Written by Robert Niles
Published: July 14, 2004 at 7:28 PM
Monday, I couldn't find a child under seven at Magic Mountain. Tuesday, I could count the number of families with toddlers at Universal Studios Hollywood on one hand. But walking up to Knott's Berry Farm on Wednesday reminded me of dropping off my son and daughter at some city-wide student gathering. Kids, kids, kids... everywhere.
Seeing the columns of youngsters in their blue, red and green T-shirts, I shuddered while I flashed back to my days working the Magic Kingdom, when each July morning brought with it the dread of another day confronting the “groupos.” T-shirt-clad South American tour groups would chant, sing and shove their way through any queue, parade crossing or waiting area, with no regard for the poor cast members sent to contain them.
Fortunately, the throngs of youngsters this morning at Knott's appeared to have come with enough adults, and good manners, to keep them in line. Credit Knott's aggressive kids' discounts for bringing them here in the first place, though. With a kids' ticket priced at $12.95 everyday, no discount required, Knott's has become the apparent theme park of choice for many Southern California families, school groups and summer camps.
Local adults can get into Knott's for $26.95, under a deal that's advertised all over Southern California but nowhere to be found at the Knott's ticket booths. Just slide your California driver's license under the window with your payment to get the deal. (And, no, Bay Area folks, I don't know how closely the ticket crew checks zip codes to see if you are a local.) If you are from out of the area, you can buy print at home tickets online via www.knotts.com for $35, an $8 discount from the front gate price.
Queued up at 10 a.m. sharp, I decided to hit Xcelerator first, rather than heading the opposite direction for Ghostrider. But that's the choice you face when entering the park. I decided I've been on Ghostrider enough, and wanted to knock off several attractions in Boardwalk and Calico Square before the crowds built.
Walking through Camp Snoopy on my way to the back of the park, I was pleased to see the kids' land clean and in reasonable condition. Crews had torn the Snoopy Bounce to its frame for a rebuild, and without a kid with me, I couldn't check to see if Knott's has done anything to improve the horrid Peanuts' Playhouse. But I did see several disgruntled parents bailing out a side exit later in the day, so I'll guess the answer there is... no, they haven't.
For Midwest readers, Xcelerator is a basically a smaller version of Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster. Except that Xcelerator's usually open and doesn't spray exploding launch cables on its riders. This ride's also a quickie, but it does offer a few unusual experiences for a roller coaster, from its zero-to-80 mph two-second launch, to its Top Hat-climb and descent at an 89 degree angle. The initial rush leading to an awesome summit visual followed by the face down descent provide enough thrill to keep you humming through the forgettable turnarounds Xcelerator uses to scrub off some speed before dropping you back at the station.
Don't wait too long for the ride, though. The uncovered, undecorated and unattended queue is brutal place to wait in the Southern California heat – even the milder Orange County version. Fortunately, the ride didn't attract much of a wait through the morning and early afternoon – more on that later.
One tip for larger riders: Choose the back row on each car, 'cause you'll find the taller headrests there. Let the kids ride the front rows. Keeping your head against the headrest is absolutely critical here to avoid a nasty whiplash at the launch.
After Xcelerator, I stepped over to Calico Square for a visit to Knott's proto-Disneyland. I was surprised to wait 10 minutes for the Log Ride just 15 minutes after the park had opened. But that's where many of those kids' groups decided to go first.
If you're a Disneyland veteran who's not been to Knott's before, allow me to describe the Log Ride. It's just like Splash Mountain. I mean, take away the Song of the South critters and the final showboat scene, and Knott's Log Ride is *exactly* like Splash Mountain.
Or, more accurately, Splash Mountain is just like Knott's Log Ride. Disney lore tells that the company's Imagineers hit on the Log Ride as the perfect vehicle for resurrecting Brer Fox, Brer Rabbit, et al from the now widely-thought racist Disney musical Song of the South. So they designed a faithful recreation of the Log Ride at Disneyland, but with better foilage and those Disney critters replacing Knott's primitive animatronic loggers.
The upside to Knott's version is that has no height limit, just a requirement that kids under 46 inches tall ride with a “responsible person.”
The Log Ride's not the only Knott's attraction that, um, inspired Disney's Imagineers. Next, I boarded the Calico Mine Train, one of the inspirations behind Disney's Big Thunder Mountain. Except that the Mine Train's usually open and doesn't smash cars into each other, sending its riders to the hospital.
