In 1959 Knotts Berry Farm was a bucolic and bona fide piece of Americana and shared prosperity. The chicken dinners became so profitable that Walter Knott saw fit to entertain his customers gratis while they waited two to three hours for their fried poultry goodness. He moved in an authentic ghost town,a small zoo, a ten minute blacklight cyclorama about the pioneer’s journey west. Ducks and chickens and peacocks roamed free or ran free as was the case from squealing kids on dirt roads. Most of Walter’s berry orchards were moved to larger and more fertile lands.
Disney was the new and biggest kid on the block but Knotts wasn’t going anywhere. Bud Hurlbut was an engineer and architect that designed miniature train rides for amusement parks everywhere, and he began to partner up with the Knotts as a concessionaire installing several small rides and an antique carousel. After much persuading and going after investors, Bud had built The first major attraction at the park and set the standard for the first immersive dark ride in 1960 .
The Calico Mine Train was both fanciful and educational in depicting the California fever to strike it rich. Over fifty years later, the old gal was still entertaining the elderly and families with toddlers. But ride afficianados like myself could see her groaning under years of neglect, and the parent company that bought out the family some years earlier had a history of razing their old dark rides in favor adding new thrill rides to their ever growing collection of parks. A change of management in the park and a wise decision to listen to park visitors by Cedar Fair Entertainment resulted in a Disneyesque reboot of the Log Ride last year. Its immediate success resulted in more than a new coat of paint for the Calico Mine Train, this amusement park work horse.
Officially, the Calico Mine Train ride is now open to the public, but I was lucky enough to be among the first to climb inside the rehabilitated tressels and caverns during the media ribbon cutting (actually powder keg blasting) ceremonies last Thursday. The best thing about the new Mine Train is that at its core it’s still the same ride. It strives for a grittier feel than Timber Mountain Log Ride, whose workers look way too glassy-eyed and happy, like a bunch of “E-Tards” in flannel. All of the 100 or so new animatronics are facially action appropriate to the task and very realistic . Some of the scenes just needed some new window dressing and modern lighting, like the steampots and stalagmite chambers.
You won’t be able to see it all the first time around, but once you go through it a few times, see if you can spot some of the dusty original old timers repurposed for the reincarnation. The monumental refurbishment (an understatement) went to Garner Holt Productions, who won’t take kindly if you ask them how much time they spent in the Glory Hole. I got a nice bag of swag with a commemorative coin and a replica of the old stand alone tickets from back when Knotts was still a gate free park. They also opened a spruced up version of Camp Snoopy, now celebrating its 30th year. But with the exception of three new kid’s rides, it just means new signs, a little more shade and fountains, and lots of floral landscaping. Knotts has raised it’s price a bit but its year long pass is lower than a day park hopper ticket at Das Maus Land, and the family overflow who can’t cope with it are showing up at Knotts.
Photos by Amber Clark
My one gripe with the new version is that the live drivers no longer provide the narrative.Instead you get canned tours from three random and separate characters. Each one has something slightly different to say but the old mine cars aren’t any less noisy than they used to be and coupled with the new sound effects and occasional greeting from individual robots the story itself is a tough sell requiring another ride or two devoted to listening to make it all out.