Situated in the heart of Knott’s Berry Farm is a remarkable piece of theme park history. The 54 year old dark ride masterpiece, the Calico Mine Ride. Designed by Wendell “Bud” Hurlbut and opened in 1960, the attraction was a groundbreaking mix of immersive theming and educational storytelling. This attraction sent riders on a journey aboard “ore carts” for a tour of the spectacular mine. It featuring full-sized, animated human figures in a 360° themed environment, seven years before Disneyland opened Pirates of the Caribbean just down the freeway. The Calico Mine Ride set a major precedent and became an instant hit with guests.
Over the years the attraction remained a popular classic while, outside, the park evolved around it. Nine years later, Hurlbut opened the equally brilliant, and far more playful The Timber Mountain Log Ride just across the way. The Timber Mountain Log Ride was the world’s first fully themed flume attraction, twenty years before Splash Mountain would open at Disneyland. Then, Arrow Development debuted the first inverted corkscrew coaster in 1975, The Corkscrew, just behind the mine ride in the former Roaring 20’s section of the park. Innovation was a common occurrence on the farm as every new dark ride or roller coaster aimed to wow as well as entertain.
Even as guests tastes evolved (looking for the next “first” or the most extreme), The Calico Mine Ride quietly remained a staple guest experience. Steel supports for coasters sprouted up from the ground, beckoning thrill seekers from around the world. Unfortunately, the attraction progressively fell into disrepair. Many show effects slowly stopped working. Figures along the tracks were not so much refurbished as they were patched up. The once glorious attraction was no-longer innovative and became a musty museum of antiquated entertainment while the park focused on thrill over theme. Still, the attraction remained, dutifully churning guests through what remained of its former glory.
Then something amazing happened. Matt Ouimet (former Disneyland President) became President and CEO of Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and they realized what a gem they had on their hands with Knott’s Berry Farm. General Manager Raffi Kaprelyan was hired in late 2011 and almost overnight, the park began to change. It wasn’t until a year later that we knew Raffi was serious about his plans to bring Knott’s back to its former glory as a family destination. In January 2013, a major refurbishment was officially announced for the Timber Mountain Log Ride. The animatronic wizards at Garner Holt Productions (GHP) would be tapped to infuse the attraction with a new storyline and over 60 new animatronics.
The renovated Timber Mountain Log Ride opened to rave reviews from both visitors and critics alike. The Marc Davis-like gags and vibrant lighting and sound revitalized the classic attraction. Yet, the original Calico Mine Ride sat, just steps away, without any attention being given to it. Or, so we thought. The idea of tackling the Calico Mine Ride was one that Knott’s got serious about during the log ride project. “We began to see the impact that the log ride refurb was going to have,” explained Director Entertainment Production, Lara Hanneman. “There was no way we could have the mine ride as a book end to that attraction in the state it was in.”
The Creative Forces Behind the Renovation
Knott’s Berry Farm announced the renovation of the Calico Mine Ride in November of 2013 with the same creative forces that had handled the Log Timber Mountain Log Ride. Garner Holt Productions would again be on board to handle all of the figures, animated and otherwise, along with pitching scene and story ideas. Head of Park Decor, Jeff Shadic, would again be dressing the sets and producing the props. Lighting would again be handled by James Sidler and Kyle Arnold, while Lawrence McCoy and Richard Little would bring their sound design expertise to the depths of the Calico mine. Wrangling them all would be Lara Hanneman.
The creative direction of the improvements to the ride, while helmed by Knott’s, were truly a team effort. Everyone brought ideas to the table. In contrast to the fast-paced approach of the Timber Mountain Log Ride, the Calico Mine Ride already had a clear-cut agenda, built to educate as well as entertain. Hanneman notes, “We have have a more authentic story here. We wanted to represent the different ethnicities that would have been here in the 1800’s, doing what they would have been doing in a mine.”
That isn’t to say that the ride will be less entertaining. There are many surprises in store when riders board the trains on June 14th. While the trains will still be piloted by humans, guests will hear any one of three new narrators. Pete “Sluice Box” McGee, Polecat Mahoney, and Powder Keg Anderson Peg will be heard delivering the tour narration through the refurbished trains onboard audio systems.
Visitors will also literally be welcomed into the mine by the first animated figure, The Greeter. “We also have a character that will be talking to you now, addressing the train as you pass by, welcoming you into the mine.” Hanneman adds.
Just past The Greeter is the Boiling Pot Room. Real steam has been added after having been absent for 20 years. The way the steam catches the heavily saturated tones in James Sidler’s lighting design is a thing of beauty.
