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Why Knott's Calico Mine Ride Remains an Inspiration

March 16, 2022, 12:00 PM · Like so many other creative professionals in the theme attraction industry, I was inspired at a very young age by many of the classic rides and shows which Disney and, later, Universal have produced. Yet there were many others -- not produced by those companies -- which influenced and excited me just as much and galvanized my desire to design and create entertaining themed attractions for a living. Most of those, sadly, are long gone.

One which happily remains -- still a favorite among guests at Knott’s Berry Farm -- is the Calico Mine Ride. I experienced the slow train excursion deep inside the rugged western mountain in 1960 -- its first year of operation -- while on a family vacation in southern California. I had visited Disneyland several times by then and had already fallen in love with the Snow White, Mr. Toad, Peter Pan, Alice In Wonderland and Submarine Voyage attractions. So as my parents and I approached the new Knott’s ride that summer day, I was full of anticipation of a great adventure to come.

I was not disappointed. Sure, compared to many of today’s dark ride attractions, the Calico Mine Ride is a passive, leisurely experience. But to my ten-year-old eyes and senses, it was absolutely breathtaking. Not an hour before I had been in a car speeding down a California freeway headed to Knott’s. And now, here I was, seated in a rickety old mine car being pulled by a locomotive through dangerous tunnels, beautiful caverns and a gigantic working mine. I was thrilled with not only the adventure, but the fact that it was all such a calculated and designed theatrical experience. It was all fake – even the miners! -- but I was amazed by the excellence of the fakery.

And I wondered: How did they make me feel – even for a brief few minutes – that I actually was riding through a mountain, tunnels, caverns & a mine? I had willingly suspended my disbelief and had bought into the journey. It was magical, and I knew that I wanted to someday help create attractions which theatrically propelled guests into other times, other places and other adventures.

It is a testament to the guests’ continued love of the Calico Mine Ride and to Knott’s dedication to preserving an entertaining attraction that it was totally refurbished in 2014. So many other wonderful old dark rides have not had such a happy fate. Hopefully guests will enjoy their visits to the mine for many years to come. And perhaps the Calico Mine Ride will inspire many other young dreamers – just like myself back in 1960 – to carry on the tradition of creating memorable and influential theme attractions.

Calico Mine Ride
Photo courtesy Knott's Berry Farm

I will add that there was another non-Disney or Universal ride which is lost, but had an equally significant impact on me. On vacation in southern California in 1958 my dad took me to the just-opened Pacific Ocean Park where we rode the Mystery Island banana train. We traveled through a jungle at the end of the amusement pier, up the side of a volcano, then into a cavern in the volcano where we saw boiling lava, experienced an earthquake, rode through the volcano’s crater, weathered a tropical storm and finally encountered a great Gooney Bird which was hatching from an egg in a huge nest. I remember my dad holding on to me during the rotating tunnel earthquake where vertigo took control. We thought we were going to fall out of the train.

It was all a simple illusion and we laughed after the “danger” was over. When I arrived home after the vacation, the Mystery Island ride was all I could talk about. I described to my friends and school mates every detail. Today it remains, along with the Calico Mine Ride and so many other imaginative shows and rides, a memorable and inspirational benchmark in my development as a theme attraction designer.

Drew Edward Hunter is the Vice President Creative Design for Sally Dark Rides. For more information about Knott's Berry Farm, please visit our Knott's Berry Farm review page, which has a link to discounted tickets.

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Replies (9)

March 16, 2022 at 12:48 PM

Sadly, so many small and independent parks lack the resources to maintain some of these older attractions, and I feel that their appeal is too often lost on the current generation. Ultimately, dedicated maintenance teams and loving fans keep some of them going, but far too many start breaking down and inevitably are closed. It's great to see some like Calico and Haunted Mansion at Knoebell's receive some TLC, but far too many are left to rot or determined to be a hassle and too expensive to maintain. Heck, even a modern dark ride like Curse of DarKastle that had the functionality to be upgraded was deemed too expensive to keep running, and was closed after just over 12 years of operation.

March 16, 2022 at 1:27 PM

Excellent post. Sometimes we forget in this crazy world that the most simple and basic things are the ones that are really the most magical.

