You may think the modern theme park began with Disneyland in Anaheim, California, but many of its core concepts really came from an older park a few miles north: Knott’s Berry Farm.
It would take a book to trace the 100-year history from an actual berry farm to the 12th-most visited theme park in the U.S. What I’m here to do is explain why this place is worth visiting.
Orlando theme park fans often think Disney and Universal exist in a class by themselves as multi-day destinations. For the most part, they’re right, but Knott’s has a charm and a storied history that puts it well above your average regional theme park.
The value proposition doesn’t hurt, either; you can generally find discounted Knott’s tickets for around $50 and the lowest-priced season passes, at the time of this writing, will only cost you $130 — pretty close to the price of a single day at Disneyland.
The dark rides
Larger regional parks, like Ohio’s Cedar Point or North Carolina’s Carowinds (both part of the Cedar Fair chain that owns Knott’s) are often thought to be heavy on roller coasters and thrilling flat rides but light on everything else. Again, that’s not an inaccurate assumption in many cases, but Knott’s is an exception.
Strange as it may sound to thrillseekers, the ride that I most wanted to experience at Knott’s was not a big coaster, but the legendary Calico Mine Ride. Opened in 1960, this dark ride through a faux mountain features not only beautiful scenery, but dozens of animatronic figures — well before Disney’s Pirates of Caribbean. In fact, Walt Disney himself was a spectator while the ride was under construction.
Your train slowly snakes through caverns and underground lakes before an explosion of dynamite propels you towards the exit. Coaster enthusiasts may bypass it for the next big steel behemoth, but for me, Calico Mine Ride is the kind of timeless attraction that made me fall in love with theme parks. Seeing one outside the Disney and Universal bubble was worth the price of admission alone.
Other attractions at Knott’s mix the thrills with that timeless quality, like Timber Mountain Log Ride, which combined animatronic scenes and water ride thrills 20 years before Splash Mountain, though on a smaller scale. Calico River Rapids is much newer — having debuted in 1987 as Bigfoot Rapids before a 2019 overhaul — but has that same balance. And in my opinion, it pulls it off better than similar Disney (like Kali River Rapids) or Universal (Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges) water rides.
If you’re looking to settle back down into a quintessential Knott’s experience, try the Calico Railroad. Dating from 1952 (yes, Knott’s had a railroad before Disneyland even existed) the ride uses an authentic early 1900s train with fully enclosed seating, unlike its Disney counterpart. You’ll even get to chuckle as two hapless bandits attempt to rob you as he departs from the train depot.
The dark ride lineup got a boost in 2021 with the addition of the Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair, an 4D interactive shooter. While technically just a retheme of the short-lived Voyage to the Iron Reef, Bear-y Tales overperforms because it brings back Knott’s characters from a dark ride that ran from 1976 to 1985. It’s not a marquee attraction by any stretch, but having two dark rides in a regional park is incredibly rare, much less having one steeped in park lore — and move some unique merch, too.
I may be gushing over the animatronic rides, but I don’t want to undersell the stellar coaster lineup at Knott’s.
The 4,553-foot-long, 118-foot-tall GhostRider is the tallest and longest wooden coaster on the West Coast. It’s smoother than most woodies (thanks to an extensive 2015 refurbishment) without losing a hint of that feeling of being on a runaway train. The superb airtime moments, lateral turns and near-constant head-choppers through its wooden support structure make this one of my top 10 coasters.
I highly recommend hitting this ride first thing in the morning. Even when rope-dropping the park, almost everyone else will also make GhostRider their first priority, so wait times will start climbing quickly.
My pick for the No. 2 coaster at Knott’s is Xcelerator, built by Intamin, the coaster firm behind several of my favorites, such as VelociCoaster at Universal Orlando and Pantheon at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Unlike those magnetically-launched coasters, Xcelerator uses a hydraulic launch, sending riders from 0 to 82 miles per hours in 2.3 seconds to climb up the 205-foot top hat. The ride is over in less than 25 seconds, and while it’s a smaller precursor to the larger Intamin creations Top Thrill Dragster and Kingda Ka, the intensity of this shorter hydraulic launch is something that every coaster fan needs to experience.