Technically, the Mine Train's not a roller coaster, but a narrated train ride through the faux Calico Mountain, where you'll see geyser pools and collapsing rock tunnels very familiar to Thunder Mountain riders. (Though, to be fair, one could argue that the Knott's Mine Train owes some of its inspiration to Disneyland's old Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, which preceeded Thunder Mountain.) Where Disney's Thunder sends riders on a mild coaster ride over Bryce Canyon-like fake rock formations, Knott's Mine Train leaves riders inside the mountain to watch various animatronic scenes of gold and silver mining, before “narrowly escaping” the collapsing rocks.
After waking my fellow passengers, it was time to return to the proto-California Adventure section of Knott's to ride the Grizzly River..., er, Bigfoot Rapids. While I give Knott's credit for sweeping its queues, Cedar Fair might want to consider painting over the graffiti scratched into their walls and railings a bit more often. The queue decay was the most notable thing about this tub ride, which offers some decent whitewater, but no tricks, gags or anything else that might pass for a show.
I saw nothing special from any Knott's employees today either. The Knott's employees seemed as indifferent to performing their jobs as their counterparts at Magic Mountain. Neither came close to matching Universal's employees in aggressively greeting and communicating with their park's guests.
Consider the fiasco at the dispatch platform at Jaguar. With no one assigned to work the loading side of the platform, guests stopped short at the turnstiles if they didn't immediately see an open slot at one of the loading gates. So the employee working the tower position spieled over a loudspeaker, asking folks not to stop at the turnstiles, but to continue through “filling all available space” on the platform.
Well, one mother shot back “How do we know what is an available space?” She had a fair point. Theme park spiels are filled with over-qualified lingo like “full and complete stop” and “available space.” Does “available space” mean folks should line up one train's worth deep? Or two? Or three? Or does it mean to pack every inch of the load platform, so that no one can move? Does “full and complete stop” mean the one at the track switch, the station brake or the unload platform? Heck if the guest knows, he's never ridden the thing before.
Better to have an employee assigned to a load position, speaking directly to folks at the turnstiles and directing them to an available row. And to have someone else at unload, telling the people in each car when they can get out, and offering a helping hand or arm as necessary.
Many theme park fans have assumed that Cedar Fair's vision for Knott's is to turn the Buena Park facility into a west coast Cedar Point, loaded with thrill rides. And the recent additions of Xcelerator and La Revolucion have helped bolster that view.
But a thrill ride future might not be what Knott's customers want. At noon, I walked through the Boardwalk area again and noted with dismay that Supreme Scream was running just one tower and Xcelerator ran only one train. But upon a closer look, I saw no more than three or four dozen people in each line. No school or camp groups were lining up to put their eight and nine-year-olds on these thrill rides. Even on a busy July day, with thousands of people streaming through the front gates, Knott's highest-profile rides would have been walk-ons had they run just two trains or towers.
Where were all those kids? Lining up for the stunt show, the Log Ride or other family-friendly attractions. What this park needs to serve those visitors is not another Cedar Point thrill ride, but some family shows that a tour group of 50 to 100 kids can all see at once.
As I munched on my Mrs. Knott's fried chicken lunch, I wondered how much money Cedar Fair would have to throw at Disney to get Disneyland's mothballed Country Bear Jamboree. Don't laugh. That old show would fit perfectly in Knott's “red state” atmosphere and handle thousands of visitors every hour who aren't ever going to queue up for the likes of Xcelerator.
Maybe it is time for Knott's to turn the table, and find some inspiration from Disney for a change. Okay, Cedar Fair probably won't be buying the Country Bear Jamboree. But it could serve its thousands of new young customers, and their parents, better by developing a crowd-swallowing, anamatronic musical show or two. And teaching its indifferent employees a few “Disney University” lessons on handling guests that even Disneyland's too often forgotten in recent years.
Knott's offers the best theme park bargain in America for families. Let the thrill junkies and ACErs have Magic Mountain. And the rich kids Disneyland. With a little more focus, attention to detail and individual care, Cedar Fair could develop Knott's Berry Farm into a destination that sets the industry standard for top-quality, yet afforable, family entertainment.
But as I watched cranes haul more steel into place for Knott's upcoming B&M “Silver Bullet” coaster, I decided to not hold my breath while waiting for *that* to happen.