WARNING: There be an extremely long post ahead!
When I moved to LA earlier this year, the first thing I did was purchase a Disneyland AP. I've been a Disney guy for years, and rarely wandered off their properties. The obvious exception is Universal, which does it better in places than Disney, but I'm not that much in love with it. The other chains? Y'know, the Six Flags, Sea Worlds, Cedar Fairs and Busch Gardens? It's either been not since the 90's or just never. The one I most wanted to visit again was definitely Knott's Berry Farm, which I had not visited since early 2000, at age 11, nearly out of elementary school, but not quite yet. Knott's had been a staple of my 90's childhood, even more common than Disneyland. Vague memories always reminded me of the Derby Soap Box Racers, the constant honking of the trucks in Camp Snoopy, the "scary" Calico Mine Ride and dinners at Mrs. Knott's Chicken Restaraunt. But it all came to an end in the 1996, when I moved to Las Vegas. After one more last visit in 2000, my Knott's days were over, only to be glimpsed at on the way to Disneyland.
Well, I finally decided to head down there with a friend today as the deal was too good to pass up ($30 day pass ticket online). Even though I was there in 2000, I hadn't been there since Cedar Fair really took the park into its clutches. I knew about the changes and the various rides that have been added (not surprisingly, mostly roller coasters), but I was curious about what kind of experience I would be getting in comparison to Disney and Universal. The answer is much less of a crowded, absorbing headache, but nowhere near near the level of perfection the theme park giants put into their layout. Let me explain. (get a snack, maybe a glass of water, you may need it)
Before paying the cheaper-than-Disney, but still outrageously priced $12.00 for parking, we admired how Beach Blvd and much of the rest of Buena Park is nicer than Harbor Blvd and Katella. Less cheap-o restaraunts, less tacky hotels, better landscaping. (yes, GardenWalk is a recent plus) Though considering that Disney will make parents look for the nearest thing that's cheaper, it isn't a surprising. And they have a Fuddrucker's, which I've always wished would come to Anaheim. If I had a Knott's AP, I'd make it a must to exit the park and just stroll along the street for lunch, there's plenty of great selections. Back onto parking, it's nice to park directly across from the park/marketplace in a quaint lot like how DL used to be, although this one's small enough that there's no tram necessary. (a parking lot in the back, as well as an additional park entrance helps things out) I was shocked how easy it was to walk right up to the whole thing, not to mention how well it's laid out. Everything, aside from Soak City, is arranged spectacularly, unlike the somewhat confusing Disney layout. The "official" hotel and marketplace merely sit in front of the park in a row. Brillantly simple. Even parking was easy to find, just follow the sign that says Knott's and it takes you right to it. I think we can all see the comparison here and how Knott's is arguably better.
At about 9:45 we arrive at the front gate (after walking alongside the still cute marketplace, a Downtown Knott's, if you will) to hear snazzy orchestral version of folk songs such as "Oh Susanna!" blasting over the loudspeakers as we waited to enter. I was tickled by the fact that I never thought what Cedar Fair, who's only owned property was the Peanuts gang (and IIRC, they don't have the rights to use Vince Guaraldi's music), would use as entrance "mood setting" music. Disney and Universal have plenty of things to choose from, but I guess dipping into the public domain will have to do. Anyways, the whiff of nostalgia that overcame me with the familiar sights is immediately gone the second the Silver Bullet makes its test run, soaring through the cobra roll that faces the gate. The fact that this place is different now made its imprint on me even before I could step into the park. Needless to say, I was ready to start exploring.
So, rather than contuning on with a play-by-play of my trip, I'm going to basically state where Knott's goes right, and where Knott's goes wrong, and a few other anecdotes. A comparison, if you will, of the Disney experience to the Cedar Fair/Knott's experience.
Let me start off with a huge praise, if you can even call it one. (i.e. this is something that park isn't exactly in control of) The crowds were as light as a feather for the bulk of the day, which is impossible to find at Disneyland, even on an off-season weekday. I couldn't believe that still, three hours in, I could walk into huge pathways with barely a person in sight. Unlike sometimes at DL, I always felt like I had breathing room and many intimate moments could be had. Thanks to Princess and the Frog, even a relatively unknown area such as the Court of Angels in New Orleans Square is now crowd hungry. Tom Sawyer's Island has just recovered from a case of crowd-itis, but you know it will be swamped again with the release of Pirates 4. Former "treasures" wanting to be discovered such as the Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthrough suffer from crowd clogging its once quaint chambers. (and not just because it's "new") At Knott's, one can explore the entirety of Ghost Town with its animated characters and authentic buildings throughout the day without waiting for anyone do be done seeing it to, creating a nice, calming and ultimately charming experience. And lines? The longest one I sat through was Perlious Plunge for 30 minutes, due to technical difficulties (we'll get to that later), and that was nearly double the times I usually waited. Walk-ons were extremely common throughout the day, which was pleasantly surprsing considering the complex strategy one has to put in for DL in order to avoid a line surpassing 30 minutes. A definite plus for Knott's.
