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The Rise and Tragic Fall of Orange County's Japanese Deer Park

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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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Updated 03-14-2012 at 09:56 PM by SAMLAND

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Comments

  1. indianajack's Avatar
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    I wish attractions such as these could have survived to today. If Orlando can support many smaller attractions in the shadow of Disney, Universal, Sea World, et al, then SoCal should be able to as well. The California government should give significant tax breaks to these types of attractions due to their educational and inspirational value.
  2. Dustysage's Avatar
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    Sounds like the Deer Park did just fine until it was first sold. As a themed animal park environment, Six Flags would not have been the right company to run the operation.

    I do wish Orange County still had its Safari Park, Aligator Farm, and Japanese Village. Though, I suppose property values make that nearly impossible these days.


    Here's a family's home video of the park

    There was also quite a controversy regarding the deer. Near the end, the park couldn't afford to feed them. That's when they claimed the deer were sick and started killing them. Government authorities put a stop to that amid public outcry. But, by then, it was too late.

    Thank you or the look back in time Sam.
    Updated 03-15-2012 at 02:32 PM by Dustysage
  3. mark's Avatar
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    I absolutely loved this place as I was fascinated by Japan from a young age. It was everything a World Showcase pavilion should be...
  4. daannzzz's Avatar
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    We were at the DeerPark around 1970 as well. I remember liking it but was more into "rides" at the time so it was not one of my favorites that we visited.



  5. MrTour's Avatar
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    Buena Park certainly was the place! Don't forget Cars of Star, Planes of Fame and the California Alligator Farm! As a kid, it was awesome having all of these interesting places in my back yard!
  6. jedited's Avatar
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    Did this becoming the Aligator farm? I was born in 1971, so I was too young to go to any of these (although I did go to Busch Gardens LA and Marineland), but I did go to the Aligator Farm with my 6th grade class.
  7. TheHopper's Avatar
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    Soooo what happened to that area in Southern California? Is it a park now?
  8. daveinfontana's Avatar
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    Nice story on the Deer Park . Living in B.P. I went there .Walked to Knotts when it was free, The Wax museum and Palace Of Living Art,and The Aligator Farm come are the days. How about the store called The Cottage Pottery?
  9. DisWedWay's Avatar
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    I remember the Southern California gas crisis and it's effects on the entertainment business in the mid 70's. In 1973, WED Enterprises had their first "Black Friday" and cut back staff greatly, thinking the park attendance would be affected. It only took a couple of weeks to realize that the gas crisis wasn't cutting back attendance as they thought, and some employees decided to return. Perhaps if the Japanese Village and Deer Park had stayed with it's original creator Allen Parkinson, it would have stayed successful as well as his Movieland Wax Museum, instead the following owners of Six Flags using the 1973 to 1974 gas crisis as an excuse for it's attendance problems and shuting it down in 1975. Knott's and Disneyland made it through the first major economic event since the great depression. Disney's Animal Kingdom is a great example of a thriving Animal Park perhaps with influence from the original themed Deer Park. Spending some grade school summers in Buena Park, I would usually try to see the Deer Park, Wax Museum and Knott's on 10 speed outings. I especially remember the large Coy pond and feeding them at that time, and years later hearing about the plight of the Japanese Deer and their not being fed. Sam thank you for your memorable article. PD
    Updated 03-15-2012 at 11:06 AM by DisWedWay
  10. MrTour's Avatar
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    Cottage Pottery and the Alligator Farm are over where the grass north parking lot and Claim Jumper are presently located.
  11. Dustysage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TheHopper
    Soooo what happened to that area in Southern California? Is it a park now?
    The area is filled with office buildings now. Here's what is on the land now (corner of Knott's Blvd and the 5 Freeway)

  12. LuvsErstad's Avatar
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    OhMYGosh! Thank you so much for this report!!! I have pictures of myself as a child in an undisclosed location feeding deer, looking at huge goldfish and I had no idea where they were taken. My mom and my aunt that took me all over Southern California have both passed away and I never thought to ask them where they were taken. Now I know. I recognize all the areas and architecture. When I get home I'll dig through some old photos and post my pics of the deer park!!
  13. FredSimmons's Avatar
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    I remember Japanese Village very well. I had an annual pass and spent many happy days there, and a close relative of mine worked there as a vendor.

