Fix This Park: Knott's Berry Farm
Theme parks fans long have recognized a pecking order in the theme park industry. At the top, offering attractions and facilities of the highest quality (and, as a result, attracting the largest attendance) has stood Disney. One step below that stood the Universal, Busch and SeaWorld parks, which offered great rides and shows, but usually in facilities that were a notch less fancy than those built by Disney. Next came the regional amusement parks, such as Cedar Fair and Six Flags, which operated even more basic facilities, focusing on lightly or unthemed roller coasters and carnival rides.
But those divisions are beginning to blur, at least at the top of the industry. Disney took a huge step backward in quality with its Walt Disney Studios park in Paris and the original California Adventure, though it's now investing billions to reverse that course with top-quality projects such as Cars Land and Buena Vista Street. At the same time, Universal's working to close the gap from the opposite direction. With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal's now building attractions at the Disney level. (Some of us might argue that Universal's Potter exceeds Disney's current standards.) SeaWorld's becoming more ambitious in its construction projects, too, with more richly themed environments such as Orlando's Antarctica and San Diego's Explorers Reef.
So what does this have to do with Knott's Berry Farm? Knott's once stood as Disneyland's near-equal in quality. In the 1950s and 60s, the parks operated more or less as a duopoly in the theme park business, with Knott's staying open on weekdays that Disneyland closed, and vice versa, in a not-so-subtle effort to share crowds between the parks. For decades, Disney's Imagineers have been drawing inspiration from Knott's attractions, most notably the Timber Mountain Log Ride that led directly to the creation of Disney's Splash Mountain. One can make a strong argument that many little kids in southern California in the 1980s preferred Knott's Camp Snoopy to Disneyland's New Fantasyland. Disney even considered buying Knott's in the 1980s and 90s, before deciding to develop California Adventure instead.
But Cedar Fair bought Knott's from the Knott family instead. And under Cedar Fair management, Knott's began to devolve into just another Cedar Fair iron park. Knott's closed dark rides, cut shows and started putting its money into roller coasters. It's once-industry-leading food quality suffered. It even obliterated its park entrance by paving over its lake and dropping a massive B&M inverted coaster on the site.
Then, in 2011, former Disneyland president Matt Ouimet took over Cedar Fair. And under Ouimet, who knew Knott's past and potential, Cedar Fair's began to change its approach to Knott's Berry Farm. The company invested more than a million dollars to refurbish the Log Ride with state-of-the-art animatronics, lighting and scenery. The food's improved, with new selections and recipes. And park officials aren't exactly hiding their desire to perform another Log Ride-like makeover of the park's Calico Mine Train attraction, too.
Inside the "new" Timber Mountain Log Ride
So as we talk about "fixing this park," let's acknowledge that Knott's already has started. It has made and is making changes that merit the attention of Disney and Universal theme park fans. But let's take it from there. What else could Cedar Fair and Knott's do to move this park out of the "iron park" echelon and instead challenge Disney, Universal and Busch Gardens parks for quality, theming and entertainment value?
Let's review what's already in place. Knott's Mystery Lodge remains one of the great theme park shows anywhere. The work of BRC Imagination Arts, whose artists have created many works for Disney, Mystery Lodge would make a fine addition to Epcot's American Adventure pavilion, if ever Disney wanted to tell more of the story of Native Americans. It should be a must-see for theme park fans.
But one attraction, even of the quality of Mystery Lodge, isn't enough to get theme park fans to buy a ticket into a park. They need more. The Timber Mountain Log Ride always was a nice ride, but after this summer's renovations, it's simply eye-popping. (Skip to 1:11 for the start of the ride POV.)
For the refurbishment, Knott's contracted with Garner Holt Productions, which also has created animatronics for Disney, among other clients. Couple the new Log Ride with Mystery Lodge, and now Knott's has two top-quality themed attractions to offer fans. If the Log Ride refurbishment drives attendance gains this year, it's likely we'll see a similar refurb of the Calico Mine Train. That'd be three top-quality attractions.
We're getting there.
Let's talk about food, the original foundation of Knott's Berry Farm. Two years ago, I visited Knott's with my son and we ate at the Ghost Town Grill with the intent that I'd review the restaurant for Theme Park Insider. But the food was so bad — nearly inedible with a funky smell and taste — that I killed the piece. Knott's attendance was falling and I didn't feel like wasting your time with a post knocking a park you weren't paying attention to anyway.
I revisited Knott's for the reopening of the Log Ride this summer and ate at the Ghost Town Grill again. What a difference!
The Blacksmith's Smoked Beef Brisket Sandwich, with cole slaw and sweet potato fries ($14.99), offered plenty of roast beef with a nice smoky flavor that elevated it far above a typical deli sandwich. The crunchy cole slaw balanced the rich meat well, and I ended up trading the sweet potato fries with my daughter for the tasty mashed potatoes she'd selected with her Calico Classic Cheeseburger ($13.99). The third side option was regular French fries, and we agreed those were the best of the bunch, perfectly crispy on the outside with just enough potato fluff in the middle.
