I wasn't avoiding Disneyland, but somehow the stars just never aligned correctly to make it possible for me to make the trip. Like just about every TPI veteran east of the Mississippi I have been to Walt Disney World several times, not as often as many but more than most, and I have watched my local park, my beloved Cedar Point grow up with me, from a small regional park with a great beach into the self-proclaimed "Roller Coaster Capital of the World" (please, I know all about Six Flags Magic Mountain). Finally, the stars lined up, and I was invited by a friend to visit them in the Los Angeles area, where they kindly offered to put me up (or put up with me), drive me around and act as an expert tour guide to Knott's Berry Farm, Disneyland, and Disney California Adventure. I could not turn down the offer — who in their right mind would?
Now don't worry — this article is not going to be one of those "first we did this, then we did that" trip reports. There is nothing wrong with those reports, but at this point, they should be reserved for parks that are not as familiar to the TPI faithful as southern California parks are. Instead I intend to share the first-time impressions that the "holy triumvirate" of Knott's, Disneyland, and Disney California Adventure made on a life-long Cedar Point guy who has a glancing familiarity with the Florida Disney parks. Make no mistake, I am not attempting to rank these parks, just compare and contrast them, and discuss what impressed me, surprised me, disappointed me, and confused me — I guess this article really is all about "me," isn't it? But individual impressions are important, and theme park companies work very hard to create an impression on their visitors by building immersive environments and memorable experiences. Coming from a background of parks that emphasize thrill over theme, I was curious how I would see these environments. Would I buy into them? Have I become too jaded, old, and bitter to appreciate them? Or would I become that child again, sitting on the floor and watching Walt Disney on Sunday night introducing that week's story from "Disneyland"?
I have been thinking about this article before I arrived in L.A. and originally thought that there was no way to compare Knott's Berry Farm with the Disney Parks – I was going to say "apples to oranges," but to me the difference seemed more like comparing an apple to a book. However, I quickly discovered that my preconceived notions were wrong when I was told by my tour guides much of the history of both Knott's and the Disney parks and the influences they had each other. Those of you who have read some of my past TPI articles know that I'm a history guy, but I never knew about the historic influence that Knott's Berry Farm had on the original design of Disneyland and some of its most popular attractions or how much the current version of Knott's owes to the early years of Disneyland – but that topic is for another article, perhaps one written by one of my tour guides (guys, the challenge has just been made).
Queues — Much has been said recently about theming in ride queues, and I'm not going to discuss the importance or necessity of it. What I noticed most is that the queues in the California parks for the most part remind me more of Cedar Point queues than I thought they would. Of course there are exceptions (Indiana Jones, Haunted Mansion, the incredible Radiator Springs Racers, etc.), where the theming is immersive to the point of being another attraction all by itself, but like at Cedar Point many of the DLR and Knott's waiting areas are outdoors and often unthemed or sparsely themed. That being said, I did not feel that a lack of queue theme affected my enjoyment of any attraction, perhaps because I am not used to being entertained while waiting in line at Cedar Point (other than by the recent addition of "Fun TV," which has Cedar Fair visitors either grateful for something to look at, annoyed by more mindless television to watch, or angered because the intrusion of music videos, commercials, and trivia kills any hope of immersion while at a Cedar Fair Park).
Cast Member Friendliness — The reputation of Disney as having over-the-top friendly cast members has been well-established for years, and I found that most of the cast members I interacted with, while not really "over-the-top," were overall friendly. At times they seemed so intent on being efficient, especially the ride operators and loaders, that they lost that happy look and replaced it with a look of concern mixed with concentration. Knott's Berry Farm was the place that I remember most for the outstanding friendliness of their staff, and this surprised me because I had not heard anything about their cast members (yeah, I know they're not cast members if they don't work for the mouse, or as a few of us Midwesterners call it, "The Black Rat of Orlando" or Anaheim or whatever is your closest rat colony... uh... I mean, Disney park). For example, I was looking at a Knott's park map just to get my bearings on where we were, and a maintenance man came by, pulled a guest map out of his pocket, and asked if he could help me find anything. Furthermore, we chatted with the schoolmarm and the blacksmith at length about their crafts – they were both extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their craft. Additionally, the young lady who took our order for Mrs. Knott's chicken dinner for lunch had an infectious and genuine grin that could not be denied — just ask my wallet (I left a sizeable tip!). Finally, several of the ride operators offered to take my glasses, put them in a storage bin so that I didn't lose them, and were always careful to tell me where they were before we left the station. Cedar Point staff is often friendly and helpful, if sometimes a bit untrained, but it is not consistent and tends to drop in enthusiasm as the summer progresses.
Maintenance — It is rather hard to compare Knott's with DLR right now, as both are getting ready for major anniversary and/or expansion projects. Both are obviously construction zones, but both are amazingly well-maintained construction zones. The dedication to keeping everything looking perfect does have its drawbacks — I saw one board on a very small building in the (unthemed) queue for Casey Jr. Circus Train that looked like it was rotting, and that stuck out like a sore thumb to me. At Cedar Point, I probably wouldn't have noticed it — they try hard, but the location of the park in the middle of Lake Erie exposes it to some extremely harsh weather. Sometimes the Cedar Point crew just needs to focus their maintenance efforts on critical structures and leave the more scenic additions to be fixed up as time permits.