    It was a wonderful place, and in my opinion, what killed it was the simple fact that it tried to grow beyond its natural limits.

    Japanese Village basically went through three stages:

    When it first opened, it was a tiny, serene spot with just a small pagoda & teahouse, a pen of tame, timid Sika deer that you could hand-feed, a lake with koi in beautiful garden, and a pavilion full of white doves (that could also be hand-fed). It was a wonderful, tranquil, Japanese environment, and cost next to nothing to get in. It was great for spending a pleasant hour or two escaping from the hustle of the outside world.

    Soon, it expanded to include a viewing pit with Hokido bears, a larger lake, and a larger tea house, plus gift shops and a few other displays, including the first Akita dogs I had ever seen. The Village was better than ever, was still inexpensive to visit, and I'm convinced that if they had stopped growing right then, it probably would have survived nicely, filling a niche for a small, quiet getaway with a serene, exotic atmosphere.

    But instead, the owners got greedy, and opted to try to turn it into a full-blown amusement park, along the lines of Marineland. They built huge arenas that put on shows featuring performing bears (forced into stunts that most would consider cruel today), dolphins, and precision karate teams. They added musical stages, more shops, and to top it off, a huge salt water tank to hold an Orca whale. That tank alone probably cost a fortune in upkeep.

    The problem was, in order to pay for all this expansion, they had to start charging entrance fees that began to rival Knott's and Disneyland. And as lovely as the garden was, they just didn't have the kind of commercial amusement park that could justify those kind of high ticket prices. Japanese Village was wonderful as a small, inexpensive getaway, but they simply priced themselves out of the market. There was no way they could compete with the Disneylands of the world, and they shouldn't have tried.

    One day, I woke up, turned on the TV, and saw a horrible sight. A news report had cut into regular programming, because a news copter had spotted something barbaric going on at Japanese Village. They hovered overhead and broadcast live, nightmarish shots of the bodies of hundreds of dead, limp Sika deer, piled in dumpsters and being unceremoniously thrown into garbage trucks. It looked like some deer version of Auschwitz. Those were wonderful, tame, friendly deer that the public had grown to love over the years, and they didn't deserve being murdered and dumped like garbage.

    Once the slaughter was exposed, they then claimed that the deer were sick. I didn't buy it. I'm convinced that the owners simply wanted to shut down the park, didn't know what to do with so many tame deer, and just decided that the cheapest way of solving their problem was to kill them all while no one was looking. Only they didn't count on a news helicopter spotting their misdeeds.

    Once the scandal hit, they managed to save a few of the deer, which were relocated to Eisenhower Park in Anaheim. They lived there in a small zoo-like pen for many years, but I found out recently that they (and the other animals there) had been removed.

    Personally, I'll never forgive Six Flags for that. It ranks as one of the lowest corporate decisions ever made, in my opinion.
  14. fastpassninja's Avatar
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    I remember the Deer Park and always wondered what happened to it. I grew up a couple of cities away and remember going there, but I was only 11 in 1975 so I don't think I really knew that it closed and what happened with the deer. I remember it as a lovely and different kind of attraction. One of my favorite things that I remember was the pearl diving.
  15. rwsmith's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by indianajack
    I wish attractions such as these could have survived to today. If Orlando can support many smaller attractions in the shadow of Disney, Universal, Sea World, et al, then SoCal should be able to as well. The California government should give significant tax breaks to these types of attractions due to their educational and inspirational value.
    The real estate is too expensive to have such attractions in SoCal. Magic Mountain was on the verge of becoming housing developments just a couple of years ago.
  16. rwsmith's Avatar
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    My only memory of the deer park is passing its sign on the way to Disneyland.
  17. 257 Mouse's Avatar
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    I am not fooling. Those deer were trained to bow to you when you fed them those crackers. I remember this clearly.
  18. ralzap's Avatar
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    Great history. I remember going there, and not much else. Small attractions were every where back them. California Aligator farm, Bush Gardens, Pikes. It was a good time to be a kid.