Our only complaint? Cost. Sorry, as much as my son loved to devour his chicken tenders and fries (after grudgingly letting me try a few fries), there's no way a plate of chicken strips and fries should cost $15.49.
So while Knott's is making progress, there's still far to go before this park makes the jump to the next level. What should the park do next?
How about putting a new dark ride in the old "Kingdom of the Dinosaurs" space? Maybe a Snoopy vs. the Red Baron shooter?
Or how about a steel track treatment for the increasingly rough GhostRider, once one of the industry's best wooden coasters?
Or how about a thorough revamp of Camp Snoopy, ditching the scaled-down carnival rides in favor of more active themed play areas, such as those found down the coast at Legoland? (I hope that Knott's always keeps the Huff-n-Puff, though. That's an ideal kiddie ride — one that demand physical activity to make work.)
And, finally, how about some "addition by subtraction" and shipping that B&M Inverted, Silver Bullet, up the state to Knott's Cedar Fair sister park, California's Great America, which could use a big new coaster? (*Update, in response to comments: Okay, maybe not to CGA. Perhaps another Cedar Fair park?) That would clear space for Knott's to rebuild a themed entrance worthy of a top-quality park. Maybe Knott's could even bring its lake back.
What do you think? What does Knott's need to do to get your business, as a theme park fan? How would you fix Knott's Berry Farm?
Great article, Robert, and timely, as I have just finalized my plans for my fall SoCal trip, and Knotts made the cut.
Knott's is 20 minutes away from house and I see it when I drive on the 91 freeway. Knott's Camp Snoopy is a plus. I took my daughter there a lot when she was two years old. She has outgrown it. I outgrown the iron rides. I can no longer handle the roller coasters and adult spinners as they are much too intense for me.
In order to compete, I believe that Knott's need to bring something relevant as well as new to the park. It's all well and great to invest in improving current attractions - it's always aggravating when I go to a park and top rides are in disrepair - but what really gets people excited is a relatable attraction from the modern world. The Harry potter section of Islands of Adventure is spectacular is almost every way, but far more important was that I grew up with the characters and cared about their story.
I gotta agree with Anon Mouse. The park needs less of the quick 30 second coasters, and more rides that take a minute or two to go through as well as dark rides. If they can continue to use the level of animatronics that they've added to the log ride and apply it to new rides and shows, I think Knott's could have something going for them.
Much as I hate to say it, its the way of the business world. What you saw at Knotts in previous years is sadly being reincarnated, it appears, in at least one of the Sea World parks. Busch Gardens Williamsburg has been cutting back on operations over the last couple years including closing rides unannounced in mid-season, and terminating popular show and replacing them with less than optimal preformances. Even the quality of the goods in the shops, once high quality shopping, is slowing fading away becoming more and more 6 Flags-ish in nature. another forinstance can be seen in the quality and degree of elaboration of the the scenes and character make-up for the annual halloween event which has been dropping over the last years. Rumour has it that the budget for this years event has been dropped even more. Lucky, the food quality has remained to a high standard.
Those 30-second costers that you speak of are some of the most unique in the country. Xcellerator was the protype that changed the coaster landscape. Siera Sidewinder is one of the most interesting coasters I've ever ridden, and Pony Express is a must because of the unique riding position (the only one I've ever riden, and I've been to just about every major park in the US).
A couple years ago I had AP to both DLR & KBF, so I was able to really experience the difference on a regular basis. To start KBF needs to literally clean up. One rarely sees trash in DLR, and their bathrooms are rarely not in pristine condition. Everything is so much dirtier and unkept at KBR. It diminishes the experience. They also need to really create an inviting, themed entrance. I think this is critical. When I walk into DL and enter Main Street there's a feeling that comes over me. Call it magic, call it nostalgia, call it what you may but the theming transports you and sets the whole tone for the day. I didn't get that feeling at DCA until the recent change to Buena Vista Boulevard, and I don't get it at KBF and won't get it until they create a themed entrance. I think that is more important than adding other attractions because it sets up your whole experience.
Russell: You'll be luck to get to Pink's in Hollywood in 30 minutes from Knott's. It is more like 45 minutes to an hour. And NO, I haven't been to the Hollywood location. Why visit a hot dog stand just to see it? I thought the prices are reasonable for a food experience. They hung up some celebrities photos with autographs. This is enough of the tourist experience that anyone should strive for.
boysenberry scent. I remember going there when i was young and i can still smell the boysenberry. Mmmm
They will get to the Mine Ride soon enough. Garner Holt did an awesome job on Timber Mountain Log Ride. The one thing that would be cool though maybe not likely would be a mondernized Knott's Bear-y Tales. I wish I can say the same for Haunted Shack but unfortanately it is one of the few Knott's can't bring back due to the issues that led to it's closure.
