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Samland Goes West to Knott's Berry Farm

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by , 04-25-2012 at 03:24 PM

In Persistence of Vision magazine, J.G. O'Boyle suggested that "a theme park is not ride-dependent. A theme park without rides is still a theme park. An amusement park without rides is a parking lot with popcorn." I am here to say that after my recent visit to Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, we still have a wonderful theme park and one that seems to be getting better and better under the new management team.

Just ignore the background music. More on that in a bit.

It has been a couple of years since my last visit to Knott's Berry Farm. My colleagues at MiceChat have been encouraging me to go and see the changes that have been taking place, especially the improvements to the Ghost Town section of the park. I am glad that I did.

As a regular MiceChat reader, I am sure you have become very familiar with Knott's. The site regularly provides updates. No wonder. Knott's is a true Southern California tradition.

Knott's Berry Farm was the inspiration of Walter Knott and his wife Cordelia. Just like Walt Disney, these hard working folks were always trying to find that angle that would bring them success. In the case of Walter Knott, he wanted to find the perfect berry to grow and sell. He searched high and low and came across the treasure he was seeking in 1932. Walter found a handful of Boysenberry plants in the yard of its creator, Rudolph Boysen. He took them home and nurtured them back to life. This was exactly the berry he was looking for. They are a cross between the red raspberry, blackberry, and loganberry and they were gigantic.

By the Great Depression and World War II, Knott's was the place to go in Southern California. It was not uncommon for the line to get in the restaurant to top 3+ hours. By 1939, their daughter Virginia was taking advantage of the crowds and set up a little gift stand. To keep the people waiting in line entertained, Walter decided to relocate the Gold Trails Hotel from Prescott AZ to a plot of land near the restaurant. This was the beginning of Ghost Town and Walter Knott's life long passion to bring the heritage of the old west to the people. Over the years, Walter continued to collect old buildings and rebuild them and bring them back to life. He also collected a group of people who would portray old west characters in Ghost Town, and the result is America's first theme park (Okay Mel and Richard, Luna Park, Tivoli Gardens in Anaheim, I know, I know, this point can be argued).

With the opening of Disneyland in 1955, a lot of people thought that Knott's Berry Farm was doomed. In fact, Knott's flourished. Walter Knott and Walt Disney shared the same values. They both provided a unique high quality product that was priced fairly. They both tried their best to serve the public need. They were both risk takers. If you want to learn more about the amazing history of Knott's Berry Farm I strongly recommend Knott's Preserved by Christopher Merritt and J. Eric Lynxwiler.

In 1997, Cedar Fair bought the family park and the feel of the park began to change. It seemed like Knott's was trying to become a mini-Six Flags Magic Mountain featuring thrill rides and pulling out themed family attractions. The entire Roaring 20s themed area was ripped up and replaced with a bland sea of concrete pretending to be a tribute to the California surf and racing culture. The result was a parking lot punctuated by big steel amusement park thrill rides.

Thankfully. Ghost Town remained. It started to look a bit shabby but the heart of the Park was still there. As we planners would say, the space has good bones. All it needed was a bit of tender loving care. Then along comes the new management team. It is amazing what results a bit of paint, care, and attention can bring.

The indoor grotto

Reproduction of the mantle from Mt. Vernon

As I continue to dive deeper and deeper into the history and development of Disneyland, I am always surprised at how much of an impact Knottís had on Waltís thinking for his park. For example, the California Marketplace outside the gates of the Park has a bunch of fun, somewhat hidden, features like the fern grotto on the way to the restroom or the reproduction of the mantle from Mt. Vernon. Walt was so impressed that in 1961 he developed a mixed-use retail center for the parking lot at Disneyland to be called California Living. The retail center would have been built around a lake and styled as a beach resort along the lines of Catalina Island. Walter and Walt borrowed and repaid each other in ideas on a number of occasions.

An exhilarating ride on the Stagecoach

One of my favorite rides at Knottís is the Stage Coach. As they say, the only profitable stage coach line since the creation of the railroad. I just love it when I get to sit on top, right behind the driver, and watch the four horses pull us along. It is an authentic experience that can not be matched with 3D films and motion simulator vehicles.

