $79, for example.

Although most of the shops are in the Ghost Town section of the park, at least two good stores are found elsewhere: Dinostore Digs in the Roaring '20s area has all manner of dinosaur paraphernalia, from plush toys to bath sponges. And Rocking Horse Toys in Camp Snoopy has a wide selection of children's goods.

You might think the souvenir shops would be brimming with the park's mascot, but Snoopy and the Peanuts crowd share space with Mickey and other Disney characters. These huge souvenir stores (one is in the MarketPlace, another in Fiesta Village) carry thousands of inexpensive toys; if you can leave without buying your kid something, you have a will of iron. The MarketPlace is studded with pleasant courtyards, fountains and park benches. Here, leisurely shopping can be fueled by any of the little restaurants nearby: For big meals, there is the Chicken Dinner Restaurant, where Cordelia's recipes are still used, along with Knott's Family Steakhouse and the Garden Terrace Cafe. For grazing, try Knott's Deli, Farm Bakery, Farm Market and Chicken-to-Go. The Berry Market sells the famous Knott's berries (including the boysenberry which was created on Knott's land in 1932) in every conceivable form. And the Candy Parlour sells lollipops and fudge from a shop with a big window where visitors can watch the candymaking.

Hans Struckmeyer, a five-star chef, oversees all food preparation, according to park publicist Pamela Baker.

If Knott's Berry Farm seems quirky--discount tickets to expectant mothers, a dinosaur ride in the middle of Roaring '20s and Independence Hall a stone's throw from the Old West--it may be because the place grew from a berry stand in the '20s and is still owned and operated by the Knott family. When Walter Knott built Ghost Town, how was he supposed to know that a little dog named Snoopy would capture the hearts of children more than 40 years later?

KNOTT'S BERRY FARM AT A GLANCE

Location: 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park; main number--(714) 827-1776; recorded information--(714) 220-5200.

Hours: Summer: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to midnight Friday; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday. Winter: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

Number of stores and restaurants: California MarketPlace outside the park has 32 shops and restaurants. Inside the park are another 30 shops and restaurants.

Admission: California MarketPlace admission is free. Park admission is $12.95 for children (3-11), senior citizens (60 and older), expectant mothers and the handicapped; $16.95 for those 12 and older. No charge for children under 3. For a $17 deposit, a shopper's pass may be purchased at Guest Relations and used for 30 minutes.

Best place to browse: The Mott Miniature Collection is the kind of place that's hard to leave. The thousands of little things keep beckoning you back. Most of the items are miniatures on display in countless settings representing different eras of American life. But some of the items are for sale, including a few antiques and Cracker Jack prizes.

Most unusual store: Virginia's Gift Shop has a staggering number of gift and decorative items. Mixed in with the limited-edition artworks and handmade figures are ornate bric-a-brac and assorted frou-frou items. Hummels, Lalique glass and Santons d'Art make this a good place to shop for mother.

Best place to take the kids: They will find a treasure at any of the toy or souvenir shops, from Linus security dolls to plush dinosaurs that growl when clapped at. Camp Snoopy is home to Rocking Horse Toys and lots of other attractions for young children. Dinostore Digs is worth a stop in the Roaring '20s section of the park.

Quick bites: During the park's peak hours, some folks stand in line an hour to buy a Knott's funnel cake, a fried confection made by dripping batter from a funnel into hot fat. With a boysenberry or strawberry topping ($2.07) they are worth the wait. Another good bet is to grab a Mrs. Knott's chicken lunch to go ($3.50 with all the trimmings) and head for a courtyard or the picnic area across Grand Avenue next to the "exact replica" of Independence Hall.

Services: Stroller and wheelchair rentals; two baby stations with changing tables and supplies; information booth with maps and directories.

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