You didn't mention the new Boardwalk section they added this year. It looks great. GR is a great wood coaster and is very popular. Sometimes it rides a little rough but nothing like the two SF coasters that got the Iron horse treatment. They have GCI work on it sevreal times each year.
I have long felt that Knott's would have been a perfect match for the sensibilities of Herschend Family Entertainment. Dollywood and especially Silver Dollar City seem to have a similar spirit and history. I can't help but think that Herschend would have been able to maintain the atmosphere and vibe of the park while adding new attractions and thrill rides. Cedar Fair, during the first ten years at least, didn't seem to be too concerned with that balance. That is how things like Silver Bullet happened. It is a perfectly fine ride, no arguments there, but I would love to see it moved out to another park. I realize that is extremely unlikely but it would do wonders to the overall atmosphere of Knott's.
Knott's found its niche with the thrill park crowd, they just need to manage it better. I'm always amazed when they cram another ride into the park. If they weren't so land locked they could really embrace the thrill rides and move/add them to an area away from the older areas of the park, bringing back some of the charm to those areas. I always thought they could push the back stage area behind Big Foot Rapids farther down into the land along Western Avenue and give themselves a nice chunk of property to play with.
I grew up not too far from Knott's and I have fond memories of how it was, and how it upgraded. During the 1970s, the park underwent a huge expansion with Roaring 20s, yet there was still Jungle Island and the lake across the street that were free. I loved that Knott's still put in thrill rides, but still kept the lake at the entrance. And I also remember the antique cars and street cars near the Knott's entrance.
My family visited Knott's Berry Farm maybe every other year until this past December, when we bought annual passes. It's true that Knott's cannot match Disneyland's level of theming for attractions, but it's a fun place to spend the day with the family nonetheless.
CGA already has an inverted coaster, Flight Deck, so they wouldn't need Silver Bullet. Also, they just opened Gold Striker, a new coaster, this year.
Could not agree more Robert. My first job was at Knotts Berry Farm as a 16 year old who lived in the next city over. I hadn't been back much until this year (almost 10 years later) when my girlfriend bought me a pass. The park has taken on a Cedar Point mentality with cement and coasters reigning supreme. The redo to the log ride was so refreshing. After I worked at Knotts I worked for Disney for many years in both California and Florida but when I started at Disney Matt Ouimett was the president of the park. I remember standing at the greeter position of the Main Street Opera House and watching him get down on his knees to pick up a soda cup under a bench in Town Square. If there is anyone for the job it is Matt Ouimett. What a lot of people don't realize is that Knott's is the most visited and biggest money maker for Cedar Fair. Cedar Point is a seasonal park and rakes in a fraction of what Knott's does. Unfortunately the company does what it did best at its midwest counterpart... build roller coasters. The midwest and northeast audience doesn't have Disneyland and Universal in their backyard. Knott's does. Themed entertainment is the key to it's resurrection. Knott's is a key example of a park guided by the "operations" department. Mid-level management makes big decisions. One that I personally remember was during Silver Bullet's construction. The park had to choose the color scheme for the attraction when ordering it from B&M. They had not yet decided on the name for the attraction and chose the "ketchup and mustard" color scheme you see today. You will not find anything "silver" colored on that ride. It was evident that the decisions were made by a clueless management team, not a creative team like you would see at Universal or Disney where these decisions would have been made before a coaster manufacturer was even approached. I really hope this park can be saved and I think there have been some good signs from the food to the in-park entertainment I've seen recently. But EMBARRASSING blemishes on the park like "Pony Express", "Sierra Sidewinder", and "Windseeker" are too expensive to fix easily.
Knott's is my local park and I visit approximately once a month. Fortunately, Cedar Fair is finally doing the right thing, and the 2013 additions (Timber Mountain Log Ride upgrade and new Boardwalk area) are the best added since the mid-90s. I would say the following should be done (in order or priority):
The food prices may be high, but the season passes are dirt cheap, so I'm willing to give them a break. As for a new dark ride, maybe they should copy Disney's never built Western River Expedition. That would be awesome!
I think it's important to note that Knott's/Cedar Fair doesn't have access to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Disney does. So it needs to follow a more modest path forward. From everyone I've spoken with at Knott's, it seems clear to me that the Mine Train is the next step in that path.
Knott's can lower their food prices when they raise their gate prices to Disney levels and eliminate all the discounting.
Knott's needs to take a page from Disney in learning how to better monetize its best assets. The food is one thing they fail to capitalize on by not having better variety and lower affordable prices. The drinks are priced much too high. It forces me to use the drinking fountains. There is not enough street vendors and the cash registers are awfully slow. They need more single item quick stops. The slow lines prevent me from buying a snack or a fried chicken meal.
