Knott’s Pays the Price for 5-Cent Promotion
Drawn in part by television and radio promotions, tens of thousands of youths converged on Knott’s Berry Farm on Wednesday for a Cinco de Mayo celebration, disrupting traffic and commerce and sparking scattered violence until hundreds of riot police restored order.
The event’s 5-cent admission price was heavily publicized on KIIS-FM, a music station popular among teens, and also promoted on Spanish-language station KMEX-TV. Educators from nearby school districts blamed the celebration for unusually high absence levels.
About 33,000 visitors had been admitted into the park when officials closed the gates at 10 a.m., leaving about 4,000 frustrated teens milling about outside. Typical attendance for a weekday during the school year is 4,500.
The disturbance took place just outside Knott’s but forced officials to close down one of Southern California’s largest amusement parks a few hours early. After riot police cleared the area outside the park, the general manager of Knott’s Berry Farm issued an apology for the promotion, which he described as misguided.
“It wasn’t intended in any sense to create truancy or harm to schools,” Jack Falfas said. “If anything, I myself made the mistake of permitting the promotion . . . and having to tell some people that they couldn’t come in.”
Fearing mass student absenteeism, officials from several school districts called the park over the last few days to implore managers to postpone the event until after school hours.
“We think [all] parties exercised very poor judgment in having a promotion during school time,” said Alan Trudell, spokesman for the Garden Grove Unified School District, where school attendance dropped by 17%. At Warren High School in Downey, 65% of the students did not come to class.
The first sign of trouble occurred early in the morning when traffic along Beach Boulevard--one of Orange County’s major thoroughfares--jammed with cars heading toward the theme park. The gridlock eventually snarled traffic on the Santa Ana and Riverside freeways during the morning commute.
Customers inside the park described it as so crowded that they could not enjoy the rides.
“You couldn’t even walk around. It was just strollers and teenagers,” said June Lovell, a Westminster woman who had hoped to enjoy the nice weather but left early because of the crowds.
When more than 200 officers in riot gear arrived at the scene just before noon, they faced a hail of rocks and bottles. Some teens began fighting with each other and stopped traffic on nearby streets.
“There were fights everywhere,” said Rick Alonso, 16, of Rowland Heights.
“This was supposed to be fun,” added Melissa Velazquez, 15, of Tustin, who said she skipped school with her parents’ permission. “Kids are coming out and it’s summer, and then this happens.”
Several businesses closed their doors during the disruptions, including a Washington Mutual bank and a McDonald’s restaurant.
Across the road, Betty Lidyard, assistant manager of the Crystal Factory, said her retail store lost thousands of dollars in business as customers stayed away to avoid the chaos outside. She said she was furious at the park for failing to notify local merchants about the possible disruption.
“It’s been very, very quiet” inside, she said. “We’re trying to find stuff around here to do because there’s no customers.”
Chris Mott, manager of a nearby doll store, agreed. “It happens every holiday, but this is the worst I’ve seen,” he said. “They shouldn’t be able to do this. This is going to cost taxpayers from all over Orange County.”
By 2 p.m., police had successfully dispersed the crowd outside and arrested six juveniles. Police and park officials then slowly emptied the theme park through the late afternoon.
Both Buena Park police and park officials said it remained unclear whether taxpayers will foot the bill for the massive law enforcement response or whether Knott’s will reimburse the city.
The celebration was designed to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club of Buena Park. Officials said they raised $10,333 in gate receipts and donations made by visitors.
KIIS-FM disc jockey Rick Dees began talking up the 5-cent admission price Friday. On Wednesday morning, as mariachi bands played, KIIS began broadcasting live from the park. The radio station was joined by several TV crews, said Knott’s spokeswoman Dana Hammontree.
A similar promotion by Dees when the park opened its Windjammer roller coaster a few years ago went off without problems, Hammontree said.
But a Dees-promoted Halloween party at Disneyland involving free admission for park-goers who arrived early in the morning created similar problems a few years back, when rowdy youths caused extensive damage to the Anaheim park.
Richard Kinzel, the chief executive of Knott’s parent company, Ohio-based Cedar Fair, said the company made a major miscalculation with Wednesday’s event and will have to reassess its promotions strategy.
“I think we misunderstood how popular Cinco de Mayo is,” Kinzel said. “And also we had a national DJ there. Basically, we underestimated the response.”
KIIS general manager Roy Laughlin said the participation of KMEX was critical in attracting the larger-than-expected crowd.
“I think we underestimated the power of that giveaway,” Laughlin said. “We were partners with KMEX-TV and their draw with our draw was overwhelming. We should have just done it alone.”
A KMEX spokeswoman, Patricia Ramos, said the station’s role in the promotion was limited, involving only cutaways from a news program from 6 to 7 a.m. to broadcast weather reports from Knott’s and mention the 5-cent admission.
“We try to be very cautious and careful,” she said. “Our audience tends to be very responsive to the locations, but they aren’t inclined to get out of hand.”
Internet chat groups devoted to theme parks and roller coasters had been abuzz with news of the Knott’s promotion, including one Tuesday night comment in which a Disneyland worker predicted the troubles to come.
“Add in Rick Dees, and you’ll have the ingredients you need for the worst day in Knott’s history,” Ken Pellman wrote.
Such promotions are ill-advised, said author David Koenig, whose coming book “More Mouse Tales, a Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland” describes a similar disruption at Disneyland in 1994.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Koenig said of the upheaval at Knott’s. “They should have known better.”
Hefty admission fees serve as a “screening device” and are the greatest deterrent to problems at Knott’s and Disneyland: Visitors don’t want to get kicked out after they have paid handsomely to gain admittance, he said.
“You lose that if you let people in for free,” he said.
The cheap price, however, did offer some advantages for disappointed visitors.
“I spent five cents,” said Manuel Sais, 17, of Tustin. “I guess I can’t complain.”
Times staff writers Richard Marosi, Megan Garvey, Daryl Strickland, Leslie Earnest, Brady MacDonald and Lisa Richardson and correspondent Harrison Sheppard contributed to this report.
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About 4,000 people were turned away from Knott’s Berry Farm when the park reached capacity at 10 a.m. Wednesday, resulting in a brief “mini-riot” involving 50 police oficers and hundreds of visitors.
Knott;s attendance figures:
Off-season weekday: 4,500
Busy summer day: 25,000
Wednesday (5-cent admission): 33,000
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