The idea for the theme park came about in 1965. Bill and Debbie Anderson owned a small horse ranch, which happened to be located at about the same area as the Ponderosa on the fictional burning map. According to the Andersons, tourists would regularly show up at their gates, asking where the Ponderosa was. Smelling opportunity, the Andersons contacted NBC and Bonanza producer David Dortort. They proposed turning their small ranch into a theme park. NBC saw the idea as a great promotional tool for the series, as did Michael Landon and Lorne Greene. All parties agreed to share the cost and the profits (at least at first).
The park opened to the public in 1967, complete with a scale replica of the Cartwright ranch house and barn, similar to the ones seen on TV each week. A replica of Virginia City was later added to the property. The original plan was to open the set to tourists, once filming had wrapped. However, shuttling cast and crew up to Incline Village on a weekly basis became cost prohibitive. Thus, very few episodes of Bonanza were actually shot there. A majority of ranch-specific scenes were shot on a sound stage at Paramount studios in Hollywood. Outdoor scenes were filmed on location at nearby Big Bear Lake, Red Rock Canyon, Mojave or eastern Kern County, California. However, Michael Landon, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker and David Canary (who, dressed in character, made his last visit there in 2002 for a PAX-TV special) often made appearances at the ranch in costume to mingle with fans and sign autographs. Blocker died in 1972. NBC canceled the series the following year. Copies of the "Bonanza Map", autographed by three of the Cartwrights (Pernell Roberts left before construction began) were handed out as souvenirs at the ranch for decades afterward, along with tin cups bearing their likenesses.
Episodes that were filmed entirely or in part at the ranch, bear a title plate at the end of the credits, indicating such. These episodes are from the 10th season on (1968-73).
A visit to the park consisted of the wagon taking visitors up being "robbed" by "outlaws", and then disembarking at the main house of the set. Adjacent to the house were the "graves" of Ben Cartwright's three wives, each of whom had borne one of the (half) brothers. Graves of the Cartwrights and cook Hop Sing were later added, following the deaths of Dan Blocker ('72), Victor Sen Yung ('80), Lorne Greene ('87), and Michael Landon ('91). The house was inhabited by a less than realistic carved figure of Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright sitting at his desk, and of Hop Sing working in the kitchen. The only parts of the house that actually existed were the living room, dining room, kitchen, and office; the stairs led nowhere, as the "bedrooms" were actually located back on a sound stage in Hollywood. Thus, the tour of the house took very little time.
The main attraction was the ranch's version of Virginia City, which was miles from the real Virginia City but immediately adjacent to the rear of the house set. Here were activities such as a haunted house, panning for gold, amusements based on old-time Wild West shows, and the like, as well as concessions such as the aforementioned "Hoss Burger" (named after the character portrayed by Dan Blocker) and souvenirs. In 1999, a VHS tour was made available to patrons.
The first Virginia City set was used on the show until 1970, and was located on a backlot at Paramount and turned up in episodes of "Have Gun, Will Travel", "Mannix" and "The Brady Bunch". On a 1970 "Bonanza" episode entitled "The Night Virginia City Died", Deputy Clem Foster's pyromanic fiancee leveled the town in a series of fires. This allowed for a switch to the lesser expensive Warner studios from September 1970 through January 1973. None of the original Bonanza series was shot at the theme park's "Virginia City" site, although the town was prominently featured in three Bonanza TV movies, (the first being nationally syndicated in 1988 and the latter two airing on NBC in the 1990s). Because the TV movies showcased the next generation of Cartwrights, they began in circa 1905. The Ponderosa park had expanded beyond the buggy era to include an exhibit featuring historic cars. It was, alas, a fledging endeavor as tourists wanted to see horses flanked by Cartwright saddles.
An article in the RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL of September 26, 2004 (Ponderosa rides into the sunset) quoted "co-owner Anderson [son of the original owner" as saying: "This is the biggest year we’ve ever had", and who estimated 250,000 people visited the Ponderosa during the last spring and summer season.
Anderson said he decided to sell the ranch because "land values are so high."
The Washoe County, Nevada web site reveals a Ponderosa Ranch land use concept diagram which alludes to a plan for a new theme park within the Ponderosa Ranch limits. No other information is available and David Duffield, owner, a principal of Workday, has not publicly announced a new theme park plan. They have not built anything new. As of the 12th of May 2008 and everything is still standing.
Food&drink: Cowboy Countr; the Ponderosa Ranch Restaurant, Penmaenpool, near Dolgellau 01341 423584 Taste Test Ian Parri at the Ponderosa Ranch, Penmaenpool
Apr 16, 2005; Byline: Ian Parri ADAM tied up the Audi outside the Ponderosa and I promised to avoid all further tired old Western cliches. Mind...