Now, crowds aren't within Cedar Fair's control. They come at their own will. However, Knott's is lucky to have an enormous array of attractions and things to do and only keeps expanding, which Disney is somewhat lacking in. Even with California Adventure, all there seems to be are just the "biggies", while the smaller, less noticed ones are few and far in-between and usual many in refurbishment. Knott's has an incredible amount of little things to do, from Ghost Town, to the very unique shops (whereas Disney is pretty one-note aside from a couple here and there), to the games to the arcades. Even the food options spark a variety, from outside vendors (Panda Express, Johnny Rockets) to Knott's own kitchens. Yes, this screams typical theme park, but themeing is one thing and having stuff to keep you busy is another. Especially since it soaks up crowds, which DL needs sorely. (let's hope that DCA remodel reels them in)
By now, it may seem like Knott's is winning the fight over Disneyland, which is far from the truth. There are quite a few faults in Cedar Fair's model. The first of which is something that absolutely baffled me. Unlike Disney and Universal, there are zero, I repeat, ZERO posted wait times at ride entrances. Now, this makes sense at some Camp Snoopy attractions and some of the flat rides, but many of the biggies have lines that you can't quite make out. No wait time board, no nothing. In other words, going to stand in a ride's line at Knott's is like pressing your luck. You better hope you don't land in an hour-long wait, because by the time you find out, you're stuck. Of course, it did not matter since I only waited 15 minutes at the most everytime, but is it really that hard to install an LED pattern at some ride entrances? Not so much to ask for, and I guarantee it'll make guests much happier knowing what choices they have. I hated having to risk my time when riding every single ride. I know it seems insignificant, but it's not.
Another incredible fault of Knott's is the loading of many rides, especially the ones that use the cubby system. Every theme park has them, the ride that's so fast and intense with a unique type of vehicle that pretty much no loose articles can be brought one. Knott's has a plethora of them. As a way to help guests out, cubbies are located on the other side of the station where they can store all loose items that a guest might have. (may I say that I did not know this upon purchasing my $8 locker rental, lucky I wanted to remove my jacket or else it would have been a giant ripoff) Well, this system's good and all, but it horribly slows down the loading time. Not because people are first storing their items away before taking their seat, but more due to the rather incompent (but friendly) staff. For some reason, they just are not able to notice some foolish tourist (usually a kid or someone foreign) has buckled in already with loose articles, meaning they have to undo ALL of the restraints, let that guy off, have him put stuff in a cubby and let him back on, instead of just taking his stuff. The worst part? This usually happened around three times in a single load cycle! Not only did it feel like an eternity from stepping in to the actual ride time, but waiting after the ride to get off (because of a train in the station) felt twice as long as the ride itself. Just absolutely ridiculous. Not to mention half the time the waiting was exacerbated by the staff goofing off. This is far from Disney's lightning quick load cycles. The line may be long on Splash Mountain, but those CMs know exactly what to do once you get there and you're on way in a log before you know it. (ironically, the log ride at Knott's had easily the best and fastest loading cycle and team of employees running it)
Okay, those are my two big praises and my two big complaints. Let's move onto the actual attractions now (didn't I say this would be long? ). I'll talk about this more with theming below, but much of Knott's is slightly schizophrenic in many departments. One half of it is remnants of a Disneyland wanna-be from Knott's pre-Cedar Fair days that puts an earnest effort forward, and the other is a roller coaster-obsessed wonderland that Cedar Fair is trying to push. To Cedar Fair's credit, the coasters are well-placed and are dressed in a mild coat of themeing unlike another certain coaster-crazy company. The result is a strange, but rather unique assortment of attractions. Let's start with the Disney-inspired, Knott's purchased items first.
The obvious firsts are the Timber Mountain Log Ride and the Calico Mine Ride. Timber Mountain pre-dates Splash Mountain, and even though Splash is neat to look out during the show scenes, Timber Mountain is more fun to ride. The log sloshes through the trough at a rapid pace, truly creating the illusion of being stuck in a streaming flume. Splash makes its way through the show scenes quickly, but not in such a fun way. Let's just say that the drops were not the best part of Timber Mountain. The Calico Mine Ride, may be a classic, but it's also lame, lame, lame. The ride is an outdated Jungle Cruise ripoff which made me thankful that Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland was replaced by Big Thunder, though that might have been better executed. The terrible western accents of the guides, the horribly pathetic attempt at jokes and fading sets and lighting make this entire attraction an embarrasment in need of a serious tune-up. But unless it's going to go over 60 MPH, I doubt Cedar Fair could care much.
Fiesta Village offers Montezuma's Revenge, a fun Schwarzkopf flywheel attraction which is now truly one-of-its-kind. I remember wanting to ride this as a kid, but never could reach the height limit. For such an old ride, it's surprisingly intense. Also there is Jaguar!, which one assumes is Knott's answer to Indy considering the theming, which is a fun family coaster that sweeps its way through the right side of the park. Guests of all ages seem to enjoy it, as far as being the "cool, big and bad roller coasters only" teenager's guilty pleasure. There's some pre-Cedar Fair flat rides, but I could care less. The same goes with most of Camp Snoopy, which I'll address later.
The Wilderness section has Bigfoot Rapids. While Disney's Grizzly River Run may be more dynamic with lots of cool tricks, Bigfoot's simplicity somehow allows for more opportunities for drenching. I got much more wet on this ride than I ever did on GRR. There's also the Mystery Lodge theatre attraction, which combines a live actor with holographic effects. A myriad of unused switchbacks suggest that the show used to show continously back in the 90's, but has since relegated to a show every now and then. (there were about six showings in the 9-hour operating day) Considering the age, it must not be as popular to demand it. The show itself is a good reason why. It's a long wait for a mere eight minutes of a Native American blathering on somewhat nonsensically with a shoestring script accompanied by some neat effects that Universal has more greatly utilized since. Having never seen the show, I was always intrigued on what it might be, and I was greatly disappointed. With a stronger script and more characters, this show would be ten times as popular.
I'm extremely tired right now, so tomorrow (PART TWO), we'll examine the Knott's attractions built after Cedar Fair's acquisition, and how the theming holds up...