Greetings, and welcome to a new installment of This Animatronic Life…and you only had to wait a year to read it! As you may be aware, my company, Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP), has been busier than ever in the past year or so, with projects in every corner of the globe for all sorts of different clients (more on that in a future article!). So, while I apologize for the delay, I’m sure glad we were so busy! We hope that the three part series that we start for you today was worth the wait . . .
Although we had half a dozen attraction openings last year featuring our design and production work, our efforts at Knott’s Berry Farm certainly brought the most interest and enthusiasm from guests. There, GHP was involved in a complete re-imagining and refurbishment of the venerable Timber Mountain Log Ride attraction. It was one of the most enjoyable projects we’ve ever tackled here at GHP.
The Log Ride is recognized by many as one of the premier themed attractions anywhere, and is certainly an historic landmark in ride design. More than that, it is a living testament to the genius of one of my personal heroes, Wendell “Bud” Hurlbut. The ride itself opened when I was nine, and quickly became one of my favorite attractions. It sure seemed like a trip through a real logging operation to me! Coupled with the Calico Mine Ride, and in the context of the wonderful Ghost Town, the Log Ride gave Knott’s a feeling of real historic authenticity, more so than Disneyland even. The history of the attraction is well-documented elsewhere—I’ll stick with GHP’s role in that story here!
When GHP was contacted by Knott’s to take a look at the Log Ride in preparation for a major overhaul, we were absolutely thrilled. Actually, someone from Knott’s called in the early evening when most employees had already left. I was sitting on the couch in the lobby of our main building and answered the phone myself. He wanted to know if GHP could help with some work on the Log Ride—it’s a call I’ll never forget! We first visited with the park’s design and operations team in spring 2012 to talk about the scope for the refurbishment, what GHP would be asked to create, the schedule, and the overall budget. Replacing the attraction’s many static figures with moving animatronics was a given for GHP. Knott’s internal creative team would be responsible for swapping the ride’s existing (almost entirely real) foliage for realistic faux foliage, as well as an entirely new lighting and sound package for the attraction both outside and in and creative direction over all aspects of the refurbishment. Exact details required some brainstorming. We walked through the attraction with the work lights on so we could get a good look at existing figures and sets. As many of you may know, the ride was beginning to show its age!
The park intended to keep the spirit of the attraction as it had always been, but work needed to begin by completely removing all existing figures, sets, props, foliage, lighting—everything!—so, we had a bit of a blank slate to work with as far as creating new scenes and vignettes, and choosing what to preserve. Preservation became a major aspect that directed much of our design and, later, our production philosophy for the Log Ride, which I’ll touch on more later.
If you look at images and postcards of the attraction as it looked in the years just after its opening, you can see that Bud put a tremendous amount of thought and detail into the show scenes, structure, and other theme elements of the ride. Taken as a whole, the show scenes and sets within the attraction were very well done, in many cases on par with Disney attractions of the same era. In some aspects, the Log Ride was a superior themed experience.
Consider that as you travel through the mountain you are moving around and through not merely that theme structure, but also snaking around 3,900 feet of fiberglass flume that is constantly changing direction and grade. The ride basically travels in two levels, one on top of the other, in a pair of compound turns and loops that maximize the ride length over a relatively economical use of land. The final lift hill and big drop at the end exist more or less outside of the main ride and structural portions of the attraction.
As a result, the spaces available for show scenes are irregularly shaped, and much of their design is dictated by the path of the flume. In other words, the path of the flume itself dictated the design and construction of show scenes, rather than the other way around. That’s why throughout the attraction you can see strangely-shaped little alcoves, or sets that are far below the flume itself. In most instances, this wasn’t a design affectation, but rather Bud making maximum use out of available space within every scene of the ride. In most places, the scenes worked very well in their original form. We and our partners at Knott’s felt that others might be enhanced.
While the Log Ride certainly had a very well developed theme and good supporting scenes that guests travel through while on their inevitable journey to the falls, it did not have a core story per se. Frankly, it didn’t really need one. Its story, so to speak, was that journey, was simply the series of thematically-related vignettes. The Log Ride told the story of an 1880s logging camp using representations of authentic methods and lots of real antique tools and machinery, and featured people and animals in mostly static vignettes to populate those scenes. But we felt it was the museum diorama version of the story of logging work itself—a history book-level concept—and not a story of people actually doing that work. We felt both could exist harmoniously.
