A legendary, yet mostly forgotten theme park ride rises from the grave at Knott’s Berry Farm

Two costumed people at Knott's Berry Farm.
Cat Madinger and Jason Ybarra, dressed in costumes as the video team Crafty’s Pie Thieves, get on the new ride, Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair, at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park on May 29.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

Robotics, digital trickery, trackless rides — modern theme parks are full of technological innovations. Rolly Crump, the 91-year-old designer who helped shape It’s a Small World, the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, has his share of myth-making tales as well.

He’s one of the few surviving ex-Disney staffers who not only knew Walt Disney but also enjoyed a somewhat close relationship with him. When it comes to the creative process, he can be blunt — myth-shattering, if you will.

Consider this Crump insight: Sometimes the best theme park rides are built on lots of beer, probably even more marijuana and large purchases of pantyhose.


Now, Crump’s influence can be seen in a new ride at Knott’s Berry Farm that’s based on an old ride at Knott’s Berry Farm. Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair is an adorable, video-game like animated romp with cartoon critters and lots of pies — a respectful and nostalgic 2021 endeavor that livens up the park by celebrating its history.

The original 1970s Knott’s Bear-y Tales was overseen by Crump and may be the greatest theme park ride you’ve likely never been on. Overflowing with color, puppet-like animals and borderline absurd tricks of light, it was the result of a do-it-yourself, always-improvise mind-set.

At least when those minds were sober.

“We had a lot of fun with this damn ride,” Crump says today, sitting in his office near a stack of signed and dedicated photos to him from Disney. On a nearby bookshelf rests one of the original frogs from Bear-y Tales, all spindly legs and bugged-out cartoon eyes, a creature with alien-like feet and a belly that appears full of hops.

A frog from an old ride at Knott's Berry Farm.
One of the frogs from the original Rolly Crump-designed ride Knott’s Bear-y Tales at Knott’s Berry Farm. This year, the park has resurrected the attraction as a video game-like animated romp.
(Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

“It didn’t stay with anything in particular,” Crump says of the ride, a journey from a factory to a fair with lots of psychedelics, tarot imagery and some not-so-subtle boozy influences. Knott’s Bear-y Tales, after all, was originally destined for a hippie-friendly area of Knott’s known as the Gypsy Camp; by the time guests reached the grand finale with a bonanza of animals, their eyes would have been zapped with what Crump hoped were some mind-altering lights.


The avalanche of mirrors, glossy cave walls and strobes was a spur-of-the-moment decision, inspired by the inability to add a minor, coaster-inspired drop to the attraction. “We developed the story as we were building it,” Crump says. “That’s a crackup. ‘Oh, by the way, this is the story.’ It was one of the most fun times I ever had. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were just down.”

And what they built has become the stuff of theme park legend.

Although barely known — or, is it bear-ly known? — outside Southern California, the ride, which opened in July 1975, represents a themed entertainment era when “intellectual property” wasn’t a marketing buzz phrase and a trippy ride could overflow with hand-crafted dolls created from a single haphazard sketch.

Knott’s Bear-y Tales, with its sly fox selling “Weird Juice” (it will “make you feel weird!”) and its steampunk-inspired Chug-a-Chug piemaking assembly line, represents Crump’s whimsical-meets-beatnik-meets rock ’n’ roll personality, a designer who around the same time was also trying to pitch himself as an artist for a prophylactic line (the get-rich-quick scheme failed) and once plastered his office at Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s theme park design division, with his “dopers,” that is, drug-inspired attraction posters.

A ride at Knott's Berry Farm.
A view of the ride Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I only went on it four or five times as a kid, but it left such a lasting impression on me,” says Eric Nix, 41, producer of the modernized and digitized Bear-y Tales. “I remember the smell of the boysenberries. I remember the Chug-a-Chug machine. I remember being terrified of the thunder cave. From a Knott’s Berry Farm perspective, that legitimized what we do here. It put Knott’s in a league with Disney, as far as dark rides go.”


