This Animatronic Life: Finding Gold in the Calico Mine Ride Part II

Written by Garner Holt. Posted in Knott's Berry Farm, This Animatronic Life

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Published on August 05, 2014 at 3:00 am with 15 Comments

Howdy—and welcome to part two of the story of Garner Holt Productions, Inc.’s (GHP) work in revitalizing Knott’s Berry Farm’s incredible Calico Mine Ride attraction. In part one, I recounted GHP’s previous involvement with the attraction and the lead-up to our work on the recent renovation. This time, we’ll take a scene-by-scene look at the attraction and the new features and stories behind it.

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I think a fitting preface for all this is a note of appreciation to Knott’s Berry Farm as a client. From Matt Ouimet at the corporate level to Raffi Kaprelyan’s leadership as general manager at the park itself, the creative visionaries in Knott’s entertainment director Lara Hanneman and her team, and the exceptional maintenance and operations folks at the park, GHP is truly blessed to have Knott’s as a client. Everyone there works hard to make the park as wonderful as it is, and makes the client-vendor relationship a uniquely friendly one. They are the true heroes in making Knott’s Berry Farm the park that we love so much.

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In our last installment, we left off at the first of three glimpses of the “Glory Hole” scene, just after the “Bubbling Pots” scene. Amidst all the activity in that space, guests can see three original mechanical effects created by Bud Hurlbut and his team and restored by the Knott’s crew: the moving ore carts on the floor of the scene, the large crating that travels along a cable across the wide expanse of the scene, and an ore bucket travelling up and down several levels. The park also added a new moving winch with props-laden platform against one wall of the scene. Sharp-eyed guests can see all the little activities of individual miners: two new animatronic figures discuss a new cut as one of them points across the “Glory Hole;” a miner stands behind a wheelbarrow that actually rolls as he leans toward it; on the second level, a miner struggles to get an ore cart moving by leaning into it with all his might. In all, the “Glory Hole” has 19 animatronic figures among its various levels!

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Moving past the “Glory Hole” scene, guests are transported to the “Lake Room.” It’s a dramatic change from the open expanse of the “Glory Hole” to the rather tighter quarters of this scene, completely surrounded by water. Across the way, a miner pans for gold from a little sluice—the sluice is new, something we thought would add visual interest to the scene. The figure is a hybrid of original motorized elements and new animatronic functions. We added something very subtle to this figure that most folks won’t ever notice but is the kind of detail I love: a hose feeds water to the pan in the figure’s hands, a continuous stream of water. Originally, this water would flow freely through the pan and would therefore be a constant stream into the lake—not entirely realistic! We added some epoxy “dirt” with gold flecks to the pan that serves the dual purpose of scenic interest in the pan and also helps to stem the flow of water. Now, water constantly flows into the pan, but only flows out from every two or three rotations of the motorized arms, more like real panning would look!

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Another addition we made to this scene is in the water itself. From its first iteration, the narration referred to “blind fish” in the lake—real creatures found in underground lakes and rivers around the world and adapted over generations with nonfunctioning “eyes” in the same place as their sighted ancestors. Our creative team thought it would be neat to actually have fish in the water—so guests are now able to see a couple dozen silicone fish down in the water, some of them swimming around in a circle. UV-reactive powders in the silicone formulation allow the fish to glow under blacklight.

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Ahead is the “Waterfall Room”, featuring three large, thundering waterfalls on either side of the track. These waterfalls draw their supply from the lake at the base of the exterior waterfalls. Water flows from this, into the “Waterfall Room” which then feeds the “Lake Room” before being recycled back to the top of the mountain—a little piece of Bud’s genius! My creative team wanted to add a nod to hydraulic mining, and thought this would be the place. In our original concept, we planned to have the miner with the powerful hose spraying water up and over guests—a pretty dramatic scene! Ultimately, factors beyond our control prevented the gag from being installed as planned, so the figure was turned 180 degrees toward the waterfall. Still, a human figure in water is very unusual and adds a neat dynamic to the scene. In this same space is a tiny vignette on the left side of the track. Like most guests, I’m usually mesmerized by the waterfalls on the right and miss this little scene entirely. The two original static figures were replaced by animated ones, one of which is holding a nugget up to his eyes for closer inspection—the first instance of actual gold being found in the mine!

