Fix This Park: Knott's Berry Farm
Written by Robert Niles
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.Tweet
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?
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