Another standout coaster is HangTime, a relatively new addition to the park in 2018. The defining feature of this Gerstlauer Infinity steel coaster is its vertical lift hill and first drop. After ascending 150 feet straight up, your train is momentarily stalled ahead of the 96-degree drop, followed by five different kinds of inversions. As the name implies, you’ll get plenty of hang time.
The middle tier of Knott’s coasters includes Silver Bullet, a solid inverted coaster (think Batman: The Ride at Six Flags parks) that winds around the lake near Fiesta Village; Montezooma’s Revenge, a classic shuttle loop coaster (which will be overhauled and renamed in 2023); and Sierra Sidewinder, a spinning coaster whose placement in the Camp Snoopy area hides some surprising intensity.
Not all the coasters are created equal here. Pony Express, for example, features odd seats shaped like a horse, but otherwise the 36-second experience simply isn’t worth the slow loading time. Not all the coasters are created equal here. Pony Express, for example, features odd seats shaped like a horse, but otherwise the 36-second experience simply isn’t worth the slow loading time. CoastRider is a subpar Wild Mouse coaster, as excessively strong trim brakes make each turn too mild and the cumbersome leg restraints are the most restrictive I’ve seen on this coaster model.
The biggest downside to Knott’s ride lineup are the actual operations. For those used to Disney and Universal service, you’ll notice procedures that slow down operations and hamper your touring. Some of that is on the typical regional park procedures, like allowing riders to store loose items on the platform before riding a coaster. But considering Knott’s is open year-round, it’s disappointing to see slower dispatch times than at some seasonal parks.
These small delays cause wait times to increase, but you may not know before you get in your next queue. Knott’s does have a mobile app, but its updates lagged well behind the real wait times. On one visit, I decided against another ride on Xcelerator when a guest warned me the wait looked to be over an hour long. On the app, the listed wait time was only 10 minutes.
That leaves room for an obvious tip: try to make your first visit on a weekday. With the affordability of Knott’s season passes, locals tend to flood into the parks on Saturdays and Sundays. By early afternoon, almost every roller coaster in the park will likely have a posted wait time of at least one hour; GhostRider will probably be even longer.
Another slight against regional parks is the lack of immersive theming. Go to your average Six Flags, you’re likely to see a Superman ride nestled into an area with vague New Orleans touches or a Joker coaster whose theme is limited to the ride sign and purple paint job.
That’s not the case at Knott’s Berry Farm, thanks to Ghost Town.
Park founder Walter Knott began assembling the Old West mining town in 1940. While it’s seen plenty of changes since — coasters like GhostRider and Silver Bullet now call this part of the park home — it still has some of the charming experiences that are rarely seen in today’s coaster-heavy parks.
You can find a genuine blacksmith at work, wander the rows of historical tools and guns at the Western Trails Museum or see the inside of a one-room Kansas schoolhouse built in the 1870s and transported to Knott’s in 1952.
This area further illustrates how Knott’s was inventing the immersive theme park experience well before Disneyland opened. In an odd twist, it both predated and outlived similar Disney offerings; simple diversions like a weaver working threads still exist here, but would’ve long ago been replaced by another gift shop at a Disney park.
Here’s my bold statement: I think Ghost Town is better than Frontierland.
If you’re in the mood for a more interactive experience, on select summer days, the park presents Ghost Town Alive, a sort of immersive theater experience around the land.
Ghost Town really is the heart of Knott’s, from the shops to Butterfield Stagecoach to the train depot. Outside its boundaries, however, it too often resembles any other regional amusement park — with little in the way of theming.
Obviously, I understand Knott’s doesn’t have Disney or Universal money, and I’m not such a purist that I become enraged at visible coaster supports. But after walking through Ghost Town, the Boardwalk and Fiesta Village sections come off as frustratingly ordinary.
One of the more interesting sites at Knott’s isn’t even in the park. Across from the California Marketplace, you’ll find a full-scale replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated. You’ll often find it deserted during weekend visits, making for a nice respite from the crowds as you peruse its collection, which includes a replica of the Liberty Bell.
