A Nerdy Visit to Knott’s Berry Farm

Written by George Taylor. Posted in Features, Imaginerding, Knott's Berry Farm, Other Destinations, Southern California Parks

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Published on May 26, 2014 at 2:00 am with 16 Comments

After seeing the updates here at MiceChat and listening to Jeff Heimbuch talk about Knott’s Berry Farm, I was looking forward to my first visit to the theme park that’s just minutes from Disneyland. After the amazing CommuniTOUR and before the Gumball Rally, we found ourselves with a free day. Although it was in the mid-90s, I was excited to visit the park.

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Most MiceChat readers are familiar with Knott’s Berry Farm; you won’t find anything earth-shattering in this article, just some of my favorite photos from the day and some thoughts on what a Walt Disney World fan might think of the park.

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Knott’s has taken the appellation of “America’s 1st Theme Park” and there’s still a debate about this title (Santa Claus Land is bristling just a bit). The entry surprised me, since it’s right off the road, but I really loved the Spanish Mission style details and the lack of a bag-check entrance.

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I was in a bit of reverse sticker shock when I saw the prices compared to the Disney parks. An annual pass to all Cedar Fair Parks was the price of a two-day admission at Disney. Granted, the experiences are much different, but I was pleasantly surprised with Knott’s. There’s a lot of entertainment value here for very little money.

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The Ghost Town Experience

Jeff and his fiance (Martina) directed me towards Ghost Town, first, as part of the classic Knott’s experience. I have to admit that I found the area completely charming and a good way to experience the park for the first time. The quaint, one-story buildings offered a charm that was much different from Disneyland.

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Disneyland’s Main Street is much more stylized in order to elicit that feeling of nostalgia and history. The buildings act as much as an entryway as a screen for the rest of the park. It’s also the clear entrance and exit point for Disneyland.

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Knott’s evolved more organically over the years as attractions were added and owners came and went; the development of a clear and concise park flow felt a little muddied to me, but so does any park without a traditional hub-and-spoke design. At several points during the park’s history, there were multiple entrances and it shows in the layout. Overall, though, the Ghost Town area was incredibly charming and a wonderful theme park experience.

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Part of the charm of Ghost Town is that it is still very much the way it was when it was introduced. The buildings, layout and vignettes are fairly original. It says a lot that Knott’s has preserved this part of the park, despite the fact that newer and more vibrant technology is available. The vignettes are mostly static and show their age (though they have been refurbished in recent years). To the uninitiated, there could even be tones of racism. Thinking about changing this part of the park is difficult because it’s a direct connection to Knott’s history. Also, there are other parts of the park that have been changed and still need attention.

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I spoke to my friend Kolby during the breakfast at the Gumball Rally and he related the story about how one of the previous owners wanted to put the pylons of a massive steel coaster throughout Ghost Town. As he related the story, you could see the pain it caused him to think about the park being permanently destroyed.

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The little touches, like those found at Disney, really seemed to make the town seem real; or as real as a ghost town is supposed to feel. As difficult as it was to wrap my brain around the layout and the history, you can’t begin to understand the park until you’ve experienced Ghost Town.

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Jeff models the latest ImagiNERDing shirt!

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The Friday we were there saw a lot of school groups. It was great to see them taking part of the Ghost Town historical experience and not just running for the nearest coaster.

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I would like to learn a lot more about the park’s history so I could enjoy more of the hidden details.

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Sad-Eye Joe was another surprise. I’d heard a lot about him over the years, but I wasn’t prepared for the laughs and surprise from such an old-school technology.

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I can only imagine how hot Sad-Eye Joe was sittin’ in that jail all day long.

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We spent a few minutes admiring the Bird Cage Theatre, which now hosts former Disneyland favorites Krazy Kirk and the Hillbillies on the weekends (aka Billy Hill and the Hillbillies).

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As I mentioned earlier, it was nice to meander through the Ghost Town and soak in the details. The rustic nature made me think a lot of Rainbow Ridge and I couldn’t help wonder if Ghost Town had been a large inspiration.

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What About the Rides?

We didn’t get a chance to ride the Calico Mine Ride (it was closed for a major refurbishment), but the Timber Mountain Log Ride was open with a short wait. I know that this was one of Tony Baxter’s favorite rides and an obvious inspiration for him. I’m not a fan of spoilers, so I didn’t look a lot into the ride or watch any videos. Needless to say, it’s a darn good ride!

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Bud Hurlbut should be a familiar name to Knott’s fans, so I was glad to see this tribute to the creator of the attraction.

The log ride was pretty raucous but very entertaining. It was bumpy and the show scenes went by pretty quickly. But I could see how this ride captivated many theme park designers and led the way to the attractions we see today.

