Knotts Berry Farm is not only the first theme park built in Southern California, but a trailblazer when it comes to interactive entertainment and rides for families. The Buena Park park is an excellent choice for families aiming to introduce their kids to the Californian Old West in an enjoyable way.
As the brainchild of a struggling Buena Park farmer born and raised in California, Knotts Berry Farm owes its existence to Walter Knott, his wife and an act of brilliant entrepreneurship. In addition, it involves the last six experimental plants of Rudolph Boysen ,who thought of crossbreeding blackberries, red raspberries, and loganberries.
Knott grew abundant harvests and soon people from all over Southern California were driving for miles to purchase the fresh boysenberries along with the delicious jams and pies made by Mrs. Knott. She also served customers her fried chicken which in turn birthed the world’s largest chicken dinner restaurant. The restaurant ,combined with her husband’s creative ideas to preserve the Old West and entertain customers, led to the Knotts Berry Farm theme park.
Last week I was invited to a media day celebrating the 75th anniversary of Ghost Town, the oldest of the park’s areas. I have to admit I was not too enthusiastic. I had never visited the park, knew nothing about its history, and overall am not a huge theme park fan. I expected to see a small park filled with roller coaster rides and characters, much like others that I have visited over the years. Instead, I discovered a charming and surprisingly educational park with many interactive activities that cater to all ages.
In fact, Knott’s Berry Farm has done a top-notch job reviving its Ghost Town. With hands-on activities and staff of skilled character actors, it gives visitors the unique opportunity to be transported back into times gone by and experience life in a mining town.
Knotts Berry Farm’s Ghost Town history
Knott’s Berry Farm’s oldest section, Ghost Town, is one of the six themed areas in the park. Built in 1940, it remains a fun and entertaining way to teach kids of all ages about the Old West lifestyle.
Most of the buildings are replicas constructed with parts saved from old buildings and houses around the immediate area. In a conscious effort to make Ghost Town more authentic, the builders used square peg nails as well as the technique of framing with old wood pieces to give the buildings the ‘right look.’
For its milestone 75th anniversary celebration, Ghost Town has been fully restored to its original glory and comes alive with quirky characters that visitors can chat or joke with, or even interview for a class project.
Some critics may peg Ghost Town as somewhat politically incorrect, with its saloon can-can dancing, ‘cathouse’ style hotel and a general store selling guns and knives, but it maintains its nostalgic charm and vibrant folkloric Western spirit that is an integral part of the American culture.
Meet some of the Old West living characters
During the Media Day, I got the chance to stroll around Ghost Town.
On Main Street, my first stop was the barbershop where I got myself a walrus mustache to fit in with the locals. I bumped into Mr. Lee’s laundry shop where I did my laundry by hand.
The blacksmith shop was next. The actual venue is one of the several buildings brought to the town from a nearby ranch.I joined visiting school students who watched attentively the blacksmith demonstrating how to make horseshoes.
Across the street, the sheriff and his deputy were heading to stop some public disturbance (never a dull moment in this town) and suggested I speak with Sad Eye Joe, Ghost Town’s only incarcerated resident for the past 75 years.
History aficionados will love to know that Joe’s creator was none other than Andy Anderson, a caricaturist who worked for Knotts and who is responsible for many other carved characters and vignettes scattered around the park.
When touring Main Street, guests can send a telegram from the post office, visit the local bank that according to the teller has never been robbed, and check the barn to see stagecoach horses and miners’ donkeys. Kids may get a kick out of sitting on an old-fashioned bench and writing on an old-styled blackboard notebook when the teacher tests them.
And the dearly and not so dearly departed…
Visitors can get acquainted with the dearly departed buried at Boothill Cemetery and become intrigued by the heart beats coming from Hiram McTavish’s grave. When I asked why some graves had a fence around them while others didn’t, the guard explained that the poor who couldn’t afford the fences risked being dug up by coyotes. Guess in an odd way, money helps the dead too.