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Moving along, guests next come to the “Square Set Timber” scene. This scene is the lowest point in elevation that guests travel to—it’s actually at the same level as the very bottom of the “Glory Hole” scene. Although entirely static on opening day, this is one of the primary scenes where Bud added as much animation as possible in the first few years after opening. To that end, he took the posed fiberglass figures and added simple motorized functions: hammering, drilling with a brace, and operating a manual hoist. We utilized Bud’s original motorized functions for these figures and added ancillary animatronics functions like head nods and turns, and also animated the remaining static figures in the scene and just after, with an old man operating a drill. At the first part of the scene we added a humorous little vignette with a crew boss seated atop a barrel with a pipe in one hand and a lit match in the other, admonishing guests to observe safety in the mine “lest we all get blasted to kingdom come!” The figure, like the “Greeter” at the beginning of the ride, speaks directly to guests, as if aware of their presence.

One of the figures in the “Square Set Timber” scene is Chinese, as is the drill operator just beyond. These are a couple of instances of the diversity of miners and workers seen in the attraction—another of Bud’s details that helps to tell the real story of mining. In fact, throughout the attraction guests can see Mexican-, African-, and Native-Americans, Chinese, and a number of European and English men working in the various scenes. It’s an original detail we wanted to preserve and enhance with the renovation. GHP sculpted four new racially-diverse heads for the attraction, and utilized many others from our extensive mold library.

When my creative team was working to come up with new characters, vignettes, and sequences for the Mine Ride, the chain lift presented some interesting opportunities. Since the attraction is powered primarily by gravity as the trains descend through various scenes, Bud knew he needed to give them a boost at about the midway point of the trip. The lift was created to do that, and hugs the furthest western wall of the show building. In fact, the wall at guests’ left during the climb is very straight and flat, hinting at its structural nature. The show portions of the lift were originally two simple alcoves on the right side of the track, usually inhabited by old mining props and lanterns, and occasionally a static figure, culminating in the entrance to the glorious caverns or “Heaven Room” above.

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We wanted to create a sequence on the lift that featured a more compelling entrance to the caverns, instead of merely emerging up into them as before. Other scenes within the Mine Ride contain areas of the mine that have already been discovered and exploited for their riches. The caverns represented a more virgin part of the mine. We wanted to give guests the idea that they were part of the discovery of the caverns, or at least part of something special in witnessing their grandeur. To do that, we first introduced a character holding a caged canary, a nod to the real-life mining practice of using canaries to test for poisonous gasses in mine shafts. His highly caricatured face adds a touch of humor as he inspects the health of his canary, while at the same time suggesting to guests that this is a new area of the mine. Continuing up the lift, a second alcove on the right side of the track is home to dozens of bats, some of them animated. Like the blind fish earlier in the attraction, the bats add animal “life” to the show that was previously absent and also give a little bit of creepiness, lit by dim blue lighting. The Knott’s audio folks added the sound of hundreds of shrieking bats, wings flapping, to give more depth to the scene that wraps up and out of view of guests, seeming to go on forever. It’s one of many little scenes with caves created to look like they snake deep into the mountain—a neat little trick typical of Bud’s genius!

The rest of the lift is traversed in almost total darkness. On entering the caverns at the top, the scene is quite dim, the various formations indistinguishable against the blackness. The new on-board narration mentions the darkness and asks for more light. This is the moment the lift sequence was leading to: new discovery with the man with the canary, dimming light levels, an eerie bat cave, inky darkness, finally a mysterious new space at the top of the lift. At the narration’s request, the lighting levels in the cavern increase, revealing the spectacular caverns looking better and more glorious than ever—just as the first notes of Bill Reyes’ new recording of the iconic organ music swells. Our scenic painter (who also painted the blacklight-heavy caverns in Disneyland’s Splash Mountain) worked to replicate the original palette of the caverns, with significant enhancements that make the scene look exceptionally deep and detailed—I think the new reveal and new paint is a fitting finish to Bud’s masterpiece of themed attraction scenic design.

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The caverns don’t abruptly end on leaving making the turn to the right and heading back towards the upper “Glory Hole.” Instead, Bud had included a number of ever-smaller stalagmites and stalactites as natural transitional features back into the “hand-dug and dynamited” shafts of the mine. We created a new vignette on the left side of the track with a couple of miners laughing at the unusual phosphorescent rocks they found in the caverns—not everything in the mine is serious work! Something my creative team and I took note of (and probably anybody who’d ever been on the Mine Ride since it opened has too!), was that for all the work being done in this enormous mining operation, there was no sign of gold to be found anywhere—except the huge nugget that used to grace a wall in the load station. We wanted to correct that, with a classic “Gabby Hayes”-style miner who has struck it rich and found “a whopper” of a gold nugget. On the left side of the track, guests see our version of “Seldom Seen Slim,” a real-life miner who was the inspiration for the iconic statue of the miner and his trusty burro on the corner of Beach and La Palma at the northeast corner of the park. The figure operates similarly to the “Hippy Crane” in the former America Sings attraction at Disneyland, and bounces up and down while laughing happily about his find (a recording of GHP’s creative director Bill Butler with a terrible cold!). The nugget is made of foam, but covered in authentic 24-karat gold leaf—there’s real gold in the mine at last!