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The theming for the Timber Mountain Log Ride was very well done!

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We did ride the Butterfield Stagecoach, which was pretty darn cool. It’s an extremely slow load and I wouldn’t wait more than a few minutes. I can’t imagine this as my preferred form of transportation, though. It looped around parts of the park and offered some nice vistas and some behind-the-scenes glimpses. It was another highlight of the park because it was a throwback to an earlier day and I imagine it’s not a high profit item. But I’m really glad Knott’s has it and I hope they keep it going!

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We saw the Hat Dance from the stagecoach and it brought back some fond memories of childhood visits to Kings Island.

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As expected, we checked out the restrooms at Knott’s. The exterior theming was pretty hit-or-miss and the insides were fairly utilitarian.

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The rest of the day was spent enjoying some of the coasters that Knott’s is known for. The Silver Bullet was a great coaster and it has a long ride time. One of my biggest compliant’s about Carowinds (near my home town) is that the coasters are incredibly short; you spend more time in the load and unload areas than you do on the actual ride. This was my exact feeling of the Xcelerator. It was an incredibly novel idea that was very unique. But, it’s over in less than 30 seconds or so.

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As you can see from a few of my photos, the massive coasters are visible from different areas of the park. It sort of pulled me out of the themed experience and reminded me more of an amusement park. There were a few areas of the park that seemed to be struggling for an identity. Most likely a product of the park letting go of it’s theme park roots for a while when it became a Cedar Fair property. We hear that current management is once again embracing it’s theme park past and family demographic again. Honestly, I didn’t want to spend much time in those concrete and coaster areas and found myself wanting to head back to Ghost Town.

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Poor Jeff.

Did Someone Mention Food?

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I’d heard really good things about the food at Knott’s and I was pretty excited to eat at the Ghost Town Grill. I ordered the Pecan Chicken Salad with Boysenberries for $14.99. It seemed really high for a lunch item, but it sounded really good. Jeff and Martina both got burgers that were $15.79 and they came with fries and a green salad. After seeing everyone’s plates, I would have been happy with any of them.

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My salad was spectacular (don’t judge me; when it’s hot I try to hydrate any way possible) and the boysenberries were a great addition. I have to agree that the food at Knott’s was a step above what I’ve seen at other parks (including Disney) and the cost was more than justified by the selections and the taste. Kudos to the food team at Knott’s for stepping it up a notch (or two).

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The placemat was a nice touch, especially the section on the catawampus, which we found outside!

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The Catawampus!

The following photo from the Boothill Graveyard section might be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a park.

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Beary Tales

Last, but not least, we spent a few minutes in the The Barnshop so that I could see a little piece of Rolly Crump history. As mentioned in It’s Kind of a Cute Story, Rolly mentioned working on the Beary Tales attraction for Knott’s. Not only does he talk about the design and creation, but also the installation, which was not free from hiccups. Inside the store is a small grouping of anamatronics from the ride that are on display. If you hang around long enough, the animatronics will perform a song from the attraction. It was a really nice moment and one that I’m glad we saw.

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We moseyed out of the park in the late afternoon and I was sad to leave Knott’s Berry Farm. We spent a lot of time in the car talking about the experience, not only from a historian’s perspective but also as a theme park fan. I felt that Knott’s really was a step above most thrill parks because of the history that was woven throughout. With its storied past, there are generations upon generations that have spent time as kids, teens, adults, parents and grandparents in this park. All of them developing special memories of their own local park.

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I do hope that Cedar Fair can continue to grow the park responsibly. Maintaining the historical fabric that is completely unique to Knott’s is very important as well as perpetuating smart growth for people that want thrill rides and unique experiences.

As a Walt Disney World fan, I urge others to spend a week in Southern California enjoying Disneyland Resort, Hollywood and Knott’s Berry Farm (Universal Studios Hollywood, SeaWorld San Diego, Legoland, San Diego Zoo and Safari Parks, Long Beach Aquarium, world-class museums, Hollywood, and so much more). Theme park nerds are going to find a lot to love at Knott’s and it’s an experience that you don’t want to miss.

Have you visited this venerated and historic theme park? Do you find the low cost entry price and variety of attractions a good value for your family?


ImagiNERDing is written and edited by George Taylor

About George Taylor

George has been obsessed with Disney theme parks since the first time he saw a photo of the Haunted Mansion in the early 70s. He started writing about Disney in 2007 and has amassed one of the world's largest Disney-related libraries.

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  • Kenny B

    If stinks “Disney folk” think that any part of a roller coaster, or isn’t hugging the ground near a highly themed area is an eyesore.