Food — We only ate one meal at Knott's, but it was a big family picnic-type meal with Mrs. Knott's fried chicken, several side dishes, beverages, and a whole Boysenberry pie. The meal was wonderful and a very good value for a theme park. It wasn't a gourmet meal, but Knott's is not that type of park. At DLR we ate at several table and counter service restaurants, from family to fine dining, and the food was across-the-board excellent. The prices were pretty much what I expected them to be in a theme park, and with one exception I feel I received my money's worth. That one exception was the meal we had at Napa Rose. Now, don't get me wrong, the food was wonderful, the atmosphere was dripping of California chic, and my dining companion was both fun to spend time with and an encyclopedia of knowledge about all things California, but I feel and always have felt that somewhere in the linguistic origins of the word "gourmet" is the phrase "very small portions." And Napa Rose definitely embraces the notion of small portions! I left that restaurant hungry thinking they should be flattered that I wanted more of their wonderful food. As for the dining at Cedar Point, well, there are a few (very few) bright spots, but that diatribe is another article for another time.
Strollers — During the DLR part of my vacation, I saw a lot of strollers including a few that were bigger than my neighbor's John Deere riding lawnmower. I also saw an eight-year-old kid being pushed in a stroller — and before you question if the child was handicapped, I later saw her walking just fine with the stroller filled with more stuff than my nephew and his family take camping. I believe I passed one with a sign advertising "WiFi Available." The sheer number of strollers blocking the pathways, especially the narrow pathways in Fantasyland, was staggering to me. By way of comparison, I saw more strollers in one corral in Fantasyland than I usually see all day at Cedar Point, and Cedar Point covers 365 acres compared to Disneyland Park's 85 acres. However, I did notice one thing that impressed me. Perhaps it was just when I was there, or perhaps I got lucky, but it seemed that the drivers of the megababycarriages were all quite polite and careful in crowds. I was told that it was not a busy time in the park, and that the strollers are usually much more of an issue.
My Favorite Park — Remember, this is MY opinion. It's all about ME right now. If you don't like it, write your own darn article. To be honest, of the three SoCal parks I'm talking about, my favorite was... was... was the one I was in, and the one I am thinking about at any given moment. They are just too different, have too many strong points and even a few weaknesses to rightly compare them to each other. Actually, each of them is my favorite in a different way.
Knott's Berry Farm is my favorite in the "warm, cozy" category. It was the park I was the least familiar with in layout or attractions, but when I entered the park I felt right at home, and the park staff made me feel even more so. The mixture of really good thrill rides, excellent theming in some areas, outstanding theming in "Ghost Town," exceptionally friendly staff and terrific food gives me hope that the good things that are happening at Knott's Berry Farm will spread throughout the rest of the Cedar Fair family of parks.
Disneyland Park is my favorite in the "pardon me while I get emotional" category. When I first entered the park, I tried to not look around much. I mostly watched my friend's feet as they led me over to the stand where I got my "1st Visit!" pin, then they watched me find my way to the point on Town Square where I stood on the tip of the square and looked down Main Street U.S.A. toward the Castle. That was when I lifted my head and took my first big look at Disneyland, a place that for most of my fifty-nine years had seemed a bit unreal. And I cried — not sobbing or dramatic, but I definitely had a few moments of deep emotion. Mr. Disney — Walt — I made it! In spite of the strollers, in spite of the fact that a quarter of the park was closed due to the Star Wars Land expansion, and in spite of the experience I had at Café Orleans when a server dropped a half-finished plate of beignets with jelly from another table onto my pants and shoes, it was worth it. Disneyland is indeed a magical place, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Disney California Adventure is my favorite in the "I wish I had just one more day in a park" category. We only spent one day at DCA, and I wish I could have come back again to pick up a few attractions we missed, to spend more time just exploring the endless details that made it such a visually interesting park, and to see "World of Color" again. I hear people say that DCA is a one-day park. I suppose you could do it all, or at least the major attractions (the "E" tickets that Disney people seem so fixated on but Cedar Fair people don't really bother with in our home parks) in a day, but by doing so you miss so much good stuff! Disney California Adventure, the little park with the big problems that everyone loved to hate when it first opened, is now a park that caught the heart and soul of this Cedar Point guy.
Final Thoughts — As jaded theme park veterans, we tend to take for granted our home parks, the local parks that we go to when we have a free day or free evening, the parks we have grown up with and that have grown up with us. I heard my friends comment almost nonchalantly that they go to Disneyland if they're in the neighborhood and have nothing else to do, and I will take my son to Cedar Point to ride a new ride once or twice, grab lunch and drive home if it looks too crowded. How often do we stop, look around and rediscover the details, the experiences, the "magic" that each park has but that we have stopped seeing? When was the last time you went to Disneyland Park, or Hersheypark, or Coney Island, or whatever park you think of when you decide to go to a park that doesn't require a plane trip, and just walked around, looked, listened, smelled, and tasted the park? I love the adrenaline rush of the first drop on a new coaster, but sometimes the most invigorating thing you can do for your soul at a park is to find a shady bench, sit, and watch the park happen around you. Notice the smell of the popcorn wagon, the sound of the carousel in the distance, the scream of a three-year-old on his first kiddie coaster. On this vacation, I tried to take in Knott's Berry Farm and the Disneyland Resort parks from the point of view of someone who didn't want to just ride the rides, but wanted to discover the parks and what makes them so special, so beloved by so many. I think I saw more of them in my four days of discovery than many "locals" notice in a year of visits, because I was looking for the details, the special touches, the "magic" that it is so easy to become immune to from constant exposure. I hope that I can bring with me to Cedar Point this year that same sense of discovery that I found to be so fulfilling at the SoCal parks. One of my Disney local friends will be visiting Cedar Point and Kings Island this summer for the first time, and I have the pleasure and frankly the honor of showing them around. I hope that I will see in them the same sense of discovery and wonder that I found in myself those four remarkable days at Knott's Berry Farm and the Disneyland Resort.
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