The ride’s imagery was so vivid that it even kept people up at night. Fountain Valley’s Brian McGee, 58, worked on the ride in the early 1980s. “When I first started, I didn’t sleep at all. I had the characters and the liveliness and the music in my head. It was invigorating. There is no one who went through who didn’t enjoy themselves, put it that way.”

The ride’s resurrection furthers the argument that Crump is as integral to theme park design as more well-known creatives such as Marc Davis and, one of Crump’s favorite collaborators, Mary Blair. Crump’s designs now live not just at Knott’s but also at Disneyland in the facade of It’s a Small World, the gods of the Enchanted Tiki Room, bits of the Haunted Mansion and scattered remnants throughout Adventureland and Tomorrowland.

Rolly Crump with artwork.
Rolly Crump in his Carlsbad home in 2018.
(Howard Lipin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

An amazing feat, considering that his art often looks more like the intricate, line-heavy work one would see in a tattoo parlor rather than Main Street, U.S.A. Former Walt Disney Imagineer and theme park historian Christopher Merritt, like many others, cites Crump as a precursor to filmmaker Tim Burton, although Crump’s exuberant use of color feels freer and looser, the illustrative equivalent of jazz improvisation.

“I can see that in all the swirls and the loops,” says Merritt, who wrote a book with Pixar’s Pete Doctor on Davis and is at work on a book about the original Bear-y Tales ride.


“There’s a weird, almost Gorey-esque sensibility in his lines. I love it. There’s a strangeness in all his art, and it’s all self-taught. I don’t know if there’s another artist who designs like him. I love that Rolly is so confident as a designer and cocksure of himself.

A scene on a ride at Knott's Berry Farm.
A scene at Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“Anything Rolly has ever worked on has no fear of color,” Merritt adds. “It’s like, ‘Hey man, I’m coloring, and it’s gonna be in your face.’”

And he was certainly unconventional as a boss. Ask Crump what it was like to be on his design team for Bear-y Tales, and he starts talking about booze, specifically giving it to his staff to unleash their creativity.

“I had this one kid who came from Disney, and he was a close friend of mine,” says Crump. “He loved beer. So what I did, I gave him his own office, and I would bring him as many six packs as he wanted. I turned him loose. The stuff he came up with was absolutely incredible. Oh, God, that was fun. We were doing this by the seat of our pants.”


A photograph of a ride at Knott's Berry Farm.
The “Chug-a-Chug” machine on the original Bear-y Tales ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, circa 1985.
(OC Archives)

100 years of Knott’s

Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair was far more planned.

Theme parks today understand that long-term success is a careful balance of newness and nostalgia, as locales such as Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland are less a collection of thrills than showcases for cross-generational environmental design. Their appeal is akin to that of a national park or Dodger Stadium, places that will adapt over time but fulfill a similar role as a cultural heritage site.

Knott’s, for its COVID-19 pandemic-delayed 100th anniversary, wanted to lean into its past, and it did so in part by replacing the little-loved Voyage to the Iron Reef with an interactive dark ride that serves as a Silly Symphony-inspired sequel to Crump’s original attraction. Armed with jelly projectiles in the ride vehicle, guests take virtual aim at animated foxes that are making off with pies.

Zaniness takes precedence over plot, and joy comes from seeing what kind of inspired interactions guests concoct as they traverse among screens filled with plump bears, bouncing frogs and fortune tellers. Fire away at googly eyed mushrooms, an owl apparently conjuring a spell or mystical tents and carts filled with ghosts.

The drawings are more rounded and friendly than Crump’s originals — a Crump mushroom would have a moustache and nearly broken glasses — but the festive absurdity, such as critters taking a bath in Weird Juice, remains. Between the animated scenes are practical sets, some original pieces pulled from storage and others faithful re-creations of Crump’s ride, which was revamped in the mid-’80s into Kingdom of the Dinosaurs.


“Over the years, there’s been a lore build-up amongst fans over Knott’s Bear-y Tales,” says Jon Storbeck, Knott’s vice president and general manager. “Interestingly, it has not been here for over a generation. There’s a whole new generation of guests who will see it for the first time. We hope they see it the same way, that the characters are endearing.”

Try as he might — and he’s tried countless times — Rolly Crump just can’t quit Disney.