Strike it rich in Knotts Berry Farm !
The most exciting spot for kids is the gold-panning activity which opened in 1948 for the centennial celebration of the gold discovery in California’s Sutter’s Mill. All participants get to return home richer with a couple of tiny gold nuggets in a small jar.
Explore Ghost Town’s noteworthy landmarks
Like many other mining towns, Knott’s Ghost Town comes fully equipped with a bottle house. Built back in 1946, they boast over 3000 champagne bottles brought over from California’s Death Valley.
The Western Trails Museum is full of interesting artifacts including a horse-drawn fire engine. The museum started off as a private collection by Marion Speer, a friend of Walter Knott. The theme park officially took it over in 1956. Visitors interested in Southern California’s mining history would find it fascinating.
If you are curious, like I was, about the connection between the actual city of Calico and the Park’s Ghost Town named Calico, here’s the short answer. A big fan of the Old West, Walter Knott purchased the town of Calico, renovated it and bequeathed it to the State of California in the mid-60s.
Attend Ghost Town’s wild west shows
Ghost town has several entertainment venues with shows highlighting the Old West.
There’s the Birdcage Theater kept for holiday performances and Calico Stage, which was undergoing refurbishment the day I visited.
I did get a chance to enjoy the can-can review in the Calico Saloon and the Wagon Camp Show, rife with humorous stunt-action. Personal tip for the Wagon Show: get a seat in one of the wagons for an unobstructed viewing spot. Oh, and sample the boysenberry beer.
Sadly, I missed the show at the Mystery Lodge that features Pacific Northwest Native American stories and uses a hologram system. Hopefully I’ll see it next time.
Don’t forget the rides!
I was excited to discover that Knott’s offers a diverse selection of rides ranging from the mild to the intense, catering to the entire family. The one thing the rides have in common is they all showcase the Old West in some form or other.
There’s the inverted rollercoaster Silver Bullet, the Pony Express that launches riders from 0 to 38 mph in three seconds and, for the most adventurous guests who don’t mind getting soaked, river rafting on Bigfoot Rapids and the Timber Mountain Log ride.
For guests who prefer mild rides, the gentle Butterfield Stagecoach and the Calico Railroad steam train built in 1881, are good choices. Just be prepared to be robbed by bandits!
The Calico Mine Train is a delightful option if you don’t mind the dark. Refurbished with new animatronics, you get to see miners hard at work including laying down dynamite!
The newly restored Ghost Rider was showcased during the Media Day. Open since 1998, it holds the title of the longest and fastest wooden roller coaster on the West Coast. Retrofitted with look-alike mining train carts, it is well worth the extra heart palpitations you will experience even if you aren’t a coaster fan.
Sample some of that Knotts grub and libations
Knott’s Berry Farm started with fried chicken and boysenberries, so don’t leave without tasting both. Time allowing, dine at the newly overhauled Mrs. Knott’s Restaurant where they have a separate bar area serving boysenberry mojitos and lemon drop cocktails.
However, if you are in a rush, you can stop by Ghost Town Grill for the chicken and Sutter’s Grill for funnel cake.
Coffee drinkers can choose boysenberry frappuccino or lattes at the park’s Starbucks. Both are off-the-menu items only park insiders know about and can serve as a sweet snack after the chicken lunch.
Take home some Knotts goodness
Before leaving the park, visitors should stop at Virginia Emporium (named and owned for many years by the family daughter) to buy some boysenberry jam and salsa. If you’d like to share ‘A taste of Knott’s’ with your friends or family like I did, stop by the bakery for a fresh boysenberry pie and pick some fried chicken at the take-out restaurant.
Overall, my day in Knotts Berry Farm’s section of Ghost Town was enlightening and entertaining. In fact, I had so much fun that I am planning on returning with my son this summer, not only for him to participate in Ghost Town’s 75th celebrations that will continue until Labor Day, but to explore the other park areas too.