We have no shortage of options when it comes to theme parks here in Southern California (and I'm a big fan of ALL of them), but Knott's Berry Farm holds a special place in my heart. My grandparents frequently took me to Knott's Berry Farm when I was a kid, wistfully telling me tales of the days that they would visit during my mom's childhood. “This is the oldest theme park in America,” grandpa would say, launching into an explanation about the historical significance of the train tracks running throughout the park.
It was on one of these trains that I was “held up” for the first time. I remember it vividly. A cartoony, bearded man stormed onto our car and staggered, bowlegged, right on over to me. “Hey Raggedy Ann, give me all yer money!” he said in his gruffest tongue-in-cheek voice to the doll I clutched in my four-year-old arms.
I got to re-live that moment last week with my own four-year-old, and it was just as nostalgic as I envisioned.
Immersive theater is all the rage right now. Theme parks are battling it out and one-upping each other to give guests a chance not only to see a performance and ride a ride, but to feel like they're in a whole other world with characters and interactive play. Knott's Berry Farm has always been extremely hands-on with their Snoopy interactions and their character cast in the Ghost Town section, so it wasn't hard for them to amp it up and really knock it out of the park with this summer's special choose-your-own-adventure experience that they're calling, “Ghost Town Alive!”
If you're a Westworld fan, it kind of feels like wandering through the set. Just with fewer robots and zero creep factor.
The adventure story starts off with the no-good outlaw Mayfield family running loose, leaving poor Sheriff Wheeler to deputize park guests (the good citizens of Calico) to help make the bandits pay for their crimes. The boys and I got pulled into some mail delivery tasks and old wild west games. While some of the storyline was lost on our younger crew, Sidekick was incredibly excited about his new “friends” and wouldn't stop showing off his new cap gun.
The town folk were all appropriately impressed. Almost like someone paid them to ooh and aaah at my sweet 4-year-old's endless stories.
Some Boy is always strangely drawn to the school house and other old historic buildings. If only he were so enthusiastic about his own elementary school! We've spent hours upon hours during countless park visits walking through all of these displays, and the kids seem to learn something new each time.
Back to the adventure, a crowd gathering at town hall drew our attention. There seemed to be some sort of vote-rigging shenanigan involved in the plotline, and at one point I believe the kids were given a choice between joining the Mayfield gang or planning a bank robbery. Instead, they opted to meander their way into the town saloon to mingle with the bartender and enjoy some cold sodas.
It may not be the best idea to ply your children with soda at a theme park, but these drinks are SO good. And the upper deck in the saloon is a nice, quiet spot to unwind for a bit.
The boys eventually decided to take in a little more wild west kinship when this bandana-clad gentleman offered to show them where the free candy was kept. They were more than happy to take candy from a stranger. We may need to discuss that.
The same gentleman let us know where to head for the hoedown at the end of the day, and the kids gleefully led the way! It was such a blast. We're all terrible at line-dancing and stepped on each other's feet way too many times, but this is the stuff that memories are made of.
While this special experience is all about the acting the part, Knott's is still the place to be if you want rides to immerse you in the wild west experience as well. The infamous Calico Mine ride (which underwent an extensive restoration in 2014) shows you the ins-and-outs of a realistic working mine on a journey through winding caverns. It was actually the first ride to incorporate a hidden switchback to make the line appear shorter than it really was. Legend has it that when Walt Disney came to wait his turn, he was so astonished that he loudly declared, “You old S.O.B!” and promptly stole the idea for his own parks. That ride is definitely the perfect way to cap off your day of wild west adventure.
You're also bound to be hungry at some point during this ongoing charade, so be sure to hit up Fireman's Brigade for authentic wild west-style food. This place has fire-roasted corn, BBQ chicken, ribs, cole slaw and more. It's meaty and delicious and is a particularly awesome value for theme park food.
Ghost Town Alive continues through Labor Day. Since the adventure is self-led and completely varies based on the characters you happen to interact with and the responses you choose, you could go again and again and be endlessly entertained. If you're in SoCal, it's a must-do experience!
Are you planning any theme park trips this summer?