July 09, 2017

Photo Essay: Castle Park and The King of Theme Park Train Rides

Somehow, the concepts of amusement parks and theme parks have conflated into one.

And while theme parks are, indeed, amusing...

...not every amusement park has or even needs a theme (especially in the advent of "thrill rides," like at the themeless Six Flags).

From Santa's Village to Disneyland (whose multiple themes include "adventure," "fantasy," the "frontier," and the land of "tomorrow"), there's no better way to escape the humdrum of real life than to travel back in time or to a land that's far, far away...

...than to run off with the circus, so to speak, at least for a couple of hours.

In the case of Castle Park in Riverside, you'd be transported back to Camelot... the time of Merlin and other figures of Arthurian legend.

Castle Park opened in 1976, seven years before Medieval Times would take the concept to another level with its immersive dinner theater show (and 10 years before Medieval Times would arrive in Buena Park).

And while there are still glimpses of 11th century life in England...

...the current experience at Castle Park is definitively domestic...

...with pieces of Americana, like the antique car ride...

...and the Castle Park Railroad.

The two-foot narrow gauge railroad was built by Castle Park founder Wendell "Bud" Hurlbut, who'd already made a name for himself in miniature locomotives and train-based amusement park rides designed for Knott's Berry Farm (like the Calico Mine Train).

You can credit Hurlbut's creations for Knott's with helping it expand beyond a berry farm and chicken dinner restaurant into a full-fledged amusement park.

Trained (or, rather, self-taught) as a mechanical engineer, Hurlbut is considered one of the country's first theme park creators.

Even the ultimate train fan himself, Walt Disney, used to visit him at Knott's while he was building the Calico ride. And while many may think that Disney created the "hidden" line of waiting would-be passengers (with all of those switchbacks), he actually borrowed the idea from Hurlbut.

His work was so revolutionary and groundbreaking that after his death in 2011 (when he was still operating the Hurlbut Amusement Co. in a barn across the street from Knott's, well into his 90s), his train-building business was bought by Katiland Trains, the biggest amusement park train manufacturer in the country, located nearby in Riverside County.

With no children to pass them down to, much of the contents of his workshop were sold off in 2012. (He'd already sold the park decades before.)

As much as he's associated with trains, Hurlbut actually began his amusement park career as a carousel man at Knott's in the 1950s.

That's when he operated a 1905 Dentzel Menagerie-Jester Head model that had been relocated there (to the Lagoon) from Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.

In 1985, when Hurlbut was expanding his Castle Park beyond an arcade and miniature golf course, he moved the historic carousel to Riverside and added it to what was becoming a fully developed amusement park.

Its Ruth band organ had previously been rescued from The Pike in Long Beach (1911-1979).

Among the 20 menagerie animals on the two-level platform, you'll find a tiger...

...a lion and a goat...

...two bears and two pigs...

...three deer...

....and four each rabbits, cats, and ostriches.

Among the 30 horses scattered between three rows, 18 are jumpers and 12 are standing.

And of the 50 total animal figures, 19 are made of their original carved wood and 31 of them are fiberglass reproductions. Many of the original figures that were replaced by copies were auctioned off in 1990.

Before Hurlbut died, a documentary filmmaker asked him what regrets he had in life. His answer? "That carousel auction," he said.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Upon the 75th Anniversary of the Ghost Town at Knott's Berry Farm
Photo Essay: A SoCal County Celebrates the Sahara

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