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.
“There are all kinds of hidden secret gems,” Moody says. He gestures toward the life-size portable jail cell. It has a couple of bunk cots, a ball and chain and one or two fake human rib bones still clinging to their vertebrae.
We walk to the top of the ramp beneath the mountain of artificial rock, and peek between the bars of a little wooden door. Two miners toil away inside. No one really knows the miners are there, and you can’t see them from any other vantage. This doesn’t bother the park’s owner, the lore goes, as long as he knows they’re there. In one of the graveyards, Bart the miner’s boots stick out of the ground beneath his tombstone. Nearby, a rusted boiler, several old railcars and some abandoned locomotive parts have collapsed exhausted onto the grass. A sign reads: “Hidden away for all these years and discovered by Castle Park right where the workmen put down their tools . . . ”
Other secret gems are unplanned — like the pair of peacocks that showed up one day. “They owned the park. Then one of them disappeared. We don’t know what happened. Someone took him, we think,” Moody says, though it’s tough to picture a golfer walking away with a squawking peacock stuffed into his backpack. “In this industry, you have to stay connected. You have to know what your guests are experiencing.” Moody stops to examine the terrain at course four, hole 17, his “arch nemesis,” and picks up a tiny leaf that has fallen onto the fairway.
Neighborhood cats meander in from the apartments across the way to make summer homes in all the miniature structures. During duckling season, workers often arrive in the morning to find the 18th-hole pond, where all four courses converge, transformed into the grisly scene of a crime. Another duck bites the dust. Someone will have to clean up the feathers.
Caring for Castle Park’s environs is a monumental job akin to the year-round painting of the Golden Gate Bridge. Landin starts pruning the trees and trimming the grass on one end of the golf course, and by the time he works his way to the other end, it’s time to start the whole endeavor again. Those bushes don’t shape themselves into rabbits, you know.
And who is the best minigolf player among the workers?
“Jeff probably is,” Nelson says.
“Don probably is,” Moody says.
“I have a question,” a girl says. “The massive catapult in the corner, is it real?”
“Yes, I believe so,” Moody answers, proudly. “It was in The Ten Commandments.”
The girl scrunches her nose. “Um, were there catapults in ancient Egypt?”
Nelson, after toiling in the trenches of the minigolf industry for so long, knows there are up times and down. Grooving his hand in a sine-wave motion, he says he feels this is an up time. The economy may be in the crapper, but it hasn’t deterred the minigolfing population.
Nighttime, he believes, is when the course is prettiest. “It’s like a totally different place in the evening,” he says. A single candle flickers in the Haunted House, whose howling-wind audio makes more sense at night. Lamps glow from deep within the mine, while the remaining resident peacock settles into his roost atop Burton’s Mill. At night, the windows of various miniature buildings light up from the inside, as if invisible inhabitants are going about their evening routines. The tiny world seems painted with light.
You don’t hear the cars rushing by on the 91 freeway, just the golf course’s endless looping soundtrack: The tapping of Morse code in the Western Union telegraph tower. A steam engine shrieking. A train station’s bell clanking and muddled voices of waiting passengers. The accordion music blaring from the windmill, waging cultural warfare upon the Native American teepees in the valley below.
I imagine that Hurlbut, as king of the Castle, must have loved it here at night, when shadows smooth out the imperfections. During his heydey, he used to bring in his small black-and-white dog. Or rather, dogs. Each time a dog died, Hurlbut would replace it with another of the exact same color and breed and name it Terry. Nelson remembers the Terrys fondly.
It’s much the same with people. He’s seen basically the same players during his tenure, he claims, “just with different faces.”
From his perch behind the golf check-in counter, Nelson gazes toward the Ghost Blaster ride across the way, where a sign warns, “Welcome to Bleakstone Manor! Ghost eviction in progress,” and sighs eloquently, like a man who has made his peace with his lot in life. You shoot at the specters that jump out at you.
People don’t build minigolf courses like this anymore, he says — ones on multilevel, non-wheelchair-accessible terrain. Courses that have been constructed with a borderline-psychotic attention to detail. Courses inextricably connected to a person, or persona. Bud Hurlbut allegedly kept his office in the Gypsy wagon parked beside the castle’s Dragon Treats sweetshop, an authentic one “imported into the U.S.A. for your enjoyment,” built in 1880 and used “for many years” in Europe. But really, with property values skyrocketing, people aren’t building minigolf courses, period.
Nelson, I’m sure, has his counterpart at some of the more weathered courses: the warm, kindly soul you can’t imagine the park without, as much a fixture as the grumbling miners at course 4, hole 5. At his home turf, he strolls the course intermittently during the day, saying hello to the patrons and pointing the confused ones in the right direction when they start on one course and end up putting on another. He’ll make sure no one’s getting overly rowdy, as can happen when 10 guys come in, throw 10 bucks each into a pot, and the winner takes all. In his experience, everyone makes up, then they break their own rules. Except for the one, cardinal rule that governs the day: “Please hit balls easy.”
Castle Park Riverside, 3500 Polk St., Riverside, (951) 785-3000 or www.castlepark.com.