Even though the most anticipated part of our trip was now over, we still had one final leg to our 15-day Epic Southern California Adventure. We switched from our Anaheim hotel near Disneyland to another Anaheim hotel further west to eliminate the daily parking charge. Our Saturday would be another busy day, though with a lot less walking than our days in Disneyland. While everyone talks about Disney “magic”, the House of Mouse has nothing on what would be our next destination.
The Magic Castle is not a place the average Southern California tourist can visit, and I’m fortunate to have married my wife, whose uncle has been a member the Academy of Magical Arts for many years. This was my second visit to the private club that only allows admittance to members and their invited guests. Typically, the Magic Castle is reserved for adults only, but children are allowed for weekend brunch visits where “future stars” perform throughout the venue instead of the older and more established professionals seen during evening events. A visit to the Magic Castle includes a buffet meal followed by performances scattered about the turn of the century Chateaux. The concept behind the club is to allow magicians to learn and practice around their peers without having to give away “tricks” to the public. You might see performers practicing sleight of hand in front of each other to see if they give away anything, or you might witness a new illusion that’s never been attempted. Our brunch visit included a number of performances by younger, highly decorated magicians. We’ve seen David Copperfield and Penn & Teller in Las Vegas as well as many other professional magicians around the world, and these kids we got to see at the Magic Castle could give even the most experienced professionals a run for their money. Aside from the main ticketed show of the day, there were off-the-cuff performances throughout the building where you could see these talented teenagers up close. We spent over 3 hours in the Magic Castle, but it was soon time for us to head down the road to our last baseball game of the trip.
The last couple of times we had visited LA, the Dodgers were either in the Post Season or in the off-season, so this was the first time we had ever been in the area when we could actually watch a game at venerable Dodgers Stadium. The landmark to Mid-Century Modern architecture is now the 3rd oldest stadium in MLB (behind Fenway and Wrigley) and is in stark contrast to Angels Stadium (actually just 4 years younger) with a distinctive focus on the field and the beauty of the game of baseball (look up photos of “baseball sky” and over half of the results are of Dodgers Stadium).
The only drawback here is that the cost to watch a Dodgers’ game is over twice the cost of an Angels’ game, and the concession prices are comparatively more expensive as well. We had very little rooting interest in the teams on the field (Padres were in town), but were enveloped in a great stadium atmosphere. I wouldn’t place Dodgers Stadium into my top 5 MLB ballparks (similar to Petco, it’s a bit tricky to navigate and the lower concourses are tight and stifling on a hot afternoon), but it’s definitely in the top half of my rankings (on par with Busch Stadium and Target Field).
Sunday would be our last day to utilize our Go Los Angeles Pass as we spent most of our day in Long Beach. The first part of our day was spent at the Queen Mary. The now retired ocean liner was once the rumored location for a Disney theme park (that famously became the blueprint for Tokyo Sea Disney), and features a number of different activities and tours. The Go Pass grants you admission and a ticket to one of the specifically themed tours. We chose the Ghost Tour, which takes guests through the hallways documenting the famous spectral sightings over the years. The tour was a bit on the corny side with a guide who was clearly following an established script, but was a fun way to pass the time. After the guided tour, we took a bit of time to walk around the ship on our own to appreciate the majesty of yore. I’m sure my son was wondering what people did for the weeks it took for the Queen Mary to cross the Atlantic with no swimming pools, water slides, roller coasters, indoor skydiving, bumper cars, and all of the other diversions found on modern cruise ships, but for a couple of hours he was sufficiently entertained.
After touring the Queen Mary, we made our way over to the docks to for a Long Beach Harbor Cruise. We actually had enough time to do a much longer 3-hour whale watching cruise, but unfortunately we didn’t realize that there were limited seats available for Go Pass holders on each sailing, and despite calling a couple of days in advance and checking again at the dock early in the morning, there was no availability. I wish we had known ahead of time that the Go Pass availability on the whale watching cruises was so limited (we could have taken the cruise if we were willing to pay cash, so the sailing wasn’t sold out), because we probably would have made reservations before arriving in LA. However, the harbor cruise we ended up taking was perfectly fine. It’s by no means something I would pay a separate admission for, but when bundled with other activities, it is a perfectly fine way to pass the time on a beautiful, sunny day in Long Beach. The cruise takes guests by the Queen Mary and into the main harbor where you can see seals basking on navigational buoys and off-shore oil drilling platforms disguised as islands.
The hour-long voyage was nothing special given that the most interesting landmark along the route was the Queen Mary, which we had toured earlier in the day, but being included in the Go Pass made it a no-brainer seeing as we had nothing else planned for the afternoon and the dock was directly adjacent to the aquarium.
Our last activity for the day on our Go Pass was the Aquarium of the Pacific. We’ve found aquariums to be a little hit or miss over our travels, but this one is definitely among the best we’ve been to. It’s not the largest aquarium you’ll find, but it has a large array of exhibits with much of the space designated for Pacific Coast ecosystems. There’s a really nice exterior space where there are reef and coastal touch pools, along with shark, sea lion, and penguin habitats.
