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Don't try to understand Knott's Berry Farm; just enjoy what you can

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Published: April 7, 2009 at 9:35 PM

Tuesday Park Visit: After half an hour waiting in a queue more like a darkened holding pen, I was getting steamed. Announcements squawked over a loudspeaker every few minutes, but neither I nor my 11-year-old daughter could make out a word. With no posted waiting time, nor a theme park employee anywhere in sight, we had no idea how much longer we'd be waiting.

Welcome to Knott's Berry Farm, the most incomprehensible theme park in America.

Knott's Berry Farm

Natalie and I ended up waiting an hour and 10 minutes to ride GhostRider, after park employees mercifully added a second train on the track. (GhostRider can run three.) Still, two trains gives Knott's 1998 CCI wooden roller coaster an approximate capacity of 800 riders an hour, placing it light years ahead of many other attractions in this capacity-starved park.

While Natalie and I were waiting, waiting and waiting for GhostRider, my wife and son cooled their heels across the park, serving nearly an hour in the queue for Joe Cool's GR8 SK8, an Interactive Rides Sky Skater that we calculated was putting through fewer than 100 riders per hour.

And yet...

If one looks past the thrill rides with less capacity than Jessica Simpson taking the MCAT, one can find amidst them a park filled with little details that can make a theme park visit magical.

Such as Mystery Lodge, a Native American storytelling show with effects that would be right at home in Walt Disney World's Epcot. (No surprise, as the show's the work of the same creator who produced Epcot's Impressions de France, my all-time favorite theme park movie.)

Mystery Lodge
Image courtesy BRC Imagination Arts

While Natalie and I enjoyed Mystery Lodge, Laurie and Brian discovered Knott's Ghost Town Magic store, where park magician Robert entertained and confounded Brian with a variety of impressive tricks.

So which is Knott's? A over-crowded thrill park? Or a well-detailed theme park filled with personal touches and storytelling?

Well, it's both. And that's what makes this park so hard to comprehend. The worst guide map in the industry doesn't help matters, either. While Knott's map details every minor shop in the park, it ignores dozens of attractions, listing just one ride in the park's Camp Snoopy kids' land.

Getting around Knott's never was easy. The park lacks the intuitive hub-and-spoke layout that Walt Disney employed up the street at Disneyland. Themed lands at Knott's, such as they are, don't blend from one into another, either.

Walking through Knott's is like walking through a theme park boneyard. The mighty Bolliger & Mabillard inverted coaster, Silver Bullet, lords over the park, its support beams impaling the old Indian ceremonial dance stage and cutting off the remaining fragment of the pond where Walter Knott's steamboat once sailed. The delightful 1969 Log Ride, prototype for Disney's Splash Mountain, stands smack next to unthemed carny games, with a Wipeout across the way, and the theme-less Supreme Scream drop ride standing over all.

Given the confusion, perhaps it is fitting that the park's most famous restaurant isn't in the park at all. After reuniting, we four got our hands stamped to exit and walk over to Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant... for lunch.

Mrs. Knott's Chicken Lunch

The fried chicken is fine, not as tasty as others. But the chicken noodle soup, more stew than broth, delights. And if you can beat your table mates, grab one of the crustier biscuits, which taste more like fritters than the tasteless pucks of dough you'll find from the Colonel.

And, of course, we enjoyed Knott's Boysenberries in every form - jelly, pie and punch. Not too tart, not too sweet, just well balanced flavor each time.

After our late lunch, we returned to the park for the Knott's classics, the Log Ride and the Calico Mine Ride. Funny how the park's oldest rides seem to have the fastest moving lines. Two classic joys amid the modern metal.

Ultimately, everyone said they had a great time. But I when I pressed for specifics, no one could quite say, exactly, why.

That's Knott's. You very well might enjoy it. But don't bother trying to understand it.

Readers' Opinions

From Nicholas Kalscheuer on April 7, 2009 at 9:56 PM
This place is very quickly becoming a very wrecked park with not the values its used to have. I think this park is turning into Southern California's new Magic Mountain and MM is getting much better even though it lacks theming you expect Six Flags to be that way and it has enough roller coasters to support their values. While Knotts throws a bright red and orange piece of steel over their scenic lake, I think Silver Bullet is the main reason for this down fall but, I don't want to point fingers just hope it gets better.
From M. Ryan Traylor on April 7, 2009 at 9:56 PM
Robert, I must agree with you on the confusion part. The first time I went to Knott's, I felt like being at a State Fair running from ride to ride with no real sense of direction or theme. But don't get me wrong, the rides there are great. I love Ghostrider, Xcelerator, Timber Mountain Log Ride, and even Montezooma's Revenge.

The only other time I've been to Knott's was for Knotts' Scary Farm, which is how I will always refer to their Halloween promotion. Their Halloween park is the best in SoCal.

