Myths and Legends about Disney at Yesterland.com Bud Hurlbut (1918-2011)
By Chris Jepsen

At his O.C. History Roundup, Orange County historian Chris Jepsen posted an excellent tribute to Wendell “Bud” Hurlbut, who died January 5, 2011. Hurlbut was not only the creative force behind several Knott’s attractions, including the park’s masterpieces—the Calico Mountain Mine Ride and the Timber Mountain Log Ride—he also financed, built, owned, and operated them.

I’m republishing this tribute here in the hope that more people will read it.

Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, January 8, 2011

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

I’m sad to report that themed attraction entrepreneur/genius Wendell “Bud” Hurlbut passed away on Wednesday at age 93. He designed, built and operated Knott’s Berry Farm’s best attractions, including the Calico Mine Ride (1960) and the Timber Mountain Log Ride (1969). His business understanding with Walter Knott—to operate rides on his property—rested for all those decades on a simple handshake deal, never a signed contract. A gentleman’s word was his bond in those days, and both Walter and Bud were, by all accounts, honorable gentlemen.

The photos immediately above and below show Bud tinkering with the inner workings of the Calico Mine Ride. (All of today’s photos come from the Knott’s Berry Farm Collection, which is held by the Orange County Archives.) This ride turned 50 just three months ago.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Hurlbut was an innovator, and his inventions, like flume rides and various motors, were adopted later by much of the theme park industry. Anyone I’ve ever talked to who worked for him loved working for him. His obituary in the Orange County Register states that “Even into his nineties, he could be found in the middle of his workshop, just across La Palma Avenue from Knott’s Berry Farm.”

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

In the photo above, Bud shows a scale model of his proposed Log Ride to an intrigued Walter Knott in 1967. In the image below, the Hurlbut and Knott families gather to announce the groundbreaking for the Log Ride.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Unlike Disney, which has teams of talented Imagineers and other specialists to help create each new attraction, Bud had mainly himself to rely on. This is all the more amazing when you consider how much more elaborate, say, the Calico Mine Ride was in comparison to Disney’s Matterhorn—opened just a year apart from one another.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Walter and Bud took the log ride for a test “spin” or two (or more) well before John Wayne and his son Ethan became the first official guests to brave this thrilling ride.

Although the Timber Mountain Log Ride and Calico Mine Ride stand out as Bud’s masterworks for Knott’s, he also provided most of the other early amusement/theme-park attractions. In fact, the first such attraction at Knott’s was a Merry-Go-Round (seen below in 1955) which Bud had to talk Walter into allowing onto his property.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Other Hurlbut attractions included the well-loved Antique Auto Ride (seen below), which was later renamed the Tijuana Taxi when that area of Knott’s was re-christened “Fiesta Village.” Bud made sure the ride was not simply a car on a track, but that the passengers would experience an adventure going through all kinds of terrain and past a variety of colorful and amusing scenes.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Bud’s miniature trains are somewhat legendary in the industry, and one of them circled Knott’s Lagoon, which is now parking area behind Independence Hall. (Shown below in 1958.)

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Another Hurlbut addition to the Lagoon were miniature paddle-wheelers. Below is the Cordelia K in about 1963. At least one of the boats reappeared years later, across the street in the Reflection Lake.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Walt Disney knew Bud and would come over to see his progress on various projects. When Walt came to see the new Calico Mine Ride, he had no idea that the apparent entrance to the ride was only the beginning of a hidden, winding, and attractively themed queue area. Even with a long line, it would appear to passers-by that the line was short. And once in line, the guests were appeased by the colorful and dynamic surroundings. “You sneaky S.O.B.!” Walt exclaimed to Bud, upon discovering about a hundred people were already ahead of them in line.

Today, of course, Disney uses this innovation in all its theme parks.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

When Walter Knott announced he was building an exact replica of Independence Hall, Bud set to work on a gift for Walter: An exact replica of the Liberty Bell to place inside the Hall. Cast in the same alloy as the original, and with attention paid to the tiniest detail, the bell still adorns the Hall’s entrance today. In the photo above, Bud and foundry workers toil away at what became a major undertaking.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Many of the older attractions in Fiesta Village also began as Hurlbut concessions. Many of these were relatively familiar rides from a mechanical perspective, but were made colorful and unique by Bud’s focus on appropriate theming and detail.

The photo above shows the Happy Sombreros, a “Tea Cups” clone that featured colorful chili bowls topped with huge fiberglass sombreros. Note that even the operator’s booth and wrought-iron fencing and arches reflect a sense of Old Mexico or Early California.

When Bud finally sold his attractions to Knott’s outright, the changes were almost immediately evident. Soon such touches as the beautiful hand-painted murals on the back of each “Mexican Whip” (Tilt-a-Whirl) car were replaced with simple blocks of color.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Bud continued bringing rides to Knott’s into the early 1980s. One of the last was the Dragon Swing (a favorite of mine, as a child). The photo above shows Knott’s executives with Bud (center) during the installation of the Dragon Swing in 1980.

But by the time of Walter Knott’s death, the whole business arrangement became less appealing to Bud. As I noted earlier, he soon sold many of his attractions to Knott’s. Others (and parts of still others) reappeared at Castle Park in Riverside—a theme park Hurlbut established himself in 1976. Bits and pieces of some of your favorite old Knott’s rides can still be found out there.

You can also find a refurbished Hurlbut miniature steam train (formerly of Santa’s Village) at the Santa Ana Zoo in Prentice Park.

The 2007 photo below shows (left to right) Walt Disney Imagineering Sr. V.P. of Creative Development Tony Baxter; Orange County’s Assistant Archivist Chris Jepsen; Bud Hurlbut; and renowned Disney artist Kevin Kidney. We all drove up to La Crescenta to hear Imagineer and Knott’s Preserved author Christopher Merritt give an excellent talk on the history of Knott’s Berry Farm. Bud’s work was heavily featured during the presentation.

Historic Knott’s Berry Farm Photo from Orange County Archives

Bud will be missed. But it’s hard to think of a better legacy than pushing the boundaries of your industry forward and upward while simultaneously bringing joy to millions and millions of people.

I’m one of those people, and I suspect you are too.


About Chris Jepsen

Chris Jepsen is a historian, Vice President of the Orange County Historical Society, and Assistant Archivist at the Orange County Archives—which includes the Knott’s Berry Farm Collection among its holdings. A life-long Orange Countian, Chris has been going to both Knott’s and Disneyland regularly for as long as he can remember. He has even led tours of Knott’s as a historical site. Since 2006, he’s been blogging at the O.C. History Roundup.


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Updated August 12, 2011.

Historical photos from the Knott’s Berry Farm Collection of the Orange County Archives.