    I grew up at Six Flags Great America(first time WDW 5 y/o)………. To complain Knott’s has coasters in view from various parts of the park, is irreverent in my opinion. This isn’t Disneyland.

    Can’t you accept DL, and WDW are special and..

    roller coasters are awesome! and their own sight to behold.

    • michael darling

      George simply said the giant coasters ‘pulled him out’ of the theming a bit. Your comment’s a tad overboard, don’t you think? He is speaking from a historical and design perspective. When immersed in a theme park ‘land’, the magic can be suspended when you see something that doesn’t fit that particular theme or moment.
      Walt felt this way, with the infamous story of seeing an employee crossing a land in a costume that was from another land. Even Uni fans make comments that it’d be nice to see Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, without the ‘dueling dragons’ track.

      Roller coasters ARE awesome, and a sight to behold. He’s not saying they aren’t. I went to Marriotts Great America and Cedar Point often while growing up….coaster goldmines. But even then, the escapism to parts of the parks where you didn’t SEE the crowds/coasters/concrete was cool. (Cedar Point’s Boneville, Paddlewheel river ride).

      Some of these spots are typically the oldest and most undisturbed parts of our parks, and a joy to discover. And, if you can explore them without any of the newer stuff in your sight lines, it can take you away to another time and place: hence, “THEME park”.

    • FredSimmons

      What you don’t understand, Kenny, is that Knott’s used to be special too.

      That’s the problem.

      I first went to Knott’s as a child back in the early 1960′s, before they even started charging general admission (they sold tickets to the rides), and I have seen it change over the decades since.

      Knott’s wasn’t always known for roller coasters – far from it. And frankly, I rue the day when the first coaster was installed at Knott’s. It completely changed the nature of the park, and it’s only gotten worse sense.

      It may be hard to understand for someone who never knew Knott’s in its pre-coaster days, but imagine if the Silver Bullet suddenly towered over Main Street USA, or if the loops of Jaguar could be seen above the treetops of Tom Sawyer Island.

      Knott’s was never Disneyland, but it was its own special environment, a small town, rural oasis nestled in the middle of Orange County, with true farm roots in Mr. Knott’s boysenberry farm and Mrs. Knott’s chicken dinners. Visitors tolerated and even admired the somewhat amateur side of Knott’s, because they understood its history. They understood how Ghost Town originally was built (by Walter Knott) not as an amusement park, but as a side show to give the diners at the Chicken Dinner restaurant something to do while they waited for a table.

      Ghost Town was a much a hobby for Mr. Knott as a business, and it showed, as the park grew in a patch-quilt fashion, springing from Walter’s historic collections and his sense of whimsy. But the original addition of rides (such as the Calico Mine Ride, the train, the stagecoach) added to the park’s authentic atmosphere, they didn’t distract from it. The coasters do.

      Originally, the first coasters, installed shortly before Mr. Knott’s death, were limited to the far northwest side of the park, to what was then considered part of the Roaring 20′s area, where they didn’t interfere with the more traditional parts of the park.

      Knott’s began its decline after Mr. Knott died in 1981, and the next generation began to focus more on making a profit off the park.

      Slowly but surely, the coasters began to encroach on the older sections of the park, starting with Fiesta Village, which was once a tranquil lagoon area, complete with a church and weeping willow trees. The third generation apparently didn’t share Walter Knott’s personal love of the park, and eventually sold it off to pocket the cash.

      The company that bought it was known for big coasters, and that essentially doomed the Knott’s we once knew. Virginia Knott (the eldest daughter, after whom “Virginia’s Gift Shop” was named) swore she would never return to the park, because she wanted to remember it as it was. Sometimes I wish I had followed her advice.

      Yes, I can appreciate the fact that the new owners chose not to demolish Ghost Town (even though I suspect that may be simply to avoid the public backlash that would ensue if they did). But the days of sitting at the Wagon Camp under a starry sky, around a crackling campfire, listening to nostalgic Western ballads is long gone, as towering coasters now thunder above that once-bucolic scene.

      If you weren’t there, I suppose you can’t appreciate what was lost.

  • michael darling

    And……fantastic report, thanks!

  • Algernon

    I used to go to Knott’s all the time. But then they moved toward polarization: scary roller coasters for teens, and Camp Snoopy for kids. I think the reason Disneyland does so much more business and can charge so much is that it is still heavily family orientated (rides the whole family, plus grandma and small children can go on), although with Toon Town and Finding Nemo for four-year-olds, and Indiana Jones and Big Thunder (too rough for Grandma), it has been moving away from that. I think if Knott’s were more like Disneyland, with some dark ride adventures and more family stuff (bring back Knott’s Beary Tales), it would do a lot better. Still, I may go there this summer, maybe even get an annual pass, for $84. That, in addition to my Universal Pass, also $84, comes to $168—two parks for way less than the price of a Disneyland $379 SoCal annual pass.

