Samland Goes West to Knott's Berry Farm
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.
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
WINTER PARK LIBRARY
460 East New England Avenue
Winter Park FL
May 3 @ 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.pm
ORLANDO COUNTY LIBRARY
101 East Central Boulevard
May 5 @ 6:00 p.m.
WORLD CHAPTER DISNEYANA FAN CLUB
May 6 @ 2:00 p.m.
KEVIN YEEíS 30 X 30 CELEBRATION
Italy Pavilion at EPCOT
May 6 @ 7:00 p.m.
CONGRESS FOR THE NEW URBANISM
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.