Robert makes a good point about Cedar Fair's financial resources. But I brought up the attractions and themed areas to illustrate that Knott's, once family owned, still built Roaring 20s in the 1970s. This was an example of using limited resources to create a great themed area with a mixture of family and thrill rides. It was a huge expansion and really brought the park into the modern theme park age.
I am a new season pass holder to Knott's which is about 45 mins from my house. I have been going to Knott's since I was little in the early 80's. Knott's has improved dramatically in the past couple years after really loosing its way. The food is better, the park is looking cleaner and is getting some much needed upkeep. They are replacing wood on the ghost town buildings and on Ghostrider and repaving the walkways. I really wish we could find a way to add more ride or show based themed attractions to Ghost Town. The Log ride upgrade is a definite success and they need to do the same for the mine ride asap. The boardwalk area in the back also looks wonderful and my kids go on those 3 rides over and over when we visit. I agree the food prices need to come down a bit but the food quality and selection is getting better all the time. They really need to clean up the bathrooms, they are smelly and dirty and run down most of the time. Some things I would like to see in the future: Re-theme Bigfoot rapids and refurb it, get rid of the rust / water stains. Maybe add a Peanuts theme to it, like Race for your life Charlie Brown. Add some figures and audio. Bring the parachutes back. I remember seeing those from the freeway as a kid and getting so excited, they were a great family ride. Put a dark ride in the old KOTD / Berry Tales building. Either peanuts related or a re-imagined Berry Tales. The whole Roaring 20's / boardwalk area has a split personality, decide on one. I think the boardwalk should just expand to the railroad tracks by the bumper cars, theme it all to the Boardwalk. The new fountain area looks nicewith all of the flowers and is a step in the right direction though. Revamp Camp Snoopy with updated rides. Some newer rides just need paint jobs and light bulb replacement. Fix the arcades. they currently have old broken down outdated games, i know some people want nothing to do with arcades at a theme park but when you have small, video game loving kids looking to escape the heat in the summer, it is disappointment to see the junky games with broken down change machines. Fiesta village needs some help too, the buildings and rides are really aging, either fix it or gut it and start over. Paint them, fix the cracks etc. I really dislike how Indian Trails keeps shrinking and is now basically down to a small stage and a couple of teepees jammed in behind some buildings next to some Silver Bullet supports. Move Indian trails including the performance stage back by Mystery Lodge and expand it and lets give more respect to Native American heritage and their cultural significance in the old west. Is this list too long?
I forgot one other thing: the replica of Independence Hall, which is on the other side of Beach Boulevard and is a free attraction, has seen much better days. I remember taking a school field trip there in the 1970s (not to Ghost Town or any part of the paid park, but JUST Independence Hall). Back then, Knott's really paid attention to the building and show about the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
I have been going to Knott’s since the early 60’s. It started out as a transplanted Ghost Town and slowly added rides. There was a Diorama walk that showcased the Missions of CA. Admission was free, but you had to pay for each ride. I miss Mott’s Miniatures, the Boxing Museum, and I agree that Virginia’s Gift Shop is a shadow of what it used to be. The Mine ride was a favorite and is in great need of refurbishment. I agree that they have too many rides crammed into a small space, but no one has mentioned the abysmal water park across the street. That is prime real estate that should be re-themed. One thing they still do great is Knott’s Scary Farm. This said, if they could transfer some of the enthusiasm from the shows to the everyday workings of the park I think they might do better. One of the distinct things I have seen is that most of the shows deal with voice over’s and lighting and no real animatronics or live action shows. Disney was a once a year luxury, Knott’s was an affordable alternative that you could go to more often. As stated in earlier submissions, they need to go back to some actual themes and get away from the “compete with 6 Flags” attitude.
-Finish re painting Xcelerator
What I didn't like about KBF is the resort hotel. The room was quite small, as was the bathroom. Checkout was supposed to be avail on the television but it didn't work when I tried it. Also, the #1 thing on my list is that they charge hotel guests for parking...why????? I'm already paying a LOT to stay there, why is it necessary to charge me for parking too, especially when I didn't know about it til I went to check out & found that I owed $10..for parking! They could AT LEAST notify us travelers in writing on the website before making the reservation that we'll be charged for parking...utterly rediculous & completely NOT customer oriented place. A parking pass slip on the dashboard is sufficient to let security staff know who's a paying hotel guest & who isn't...no need to charge additional funds for parking as far as hotel guests are concerned!
To 188.8.131.52: Why not just destroy it and start over? Your suggestion borders on that. This was a true theme park purchased by a company that specializes in iron parks. They did what they know. If the Knott family had sold to Disney the park would have been very different today. There might have even been a monorail between the parks. And the Imagineers would have had another toy box to play with.
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