Sept. 7, 2018

Although Crump didn’t consult on the ride’s revival, his son, Chris, a former Imagineer himself, did speak with Knott’s throughout the process. He also worked on the original. The younger Crump was just out of high school then, and it was his first major job. Ask Rolly what it was like to partner with his son, and he praises Chris’ set-building skills before adding, “He was brought up by me to begin with, so he better do it right.”

Chris speaks not necessarily of a casual environment but one in which designers had to essentially learn to speak his dad’s language.

“Back then, this was full-tilt Rolly, and he’s very specific of what he likes and what he wants. Let’s just say that,” says the younger Crump. “There was this kind of ‘You can do it’ attitude, which was all the early Imagineers. Nobody had done it before, so what’s the idea? What’s the thing? What’s it look like? You just go. He would do a sketch, and it was never to scale, and I’d go, ‘How big is that?’ and he’d go, ‘I don’t know, two feet?’ So I’d buy a 24-inch tube and it’d just design itself, really.”

Rolly Crump, left, with Walt Disney.
A photo from the personal collection of Rolly Crump of the designer and Walt Disney looking over a model of It’s a Small World, which Crump designed.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)


To understand, ultimately, what made Knott’s Bear-y Tales so distinct, so absurd and relatively reckless, one should probably understand the definition of “full-tilt Rolly.” Crump started at Imagineering — then known as WED Enterprises (for Walter Elias Disney) — in 1959 and gradually built up a reputation as a rebel. He would fall in and out of love with the company, ultimately returning to Disney after his work on Bear-y Tales.

He was known as a charmer who would drive his Porsche around Fantasyland when he served as Disneyland’s art director, his innate confidence buoyed by the fact that the father of modern animation and the creator of the American theme park took a shine to Crump’s designs. Today, Crump is best represented by the clock facade at It’s a Small World. Full of knobs, dials and off-center numbers, it’s as much a symbol of Disneyland as Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Merritt, who was a lead show designer on Tokyo Disneyland’s recently opened Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast and who delved deep into theme park history in his various stints with the company, has plenty of stories that build on the myth of Crump. “He was a bad boy. Rolly was the guy in the model shop blasting rock ’n’ roll,” Merritt says, adding that former Imagineers recalled constantly yelling at Crump to turn the music down, to which he would only turn it up out of spite.

Characters on the original Bear-y Tales ride at Knott's Berry Farm.
(OC Archives)

“You had people coming in suits and skinny ties and pocket protectors and [designer] Harriet Burns wearing gloves,” says Merritt. “Here comes Rolly Crump with his jazz and rock ’n’ roll records.” Crump even installed a tent in the middle of the model shop, a place for secret meetings.

“You can imagine how it was,” says Merritt. “All these amazingly talented artists forced to work in this tiny space.”

On Knott’s Bear-y Tales, “full-tilt Rolly” meant a mix of innovations — the use, for instance, of traditional theater lighting intermingled with Disney-style black lighting effects to better showcase the frenzied designs of the animals, or the prevalence of magic-like illusions and the desire to fill every scene with details large and small — and just plain head-scratchers.

Crump once envisioned a roller coaster-like drop that would take guests to the big show-ending scene of the fair. When that became impossible because of the building’s structure and the ride’s relatively modest budget, Crump decided to just make guests dizzy, to simulate some sort of drug-induced haze.

The Knott’s Berry Farm designers essentially “fixed” this scene for the re-imagined ride. It should be noted that Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair is much more than a game-like attraction — there are a surprising number of actual figures and show sets for a screen-based ride. Where Crump once saw a dark cave, the ride now has thunder and lightning effects in a mysterious cavern, one complete with not-so-creepy insects. In the ’70s, however, Crump wanted to disorient guests before bringing them to the ride’s large ending scene.


“Instead of a major roller coaster drop, we thought we’d do a black hole area,” he says. “What we did is we used a lot of strobe lights. We wanted you to be blind as a bat when you came out of it. I wanted to screw up your vision. It was just a black tunnel, and we’d turn out all the lights and screw up your eyes. I wanted you to be all messed up.”

