Robert's Tour, Part Three -- Knott's Berry Farm

Come wade through the sea of summer campers and other kids as the tour visits Orange County's original theme park.

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Published: July 14, 2004 at 7:28 PM

Buena Park, California -- So this is where all the kids are.

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 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.

  • Read the rest of the articles from Robert Niles' Summer 2004 Theme Park Tour

  • Readers' Opinions

    From Chuck Campbell on July 14, 2004 at 7:50 PM
    When I was a wee lad in the San Joaquin Valley, my family would head down south about every two years for a Disney-Knotts fix (especially if there were new attractions). To us, Knotts was always the "creepier" or "more sinister" park of the two, probably because we'd invariably visit the place after dark--and a big fried chicken dinner, of course. And those limited animatronics on the Mine Train and Log Ride always seemed a little freaky--like waxworks come to partial life (and I like those rides). No wonder Knotts still rules Halloween.

    Why did Knotts dump the Roaring 20s section, which was unique and a nice counterpoint to DL's Main Street, in favor of a generic "beach-boardwalk" theme? Heck, Disney even copied that idea for DCA.

    From John K on July 14, 2004 at 9:02 PM
    Are you sure you couldn't find a child under seven at Six Flags?? First off..we get summer day camps with 5,6,7 year olds. Go back to SFMM, go inside Bugs Buny World, and I guarantee you you'll find strollers everywhere in that area
    From Kevin Baxter on July 15, 2004 at 3:18 AM
    I don't know why we haven't done a "Fixing Knotts" thread. Does that place need help! And a bunch of 30-second thrill rides are NOT the help the park needs. Some thrills are fine, if effort is put into them, like Ghostrider.

    And how many more centuries will that damn dinosaur ride take up valuable real estate? Get a good family attraction in there!

    From Chuck Campbell on July 15, 2004 at 4:53 AM
    My nephew and I went looking for that dinosaur ride about five or six years ago; after what I've read about the thing, I guess we're lucky we didn't find it. (Even so, I'm a sucker for cheesy dark rides--but make an exception for Superstar Lame-o).

    At least Windjammer is history.

    From Derek Potter on July 15, 2004 at 12:41 PM
    You are right Robert, I wouldn't hold my breath either. Then again, who knows what will happen when CEO Dick Kinzel aka. Mr. Coaster retires in a few years (2007). I don't look for them to stray from their coaster building ways, but there should come a time when they figure out that sometimes the park needs to have a little bit more.
    From alex morehouse on July 15, 2004 at 2:21 PM
    I read what you said at the bottom, Robert. It would definatley be nice for Knott's to put a little more effort with the employees in it's park. After all, Knott's I think needs to join in on the "They're Stealing From Disney" fun. Unfortunately, it's not Disney, but if they can do it right, then I say go for it!

    Kevin, I read your insert on Fixing Knott's. I agree that 30-seconds-or-whatever-may-be-the-case thrill rides is "Knott" the answer for Knott's park expansion. I think that they should demolish some of those flat rides (Except for the Bumper Cars and Hammerhead, and Supreme Scream). They should get rid of the Kingdom of The Dinosaurs and replace it with a simulator ride. Also, it looks like Xcellerator isn't getting a lot of attention . They should demolish that, but only if they have a proper replacement like a satisfying roller coaster or something like that. Overall, they should demolish some flat rides to create more satisfying attractions.

    From Marco Sierra on July 15, 2004 at 6:08 PM
    They need to demolish Xcelorator and bring back the old Soap Box Racers. It would be cheap, and everyone would be happy.
    From Rhys Evans on July 15, 2004 at 6:12 PM
    Though it's not a ride, I think "Mystery Lodge" is one of the coolest shows in any theme park. It originated at Expo 86 in Vancouver, British Columbia, hence it's theme is really more "Northwest" than "Southern California," but it's nonetheless very cool.
    From John K on July 15, 2004 at 10:40 PM
    I'm going to Knotts within a few weeks and from what you guys say, it's a good park it sounds like. I'm going with a few of my friends and they tell me it's awesome so I'm really excited to go there in a few weeks. It's gonna be awesome. I went there when I was little but don't remember anything as of right now. Also during this summer I pan to waste my time at USH, although they have great service, not much rides at the theme park, and the prices are OUT OF CONTROL
    From Kevin Baxter on July 16, 2004 at 1:18 AM
    While they won't demolish Xcelerator for quite some time, I agree with Marco that they never should have gotten rid of the Soap Box Racers. It wasn't great, but it was fun. Which can't be said about much in this park. They also got rid of the Tampico Tumbler, which was great! They have no clue what the good rides and what the bad ones are.
    From Chuck Campbell on July 16, 2004 at 4:49 AM
    Ditto for the Soap Box Racers. I still remember the Racers' predecessor--the Motorcycle Chase. One trip, my older brother and I rode the cycles and decided to ride again. Only this time, I was informed by an attendant that I was too large to be secured safely--guess I was lucky the first time around.
    From Andrea Redmond on July 17, 2004 at 1:12 AM
    Though I live about a mile from Six Flags Magic Mountain, I went to Knott's about a month ago for my aniversary. It was the first time I've been there since age 10 (I'm 22).

