With the arrival of Highway 17, travelers no longer drove directly through Scotts Valley on the way to and from the beach. Tree Circus owner Axel Erlandson, sold his iconic attraction in 1963 to the Thompson family, who changed the name to the “Lost World.”
“When Highway 17 bypassed Scotts Valley Drive, it cut off all the business from the park, so he (Larry Thompson) wanted something to attract people,” said Wayne Thompson, oldest son of Lost World owners Larry and Peggy Thompson. “So he bought the 40 acres behind the tree circus, and he built the lost work concept.”
To increase business, Thompson had colorful life-sized dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts created and placed throughout the amusement park. These could be seen along the highway, enticing children and travelers to stop.
“Dad wanted something a little more interesting for the kids to see, so he had life-sized fiberglass dinosaurs made and placed on the back part of the property,” said Don Thompson, Larry and Peggy Thompson’s youngest son.
The Lost World continued to display Erlandson’s trees under a new name – the “Mystery Forest.”
“Each one of the trees was like a friend to us,” Wayne said. “We cared for the trees for years, and the dinosaurs were enchanting and inspiring.”
Don said he remembered the red tyrannosaurus and green triceratops, along with the smaller dinosaurs made up to look like they were playing in a band. Also, there was a castle that adorned the gift shop and an old 1966 Plymouth Station Wagon with the words “Lost World” painted from bumper to bumper with a life-sized lion replica bolted to the top of the car.
“The T-Rex was a life-sized dinosaur made out of fiber-glass and had a steel structure,” Don said. “I was able to climb up inside the tyrannosaurus’ mouth and look over Carbonero Creek and Highway 17 on a stormy day and watch the rain clouds go by.”
Sadly, Larry Thompson died a year after Lost World’s opening, leaving his wife Peggy to run the park. She picked up the pieces and ran the gift shop, while her three children helped with chores during summer vacation.
“We had different jobs, and one of our jobs was to get on the microphone to the people coming into the park and talk through the animatronic tree, this giant 35-foot tree that moves its limbs and batted its big eyes and it spoke, and we were the voice,” Wayne said.
Wayne said that his father’s dinosaurs inspired his career choice as a paleontologist.
“My dad died when Don and I were super young, and so I always wanted to know who he was, and the only way that I knew who he was by what he created, the park, and the dinosaurs, and the trees.”
Lost World finally closed in 1969 and was put up for sale in 1976, according to the 2000 Scotts Valley Chamber of Commerce Times. By this time many of the trees were either dead or dying, and the dinosaurs were starting to show their age. Between 1984 and 1985, Michael Bonfante, previous owner of Nob Hill Foods, dug-up and rescued 29 of the trees and had them relocated and replanted at his future Theme Park titled Bonfante Gardens, which is now called Gilroy Gardens.
“When I bought the property, it was just a vacant parcel that was overgrown, and we assumed that all the trees had been removed,” explained Scotts Valley Mayor Dene Bustichi, who owns the present day Tree Circus Center. “When we started clearing the lot we found that actually there are three remaining trees. One of them is the one in the very front of the property, which isn’t in any special shape, but if you look at some of the old pictures of Lost World, you will see that original tree and that’s still out front.”
Bustichi bought the property that was previously the Tree Circus and Lost World in 2005 and constructed one of Scotts Valley’s first green buildings. Upon clearing the property for development, three of Erlandson’s trees were discovered, and the building plans were changed to incorporate these trees into the landscape.
“At that point we knew that we had to call it the Tree Circus,” Bustichi said.
Although one of the trees is dead, the trunk and roots are still intact, and the shape is still visible. Bustichi said that he plans to display the tree until it finally decays and must be removed. The tree probably has quite a few years left, Bustichi added.
Yet despite the preservation of those few remaining landmarks, most of the Lost World only lives on in the memories of its admirers.
“We grew up in this magical world that doesn’t exist anymore,” Wayne said. “The roadside attractions, family theme parks, they are no longer around. Scotts Valley was a magical place back then.”