My multiple visits to Knott’s have been hit-or-miss on one of its most-hyped aspects: its food.
On my first visit in early 2020, I had carved out a chunk of my day to sit down and eat at the famous Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. It’s no stretch to say this is why the park exists. The adjacent shops and Ghost Town were developed to entertain guests as they waited for tables at the restaurant to open up.
I’ve said before that I’m no high-minded food critic; I’m just an unadventurous, simple eater, the kind of guy who prefers his cheeseburgers plain, but for a simple fried chicken dinner, Knott’s provided a thoroughly unimpressive experience.
The chicken crust needed more seasoning, the meat came off as dry and dull, and the only flavor from the mashed potatoes came from the pepper shaker. I can’t complain about the portion size, but what good is it having a big plate of bland food?
Perhaps my hopes were set too high after getting my biscuit appetizers. These were absolutely perfect, and complemented by Knott’s signature boysenberry jam.
I’ve opted for Knott’s Chicken-To-Go in my visits in 2021 and 2022, and found the fried chicken better seasoned and more flavorful, though it still didn’t live up to the original hype. Maybe Southern California just doesn’t have as high a bar for fried chicken as I do. It’s worth trying, to be sure, but don’t build it up so much in your mind beforehand like I did.
What can’t be overhyped are the great snacks. The Farm Bakery in the California Marketplace and the Ghost Town Bakery inside the park serve some of the best cinnamon rolls and Snickerdoodle cookies that I’ve ever had, and I’ve made a habit of getting them on every one of my trips.
Even with my criticism of the vaunted Knott’s chicken, the fact that a sitdown restaurant is a selling point here sets Knott’s apart from the fast food options you’ll find at every other regional park (though there’s still a Johnny Rockets if you’re not feeling adventurous).
For most regional parks, I would be recommending some kind of dark ride to balance out a coaster-heavy lineup. Knott’s has those bases covered, but what it needs nowadays is a new, top-tier coaster.
Rumors that the park would be getting a hyper (200+ feet tall) or giga (300+ feet tall) coaster were emphatically denied, but it needs something on the size and scope of at least GhostRider. That’s a lot easier said than done considering the park’s space constraints and its proximity to residential areas.
There’s simply no room for a coaster that Knott’s needs without building out into the parking areas and along the perimeter of its property. Bolliger & Mabillard hypercoasters, like Mako at SeaWorld Orlando, can fit in those kinds of areas and would provide the coaster lineup the airtime machine it’s lacking. Whether Buena Park would ever approve it is another matter, but it seem like the best option for giving the park a new headliner.
What needs to go
Wild Mouse coasters are rarely a highlight for any park, but Coast Rider is worst than most.
As I said earlier, the trim brakes hit too hard, making the ride dull, and the shinguard restraints are very uncomfortable — which is never a good combination. There’s not much else Knott’s could do on the existing plot without intruding into Surfside Gliders next door, but just about anything would be an improvement.
The final verdict
A visit to Knott’s Berry Farm checks off a lot of boxes for even a casual theme park fan. World class roller coasters? Check. Immersive dark rides? Check. Immersive theming? Check, at least in Ghost Town. And all for a fraction of what you’d pay for one day at Disney World or Universal Orlando.
For me, Ghost Town alone was worth the price of admission, from its charming rides to the authentic Old West atmosphere. Even if you don’t know much about Knott’s itself, why not get a taste of what theme park pioneers were offering back in the 1950s and 60s?
There are areas where it understandably pales in comparison to the likes of Disney and Universal, but Knott’s Berry Farm offers a much more well-rounded experience than your average Six Flags park — and it is certainly worth a one-day visit on your next West Coast theme park trip.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on my own opinion and perspective. I paid for my park ticket. Knott’s Berry Farm did not grant me any special access to the park and no employees were aware that I was conducting a review.
Author’s Note: This review was originally published in April 2020. It was updated on Aug. 31, 2022, to reflect new offerings at the park and my experiences on my 2021 and 2022 visits.