City waxes poetic on its future

Times Staff Writer

The trained bears that played basketball are long gone. Ditto for the dancing stallions, FDR’s wheelchair, Bonnie and Clyde’s car and the tarantula races.

Over the last 30 years, Buena Park has become a veritable graveyard for roadside attractions and amusement parks. The ghosts include Japanese Village and Deer Park, Movieworld Cars of the Stars, the California Alligator Farm and Wild Bill’s Wild West Dinner Extravaganza.

But one deceased venue is staging a comeback -- sort of. Movieland Wax Museum, which closed last year, is being reincarnated as a Best Buy electronics store and food court called Movieland Plaza.

Wax statues from the old museum will be displayed in glass cases built into the outside corners of the plaza’s shops and restaurants, said Steve Thorp, vice president of Burnham USA Equities, the developer behind the project.

Superman, Austin Powers, Liz Taylor, Rudolph Valentino, Shirley Temple and Gen. George Patton are expected to return to the limelight late next year.


Most of the beeswax sculptures will be housed in air-conditioned chambers protected by polarized glass, but a few might end up inside plaza shops, Thorp said.

The nostalgia element is reminiscent of Long Beach’s new Pike retail center, which installed a Ferris wheel and a rollercoaster-shaped pedestrian bridge as a tribute to the site’s former amusement park, which was demolished in the late 1970s.

But the Movieland project illustrates the situation Buena Park officials face as they try to rejuvenate the tourist and entertainment zone surrounding Knott’s Berry Farm.

The golden age of mom-and-pop-style tourist attractions in Southern California is over, and city officials are struggling to find suitable replacements to draw visitors.

The decline began in the 1970s, with the departure of Japanese Village, a theme park featuring deer, performing bears, dolphins, karate demonstrations and pearl divers. Its successor, Enchanted Village, flopped. By the mid-1980s, Movieworld Cars of the Stars, Kingdom of the Dancing Stallions and the gator ranch had joined the exodus.

The wax museum narrowly escaped the same fate after its attendance plunged from 1 million in 1976 to 440,000 in 1984, but only because it was sold to a San Francisco firm.

Still, not all has been bleak along Beach Boulevard. Medieval Times, a dinner-and-jousting theater venue, just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Knott’s Berry Farm added Soak City USA, a water park, in 2000. A pirate-themed dinner theater replaced Wild Bill’s last year.

And Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum, which arrived in 1990, continues to showcase such oddities as an Elvis Presley-shaped lemon, an eight-legged pig and a Last Supper painting made from burnt toast. Ripley’s plans to revamp its exhibits and museum exterior next year, manager Dave Simon said.

But there’s no question that the tourist strip has lost some luster. As far back as 1998, city officials launched efforts to make the area more pedestrian friendly, adding benches and landscaping in front of Medieval Times and the wax museum.

Buena Park’s top goal next year is to find ways to refurbish a ragtag stretch of Beach Boulevard near Knott’s Berry Farm, said interim City Manager Rick Warsinski. The city recently purchased an old motel as part of that effort.

A tougher task, however, might be preserving the area’s entertainment identity. After the wax museum closed, no proposals for another tourist attraction or amusement venue surfaced.

The neighborhood has two dinner theaters and a nearby multiplex movie house, so “what else are you going to put in?” Warsinski asked. “A bowling alley? Miniature golf? Nobody like that stepped forward.”

So the City Council, on a split decision, authorized a Best Buy electronics outlet.

“Some people believe Best Buy is retail; some say it’s entertainment,” Warsinski said.

Similar scenarios are playing out at some other longtime tourist stops in Orange County. Farther south on Beach Boulevard, Hobby City -- a 10-acre mecca of collectibles, kiddie rides, live reptiles and a half-scale replica of the White House -- is limping along.

About half of the center’s shops closed after the owners announced that the site would be converted to condominiums in late 2007 or 2008.

And in Newport Beach, the Balboa Fun Zone is being turned into a nautical museum. Only the Ferris wheel will stay.

If Buena Park wants to revitalize its entertainment zone, the city needs to create a pedestrian-oriented atmosphere akin to Downtown Disney or Universal Studio’s City Walk, said Jim Benedick of Management Resources, a Tustin-based consultant to theme parks, museums and other leisure venues.

Another essential ingredient is continuous change, he said. “Otherwise, going there is like reading the same book over and over.”

Buena Park officials hope Movieland Plaza’s shops and eateries, which tentatively include a Ruby’s Diner and a Corner Bakery, are a step in that direction. The area is “devoid of restaurants and walking-type experiences,” Warsinski said.

For nostalgia buffs, the retail center will preserve Movieland’s replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David -- made of marble, not wax -- and assorted celebrity handprints, which will be scattered along the plaza’s walkways.

Neighboring businesses expressed mixed feelings about the changes. At Ripley’s, manager Simon said he would prefer something geared toward tourists instead of locals.

Joyce Zurn, co-owner of the Cola Corner memorabilia shop near Knott’s Berry Farm, agreed. “Anything that brings business is better, but I wish the area would go back to more entertainment,” said Zurn, whose grandfather played Santa Claus at Knott’s Berry Farm for 20 years.

“I would hate to lose that atmosphere.”