Some scenes were too good to change—it would have been change for its own sake. Scene 1, the Sawmill, is a perfect example. It’s the first scene guests travel through. After engaging a moving belt just after leaving the load dock, guests are whisked up into the mill, where they remain on the belt all the way through the scene, just like a real log would in a real sawmill. Around them, authentic antique machinery, engines, gears, wheels, saws, and more move, driven by hidden electric motors rather than steam. The board construction, lantern lighting, enormous collection of antique tools and other details, not to mention most of the moving figures within the original version of the ride, make the Sawmill a truly immersive themed experience.
So in the first aspect of our spirit of preservation of Bud’s Log Ride, we determined that the Sawmill would remain staged almost exactly as it was originally—only it would be populated with real animatronic figures. This was what we termed a “one-for-one” replacement, where we replaced a previously static or simple motorized figure with an animatronic one in (more or less) its exact same position, doing the exact same thing. We did add one new figure to the Sawmill: the man with the brace at the end of the scene, right next to the man sharpening the axe on the grinding wheel (that’s the original wheel, but the way!).
Even those one-for-one replacements had enhancements that were more than just their added motion. We determined that each and every figure in the attraction would have a silicone mask and hands, as well as more detailed costumes than the original attraction. Some of the faces in the original attraction were really interesting sculpts, and definitely shared a look distinct to the ride. We wanted to preserve the best ones, so we made molds from some of the original heads and cast them in clay to add more detail before making a new mold and readying the “new-old” sculpts for life as silicone masks. Other masks would be all-new characters, while the remainder were masks from GHP’s vast library of human heads created over the past three and a half decades.
The original figures were a mix of plaster sculpted over foam wig forms, with PVC tubing frames and cotton fiber bodies, or rebar frames with metal lath bodies beneath the costumes. Our new figures would have stainless steel and aluminum frames and rigid fiberglass bodies. This would ensure they were far more robust than their static forebears.
Other scenes merited a similar design approach, but opportunities for enhancement began to show themselves. Moving out of the Sawmill, guests loop outside around the mountain before turning back inside to Scene 2, the Cabin/Locomotive scene. Parts of the scene were perfect: the cabin on the left with the man on the porch, the little logging locomotive (the non-functional prototype for the Calico Mine Ride engines), the scene below and to the left of the flume where two hungry (taxidermy) wolves surrounded a hapless badger. Some elements had been enhanced over the years: when the Haunted Shack closed, Shaky Sadie was moved to the porch of the cabin adjacent to the locomotive—she fit right in. Others had degraded: originally a faithful dog sat on the porch with his owner on the cabin on the left of the scene. Over time, the taxidermy hound’s appearance deteriorated (taxidermy is an organic thing that never truly stops decomposing) and he was eventually retired.
But the scene lacked a character hook. As with so much of the original attraction, the star of the scene was a piece of machinery, in this case the little logging engine. This realization gave us a creative spark that drove the way we imagined the Log Ride’s new scenes. My creative team and I were determined to add more life, more people, more character to the attraction. We felt a big part of the 1880s logging camp story of work was really the story of play in that environment. Our creative director Bill Butler hit on the brilliant idea of a hootenanny taking place on Timber Mountain.
It wasn’t exactly a story, but a thread that could tie all the scenes together in a bigger way than simply location-based scene-to-scene relationships. So in Scene 2, we added a dandy playing banjo on his front porch (his name’s Bud, by the way), picking and singing for his neighbors across the way, and for his trusty dog, Duke (named as an homage to John Wayne, on hand at the opening of the ride in 1969). He’s barefoot, taking a rest after a long day felling trees or working the mill. Further along (and up above), a sign painter is adding the finishing touches to a banner advertising the Calico Logging Company’s hootenanny, while his trusty mule waits across the flume, a bit concerned about the two wolves lingering just below. Here was the beginning of a warmth, a sense of real character, and, something the original attraction lacked entirely, humor picking up the hootenanny story thread for the first time in the attraction. At the same time, we recreated Sadie, gave her a pal leaning up on the porch, created a new engineer for the locomotive, and replaced the taxidermy wolves with animatronic replicas covered in 100% synthetic fur.
In the next installment, I’ll detail how GHP expanded our creative brush with our partners at Knott’s to create entirely new scenes within the classic Timber Mountain Log Ride.