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Moving ahead, guests get to see my favorite part of the whole attraction—an upper-level view of the busy “Glory Hole” scene. From up here, guests can take in all the new figures and great new props, balanced with fantastic new theme lighting and sound from the Knott’s lighting and audio teams. It really is a masterpiece in theme park scenic design and speaks to Bud’s true genius. I think it’s probably the best realized scene for theme, scale, and function of any theme park attraction anywhere. Up ahead on the right, we added a cute little vignette with a hapless miner about to topple off his ladder—held steady only by a rope in the mouth of his trusty dog on a nearby ledge. Gags like this add warmth and character to an otherwise very serious mining operation. The scene ahead features one of the coolest original animated elements of the attraction: a hidden motorized bucket chain lift raises real rocks and drops them through a slot in the wall, where they (loudly!) fall into an ore cart below! We added a couple of moving figures to the scene, including a character struggling to lift a heavy piece of ore—veins popping and muscles straining, it’s my favorite new sculpt in the whole attraction!

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Just before moving out onto the trestle, we added a figure I’ve been wanting to put in the Mine Ride for twenty years. One of my original ideas for our enhancements for the attraction in the early 1990s was a figure that would push an ore cart forward on rails. While we built five new characters for the attraction then, this particular gag was cut. It was something I definitely wanted to resurrect for the major refurbishment, and now, on the left side of the track just before heading onto the outdoor trestle, guests can see a figure that actually pushes an ore cart several feet down the track, towards riders. It’s a really effective figure, and a clever illusion of walking (if I may say so myself!). Outside, we added a couple of vultures lurking above the entrance portal from the bridge—the first time permanent figures have been added to the outside of the attraction. These figures are actually best seen not from the ride, but from the “midway” below and across in Calico Square. They add life and depth to the façade, and natural-feeling detail.

Heading back into the mine, riders get another glimpse of the “Glory Hole” before heading into the “explosive” grand finale of the Mine Ride. Knott’s’ general manager Raffi Kaprelyan has a reputation for letting the creative folks have a pretty broad canvas for their work, and giving both his own team under Lara Hanneman and GHP’s creative minds lots of freedom to come up with neat ideas. His one directive to us all for the whole project was that the “Explosion Tunnel” had to be really, really cool, and a major upgrade from the original version. To that end, we worked closely with the Knott’s creative team to come up with a sequence filled with new effects and features. An important element was the refurbishment of two GHP figures from the 1994 enhancement. The man preparing the dynamite sticks on the right of the track and the miner with the plunger on the left were completely disassembled and given new cylinders, masks, hands, and costumes. They use the original audio, warning riders that “it’s too late!”—the charges have been set and an explosion is imminent.

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Moving around the corner, an entirely new explosion sequence comes to life. We created the projected explosion media seen on the left and right side of the track, enhanced with six all-new fog cannon effects that fill the scene with simulated smoke, while beautifully-programmed lighting effects from the Knott’s lighting team and blasting audio from some HUGE speakers round out the scene—it’s really cool! While seemingly simple, the collapsing beams in this scene were by far the biggest headache of the entire project for us. The beams were an opening day effect in the attraction. Each location of their locations is distinct and practically tailored around each beam—in fact, the beams were located on site first, and the rockwork created around them! The Knott’s team pulled the beams out and we took them to our shop to refurbish them mechanically and add some scenic enhancements to help hide the seams where they move while “collapsing.” The beams were a real challenge to get back perfectly into place. The ceiling above the beams had long been a simple cloth drape painted to resemble rock. It wasn’t a very convincing illusion, so we created urethane panels with realistic rock details to span the beams. When the beams move, the panels move too, giving the illusion that the rock ceiling itself is causing them to buckle. As neat a detail as it is, however, the new projections, lighting, fog, and audio are so cool that I think the main animated aspect of the scene that used to be the star is now more of a background effect—ah, progress! Another mine train-related attraction in Southern California also received a new explosion finale just before the Knott’s Mine Ride re-opened. If I may humbly say so, I think ours stands up to that one pretty darn well—at a fraction of the price and with greater reliability too!