From Jacob Sundstrom on April 7, 2009 at 10:34 PM
^ Someone hasn't been to Halloween Horror Nights!

I agree Robert, and I am sure that you have noticed that all noticeable "magic" at Knott's was created before the Cedar Fair take over. Ah well, it's been over a year since I've been to the park on a regular operating day, and I don't miss it in the least, even the draw of a new coaster wasn't enough to get me to the park.. A little sad, really.

From W McDougal on April 7, 2009 at 11:45 PM
Knott's could really be an awesome theme park again, it's got such nice history and thematic touches in Ghost Town with a couple of classic rides hanging on like Calico Mine Train and Timber Mountain Log Ride (along with a new one like Mystery Lodge). Knott's also has a great stagecoach and an amazing steam train that puts Disney to shame... problem is that the scenery they travel upon has been trashed. But the Cedar Fair mentality of little theming and putting up coasters anywhere without aesthetic is ruining Knott's as a THEME park. Granted the Knott's children already started the demise before CF took over, but CF has only brought Knott's down further. I wish an eccentric billionaire would buy out the park from CF and bring it back to some semblance of its former glory. It deserves better.
From Bradley Robertson on April 8, 2009 at 12:21 AM
I'm not sure where you are getting your numbers. Ghostrider at full capacity is 1600 pph, Silver Bullet is 1300, Xcelerator is 1330, Montezuma's Revenge is 1344, and Jaguar is 1800. Doesn't seem like they issues with capacity to me. Most parks would love to have stats like that.

The day of Winter Coaster Solace X Ghostrider was using 3 trains and I had an hour wait. It's a popular coaster. Deal with it.

From Robert Niles on April 8, 2009 at 12:35 AM
I can deal with an hour wait when a coaster is running capacity. It's a slap in the face to your customers when you've got an hour wait and running one train (as Knott's did for a while this morning on GhostRider, Xcelerator and Silver Bullet). That's just unnecessary.

Run two trains as soon as you have a line. Run three once the line goes over 20 minutes. Earn goodwill.

From personal experience, theoretical capacities are B$. They often assume instantaneous capacity loading. (Like *that* ever happens in the real world.) Watch the load platform and count bodies while tracking time. Do the math and you'll see what the real throughputs are.

From James Rao on April 8, 2009 at 3:29 AM
The last time I went to Knott's Berry Farm, the Corkscrew was the featured coaster, and the Calico Mine was my favorite ride. It's been a while but I still have very fond memories of that excursion (except for the fact that I was too short to ride the Corkscrew and I cried my eyes out!). Anyway, it sounds like things have really gone down hill. Makes me wish a company other than Cedar Fair had purchased the park - someone with a little more experience with theme parks.

I have always longed to get back to Knott's but after your report, it does not sound like I am missing much these days.

From Nick Markham on April 8, 2009 at 6:33 AM
When I went to Knott's it was luckily not as bad or nearly as confuing. But I had to wait in ghost rider for about an hour and a half too while it broke down twice! But I did "study" the whole park and its layout for about a month and was finally familiar with the layout. But I still pretty much had to ride whatever I walked by and there were too many pathways to know exactly where you are going. But then again, like you said, the rides are a pretty good quality and the theming is actually a nice touch to the park!
From Anthony Murphy on April 8, 2009 at 7:17 AM
They should move that Mystery Lodge show to EPCOT's World Showcase stat!
From Doug Kelley on April 8, 2009 at 9:22 AM
Knott's is better enjoyed when wandering aimlessly, taking in attractions as you get to them rather than trying to follow an agenda. Their original layout lends to this; it has nothing to do with current ownership. I prefer to go on a weekday when the park is normally almost empty (not during spring break) and just soak it in.
From Deidre Dennis on April 8, 2009 at 10:32 AM
I agree with your statements about Knotts. When we went in 2007 as part of our Disney trip, I was so disappointed. There seems to be no flow to the park as far as layout. I found that all the stuff people said about Magic Mountain was actually taking place at Knotts. The "cast members" at the attractions kind of stood there, not policing anything, not even smiles on their faces. The tweens (12-13) were in line with their boyfriends/girlfriends making out like crazy and my 10 year old son and 10 year old niece were totally creeped out by it... as was I.

We stayed on site, the hotel staff was great, the room was great, and even enjoyed the free breakfast and the pool. The waterpark was okay, smaller than what I imagined but not packed so we had a great time there.

I can't tell you how many boysenberry turnovers we ate. They were absolutely delicious. We bought the bucket of drumsticks and a 2 liter of coke for like $8.00 and the chicken was awesome. They were so huge we took them to the room and ate on them later. GhostRider made me stick to the point that I'll never ride a woodie again.

Overall the park was just o.k. We probably wouldn't go there again unless we happened to be in Anaheim, near it and were looking for something to do. But still, probably not.