Rules fer ridin' the stagecoach.

While you are waiting (and if you get there late enough, you will be waiting) take a look at the 1877 Rules for Stage Riders. Some of the highlights include:

  • Abstinence from liquor is requested but if you must drink, share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and un-neighborly.
  • Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It's a long walk back. "A word to the wise is sufficient."
  • Don't snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger's shoulder for a pillow; he (or she) may not understand and friction may result.

Ghost Town is filled with little touches that may not be making Knott's tons of money but do add up to create an entertaining and potentially educational experience. Over the past couple of years, Knott's has gone on a major rebuilding spree and have refurbished many of the buildings along Main Street in Ghost Town. More importantly, they have restored the interiors and brought back the folk art look of life in the old Frontier. These figures are not your sophisticated Disney Audio-Animatronics but hand-carved and hand-painted heads stuck on mannequin bodies with extremely limited animation. Take your time and peek into the windows. It will be well worth it.

The pepper's ghost effect at the Ghost Town Caretakers Office

Throughout the Ghost Town area are little touches like the constantly moving empty rocking chairs on the balcony of the hotel or the old-fashioned hand water pump or old Deadwood Dick, freshly buried on the spot kicking the bucket. Fresh flowers have been planted everywhere providing contrast to the decaying buildings.

Fresh planted flowers at Deadwood Dick's grave.

Sad Eyed Joe, still in jail 60 years later.

Be sure to pay a visit to the jail. You never know what you might hear from the one prisoner who has been locked up for almost 60 years. And invest 50 cents at the big store at the end of the street to watch an animated cow and horse tell each other really bad jokes. You can even drop a couple of quarters at a historic destination - the shooting gallery. Knott's is also home to the very first shooting gallery to use light instead of buckshot. Walter Knott, always the innovator.

The historic shooting gallery.

Terrible jokes for $0.50!

Knott's is also the birthplace of the hidden queue line.

The Calico Mine Train, still a great dark ride.

Bud Hurlbut, the creator of the Calico Mine Train and the Log Ride told the story of one visit from Walt. Hurlbut recalls ďone time when Walt Disney came over to Knottís and he told me he was kind of in a hurry, but he wanted to ride the Calico Mine Train. At that particular time there were no people in front of the ride, but when we walked back past the trestle, the whole line was full of people! Walt said, ďMy God, thatís a sneaky thing! There are two hundred people in line back here and I didnít know there was anybody!Ē Of course, Walt copied the idea for his Park.

I also suggest to take some time to look through the shops. Unlike Disney who seems to carry the same thing in every shop, Knottís has gone the other direction. Why, you can even buy knives and fake guns that look very, very real. How fun. The Geode Shop is worth a visit just to see rocks signed by famous folks such as Steven Tyler, Kevin Bacon, and Diane Keaton.

We've heard of rock stars, but this is ridiculous!

I wish that the Bird Cage Theatre would reopen. The old timey melodramas would be a great break in a Park that otherwise is light on sit down shows. The theater was a terrific training crowd for artists who went on to great success like Steve Martin. It is also worth while to step into the schoolhouse and the Outpost. The schoolhouse is loaded with details of a bygone era. The Outpost features all sorts of creepy, crawly things that your kids can play with. The Museum is one of my favorite spots plus there are relics everywhere from old mining camps and one can learn a lot about life in the wild west.

Like all Ghost Towns, there is a cemetery. However, you will rarely find one that comes alive quite like this one. Just be careful if you step on the grave of Hiram McTavish. Strange things are also happening in the undertakers shop and if you peek in the window you might even see a bit of magic.

Speaking of magic, be sure to visit the Mystery Lodge. This show was brought to Knott's from the Vancouver World's Fair in 1994 and uses the Pepper's Ghost illusion seen in the Haunted Mansion to tell a Native American folklore tale about life. Adults will find the show interesting and the children in the audience seemed riveted by the effects.

There are other shows at Knottís. The Wild West Stunt Show is a fun way to spend 20 minutes and if you are not careful, you might even get a bit wet. If you get there early enough, you can even sit inside of a Conestoga Wagon and enjoy the show. The Calico Saloon Show is a must and a real throwback. The tiny stage behind the bar is unique. Plus, you are likely to encounter good cowboys and bad cowboys while walking through Ghost Town. And it is required that everybody who visits must take one spin on the Calico Railroad.

