If you eliminate all the narrative meaning from Disneyland, or even Knott’s Berry Farm, you end up with something like Riverside’s Castle Park miniature golf. Here, instead of market-tested themes, your own imagination imposes stories on the fantasy landscape. At a putting green guarded by a pagoda, you almost expect to trip over little slippers at the entrance. Perhaps a geisha has just picked her way across the creaky red bridge and is now pouring tea for a client? Putting through the fort that could be a miniature version of the one at York which William Wallace sacked in Braveheart, you half anticipate that a mini Mel Gibson will pop out, clutching your wayward golf ball like a severed head, then handing it back to you, frowning, should you bogey that ace.
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Tilting at windmills: On the blue carpet at Castle Park
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An ecumenical Taj Mahal
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Bridge to the 19th century
Sure, this bastard love child of real golf and Chutes and Ladders is what Satan would make Tiger Woods play if he wound up in Hell. And yeah, it’s just about the tackiest sport ever invented. But minigolf is also supremely relaxing. On a miniature golf course, the problems of the day are reduced to a tiny scale.
Everywhere at Castle Park, there’s the feeling of Odysseus lost among the Lotus-Eaters. People come and stay for longer than they expected, both players and employees. All of them call it “falling in love” with the place, the atmosphere. Jeff Moody, the park’s director of operations, has been around nine years. Don Nelson, who is 38 and a large teddy bear of a guy, has been with the golf course for nearly 20 years. He started as a full-time sweeper and worked his way up to supervisor of golf and arcade. “The first few years I worked here,” he says, “the sound of the waterfalls and the arcade, I could hear it in my dreams at night. I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Nelson’s longevity is second only to that of gardener Pete Landin, who was with the park when it opened in the 1970s. It was just the minigolf course back then, not the sprawling pseudo-city it is now. An arcade was built after the golf course, then a big top, followed by rides: a Tilt A Whirl, a Merlin’s Revenge roller coaster, a log ride, a Sea Dragon swing, a Scrambler, a flying saucer.
Owner Bud Hurlbut, who designed the original miniature trains at Knott’s Berry Farm, went for a kind of “historical oddities” and California gold-rush/mining theme when he created the course. What’s on the premises? A Spanish mission. A trading company. An opera house. A jail and a general store. A cross-bearing, onion-domed structure with Hershey’s Kiss–shaped minarets that could be either Russian or Moroccan, Christian or Muslim, though the people who work here call it the Taj Mahal. Unlike the Japanese pagoda, which has been painted and repainted every combination of colors over the years, Castle Park’s Taj Mahal has always been blue.
The park is known as Southern California’s mecca of minigolf, a bold reputation considering that SoCal is itself a miniature-golf hot spot. Gigantic “Golf N’ Stuff” signs, part of the region’s iconography, clamor for attention on our freeways, while the wacky arcade games, rides, pizza, nachos and batting cages that go hand in hand with suburban minigolf — which begat 1001 bad junior-high dates — are all but intertwined with our DNA. Recently, I went to Sherman Oaks Castle Park (no relation), which is run by the city of Los Angeles and has a decent, if spottily maintained, course — dragon scaling a tower, gingerbread house, pirate-ship lagoon, Windex-blue-dyed waterfalls — but ultimately left with a vague dissatisfaction. That’s the thing about miniature golf. Once you know that sphinxes with golf holes for mouths and volcanoes erupting real fire are on the menu, putting a ball into a plain old anthill mound just isn’t enough. Bring on the glow-in-the-dark Stonehenge!
Though the professional minigolfers who play at Riverside’s Castle Park would likely disagree — Nelson says you can spot the pros because they arrive with their own putters and play the same hole over and over again — minigolf is not so much about the golf as it is about the scenery. The more outlandish the landmarks, and the more loopy, hilly and aggravating the obstacles, the better.
This place delivers. There are river channels, troughs and sluices everywhere, some in clever geometric angles, some burbling with water. Putt a ball into the entrance of the Taj Mahal and it emerges moments later, through a tunnel, under a bridge, and skitters down the mountain.