Perhaps the most obvious and even somewhat controversial aspect of the Calico Mine Ride refurbishment (beyond the new animatronics, lighting, scene audio and special effects) is the new pre-recorded narration heard throughout the attraction. Fans of the Mine Ride will remember that that narration on the attraction had been delivered by the engine driver since opening day. While it’s a unique effect in any attraction to be addressed throughout by a real, live person, too often the performance of drivers wasn’t up to par—their voices sounded garbled over the trains’ audio system, leading to confusion, often they were fine drivers but poor actors, taking guests out of the story of visiting a real working 19th century mining operation.

Both GHP and Knott’s pushed for an elegant solution in the form of a pre-recorded spiel, but with some special features. The system is RFID-based (radio frequency identification), meaning we had the ability to have multiple recordings played on various trips through the attraction. Along the tracks, we placed thirteen “triggers,” each with unique identifications, corresponding to thirteen individual tracks played during each trip. As the trains pass over, an antenna on the bottom of the locomotive’s cab picks up the signal from the trigger and sends a signal to the show controller housed in the engine’s boiler section. Audio from the controller is then played over each train’s in-car speakers. With the stacked logic in the controller, we can use multiple audio tracks assigned to individual triggers—an infinite number of tracks in theory, though we use only three different narrators for a total of 39 unique audio tracks for the whole attraction. GHP’s creative team used the Mine Ride’s original script as a starting point and came up with an updated and expanded version for three different narrators—each of the voices guests hear is a Knott’s performer from the stunt and saloon shows! I’m very proud of what we pulled off in the attraction. It’s a fairly unique use of the technology and does just what we intended: guests now have a consistent, high-quality narrated show for every trip through the Calico Mine, a balance of history, humor, and adventure.

I hope you’ll pardon my long-windedness in this installment—I can’t emphasize enough how much the Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s means to me personally and to just about everyone on the GHP crew who grew up with the attraction. We worked very hard to come up with great new vignettes and characters, special effects, show systems, and to tie it all together with the amazing work of our counterparts at Knott’s to make the Mine Ride a thoroughly immersive and compelling attraction. Working late, late nights on site to program animatronics, tune scenes and technologies, and prepare to unveil our work to the public made it tough sometimes to keep focus on the end goal: making Bud’s Mine Ride better than ever. Even more than our respective creative powers, the GHP and Knott’s team have enormous respect for the park, its attractions, and its future. Nothing was added for its own sake, but to promote and enhance the masterpiece Bud created half a century ago. We had something incredible to start with. I’m very proud of the end result. I really think Bud would be, too.

Now, journey with us deep into the Calico Mine in this video shot by the MiceChat staff on the day the Mine Train reopened to the public. If you haven’t been able to visit in person, it’s well worth a look.

About Garner Holt

Garner Holt is the founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) Located in San Bernardino, CA, GHP is the world’s largest designer and fabricator of animatronics, show action systems, special effects, and other creations for theme parks, museums, retail and dining experiences, and other attractions. Inspired by a childhood trip to Disneyland and a lifelong love of Disney theme parks, Garner founded his company when he was only 16 years old. Since 1977, GHP has created nearly 3,000 individual animatronics and hundreds of other items for clients like the Disney Theme Parks, Universal Studios, Chuck E. Cheese Restaurants, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, NASA, Lockheed-Martin, and hundreds of other clients. Find out more about Garner and GHP at www.garnerholt.com

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15 Comments

Comments for This Animatronic Life: Finding Gold in the Calico Mine Ride Part II are now closed.

  1. It looks soooooo cooooool!!!! Glad Disneyland’s unofficial 3rd park is getting such TLC. I wish GHP could work their magic on Rip Roaring Rapids at DCA.

  2. I loved the attraction before. But it’s even more amazing now.

    Garner, what you’ve done is pure brilliance. You’ve found a way to update a classic in such a way that honors it’s legacy, keeps the look and feel, but updates it for future generations. This is a lesson for parks everywhere. Update your dark rides, don’t remove them for some unthemed coaster or flat ride.

    The Log Ride and Mine Train are truly the heart and soul of Knott’s.

    Now, they just need a great new family dark ride in the Kingdom of the Dinosaurs building.

    FYI to folks watching the video. That was shot on opening day and there were a few issues that were quickly fixed. The heaven room is not properly lit in this video and appears dark on video. I assure you that it is quite vibrant in reality and a real WOW moment. If you loved this video, you’ll be blown away if you go see it in person.