I realize that I have spent most of my time talking about Ghost Town. I also have positive feelings for the Fiesta Village area and Camp Snoopy. This is an extremely well designed children's play area and the first of its kind in any amusement park to cater to the 12 and under crowd.

Silver Bullet.

I am also a big fan of Silver Bullet. It is one of my favorite big steel coasters and reminds me of Dueling Dragons (sorry, Dragon Challenge) at Islands of Adventure in Florida. It is a buttery smooth inverted coaster that has solid elements and even a chance to catch a bit of air, unusual for this type of coaster. Jaguar is another coaster that zips along the top of the trees. It isnít the most exciting thing, but does provide a good view. Xcelerator is not for the squeamish with itís 0-80 mph launch in just 2.3 seconds into a 205-foot ascent.



Knottís has other thrill rides that are common to other parks. Boomerang is just a headache waiting to happen, Perilous Plunge has to be one of the sillier water rides ever built (there's a lot of wait for just one drop). Bigfoot Rapids is a surprisingly fun raft ride. Supreme Scream is just not my cup of tea.

Perilous Plunge, up, around, then down.

Three of the more popular thrill rides will have to wait for another visit. Windseeker, the Sierra Sidewinder, and Pony Express were down the day of my visit. And kudos to the Knott's folks for refurbishing the Sky Cabin. Love the view of Orange County and beyond.

Now back to the area music. Walking through Ghost Town you hear an upbeat mix of 80s and 90s music that has nothing to do with the theme of the old west. Management argues that the music puts people in a festive mood. It may very well do that, but I say it takes away from the atmosphere. A good compromise would be to find pop music with a bit of a country bent. In my mind, I kept wanting to hear Bon Jovi's Dead or Alive or something like that. If you ever want to see somebody fired up about this topic, drop Fishbulb here at MiceChat a note.

Will I go back.? Of course, had such a good time I took advantage of the inexpensive season pass program (a whole year of Knott's fun for less than the cost of a single day at Disneyland). With Disney and Universal having major openings this summer, Knott's is going to feel like a wonderful retreat. Better still, the food. They still serve the world-famous fried chicken and my favorite, the Country Fried Steak. All beige goodness.

Have you been to Knott's lately? What are your thoughts on this little park just around the corner from Disneyland?


One of the benefits of writing a book, like Walt and the Promise of Progress City, is the opportunity to speak to groups about Walt Disney and urban planning. Below are some upcoming events. Sign up to my Facebook or Twitter pages to get updates. If you are a local blogger or podcaster, please contact me and letís get together.

May 3 @ 10:30 a.m to Noon
460 East New England Avenue
Winter Park FL

May 3 @ 6:00 p.m. to 8:00
Albertson Room
101 East Central Boulevard
Orlando FL

May 5 @ 6:00 p.m.

May 6 @ 2:00 p.m.
Italy Pavilion at EPCOT

May 6 @ 7:00 p.m.
Was Walt Disney a New Urbanist?
With Chad Emerson Project Future

May 7 and 8 Walt Disney World
Meeting with various Cast Member teams.

May 20 @ 11:00 a.m.
Griffith Park in Los Angeles
Home to the birthplace of Imagineering

There's more to come in June and July. Thanks for your support.

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  1. indianajack's Avatar
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    I also think Sam took it too easy on Knott's. Camp Snoopy is a bunch of carnival rides with Peanuts characters slapped on it. They tore down the Playhouse and replaced it with nothing. Timberline Twister is the worst and most painful kiddie coaster I've ever had to ride with my kids. I'd just prefer a Wacky Worm instead. And there's no Snoopy ride for the entire family to enjoy, that's an epic fail.

    The chicken was dangerously undercooked BOTH trips we ordered it, and the corn on the cob was undercooked as well. They're rushing food out from the kitchen, perhaps they're understaffed and/or under-trained.