    My only real complaint was that the employees seemed to be either indifferent or poorly trained. They often let kids stand over the bright yellow safety lines, lean on ride gates, etc. Plus, it was nearly impossible to hear their instructions because of garbled speakers and unenthusiastic, mumbling employees. It took FOREVER to get on/off the scrambler simply because the scowling operator took his sweet time walking slowly back and forth to open/close the cars.

    Overall, I liked the rides and was pleased by the amount of shade and interesting shops. My husband was particularly enamored with the knife/gun shop though he couldn't hold any because he's not 21 yet.

    Plus, Peanuts characters trump Warner Bros. in my book!

    From John K on July 23, 2004 at 7:11 PM
    Knotts berry Farm I don't find their employees lazy. If you can't understand the rules being said over the speakers, there are signs that are posted in line and that YOU could read, it says the same things just like whats said over the microphone.

    In my visit today, they didn't let kids lean on the gates, sit/stand on handrails.

    They got some Fantastic rides there, Supreme Scream is just a real FREEFALL, and Perilous Plunge is a SOAKER.

    Knotts has something for everyone, its got the shops for the mothers who hate coasters, little kiddie rides for the little kids, and tHE BIG DRENCHERS AND THRILLS for us teenagers and young adults.

    Cedar Faire is good owner

    From Kevin Baxter on July 24, 2004 at 9:55 PM
    By those standards, Six Flags is a spectacular owner too! Yet I hate Knotts far more than I hate SFMM. And Knotts has much better theming in place, so it is extra sad.
    From Adam Villani on September 19, 2004 at 8:44 PM
    I think there are some places where Knott's could use some improvement, but overall I think it's a well-run park with a lot of variety, with some great thrill rides, good family-friendly rides, great theming throughout Ghost Town (weak elsewhere), and Camp Snoopy seems like a great kids' area. I also miss the Soap Box Racers... that was a great ride when I was a kid, fun and thrilling enough but tame enough to encourage multiple re-rides.

    I went back in July and was really puzzled by what they've done with Kingdom of the Dinosaurs, sending all the cars through at once in a train, rather than as separate cars. The cheez factor on that ride is pretty high, but the throughput was really slow with the weird train thing. I was also disappointed that they took out the Haunted Shack.

    After Silver Bullet, they'll definitely have enough thrill rides. Their next step should be to reinforce their quotient of family rides.

    From Adam Villani on September 19, 2004 at 8:53 PM
    I'd also like to say that I really like their cut-rate primitive animatronics in the Mine Train and the Log Ride. They've got a realistic, working-man's look to them, like lost souls condemned to saw wood or wield a pickaxe for eternity. I always feel kinda sad for the guys in the mine. I know that's probably not anything a theme park would aim for these days, but I like it.
    From Chris Beilby on October 10, 2004 at 7:24 PM
    Hi. I used to work at Knott's several years ago, and I loved to work on Tampico Tumbler. I am saddened, but not suprised to see that this favorite of mine (both to ride and to operate) is gone. Tumbler was a very, VERY tempermental ride, and if it wasn't loaded precisely right, it would go out of balance, and the safeties would kick in, shutting the ride down while it was elevated. We would then have to call the ride down and maintainance would have to come down and lower the ride, then reset the control system. If there was an arm that was really out of balance, they might even have to shift the arm from vertical to horizontal, which took even longer. As a result, the ride would go down at least two to three times a day on the average. This is usually too much downtime for any park to allow.

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