The Rise and Tragic Fall of Orange County's Japanese Deer Park
by, 03-14-2012 at 08:23 PM
Once upon a time, guests from around the world could gather in the small town of Buena Park California to visit the largest Japanese cultural and recreational center in the Western hemisphere, and then head off to look at wax figures and eat Boysenberry pie. At least that was the dream of Allen Parkinson according to historian Richard Harris.
Richard is the author of Early Amusement Parks of Orange County and a steel trap of information about the long lost centers of joy that were once littered throughout southern California. One day, we were talking about one of my Mom’s favorites - Japanese Village and Deer Park.
According to Harris, the park was the dream of Allen Parkinson who made his fortune inventing Sleep-Eze. He also owned the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park and he wanted to expand his empire.
He was drawing as many as 1.2 million visitors a year and Knott’s Berry Farm continued to be a strong draw. Parkinson had property just 100 yards from the Santa Ana Freeway at Knott Avenue and he planned to build a 32-acre tourist attraction to be opened in 1967.
Harris said, “The design of Japanese Village and Deer Park was originally inspired by the deer Park that was located in Nara, Japan and was the first and only deer park in America.” Harris recalled that “Allen Parkinson had recreated a replica of a [5-acre] Japanese garden, abundantly greened and flowered, ancient temple architecture in evidence throughout and with a host of animals – ‘many sacred in Japanese custom’ – on hand to greet visitors.” It had Japanese-like pavilions, gardens as well as kimono clad attendants and a teahouse-type restaurant. The gardens were done in a traditional manner and Koto music was played through speakers hidden in the bushes. There were numerous displays of cultural artifacts.
At the heart of the park were the more than 300 deer imported from Nara, Japan. They were confined to a large holding pen toward the rear of the park. Harris said, “Special crackers could be purchased from coin-operated machines and there was an open-air restaurant bordering the pen that afforded non-stop entertainment of the deer as they beg for handfuls of deer food while guests sipped their Japanese tea and ate shrimp tempura.”
There were plenty of animal encounters. You would walk through a pavilion that was filled with white doves. Guests would hold out their hands filled with bird seed and become engulfed by flying birds. Feeding the gigantic carp was a popular pastime. Harris said, “A splash of a hand in the water brings the golden fish in swarms hoping for a nibble from a friendly visitor.”
Dolphins, sea lions, and bears at the Sea Theater entertained guests every hour.
Harris described, “Tame Hokkaido bear cubs that were bottle-fed and full-grown bears that would play basketball and perform all manner of tricks on children’s swings.
There was also a karate arena where exhibitions of the martial arts were held as well as competitions between various karate clubs. In 1968, well-known martial arts expert Fumio Demura would star in the first professional Karate demonstration in the world. The show lasted seven years until it moved to the Las Vegas Hilton.
In 1970, Recreation Environments, Inc. of Newport Beach acquired both the Deer Park as well as the Movieland Wax Museum from Parkinson for an undisclosed sum. That did not last very long and they sold the property to the Six Flags Corporation, a subsidiary of Great Southwest Corporation just two years later in 1972.
Six Flags cited “shrinking attendance and continued unprofitability” as the reason to shut down the Orange County tourist attraction in 1975.
The company cited the economic outlook for 1975 and the slowdown in Southern California tourism as part of their decision. Harris argues that tourism figures compiled by the Southern California Visitors Council had indicated that the number of out of state visitors declined less than one percent in the first seven months of that year.
In fact, most southland tourist attractions were holding their own with Magic Mountain, Universal Studios, and Disneyland showing increases in attendance. Harris suggests, “The Park’s difficulties may have been more directly related to its growing emphasis on a single theme – marine oriented acts and exhibits such as the dolphin show. Closing the park marked the end of a brief but colorful life for the Buena Park tourist attraction.”
Toward the end of the Park’s life a greater tragedy would fall upon the signature herd of deer. It was determined that some of the animals had reacted positively to tests for tuberculosis and more than 200 were quarantined. However, that was not enough and those animals were destroyed. A veterinarian administered lethal injections. Although some healthy animals remained on display it was determined that the cost of the anti-tuberculosis drugs was too high and the rest of the animals were destroyed.
The Park went bankrupt but would reopen as the Enchanted Village in 1977. Ralph Heifer, who was the originator of a new method for training wild animals, now ran the Park. He called his new system "Affection Training". The first step in training was to get the animal accustomed to being touched. Heifer said, “We start off with a stick and then work toward the petting stage. It is a system based on mutual love, respect, patience, and understanding.” Harris said, “Heifer’s new method would call for kindness and a lot of nerve. He went on to train animals for movies and television including “Daktari” and "Cowboy in Africa.”
To prepare for the reopening, more then 100 contractors would work in two shifts on the multi-million dollar project. According to Harris, the goal was to have “a tropical setting featuring affection-trained animals. There would be several hundred animals in the park, ranging from lions, tigers, and elephants all the way to snakes and tarantulas. A new mountain and jungle entrance to the Park had been designed that featured the Bridge to Enchantment.” This portal would lead to a 3,000-seat Wilderness Theater with the Park’s "Bicentennial Tribute To Animals" show. The 2,500-seat Lost Island Theater featured “animal handlers putting land and water Animals through complicated routines to a ‘swampland’ theme.
Due to his innovative training method, Heifer felt that the animals could be exhibited in more “intimate” surroundings than what they normally were.” Harris said, “The Park was organized around ‘scenes’ that would be set up around the park so the visitor will appear to have just ‘happened’ onto them. Here and there, elephants would ‘lie down’ and ‘roll over’ like huge dogs, while chimpanzees folded their hands behind their backs to take a walk in the Park like worried executives. Ferocious-looking Bengal tigers wrestled gently with their handlers and even the dreaded black tarantulas would crawl unbitingly over the bare skin of the trainer.”
Harris said that one of the main draws was Oliver, described as “the only other animal in the world not interested in dropping on all fours.” He was billed as an anthropological mystery, though dismissed by some authorities as a mere monkey. Oliver stood 4 feet 6 inches and weighed about 125 pounds. He was covered in coarse body hair with a little hair on his head. Besides the lack of hair, Oliver had other interesting facial features including a slight flare of the nose, compared to the almost flat chimpanzee nose, and highly placed ears.
Two New York attorneys named Michael Miller and David Landay purchased Oliver for $8,000 from a South African explorer. Heifer purchased him from the attorneys even though he was unable to establish if Oliver’s origins were truly from the Dark Continent. His age was never firmly established but he was believed to be seven years old. He ate fruits, vegetables, cheese, and some lean meat, and made unusual warbling sounds.
From the beginning, Enchanted Village was in financial trouble. Within a year the Park had filed for bankruptcy again and the officers decided not to file a reorganization plan with Judge Aaron Phelps of the Federal Bankruptcy Court in Santa Ana. Ralph Heifer told Judge Phelphs that he had assets of $6.9 million but had little cash and could not pay the bills as they come due. His primary assets were the Enchanted Village area of 32-acres, the park buildings, and his stock of animals. The Park finally closed its doors in the fall of 1977, bringing this story to a close.
Do any of you have memories of the Japanese Deer Park or Enchanted Village? Perhaps even family photos to share? Do you think there is still room for attractions such as this in the shadow of giants such as Disneyland?
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