March 16, 2022 at 8:43 PM

I'm making my first visit to Knott's this May. Can't wait to see the Mine Train (among other things).

March 17, 2022 at 7:30 AM

Some complain about any changes to a beloved ride. In 2003, I saw why changes are important, because I rode the Calico Mine Ride that year. That day I saw a tired, stale ride, a poster child to the importance of change.

Then Disneyland fired the Billys, they were hired by Knotts, and we got season passes. About that time, massive overhauls were made to this ride and the Timber Mtn Log Ride. Now? Those are 2 of my favorite rides anywhere. I usually ride the CMR twice, once per side.

Knotts is a rare park with great dark rides and big, honkin' roller coasters, a great combination.

March 17, 2022 at 8:27 AM

While I have never been to KBF, I fully embrace the "magic and wonder" of early childhood slow moving dark rides. Every year from 1975 through the mid 80s, we visited Hershey's Chocolate World with its omnimover dark ride through a "simulated" chocolate factory tour. I believed for over 10 years that was a real working chocolate factory and I adored it. Then 80s Epcot upped the bar and I to this very day, would rather be a passive participant enjoying the magic than shooting at targets or...ugh...slinging webs.

Bill Tracy's "Haunted House" on Ocean City Maryland's boardwalk scared the bejesus out of me as a child and here, 50 years later, I still get an uneasy feeling when buying a ticket for it! (and I am thrilled it has been preserved and maintained). But these types of attractions leave such an impact on kids that to see them vanish is heartbreaking. Understandably, audiences change and demands change over time but an 8 year old today is still going to stare with open-eyed wonder at lavishly created sets and impeccable animatronics. And there has to be more than just rollercoasters drawing kids into future careers in theme park engineering.

March 17, 2022 at 12:01 PM

I miss so many of the wonderful WDW dark rides, sometimes a slower ride offers the most fun over these high-speed coasters or big screen stuff. This is a gem and shows a refurbishment now and then helps a lot.

March 18, 2022 at 11:50 AM

Calico Mine Ride is a classic!

March 19, 2022 at 2:35 AM

From a design perspective, if you look at a diagram of the Calico Mine Ride, it's fascinating how Bud Hurlbut designed the ride to overlap the track over several different levels and how the building is so compact and yet feels like you are climbing and then rushing through many different elements of a mining operation.

Further, Hurlbut financed and built the attraction entirely with his own money and took an enormous gamble (much as Walt and Roy Disney had done five years earlier with the original Disneyland) on whether the attraction would be successful. As a concessionaire, he owned and operated the ride and paid an amount to the Knott family, which was the same arrangement he had with his other attractions at Knott's such as the Merry Go Round and Tijuana Taxi. The resounding success of the Calico Mine Ride gave Bud Hurlbut enough clout that Walter Knott agreed to his next idea for what would become another themed masterpiece attraction at Knott's, the Timber Mountain Log Ride, which opened in 1969.

(Eventually the Knott family bought out all of Bud Hurlbut's concessions, and Bud ended up opening his own amusement park in nearby Riverside, the still existing Castle Park.)

March 19, 2022 at 2:34 AM

I'd like to tell another story about Bud Hurlbut that involves Walt Disney.

If you look at photos of rides and attractions at the original Disneyland during the 1950s and early 1960s, they were basically metal chain switchback lines outdoors, the same as you'd see at a traveling fair or amusement park today.

Bud Hurbut designed the queue for the Calico Mine Ride, which opened in 1960, to wrap its way from the outside ticket booth into the back of the station, around picturesque waterfalls and a faux mining mountain.

As the story goes, one day Walt Disney was visiting at Knott's Berry Farm soon after the Calico Mine Ride had opened. He told Bud Hurlbut that he wanted to ride the new mine train ride, but he was in a hurry. From the front of the ride, it looked almost empty, but they went into the queue, and Disney was amazed that there were two hundred people waiting for the ride. "My God, that's a sneaky thing," he said to Hurlbut, realizing that a hidden queue (with an immersive environment) was a lot more enticing than switchbacks out in the open.

Soon after, Disney attractions like It's A Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean started featuring queues hidden from the entrance, often with theming related to the attraction.

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