    • Dusty, please see my comment below regarding the heaven room ( I called the caverns). We were there a week ago Saturday and that room was very dark just like in the video. I think perhaps the lighting effects were not operating correctly.

  3. After reading both parts of this article, I am even more eager to experience the enhanced Calico Mine Ride. It’s clear that Garner Holt has enormous respect for Bud Hurlbut’s groundbreaking attraction.

    • Werner, I think this ride is prime territory for one of your “Then and Now” articles! It would be exhausting, but so awesome!

  4. What a wonderful “inside” look at the Mine Train update! Great two-part article; thank you, Garner. I’m sure Bud would be very pleased at how well you’ve taken care of his baby.

  5. Great two-part article. Both the Calico Mine Ride and Log Ride are the crown jewels of Knott’s Berry Farm’s attraction lineup for me. I’ll definitely be taking a trip down to see these now that they’re both updated. So looking forward to it.

  6. Thanks Garner, for your insight on the ride operations here. It was nice to talk to you opening day about the ride etc. It was a Magical day. One I will remember for a long time, as many guests for years to come will as well. Bud would be proud, I am sure of that.

  7. Great article, and awesome job on improving on an already wonderful attraction! It’s one of those rides that you have to ride several times to see everything and can’t wait to see it for myself. Great, great job! Looking forward to your next project!

  8. What a magnificent job your company did! I was amazed with all the additional animation and effects! The one area of disappointment was the caverns – it was very dark. After reading your description of how the lighting increases, I am wondering now if that effect was not working.
    We were there last Saturday and I noticed the only lights I saw on in the caverns were a bluish light coming from where the train enters after the lift (off to the right), and another rather dim light coming from the deep hole off to the left as the train exits the caverns. It did not look anywhere near as bright as the photo above and there was no “reveal” of more illumination coming on.
    Now — Maybe you can talk to GM Raffi Kaprelyan about the Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. We ate there that evening and while the food was good , and to me a bargain at $18, the place was downright filthy! The carpeting was worn and nearly black from all the traffic that walks on it, the tiles looked the same, the walls and ceilings looked like they haven’t been painted or maintained for quite some times, and even a couple of lamp shades were missing on the chandeliers, so all that was there were bare bulbs! It reminded me of that Food Network show “Restaurant Impossible” where the guy goes into an establishment to help turn it around and usually finds the place looking tired and dirty – This is Mrs. Knott’s current state and is sad for such an important and iconic restaurant.

    • First I want to say the GHP did a fantastic job with the Calico Mine Train. I have been on it now several times and have loved it every time. So much to see! I will agree on the Heaven Room lighting however. The music sounded great but I left the room kind of scratching my head because every time I have ridden it it’s been rather dark with the exception of area with the waterfall in the far corner. I have yet to see it looking anything like the photo above. We assumed maybe the lighting wasn’t working?? Also we noticed that one of the vultures was missing and the hitchhiking hobo from outside part of the flume on the log ride has been gone now for a long time. I hope they are able to get these fixed. I love the addition of AA’s on the outside of the attractions. I do hope they can find time to referbish Mrs. Knott’s CDR as well. Keeping the original feel but cleaning it up. Don’t want to be too critical but I do love this park and want to see it really excell on all levels. Still hoping for that ‘really cool family dark ride’!!! Berry Tales 2.0!!

  9. I must commend the use of real physical effects like the water in the miner’s pan and the rocks falling into the ore cart. While high-quality digital projections certainly have their place (as evidenced by the spectacular explosion/collapse sequence) there is something magical about an actual physical effect. It adds a level of “reality” to an attraction that is hard to beat. And as a theme park fan it is just plain cool to know that the effort was made to route water through a figure arms or that a hidden motorized bucket is lifting the rocks into place. Great stuff!

  10. Garner, I did notice the realistic way the watter spilled from the miners pan in the lake room, and thought it was pretty cool!

    Also, the effects in the blast room in the embedded video aren’t showing the effects working at all.
    I was there the day after the ride opened, and the Heaven Room lights weren’t working, but the explosion scene was, and looked great!

    Thank you all for these articles, they are wonderful!

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this! I’ve already told (warned) my family that whenever we get westward, Knotts is a must-see and it’s mostly thanks to the new Calico Mine Ride and Log Ride.

  12. Great article. Can’t wait to read the next article where you talk about what you are adding to the old Knott’s Bear-y Tales building ;)