Garner Holt Productions Animatronics
Just after the Calico Mine Ride closed in early January 2014, Garner Holt Productions descended on the attraction’s figures. Despite being an older attraction, the figures were in far better condition than those found in the former log ride. It was found that some of the figures did not need replacing, but rather a proper refurbishment. With careful respect for the heritage of the ride, Garner Holt Productions meticulously restored the mechanisms, originally designed by Bud Hurlbut himself, and simply filled out the figure, giving them a more life-like appearance.
Standing in the massive Glory Hole scene, we got an up-close look at the new and newly refurbished figures.
For this refurbishment, GHP is planning on installing just over 120 new and refurbished figures in the Mine Ride for the redo, with most of them being animated! “We’re excited to now be doing the animation for the entire attraction,” said Garner Holt, “It’s gonna be pretty cool!.” He continued, “The important thing is that we wanted to maintain the continuity of the attraction. Not just inside of it though, but to be harmonious with all of the characters in Calico and in the Log Ride. We wanted it all to look like it was part of the same town, part of the same family, the same community and town.”
For the first time, there will also be an animated character in the elevator shaft that runs through the ride.
Around the bend, we approach the lift hill at the center of the attraction. At the time it was built, it was the steepest enclosed lift hill ever attempted. So steep, in fact, that Hurlbut and his team were the only ones willing to take on such a perplexing endeavor.
Of course, this hill leads straight up to the famous “Heaven” room. A dream-like, ethereal colored space of stalactites and stalagmites that acts as a sort of crescendo to the daunting climb. We are leaving that reveal for opening day. But there are some things we can share that you will see along the way.
Further up the hill, we will encounter an active cave of bats. Watch out, they may take flight!
Props and Set Design
Manager of Park Decor and Entertainment, Jeff Shadic, spoke about the hard work that is going into everything, even the props, for the new attraction. “We are rebuilding everything,” said Shadic. “All of the dynamite crates are all being completely rebuilt out of cedar, and they’re tongue-in-groove, just like they were opening day. The actual sticks of dynamite are going to look real. Not like the cartoony, Wile E. Coyote style look, but authentic. It has to be educational as well as entertaining, just like Bud Hurlbut had it when it opened.”
“In the beginning,” says Hanneman, “we thought the mine ride was going to be an easier project than the log ride. The mine ride is just one building, whereas the log ride is three separate buildings, filled with water.” She laughs and then admits, “But when we got in here, we realized just how tight and compact it is. Nearly every square inch is show space.”
Care also had to be taken when Lawrence McCoy and Richard Little were installing the state-of-the-art sound system. “We had to be sure that where we were drilling wasn’t going to punch through to another show scene” explains Hanneman. The same went for the fully revamped lighting package, helmed by James Sidler. A mix of incandescent and LED lighting, they were very careful to hide all light sources. Sidler explains, ” You won’t see any can lights here, no more of that. We wanted it all to look very organic, hiding where the light is coming from.”
Halloween Haunt and The Witches Keep
When the Timber Mountain Log Ride was refurbished, it signaled the end of any seasonal overlays for that attraction. After 40 years of Halloween fun, the wear and tear on the beloved flume ride was tremendous. It simply made sense that live actors would no longer be allowed to hide along the route, possibly damaging the nearly $6 million investment in refurbishments.
While Halloween Haunt fans mourned the loss of the brilliant log ride as a haunt experience, we have been able to confirm that The Witch’s Keep will indeed return this year for Halloween Haunt inside the Calico Mine Ride!
A more reserved Halloween experience, The Witches Keep uses no actors and only a change in sound, lighting, and just a few changes in set dressing. Can we then hope that Knott’s might consider enlisting Garner Holt Productions to plus the experience up? Dare we even ask for a new log ride overlay that keeps the newly renovated ride safe too? We can dream.
We then asked Hanneman what her favorite feature of the newly refurbished Calico Mine Ride will be when it opens. “You know, I’m all about the details. But I think I will be proud of the fact that it all got done, and done right.” From what we saw inside the mine, they are certainly on the right track. . . preserving the history and look of the attraction while enhancing the show, story, and effects.
Here’s a great behind the scenes video of the Mine Train, featuring Bill Buttler and Garner Holt of Garner Holt Productions, which was sent to us by Knott’s Berry Farm:
Visitors will soon be able to visit the world famous Calico Mine Ride once again when it returns to service on Saturday, June 14th, 2014. We hope that we will see all of you there, bright and early, to celebrate the restoration and return of this beloved and innovative attraction.
We would like to offer a huge thank you to Andy Castro for his assistance in the production of this article. For a closer look at Andy’s photos from inside the refurbished Mine Ride, click here. We would also like to thank Knott’s Berry Farm for inviting us in to get a look at what is happening inside this beloved attraction.