A Cedar Point Guy Discovers the Theme Parks of L.A.

February 16, 2016, 11:55 AM · I'm fifty-nine years old. I've been going to amusement parks since 1965. As a child I watched "Disneyland" every Sunday night. I cried when I heard that Walt Disney died. And yet I have never been to Disneyland, or even California, until the first week of February 2016.

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).

At Knott's

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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Replies (19)

February 16, 2016 at 12:06 PM · "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." We'd love for you to discuss this over on the CPFoodBlog! :)
February 16, 2016 at 1:31 PM · Great article.

Disneyland hit me too. I was in my 30s. I have been to the Magic Kingdom hundreds of times and even worked there (Thunder Mtn!). I spent most of the day smugly thinking "heh, this is cute." After a meal at the Blue Bayou, my wife and I were standing in the viewing area for Fantasmic and I was absent mindedly watching the Columbia load people.

Then it happened. I realized I was watching a version of something I had only ever seen on The Wonderful World of Disney TV show. My mind was flooded with the memories I had of those Disneyland scenes on TV and it raced to match them up with the visuals I could see with my own eyes. I suddenly realized I had never truly been here... and here I was.

I just sat down. My wife took my hand and sat down with me. She asked if I was ok.

"I just need a moment" I said. "Where we are just hit me."

It was an awesome experience I hope everyone can have in their life.

February 16, 2016 at 1:45 PM · Excellent article James. That was a refreshing slant. The thought that impressed me the most was, "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". Because that's the way we spend our vacations at Universal Orlando. The layout & close proximity of hotels to parks and entertainment is conducive to slowing down and smelling the roses.
February 16, 2016 at 1:56 PM · Good stuff, Jim! I am glad you had a fun trip, and I am glad I get to say, "I told ya so" in relation to needing more time at DCA.

So, the million dollar question: DL's Pirates of the Caribbean, or MK's?

February 16, 2016 at 2:13 PM · Best article I've read in a while. I agree with you James, I often get the impression that so many people focus too much on the big E-tickets and don't spend enough time looking at the little details, when really it's the little details that make these parks so great. I think that's why I personally fell in love with theme parks. They lured me in with their impressive rides and then kept me completely hooked with all these little details.
February 16, 2016 at 2:20 PM · Disneyland Park, hands down.
February 16, 2016 at 2:29 PM · Full disclosure: I am that so-called "encyclopedia of knowledge" who was James' (primary) host for his first visit to California. Duuuuuude. I've already offered James my feelings about his article, when he had me proof it for errors. (He neglected to mention the prayer mat he carried around, so that he could kneel in the direction of Sleeping Beauty Castle several times a day, but I'll let that slide.). James' last paragraph especially I felt was a rather profound conclusion to our few days touring parks together. Most of my thoughts I've already shared with James, and I'll post them here as well:

"Your article is incredible. If it gets posted, I dare say it would be by an enormous magnitude the most heartfelt thing to ever appear on TPI. Speaking broadly, it seems a call-to-arms for all to reevaluate their home parks anew. I know that by hosting you, and touring in a different manner from normal, I managed to view my parks anew. I think you gave Knott’s a wonderfully fair evaluation, as oftentimes the people who are purely Disney gonzo only see the differences, and only see those as negatives. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the Knott’s staff, who I’ve always found to be the most personable, warm and engaged – this is what makes Knott’s to me a true local’s park in a way Disney just cannot be, by its size. Knott’s is like a homespun work of love. Okay, Disneyland started that way as well, but it no longer retains that quaintness. This is a thoughtful article, one that I’m flattered to be a part of."

