Knott’s Berry Farm officials have long said they know they can’t be Disneyland. Now Buena Park officials admit they can’t be Anaheim, either, when it comes to drawing tourists. “Our assessment is we’ll always be a secondary market,” said Greg Beaubien, Buena Park’s city manager. While Buena Park doesn’t see itself as a competitor to Anaheim, Beaubien said the city does rely on overflow from its neighbor to help carry the day. “We hope for a spin-off from people coming to the area,” he said. “Our hotel stock is middle-market rather than higher-end. But there’s a sector of tourists who can’t afford $250 to stay at (Disney’s) Grand Californian.”
Indeed, Buena Park stands to see more visitors because of Anaheim’s expansion. But the city has its own competition. Nearby Garden Grove has added four hotels just a mile from the Disneyland Resort, with at least two more to come. And those hotels are banking on Anaheim tourists to fill their rooms, adding to the contest for OC visitors. But even secondary markets need some name recognition,something that’s still missing for Buena Park. “A lot of people think it’s part of Anaheim,” said David Manuel, marketing manager for Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, a Buena Park themed dinner theater on Beach Boulevard.
A slowing economy, a limited number of top-notch hotels and few stores geared toward visitors could hamper Buena Park’s ability to grab more of the tourism pie,one that brought $6.5 billion into the local economy last year. And while Walt Disney Co. has gone more upscale with its Anaheim expansion, Buena Parks remains well, tacky, in some areas. Buena Park has relied on Knott’s Berry Farm to carry its tourism banner. In recent years, Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair LP, which bought Knott’s in 1997, has spent $100 million on park improvements, the new Soak City water park and the Radisson, hoping to cash in on the county’s efforts to get tourists to stay longer in OC.
But the city has proceeded more slowly. It created an entertainment zone,now dubbed the E-Zone,that includes Medieval Times, Wild Bill’s Wild West Dinner Extravaganza, Movieland Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum. But the E-Zone boundaries are vague and the name hasn’t caught on much beyond its promoters. “The only place I hear the term ‘E-Zone’ is around tourism industry people,” said one hotelier who asked not to be named. Last year the city upgraded landscaping and put pedestrian benches on Beach Boulevard. Similar pedestrian-friendly improvements are in the works for nearby Orangethorpe Avenue, while better signs are planned to tout the E-Zone. Longer term, the city is conducting a study for an 80,000-square-foot to 100,000-square-foot convention center to capture a niche market of small- to midsize conventions that might not be on Anaheim’s radar. No specific site has been targeted yet. Beaubien said Buena Park is limited by lack of funding to do much more. “We don’t have the millions in our redevelopment agency (like Anaheim does),” he said.
To be sure, at about $7 million for the current fiscal year, Buena Park’s redevelopment budget pales in comparison to Anaheim’s $34 million. Buena Park’s visitors’ office has a budget of about $300,000, compared to more than $4 million from the city in Anaheim. And Beaubien said businesses have been reluctant to agree to public-private partnerships. This year Buena Park won’t be able to rely on much new at Knott’s to lure visitors. After several years of major spending, Cedar Fair has allocated only about $4 million this fiscal year to upgrades at the park. One project,a $2 million Skycoaster that was to replace the park’s Haunted Shack,fell through last month due to an exclusivity clause for the ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Plus, some Cedar Fair spending is earmarked for less glamorous,but necessary,upgrades to restrooms and picnic areas.
Knott’s is exploring alternatives to the Skycoaster. According to general manager Jack Falfas, most amusement parks have to rely on major rides like the recently added Ghostrider, Supreme Scream and Perilous Plunge,which together cost $46 million,to carry them for “a couple of years.” That creates a dilemma for Buena Park: how to draw more tourists when most eyes this year are turned to Anaheim. The city has moved cautiously on tourism projects, citing the need for balance between residents and business. The city’s suburban commuter nature and a lack of available land also are concerns (see related story, adjacent). “The reality is Beach Boulevard is the (tourist) street,” Beaubien said. Some business owners, however, would like to see more action. “We could always use more tourists,” said Joyce Zurn, owner of the Cola Corner across La Palma Avenue from Knott’s. “Our tourist sales are up, but we need to keep (the area) attractive, too, because there’s so much competition out there. I hope the city keeps that in mind.”
Though the city’s progress may seem slow to some, there are bright spots. Zurn and other business operators along Beach Boulevard said tourist business last year was up. And when Disneyland had to close its gates due to overflow crowds in December, Manuel of Medieval Times said he had “lots of calls” from people looking for alternatives. “We do get carry-over,” he said. The Buena Park Convention and Visitors Office, too, has been active, going after the overflow market from Anaheim and targeting nearby states like Arizona for business. Both the bureau and local hoteliers tout other advantages of the city: fewer crowds and the concentration of tourist activities that enables visitors to walk from place to place. The bureau enthusiastically promotes the E-Zone, and ads for it appear in trade publications. Still, Manuel said the zone “may not be as strong as we’d like it.”
The hotel outlook, too, has been positive. The Radisson at Knott’s,which had to overcome what Falfas of Knott’s called a bad reputation when it was the Buena Park Hotel,has received positive feedback since its reopening last year. Future paid bookings are up, he said. More recently, the Hanford Hotel at the Riverside (91) Freeway and Beach Boulevard was sold and will soon become a Hampton Inn.
In all, Buena Park has about 2,200 “tourist class” rooms, according to visitors’ office managing director Pattie Davidson,a small number compared to Anaheim’s roughly 20,000. Davidson said the name brands of Radisson, Holiday Inn, Marriott and others help bring in business. Still, the city’s Beaubien said he’d like to bring another “marquee hotel” to the city.
And while some may consider a Buena Park convention center a pipe dream, industry data lends some credence to its feasibility. Doug Ducate, chief executive of Chicago-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, said capacity demands for convention space are “significant” nationwide.
“There’s a lack of space during the most preferred seasons,” he said. And some shows traditionally held in hotels have grown too large, he said, necessitating a move to larger facilities. “The more options show producers have, the happier they are,” he said. “If Buena Park had the facilities, it would benefit them.”
Another element is the remake of the Buena Park Mall, on the edge of the E-Zone. Property manager Festival Management Co., which took over the mall in 1997, completed a $45 million first phase of the project last year. A $30 million second phase,scheduled to begin this spring,is more ambitious. Ken Krause, manager of the mall, called it the creation of “a new downtown playground” for the city. Dubbed “The District,” the project is set to encompass about 140,000 square feet of retail, entertainment and dining space around an outdoor plaza. Redondo Beach-based Krikorian Premiere Theatres LLC has signed on as the anchor, and plans to build a 14- to 16-screen theater complex. Krause said the development should be attractive to tourists, which currently comprise roughly 10% to 20% of the mall’s business. The District is expected to be open by fall 2002. City officials hope these efforts will spur tourism growth, despite Buena Park’s low profile. And tourist venue operators remain upbeat. “I think people like the hometown feeling here,” Manuel said. And if the city should get a windfall of cash? Beaubien said the convention center and a first-rate hotel would be high on his wish list. “We have the makings to draw people. We’re going to get there, but we have to get better-known first,” he said. n