    I'm shocked you didn't discuss what Silver Bullet did the ambiance of the lake and park entrance. I want to love Knott's (they have some amazing attractions from the old days) but they're like rooting for the Mets. They're lovable in some ways but just when you think they've turned the corner, they do bone-headed things like the pop music in Ghost Town. I won't go until they change the soundtrack; it ruins what was once the best experience in the park. It would be like playing an Ace of Base soundtrack during the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Knott's could be a great park, but they continuously stumble short of the mark.
  2. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    Thank you all for the comments. Love it.

    To those who say that I went a bit easy, thank you. Maybe I was in a bit of euphoria with the Country Fried Steak while sitting outside at the Ghost Town Grill. Let me be clear. Knott's has improved greatly in the last couple of years. Especially the Ghost Town area. Once you get beyond that, Fiesta Village and Camp Snoopy are charming and the entire back half of the park is, as one person described it, a parking lot with rides.

    I have mixed feelings about Silver Bullet. It did destroy one of the scenic spots in the park and the church was moved out to outer Mongolia. Every park needs some quiet spaces or you go nuts like at Universal. That is sad. But I just love that ride. It reminds me of Dueling Dragons (okay Dragon Challenge) and that is my favorite big steel coaster.

    The most important thing is that management seems committed to doing right by the tradition of the park. That is a huge change and I hope that it pays them dividends and they keep it up. We don't need another Magic Mountain. One is enough. Bring back the diversity of experiences that Walter Knott conceived of and everything should turn out right.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  3. ilyxr's Avatar
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    I used to be harsh on Knotts too, but the sad truth is that without CF, Knotts wouldn't be around today. They did make some boneheaded mistakes, but it seems they finally understand that Knotts isn't Cedar Point and it doesn't function like a typical seasonal park. Knotts has a limited footprint and that makes it difficult to change.

    However, that's not an excuse to further damage the remaining charms of the park. They have an awful towering water ride (with equally awful operations and capacity) that could easily go and a laser tag building that used to house a brilliant little darkride. In fact, a large portion of the 'boardwalk' could be completely shuttered to develop something that appropriately closes off the back of Knotts - I'm thinking...darkcoaster eurofighter (half darkride, half coaster)? At least it'd be a coaster that fits the scale of Knotts (something shorter than the Plunge towers). I would love seeing Knotts come to their senses and getting rid of the Pony Express figure 8 waste and also tear out the swing upcharge and reuse the space for a Sally Darkride - something Ghost Town related. And lastly, create some landscape and fill in the sad remains of the old Reflection lake under Silver Bullet. The fact that they kept so little water (not enough to really act as an important theme element) has hindered the ability to hide the mess of footers with nicely chosen foundation plantings...that honestly could have been completely filled in by now.

    I love the seasonal props the park has been adopting, and I've been fairly impressed in how the landscape has been maintained. The only thing I wish they would focus on now is a smart street tree campaign that could begin to provide some interest and shade to the large stretches of asphalt around Ghost Town's center, Silver Bullet's plaza, and the Boardwalk. It really doesn't seem like a major project...besides the added infrastructure of irrigation.

    But for all that Knott's has lacked, slowly I see a change in the way its being run and that is what gives me hope for the continuation of its history. In the end, it may have been the right decision to sell the park to Cedar Fair. In a perfect world, the preservation of the old Knotts and the demands of current entertainment would be without loss, but that just doesn't happen in the real world. As long as CF understands the REASON people go to Knotts is because it ISN'T Disneyland or Six Flags...then maybe they'll truly appreciate this unique gem and keep the beancounters away from the maintenance and design of future renovations.
  4. MrTour's Avatar
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    And lastly, create some landscape and fill in the sad remains of the old Reflection lake under Silver Bullet. The fact that they kept so little water (not enough to really act as an important theme element) has hindered the ability to hide the mess of footers with nicely chosen foundation plantings...that honestly could have been completely filled in by now.
    I agree.

    I just returned from the park and was thinking the same thing about the lake under Silver Bullet. How nice it would be to fill it in with trees and knolls and bring back the Tijuana Taxi! Make it into a pleasant space, AND add another attraction!