The centerpiece of the aquarium is a colossal 3-story tall cylindrical tank that hosts talks with experts and divers about the vast array of sea creatures inside the massive habitat.
This tank doesn’t allow for a full 360-degree walk around like the one at the New England Aquarium in Boston, but the viewing space and constant guests engagement with expert and diver talks made this a highlight of our visit. It might not have the volume of exhibits and programs of larger facilities like the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, or the National Aquarium in Baltimore that can stand up to repeated full-day visits, but the Aquarium of the Pacific can definitely occupy 3+ hours of time to fully appreciate.
With our vacation time in Southern California slowly coming to the end, we finally reached the last theme park of our trip, Knott’s Berry Farm. As with Six Flags Magic Mountain, there were a few new attractions for me, while my son was getting a chance to experience many of the park’s top attractions for the first time since he was relegated to Camp Snoopy during our last visit in 2003. We deliberately planned to visit the park on a Monday to avoid heavy weekend crowds, and for the most part, the strategy worked with our longest waits of the day being for Ghost Rider (@30 minutes) and Timber Mountain Log Ride (@45 minutes). We started with Xcelerator since I noticed it was running just a single train.
This would be Zach’s first experience on a hydraulic launch coaster, and boy was he impressed. I think it we had let him, he would have ridden it all day. I do like the coaster, and appreciate it as the prototype for much bigger and better coasters around the world, but there were plenty of other attractions to experience so we limited ourselves to 4 rides (with a 5th later in the evening) before moving onto HangTime. HangTime is billed as a “dive coaster”, but aside from a slight slowdown prior to the beyond vertical first drop, there’s very little comparison to vertical drop coasters from B&M. The aspect of HangTime that annoyed me the most was that the spot where brakes are installed to slow the train from plunging down the first drop is no steeper than your typical roller coaster. It’s like going slowly down a shallow ramp before plunging off the side of a building, and all of the anticipation that could have been built through this brake run is ruined because the train doesn’t go vertical until after it starts accelerating beyond the brakes. I’m not sure why the drop is configured this way, because the manufacturer, Gerstautler, has other vertical drop coasters that go straight down right after the lift like Sponge Bob Square Pants Rock Bottom Pluge at Nickelodeon Universe and even Mystery Mine at Dollywood, which has a shallow ramp before going vertical, but doesn’t pick up as much speed prior to the main drop as HangTime. Aside from a misnomer of referring to this as a diver coaster, the rest of the experience is quite good. A compact layout like this usually portends a rough ride or a boring experience, but HangTime gives riders not only hang time, particularly on the first loop, but plenty of airtime and positive g’s. The coaster didn’t feel too short despite its small stature (just under 2,200 feet long), and the 4x4 train configuration allows guests variable experiences based on where you sit, though the front row was by far superior for hang time, air time, and visual excitement. HangTime will likely be topped next year by Mako (or whatever they’re going to call it) at Sea World San Diego, but for now, it’s the best coaster in Southern California with a beyond vertical drop.
Another new attraction for us since our last visit to Knott’s was Voyage to the Iron Reef. I was looking forward to this shooting gallery style dark ride since I rode its sister attraction, Wonder Mountain’s Guardian, in Canada’s Wonderland back in 2005. We smartly rode the attraction early in the day, because with just 4 people per car and a very slow dispatch procedure, this is probably one of the lowest capacity attractions in the park. The vehicles are very similar to those found on Ninjago at Legoland, but for some reason this attraction only loads a single vehicle at a time (Ninjago loads 4 at a time). We quickly got two rides on Iron Reef before crowds started filtering back to this part of the park, and never even bothered checking the line later in the day. I would say Iron Reef if middle of the road for rides of this type with some good graphics and 3-D effects, but not much else to separate itself from other shooting gallery attractions.
While not a new attraction, Timber Mountain Log Ride had gone through an extensive refurbishment since our last visit. With temperatures topping 90 degrees, the lines for the Splash Mountain predecessor were longer than I would normally tolerate for a log flume, but we dealt with the 45-minute wait. Splash Mountain and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls are still superior log flumes, but Timber Mountain is in that next tier with a lengthy course and lots of working animatronics and scenery (but not much of a story). The ride also lacked the big splash needed on a hot day, sadly our ride on also recently renovated Calico River Rapids was similarly pretty dry, but it’s a vast improvement over most regional park log flumes.