  • rstar

    As one who grew up going to Knott’s and Disneyland from 1960 to today, I always love to see the parks through the eyes of some one who visits for the first time! Thank you!

    I have to admit that as the park grew, I got use to the large coasters peeking over the buildings and have become a bit short sighted in that I simply ignore the stuff in the back ground and just look at the buildings in front of me. That doesn’t bother me much, but if a large pylon was plopped down right in the middle of Ghost Town, that would be different. But seeing two different themes at once is an issue in all theme parks. In Uni Hollywood you can stand on an English street and see Gru’s house. At Disneyland you can stand at the end of Adventureland’s African jungle and see a Missippi steamship roll by. Some things are just unavoidable due to limits on space.

  • Stormy

    Haven’t been to Knott’s in probably 20 years or so. Now that motion sickness has set in, it just didn’t seem to be worth the price of admission (plus I’ve heard the gluten free food options leave MUCH to be desired). I was pleasantly surprised to see the ‘after 4pm’ price. That’s an amount that I can live with for what I’d be able to do while there.

  • ralfrick

    With a trip to Ohio this summer I’ve bought a Cedar Fair national pass. Before this year I’d been to Knotts twice, one of those when Nixon was President, but have dropped in 4 times this year and am really starting to like it. I love well themed spaces and attractions but have also not yet outgrown roller coasters. There aren’t many places that provide both. I went the day before the GR at 2PM and there were maybe 100 cars in the lot (but many kids that arrived on buses).

    Though the log ride is really fast, I like it a lot because of that, even though I prefer WDW”s Splash because DL’s moves too fast. Maybe it’s the difference between a river in a logging area and a slow moving southern waterway. Maybe I just don’t want to linger near these figures whose eyes look like they’ve been into some hillbilly meth and bathtub gin in many of them. Seriously, those guys should not be operating heavy machinery.

    I’m surprised y’all missed Mystery Lodge, and, of course, the Hillbillies weren’t playing on Friday (though the will in the summer) They are doing completely different sets every show of the day, and can once again sing songs with the word devil in the title.

  • ralzap

    Great report and observations. I could go on and on about the pony express going over boot hill, and the giant swing in Calico square, but I think the new management gets it. I have more nostalgic feelings for Knott’s as it was free at one time, and later something like a quarter to get in. You could go all the time, and the Indian room in the Steak house was spectacular for a kid.

  • Ppanfreak11

    Great article. Thank you for re-opening my eyes to the land of Knott’s. The last time my family and I visited Knott;s Berry Farm was in 2007 and it was quite disappointing. The park was so dirty and unkempt. Nice to know that some positive changes have taken place. This makes me excited to go back and enjoy this small, but historical park. Also, I am missing the famous fried chicken. It is so delicious.

    • manifest

      Make sure to wait a month if you do decide to go soon. The Mine Ride is going to be amazing.

  • Amy VandenBoogert

    I visited Knott’s a couple times in the 80s. I don’t remember much from those visits, sadly (though I do have a photo of me with Snoopy). I *do* remember riding the Beary-Tales ride though. Was sad when I heard it was no more as it was really cute and fun. I really want to visit Knott’s again one day.

  • Mouseaphile

    I went to Knotts frequently with my parents in the late ’50′s and early ’60.. I remember it being a “two-fer” as we always visited the Alligator Farm across the street. I also remember being incredibly upset when they closed the Haunted Shack (long before the Haunted Mansion) as it was a fabulous set of optical illusions. You could buy the most wonderful candied apples, dipped in cinnamon hard candy, not caramel, and walk down “El Camino Real” to study the intricate miniatures of the California missions. As you walked you might pass someone’s wedding in the chapel by the lake. And yes, there were many entrances. Just walking around was free.

  • Ravjay12

    I love what Knott’s has been doing lately. Refocusing their efforts on preserving their past attractions and creating new family experiences. It seems to be paying off

  • DuckyDelite

    Thanks for the great pictures and trip report. I’m so glad to see Knotts returning to its roots.

  • tofubeast

    Glad they still have school field trips to Knott’s. I went there for a field trip years ago. I loved exploring the Ghost Town. Knott’s has many special memories, and I would LOVE to have a slice of boysenberry pie (hard to find in Florida).

    Now if only Knott’s would bring back the Haunted Shack.