    I love the playlist; just don't love it in Ghost Town. We need to give Cedar Fair some pointers on theming. Return the Roaring 20's theme; paint the fountain back to the original black, and return Knott's Bear-y Tales (can you smell the Boysenberry now???). Re-theme the rest of the Boardwalk area to a County Fair (NOT hard to do's mostly there! Then play all the loud fun dance 80's music you want to over there! Ditch Boomerang and put in a really fun wild mouse coaster. Does anyone remember the Mountain Express at Magic Mountain! For a compact coaster, it really took your breath away! It also wouldn't have the bad sight lines sticking out above the Mine Train when you are in Calico Square. Carnival rides have always had their place at Knott's (remember the tilt-a-whirl?), so sprinkle a few around the area...and yes, plant a few trees over there. Also do something more appealing under Xcellerator.

    I'd love to see more creativity applied when planning the park. Re-que Silver Bullet to start from Calico Square and then go under the stage coach. This would free up the large space under the load area for a possible dark ride. Knott's does need to grow to compete with this market...

    And sadly, I walked into one of the craft stores in Ghost Town and was told everything was on clearance; the store would be closing Memorial Day to make way for a "peak through" attraction. I was also told that the spring craft fair had been cancelled this year, and rumor was that the Christmas one would be cancelled as well. It's a sad day when Knott's looses the elements that made it original and stand apart from any other park.
  5. Dutchman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Not My Real Name
    Has anyone here stayed at the KBF Hotel? What's it like?
    My wife and I stay there when we go to the Farm, which is about three or four times a year on average. . The hotel was originally a Raddison, the rooms are fair sized always clean and the rates are reasonable, which is why we stay there when we go to Disneyland. We've spent more for less in Anaheim.
    Amber Waves is the hotel resturaunt , the food is decent, although we utilize the breakfast buffet the most. It's basic, nothing fancy but definitely filling.
    Most of all the staff there is great, we rarely have had a problem there, the few times we did they made sure we were taken care of right away. We would definitely recommend staying there.
  6. Uncle Scrooge's Avatar
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    Great article, Sam! My memories of Knott's are of a park that was well themed with lots of interesting rides and only 2 roller coasters. Last time I went (a few years ago), I walked into a steel jungle. I find Raffi's comment interesting regarding theme ("You are a theme guy, I get it, I understand. But I am very interested in making people happy.") considering that Knott's was the first theme park. Knott's appears to be a theme park that turned into an amusement park around the same time California Adventure was built. Was this a reaction to grab onto a niche market? Now, both are adding "theme" back, which I love. In my opinion, there's no such thing as too much theme in a theme park. I'd be very interested in reading an article about why Knott's took the direction they did in the late nineties.
  7. SpectroMan's Avatar
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    I agree with pretty much all of your ride preferences - Perilous Plunge is a waste of space. Supreme Scream is too much for us old timers. Ghost Rider is so rough, it could easily give me a concussion nowadays and I LOVED the "headache" comment about Boomerang - so true!

    That said, the chicken is still usually very good, and if it's not, DEMAND a replacement. They'll do it, no problem.
  8. Dustysage's Avatar
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    There are lots of wonderful reasons to visit Knott's, most of them in Ghost Town.

    One of the reasons why you are seeing so much coverage on Knott's here at MiceChat lately is because the park is making rapid progress in repairing over a decade of decline. It's been a remarkable transformation. And we hope to see much more as former Disneyland President, Matt Ouimet, continues to exert his expertise.

    I think Knott's has at least one HUGE potential redevelopment area that I'd like to see them work on. The entire back part of the park (the old Roaring 20's all the way through the Boardwalk) needs a major retheme and rebuilding project.

    I'm telling the Knott's folks right now that they need to think big and think detailed theme. It is working for Universal and SeaWorld and it will work for Knott's. It can't be a half assed job either. They need to hire some former Imagineers (heck, Rolly Crump and Bob Gurr are probably still available to help) and create a theme which fits with the wilderness/Indian/Festa themes. That's a lot of space and a major E-Ticket type ride with many smaller family style rides and shows would easily fit.

    I think Knott's underestimates how many people really want to see them succeed. Yes, they've burned a lot of good will over the years. But they are gaining a lot of it back with their recent actions. I love spending time at Knott's and look forward to them giving me even more reason to come back in the future.

    Thank you for another great article Sam!

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