As the heat of the day reached its peak, we found ourselves in Ghost Town, and were instantly drawn into Ghost Town Alive. Ghost Town by itself was already one of the most detailed Western theme park lands in the world, but Ghost Town Alive takes it to an unprecedented level. Having visited Disneyland’s newest, most interactive land, Galaxy’s Edge, just a few days earlier, Ghost Town Alive presents the template that Disney should be shooting for. It’s easy to walk through Ghost Town and admire the attention to detail of the facades, interiors, and artifacts (many loaned or bequeathed to the park) paying homage to a bygone era. Guests could easily spend an hour walking through the town’s museum or perusing the gift shops littered with era-appropriate items. However, those willing to take a real step back into time can latch onto the improvisational stories being played out live every day by the park’s cast. We were initially engaged by Ghost Town Alive when we saw a gaggle of children running back and forth between the Town Hall and various buildings in the square. We quickly learned that the kids were working on a puzzle, which instantly peaked my son’s curiosity and affinity for solving riddles and puzzles. While we missed out on the opportunity to participate in the just completed puzzle, another mystery was afoot, and we were soon running around town seeking answers to clues that would eventually lead us to the next puzzle. Since there were no cell phones or other electronics in the Wild West, the clues had to be ferreted out the old fashioned way by either talking to a character or going to a specific location to find the answer. Our first set of clues took us to the Cemetery where we needed to find the names of townspeople based on their gravestones. Those names then were used to solve a word puzzle that would lead us to a location where the next puzzle would be revealed. Since Zach is a competitive kid, especially when it comes to solving puzzles, he was determined to reveal the next puzzle as soon as possible.
This is where Ghost Town Alive can get a little frustrating, but still utterly charming. It took us about 30 minutes to solve the puzzle, and in doing so we were able to determine the approximate location where the next puzzle would be revealed. However, even though Ghost Town Alive is very much a live, improvisational theater-like experience, it still necessitates that certain activities occur at specific times like any scripted performance. It was clear that we had solved the Cemetery puzzle too quickly, and the townspeople were being deliberately obtuse as to where the next puzzle would be revealed. After some extensive searching – did I mention my son is rather stubborn and doesn’t give up easily when he gets hooked into a puzzle – we finally determined the location of the next puzzle reveal. However, that reveal wasn’t going to occur for another hour, so while we felt pride in solving the puzzle, it was a bit depressing that we would have to wait so long for the reward of the next puzzle (and public kudos for solving the previous one). Unfortunately, we had reservations at Mrs. Knott’s for dinner shortly after the next puzzle would be revealed, so we knew that we wouldn’t be able to hang around.
While we were most attracted by the puzzle-solving campaign, there were plenty of other interactive activities happing in Ghost Town Alive.
There was a bank robbery, school-house lessons, trial, horse race, and cutthroat game of Emory Says (Simon Says) – Zach was Blue Ribbon winner, among a litany of other events.
If not for the dozens of world-class thrill rides and dinner reservation, we probably could have spent almost our entire day inside Ghost Town Alive, and even if you’re not into the puzzles, you could easily spend hours just watching this world unfold in front of your eyes.
It was clear that there were a number of “regulars” mingling with the actors demonstrating to me that Ghost Town Alive has far reaching appeal. As first timers, we were instantly drawn in, and had a great time (well over 2 hours) living a Wild West fantasy. I only wish we had realized how cool this was going to be, because we probably would have set aside more time for it. I also hope that Imagineers have spent some time in Ghost Time Alive to see how a live, interactive theme park land should be. The high level of character interaction that I was hoping to find in Galaxy’s Edge was here at Knott’s. A common rumor is that Disney has been averse to employing higher paid acting talent to perform in these improvisational, interactive roles, so it’s confounding that a park that attracts a fraction of the attention and revenue of Disneyland is able to have a dozen or more on-stage improvisational actors to inhabit Ghost Town Alive. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to spend any more time in Ghost Town Alive as it was time for our dinner at Mrs. Knott’s, so we had to leave the park to enjoy some home-style cooking.
It had been over a decade since my wife and I had last eaten at Mrs. Knott’s so we were looking forward to our last “big meal” of our trip. The home-cooking, family style restaurant is a must for anyone visiting the park if you can find the time to leave the bustle of the rides and attractions. Sadly, we overestimated our appetites despite a 5:30 reservation and light snacks for lunch. However, our inability to clean or plates did not decrease the quality of the meals with the crispy, delectable fried chicken at their core and ample portions that would satisfy virtually any appetite. I even tried the custom-brewed Boysenberry Beer from Shock Top (not particularly to my taste) to get the full effect, but recognized that the chicken was still the star.
With full bellies, and a run to the parking lot to put the left overs in the car, we re-entered the park for a final few hours. I thought we would be interested in the Summer Nights event, with bands, dancing, and games, but Zach was more interested in riding his favorite coasters at night. The lines for to top rides had gotten a bit longer than they were earlier in the day, which meant 20-30 minute waits for Hangtime and Xcelerator, but we did manage a nearly walk-on ride on Sierra Sidewinder, which we skipped earlier in the day due to long lines. I also took a few spins on Silver Bullet before the park finally closed for the evening.
With our final theme park day of the trip complete, it was time to unwind and get ready to go home. Our last day in Southern California was deliberately left open, but perhaps we should have planned something to do, because we ended up just sitting around the hotel before heading to the airport for our late afternoon flight home. It was definitely nice to spend some time relaxing, but we kind of felt like we were wasting time having been non-stop touring for 14 days. Nonetheless, our time in Southern California was coming to an end, and we would have to get back to work and our normal lives. It was an unforgettable vacation, but we can’t wait to plan our next theme park vacation, which will be a Disney World only trip in late January.
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