Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Knott's Berry Farm's "Ghost Town" Is Alive

Dear Friends,

I just read a 2015 article out of Southern California that talks about how Knott's Berry Farm has transformed its original "Ghost Town" attraction into the new "Ghost Town Alive" in celebration of its 75th Anniversary this year.

While Knott's Berry Farm located in Buena Park in the Los Angeles area, has had thrill rides and such for many many years, its first attraction was its Ghost Town which was originally created during the summer of 1941 before the opening days of World War II.

It was created by the park's original owner Walter Knott who was an Old West enthusiast. Back in 1941, Knott's Berry Farm was an actual working berry farm. It's main attraction at the time was his wife Cordelia Knott's fried chicken restaurant.

For me, the first time that I'd ever been to Knott's Berry Farm was in 1974 when I was stationed in Camp Pendleton as a young Marine. I found Knott's Berry Farm one of the greatest places to visit, especially if you were brought up as most of us were back then on television Western and John Wayne movies.

Going on "liberty" in our uniforms was a 50-50 proposition those days. Half the time we were treated like scum by most of the civilians in Southern California, especially the college kids who would harass us with their anti-military attitudes. The other half of the time people want us to simply leave and go back to the base.

That was not the case at Knott's Berry Farm. They loved us and we appreciated the sentiment. In fact, they had a Saloon that served Sarsaparilla. And yes, they had a pounding away on an old honky-tonk piano. When we Marines would first walk in, that piano player would switch over to the Marine Corps hymn and everyone would applaud. Between that sort of greeting and the cancan dancers, the Old West atmosphere, it was a great place. It was very family friendly.

Besides the blacksmith shop, the western wear store and tack shop, there was the John Wayne Theater. Walter Knott was good friends with John Wayne and loved that they shared the same personal values. 

When Knott's was looking for a name for his 2,150 seat Knott’s Berry Farm theater, he named it the John Wayne Theater. It is said that California Governor Ronald Reagan and John Wayne himself presided over the celebrity-filled opening ceremonies of the theater. They had great shows there -- all perfect for families to enjoy.

OK, so here's a bit of trivia for you. The bronze statue of John Wayne that once welcomed folks to the John Wayne Theater can now be found in front of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. Yes, that's where it came from.

As for cowboys and Old West enthusiasts, there were always the occasional cowboy or gold prospector roaming the streets of Ghost Town back then. It was always great to chew the fat with them. 

Today it's said to be just as much fun, especially at the park's town of Calico which has been populated with a cast of character actors who interact with guests in a sort of daylong improv show.

The new Knott's Berry Farm attraction is an immersive interactive experience for park-goers in "Ghost Town Alive." Yes, it's said to be the latest craze in theme park design. 

While I haven't been back since 1977, up until a few years ago, Knott's Berry Farm's Ghost Town had what was called "peek-ins." That's where a visitor wanting to look into a building would find mannequins inside depicting a scene. 

Yes, there were mannequins dressed up in period correct clothing to help visitors understand what life in the Old West looked like. It is something that many museums and other historic sites still do today. Usually they include prerecorded voices of people talking about what you may be looking at. 

That's not the way it is anymore. Today, it is said that everything is different. Today they actually put people into those buildings. So if you go into the sheriff's office, you can play poker with the sheriff in his office. You can have your gold weighed at the assayer office. You can go to Hop Wing Lee's Chinese Laundry and wash your clothes. You can go into barbershop and interact with a barber. 

Yes, it sounds a lot different from back in 1977 during my last visit when cowboys actually roamed the streets of Ghost Town -- but mannequins occupied many of the buildings. Now everything that was just something to look at, which was museum quality, has actually come alive in "Ghost Town Alive.".

So yes, now a guest is going to be connected and develop a relationship with all of the citizens in the town of Calico. That means talking and interacting with the mayor, the sheriff, the judge, the blacksmith, store clerks, bartenders, and all sorts of other characters. 

Of course while every Old West town had their scoundrels and their vermin, Calico has the Mayfield Gang.

You can be there when they come into town to start some trouble and just kind of stir things up. They're the kind of gang that you love to hate and hate to love. 

But of course, the law is on the side of the good and it's up to the sheriff, the judge, the mayor, and the townspeople to stand up to them. Which of course, as in the Old West, they did just that.

So what is the "Ghost town Alive"? It's where the guests are a part of that and they're helping solve the crime of the day while having a great deal of fun, And friends, it's really not about the characters and the actors that are in Ghost Town, the story is driven by the guests who interact with our characters. 

After reading about what's going on these days in Knott's Berry Farm, I'm thinking they are on the right track. If someone is interested in the Old West, they are going to want to be a part of what's going on there. 

Lastly, it should be noted that there's a huge difference between Knott's Berry Farm's Ghost Town and what other parks such as Star Wars or the Harry Potter parks have to offer. The difference is that Knott's Berry Farm's Ghost Town is recreating Old West life as it actually happened. 

And yes, even in a small way by getting a handlebar or walrus mustache "shave" at the Barbershop, or trying your luck at a game of cards with the sneaky Sheriff, or meeting an old prospector and his trusty burro "Brutus". And how about panning for gold, locking up bandits in the town's patty wagon, voting for the Mayor in the town election, drawing up hand-made wanted posters, visiting the Livery Stable to meet the friendly equestrian team of horses, riding a real Old West steam train, or learning how Blacksmith do their magic. 

So yes, it's a history lesson in and of itself. It's educational as well as fun. And frankly, if we want our children to like history and maybe become inspired to learn more about what took place in our nation's history -- make it fun and that will give them the desire to learn more.

There are generations now who know little to nothing about the Old West, I'm hoping this will help change that in making the Old West interesting and fun.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. Interesting. I've been to the "real" Calico ghost town near Barstow but I never knew that Knott owned it. I wonder if any buildings in "Ghost Town" (now "Alive") were brought out from the original Calico.

  2. In 1951 Walter Knott inherited his uncle's silver mill in Calico, an old silver mining town near Barstow, where he worked as a child, then proceeded to purchase the entire town and restored the Calico Hotel there. Many structures were re-created on the ruins of their foundation. Other structures were disassembled, removed, and reassembled near the railroad depot to create the new Calico Square at Knotts Berry Farm.

  3. I grew up in Anaheim just a few blocks away from Knott's, we moved there from Maywood in LA Co. In 1961, my dad still lived in that same house until recently when he had to move to a senior apt in Fullerton. So I grew up riding over to Knott's as a child, back then the park was wide open, only have to pay for the rides. My most favorite place was jungle island, I've been told that it's no longer there, sad. And I remember the young Marines and sailors from the near by bases during the Vietnam war, most of who were very polite. My parents taught us to have a deep respect for these young men who served in our military & I always have. I've been married 2 x and both of my husband's have been ex-military...good men! I have wonderful memories of growing up in OC SoCal area from the sixties and seventies but it's so sad how bad things are there now ☹️😢

  4. There has been a persistent rumor that Dee Woolem started the sport of fast draw at Knott's Berry Farm back in 1954. Today, the sport has become popular and there are many clubs all over the world. You can choose your own alias and dress in period correct Western clothing. As for Knott's Berry Farm and Calico Ghost Town, they are legendary in their own right. The theme park has been around now for 80 years and people still love it. I can't think of a better place in California except for Disneyland to go visit. Here's to hoping Knott's Berry Farm has many more years to come.


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