From rick stevens on April 8, 2009 at 11:33 AM
Knott's has always been the poor cousin to Disney. It was the preferred stop when I was a kid since it cost much less to go. The parking lots were grass covered with chickens running around. There was no entrance fee, you just had to buy tickets for the rides from booths near them. We would put pennies on the train tracks and see how high a stack we could make and still get a flattened coin. The boxing museum and Mott’s miniatures, the haunted shack, models of the California missions were in inset displays along the walkway. We would bring a sack lunch and eat in the covered wagons that are part of the stage area near the entrance.
I have not been there, except for Knott Scary for quite a few years. I agree fully with the disjointed arrangement, and the theming that was there is gone. The old west ghost town, camp Snoopy, the boardwalk, all smashed up in an attempt to add thrill rides. It always seemed that Knott’s was trying to “keep up with the Jones”. They expanded and put in theme areas to attract Disney goers. Added thrill rides to attract MM patrons. Added a water park to attract the Raging crowd.
It has become a park with no real personal identity. I still enjoy myself when I go. I am not into the thrill rides, but enjoy the few areas of ambiance that remain. And you can not go wrong with a Chicken dinner and a funnel cake!
From Derek Potter on April 8, 2009 at 3:57 PM
I never understood the logic behind running one coaster train. Most new rides have at least 3 available, 2 at the very least. Does not running a train really cut costs? Wouldn't you rather have people out walking on the midway rather than them being stuck in line. After all, it's out on the midway where they spend the money and get the old spending per guest number up. Note to park companies. The more I'm out on the midway, the better the chances that I will buy something. Run at least two trains please.

The Cedar Fair parks in Ohio are pretty good about moving the lines. Sometimes they stall, but most of the time they keep moving quickly and there are plenty of trains. There has only been a few isolated times where I saw a 1 train operation on a ride with a real line.

From Robert Niles on April 8, 2009 at 4:06 PM
The one time I visited Cedar Point, on a Thursday in mid-August four summers ago, it was one train operation throughout the park. No coaster line under 90 minutes, and Dragster and MF were both over four hours. Haven't been back to Cedar Point since.
From big bell on April 8, 2009 at 4:15 PM
Our family went to Knotts only once back in 2006 and we really enjoyed it. But as you said, all for very different reasons.
I remember the confusing map and still have a copy of same somewhere.
Our son was the coaster nut and he rode them all at least once, some twice with virtually no wait (We planned our trip the first week of June on a weekday before your Calf. schools were out), but even with the light crowds he/we waited neary 1.5 hours for the big log flume drop ride because it took so long for everyone to get strapped in to their seats (can't remember the name, but not the tame 'family water ride').
Us older folks liked the 'old park'. The stagecoach ride, the western town, the bottle shop, the mine ride, etc.
The son loved the coasters, the daughter liked the tamer water rides and mine coaster, etc.
Would have highly recommended the park after our visit (especially at the discounted price with a coupon from one of the burger joints in town), hope it hasn't changed for the worse.
We also ate at the chicken restaurant and weren't impressed in the least. Yikes, high priced, low flavored, greasy chicken. Have had better at many, many locations (and I don't even much care for chicken).
We went next door to the shop to get some boysenberries to sample and they had everything BUT the actual berries? We asked what the berries looked like and no one in the entire shop could tell us as none had ever seen any! The berry that built the whole park was unknown to the local employees? Weird to say the least.
We finally got some fresh berries later on our trip at a road side stand around Yosemite, but I still remember how strange that was that no one had ever seen or tried one. And yes, the berries are fantastic tasting and look like a black berry of a different shade if memory serves.

Good write up....and right on the money from our limited experience!

From Robert Niles on April 8, 2009 at 5:30 PM
Perilous Plunge is the flume ride. There was a fatal accident there in 2001, where a woman fell out from the ride, so they are quite fastidious about the restraints.

As for the chicken, I prefer Roscoe's. I must remember to try the Ghost Town Grill next time I'm at Knott's. Anyone have any thoughts about that restaurant?

From 68.5.79.19 on April 10, 2009 at 11:19 AM
GhostRider has three trains, but it cannot run with three. It doesn't work and hasn't happened except for a few trial runs in spring 1998. The park experimented with adding an additional brake to the brake run and kickers to move the trains through the brake run and loading station, but it didn't work and the ride runs best with two trains. In reality the ride is a few hundred feet too short.

Yes, there is a cost savings to running with less trains, since there is operating cost due to wear and tear on the train, but I agree there is no excuse on busy days not to run the rides at capacity. I disagree that the park should adjust the number of trains on track at any time. Knott's shuts down a ride to add or remove a train. This causes delays in the operation, increases the wait and because they follow this procedure it should not happen while the park is open. The park should open with all the trains and close with all the trains - no exceptions.

Eric, Ultimate Rollercoaster

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