Our long-lost roadside attractions: From the Alligator Farm to Lion Country Safari, the Wax Museum and more

Before dawn on Friday, a structure known as “Numero Uno” traveled 45 wide-load freeway miles from Downey to Irvine. The building with adobe-style archways and elementary school lettering was the very first Taco Bell.

Until recently, the original restaurant, which opened in 1962, was slated for demolition. But fans of the food (or at least the quirky look of the building) rallied to save it. And behind the scenes, Taco Bell officials made relocation plans.

They were lucky to have a place to move to.

As development has made and remade and re-remade Orange County, the region has gained and lost a lot of kitsch. Attractions that once were genuine one-offs, either because of function or appearance or all-around weirdness, have fallen to wrecking balls and escalating land prices.

For proof, consider this: The new home for the original Taco Bell is in Irvine, in a business park, near Taco Bell’s corporate tower headquarters.

For a list of other local throwbacks, the Register talked with Chris Epting of Huntington Beach, author of the picture book “Vanishing Orange County.”

“Orange County, at one point, was a hotbed of tourism, and not just Disneyland,” Epting said.

Some spots capitalized on the allure of Hollywood or tried to grab a piece of the local theme park traffic. Others took advantage of open space to host animal-themed attractions, with real creatures with real teeth.

“When we had all this space down here, you could have places like that,” Epting said.

Here’s a short list of those roadside attractions lost to history:

• The Japanese Village and Deer Park in Buena Park was a showcase of Japanese culture, music and food. Visitors could pet Japanese deer that wandered the grounds and stare at koi. The park on Knott Avenue near I-5 closed in 1975 and was briefly replaced by a theme park called “Enchanted Village.” There, according to some reports, visitors could see Oliver, a chimp who walked on two feet, and take in the occasional “Island of Dr. Moreau”-themed animal show. The second park lasted only a year, closing in 1976. Today, the land has businesses and a park.

• Orange County International Raceway, open from 1967 to 1983, drew race fans from all over the country, according to Epting. It was, at its opening, the Taj Mahal of drag racing, with a three-story starting tower and the sport’s first permanent bleachers. The track’s founder, Mike Jones, eventually left the business and took over his father’s interior design company. Today, the former drag strip serves as a sliver of the Spectrum Business Center in Irvine.

• The Newport Harbor Buffalo Ranch was a 115-acre grazing area for buffalo and, when it opened in 1954, one of the county’s original amusement parks. The drive-to-see-it-style spot included the buffalo (a herd that started with 72 animals but soon grew to more than 100) and storytelling from a man billed as Geronimo III, the great-great grandson of the famous Native American. The ranch closed after a tough five-year run, and the buffalo were sent back to their original home in Kansas. Today, the site on the northeast corner of Bonita Canyon Drive and MacArthur Boulevard in Newport Beach is memorialized by a bronze statue of a buffalo.

• For about a week in May 1960, the country turned its attention to Buena Park and the fate of a man who ran the California Alligator Farm. Time magazine, among others, tracked Ken Earnest, who was fighting for his life after suffering a bite – from a snake, not a gator – at the Buena Park attraction. The episode was a high point of a certain type of innovation in the county, which was host to (or had hosted or soon would host) a buffalo show, a lion park, a deer park, roaming ostriches and basketball-playing bears. And the gators. The California Alligator Farm ran in Buena Park from 1953 to 1984, and it closed only after annual attendance dipped under 50,000. The gators moved to Florida; Earnest survived the bite. Today, the land is vacant, just west of a Claim Jumper restaurant.

• Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park opened in 1962 and closed in 2005. For a time, publicists of movie stars fought mightily to get their clients immortalized in wax. Then that time ended. Today, the building hosts Premier Exhibitions, which has held shows such as the “Bodies” exhibit. Near the former wax museum was Movieworld: Cars of the Stars. It opened in 1970 and featured cars from movies and TV shows of the 1960s and ’70s. It closed in 1979.

• Movieland of the Air Museum opened in 1963 with historic airplanes at what’s now John Wayne Airport. It closed in 1985.

• Old MacDonald’s Farm, a petting zoo, was part of Knott’s Berry Farm before moving to Mission Viejo in 1969. The farm closed for good sometime around 1980. It’s now the location of the Kaleidoscope shopping center.

• Of course, one of the best-known roadside attractions was Lion Country Safari. Visitors could drive their cars into the “safari” for a very up-close look at giraffes, rhinos, tigers, lions and other animals native to Africa, not Irvine. Photos from the era show lions climbing on visitors’ cars. It closed in 1984, not long after a toddler was mauled by a tiger and the park’s chief ranger was killed by an elephant named Misty. The land once occupied by the safari – and later, the Wild Rivers Waterpark – is now the Irvine Co.’s Los Olivos apartment community.

Los Olivos will total 3,700 apartment units when it’s done.

But to the dismay of music fans, the second phase of the two-part development will involve closing and demolishing another local landmark, Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

Apartments will be built on what’s now the concert venue’s parking lot in 2017. Next year’s concert season will be the last.

Irvine Meadows fans have launched an effort to try to save the amphitheater, including a Change.org petition that has gathered more than 7,000 supporters.

But the Irvine Co. has had its Los Olivos development in the works for some time. In 2006, the city’s Planning Commission approved the company’s plans to eventually build residences on the land. Irvine Co. has said the property was always meant for a more permanent use.

Staff Writers Kelli Skye Fadroski, Nancy Luna and Keith Sharon contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: aboessenkool@ocregister.com

Leave a Reply