To which Crump’s wife, Marie Tocci, turns to a reporter and says, “Yeah, I don’t understand.”

A scene from Knott's Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair.
There’s plenty of eye candy in the new version of Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Sensory overload

Today, the original ride lives on only in the imaginations and memories of those who experienced it — the few videos online don’t really do it justice. Part of the reason it left such an impression is its ending: a grand party with jazz and an abundance of characters, color and light. Merritt says the ride made an impact on him as a 5-year-old in the same way as he imagines Rise of the Resistance at Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge does on kids today.

High praise, but he believes Bear-y Tales deserves it.

“Everyone comes together at the fair at the end,” Merritt says. “All the characters you saw in the previous scene make a new appearance, doing something different and fun. It’s a big room. It takes up almost half of the show building.”


Crump’s theme park designs were known for near constant movement. The figures may not have been as advanced as those at Disneyland, but every mechanical creature was moving. Today’s theme park fans may want to picture the grand musical and animal finale of Disneyland’s soon-to-be rethemed Splash Mountain when trying to picture the closing seconds of Bear-y Tales.

Describes Merritt, “In the middle of the room, there’s a big balloon coming from the ceiling where the Bear-y Family are going up and down, and there’s music, there’s Dr. Fox selling his Weird Juice, there’s puppets and there’s a frog jumping contest. There’s musicians, there’s a rabbit who’s walking on wire, there’s jugglers. It’s too much. It’s sensory overload.”

Crump has some favorite scenes from the original ride. One involves a chicken contraption in the factory. Crump and his team constructed a device that constantly moved eggs up and down a ramp. The eggs, however, were not what you think.

The sign for Knott's Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair.
The sign for Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair nods to Rolly Crump’s love of movement.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The secret behind those eggs was far more low tech, yet arguably fashionable: “Women’s stockings,” says Crump.


More specifically, the plastic eggs L’eggs pantyhose once were sold in.

Crump and his team bought hundreds, at least when they weren’t able to get enough from female staffers. The eggs would be painted in such a way that it looked like the chickens were laying something nuclear.

“Well, you had to put something heavy in the egg so it would turn over and move forward,” Crump says on the reasoning behind the L’egg containers: They were easy to reopen. “But it was crazy,” he says. “We were just a bunch of kids playing.”

The more one digs into the scenes of the Bear-y Tales ride, the more detail and uniqueness one uncovers.

One of Crump’s first jobs at Disney was to partner with illusionist Yale Gracey on potential effects for the Haunted Mansion, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Crump wanted a sense of magic throughout Bear-y Tales. The ride was liberal in its use of projections and Pepper’s ghost-like effects. There were floating instruments, hovering candle tips and one neat trick that Merritt recalls involving an adorable mouse suddenly appearing out of a candle holder in midair.

But perhaps the real reason Bear-y Tales had such a grip on those who rode it is because in some ways it represents the kind of ride that doesn’t really exist anymore. Crump’s original had pies — and pie scents — but was little more than a story about a bunch of nomadic, bohemian animals.


“It’s super unique. It was such a snapshot in time,” says Nix. “When you look at the pictures, it wasn’t terribly advanced. The animatronics were simple, but there were a lot of them. You just felt like you were in these scenes and places.”

With COVID-19 abating in California, Disneyland reopened on April 30. After 13 months away, how did it feel?

May 2, 2021

In turn, it represents theme parks at their most weird, their most removed from daily life — the sort of ride fans thought was forever lost.

That is, until nostalgia willed a version of it back into existence. While Crump’s age will likely keep him from visiting the attraction, he’s pleased, of course, that his most personal ride has been re-imagined.

“I think other people should have a crack at it, so this is good,” he says. “I want other people to pick up the ball and go with it.”

Then, Crump pauses and starts asking questions about the lighting on the new ride: Did they get it right, and does it work with the mix of digital and physical sets? “I can’t wait to talk to my son about the lighting to see if they did a good job on the lighting,” says Crump. “That was really important to me.”

This too is “full tilt Rolly.” Retired, relaxed and ready to design — or offer a frank opinion on someone else’s.