February 16, 2016 at 3:09 PM · I really want to make it out the South CA and Cedar Point. I can only go to Great Adventure so many times before El Toro gets boring.
February 16, 2016 at 3:29 PM · Although I live in Northern Nevada now, I grew up in California. DL IS my park. It is the place I watched my Dad embrace miniatures (Storybook Land) and the only theme parks my parents would go to. This article brought a few sniffles as I always feel the most connected to Walt himself. James, I have one suggestion...please try to see the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. That experience brought me to (almost) snotty tears and delivered me right back to the avocado shag rug in my childhood living room on a delightful Sunday Night. (I cannot login on my phone)
February 16, 2016 at 3:34 PM · Jaiden, I hope you get your wish! They are all really amazing places. And Douglas, you, AJ and Blake made it one of the best weeks of my life. I can't thank you enough, other than to tell you how excited I am to be able to repay the kindness you showed me In SoCal, and challenge you to write your own version of this article from the viewpoint of a SoCal guy discovering the theme parks of Ohio.
February 16, 2016 at 4:21 PM · Excellent article, and much better than a play by play trip report for parks as well known as these. I was pretty much the secondary guide for this trip, meeting up with James and Douglas (and Blake one day) for a good portion of each of the four days, and I honestly enjoyed these visits more than most. It is always fun to visit a local park with a first time visitor, and there are definitely things I rediscovered in each of the parks. For example, we spent the first hour or so at Knott's just wandering around Ghost Town, and while I've seen a lot of the displays I had forgotten how good some of them really were. When you visit a park several times per year you sometimes focus on the things you like and neglect the smaller elements as "seen it before." Over time, you forget what those "seen it before" elements really are like, and more often than not those are what make the park.

I think you nailed it with your analysis of the parks. Knott's is the smaller regional park that has a really nice balance of everything and, while lacking the reputation of it's neighbor just down I-5, provides an excellent day for all but the Disney/Universal snobs. Disneyland is the original destination park, and despite all the changes that have happened over 60 years it still has a magic about it that other versions lack. And DCA is the sibling of Disneyland, that while troubled early in life and overshadowed by its older brother still provides a top tier experience and a very nice companion to the park across the esplanade. I hope you manage to make it out to So Cal again, and perhaps you'll be able to revisit your favorites and sample a couple other offerings here. That is one of the nice things about the region: We have seven major parks, all of varying quality levels, but each one is completely unique with its own set of pros and cons and it is really difficult to compare any two of them directly against each other.

February 16, 2016 at 6:21 PM · Just remember, James, that there's no shame in crying the first time you visit Disneyland. Why, back in 2001, I wept openly when I first visited DCA.
February 16, 2016 at 7:54 PM · Thanks James for a great article! I always enjoy first trip reports as they seem to best capture that "aha" moment. Thank you for sharing your experience and the uniqueness of the parks!
February 17, 2016 at 4:55 AM · Thanks, everyone! I would love to see more articles about our first-time visits to parks and how they impacted us, good or bad.
February 17, 2016 at 10:37 AM · No USH? Hmm...
February 17, 2016 at 11:06 AM · I didn't have enough time vacation time, WWOHP was not open, and I didn't want to rush through the parks that we did go to. As it was, I wish I had another day at DCA. Sorry if my vacation plan didn't meet your approval.
February 17, 2016 at 11:17 AM · Thanks for sharing, James! I got a big chuckle out of your "rat colony" line.
February 17, 2016 at 11:41 AM · Thanks, Melanie! It was great fun out there! And much nicer weather than I left behind in Ohio (of course, it was raining the day I arrived in LA, much to my disappointment and to everyone out there's joy).
February 18, 2016 at 1:45 AM · James, I read the article with baited breath wondering if I would have to ask you if you cried at Disneyland.
I absolutely did too. Walking in Walt's footsteps, it was all too much. I bid him a fond goodnight & thank you towards the firehouse when I left for the last time as well.
Oh the feels....

I think I shared a lot of your views on my first visits. I actually stayed at Knotts and the staff friendliness carried over to the hotel too (apart from one thoroughly miserable server at the breakfast buffet one day but you can't have everything).
Thanks for a great article!

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