Ghost Town Alive!: A Review

Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA

Today's Monday update is going to be a little different--in that we're actually going to shift across town from our regular Monday anchor at Disneyland to America's first theme park--Knott's Berry Farm--and review their fantastic Ghost Town Alive! experience that they've had going on this summer in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Ghost Town.

Now, we covered the kickoff of Ghost Town Alive! and the general Ghost Town 75th Anniversary festivities in one of Westcoaster's very first posts following our relaunch.  But that was largely a preview, and we didn't really have a chance to observe the experience in action until this past weekend, when I paid a trip to the ol' Berry Farm on Saturday afternoon to witness first-hand all the buzz that this summer attraction had garnered.

Be forewarned--this update is long.  There are over 100 photos--not only because I felt like there are so many great moments that I couldn't whittle down, but also because Ghost Town Alive! is such an immersive and addictive experience that it could easily last an engaged guest all day.  That's a lot to cover!  But I came away from my afternoon in awe of such a wonderful and fantastic experience that really brought joy and appreciation for all involved--kids, parents, and actors.  It truly is an uplifting, escapist, incredible role playing world that Knott's has crafted, and the pure fun that it brings was evident all day in the smiles, laughter, and energy that both guests and the Ghost Town Alive! characters poured into their roles.

Signs of Ghost Town Alive! are immediately apparent upon entering Ghost Town, such as this proclamation of the big Calico Hoedown that serves as the climactic culmination of the day's activities and stories.

Ghost Town Alive! is an interactive role playing experience set within Knott's original themed land.  It features a cast of characters drawn from the various buildings and facades of Ghost Town, weaving together a rich tapestry of good guys and bad guys who play prominent roles in the town of Calico.  Guests can interact with these characters in a static fashion--simply having conversations and pretending they are part of the Wild West era in which the story takes place.  Or they can participate dynamically by becoming part of the story and performing tasks like delivering messages or figuring out activities that further the narrative.  Kids can be honorary deputies under the Sheriff, or they might turn their alliances to the shady Mayfield family, which has legendarily tried to swindle Calico on past occasions. 

It took no time to see guests engaging with the Ghost Town Alive! cast, and in character.  In fact, this event has drawn repeated guest visits from season passholders who have been drawn into the stories and mythos--in addition to participation from regular guests, of course.

All of this is reinforced by the setting--an authentic and richly detailed actual western town, transported from Prescott, Arizona, that truly enriches the story and makes everything appear as realistic as possible.  Add to this the elaborate costuming and character commitment of the actors, and you have one fantastic and extremely appealing event that has been a runaway success for the park this summer.

The actors, such as assayer Agustus French, are all extremely friendly but committed to staying in character.  They are fun to engage!

In addition to the theatrical aspect of Ghost Town Alive!, another perk has been the opening of the Ghost Town "peek-in's" for the first time in decades.  Knott's Berry Farm recently spent great effort and dollars refurbishing these priceless and historic sets, which were original to the park's first evolution from a simple roadside berry stand and farm.  This has allows guests to access the interiors of spaces typically only observable from the outside.  And though the announcement initially prompted fears of guest abuse and concerns over premature deterioration, it doesn't seem that allowing children inside these authentic spaces has created any harm.  Lets take a look at the sets and characters that make up Ghost Town Alive!

The Blacksmith

The Blacksmith isn't a unique attraction to Ghost Town Alive!, since guests can participate and learn about ironwork year-round.  But the engagement and interest of guests seems to be a great by-product of the Ghost Town Alive! experience, which conditions visitors to interact with everyone and everything, and in the process learn about what life was like for those in the Old West.

The Sheriff's Office

Don't let that gruff exterior fool you.  Sheriff Bryce Wheeler definitely as a soft spot--for children at least.  When he isn't on the look-out and patrolling on guard against the conniving Mayfields, Sheriff Wheeler can be found in his office, dealing cards to any guests who care to play or swearing in new deputies to help Calico.

The Sheriff's Office is one of the several "peek-in's" that guests can explore as part of Ghost Town Alive!  Being up close with these restored interiors really allowed extra appreciation for all the hard work that has gone into this craft.  It's a real look at history, and it's absolutely wonderful to observe.

Gertie's Dress Shop

Next to the Sheriff's Office is Gertie's Dress Shop, one of the business establishments in Calico.  Guests can come in and check out a variety of fashion crafts.

The Post Office

The Post Office is where guests can learn a bit of morse code, interact with the postmaster, or catch a copy of the latest edition of the Calico Gazette, the official town newspaper with up to four printings a day to keep up with all the fast-paced news that breaks in town.  It's yet another location in Ghost Town that offers interaction with the cast of the show.

Goldie's Place

Goldie West (Gertie's sister, as you may have guessed) owns a hotel in Calico where the visiting saloon girl dancers stay.  Goldie enjoys entertaining guests and keeps a constant wary eye on Clay Mayfield and his gang, since they present an unsavory clientele she would rather not associate with.  The hotel is another peek-in that guests can enter during Ghost Town Alive!, and the furnishings inside are quite lavish!

The Livery Stable

Guest can also see live animals inside the Livery Stable.  There were two playful horses and one restful donkey when I was there.  Exhibits of old fashioned farm and livestock accessories were also on hand for guests to look at.

The Schoolhouse

Knott's famous schoolhouse at the end of the Calico lane is literally a historic structure.  Purchased by Mrs. Knott and relocated from Kansas, then reconstructed to painstaking authentic detail, it is a time capsule into how education functioned in the 1800s.  I had never entered the schoolhouse before this weekend, so you can imagine how excited I was to take photos inside, once given the opportunity!

The Miner's Bank and Gold Exchange

The Mayfields try to break into the vault at the town bank, but are unsuccessful.  No doubt, part of their claim to the town (if not all of it) is to lay claim to the town wealth, especially since its gold mines lay unexhausted.

And that is not even all of the locales and characters of Ghost Town Alive!  There's also the Barbershop, the Assay Office, Train Depot, Prospector area... each with its own cast, not to mention additional characters in some of the locations above that I just didn't have a chance to meet.  The experience is that rich.  Of course, the setting by itself wouldn't make Ghost Town Alive! as invigorating as it is without a little adventure to go along, and that's where the interactive story comes into play...

The Mayfields

Early on (during the morning), Calico is visited by the notorious Mayfield family, an unscrupulous bunch who claim to have a deed to the town and are essentially nothing more than a group of bandits.  This sets up the good guy/bad guy dynamic and introduces alliances with which guests can enter, depending on which side they want to support. 

Typically, in any sort of theme park theater, guests are encouraged to support the heroes and boo the villains.  But in Ghost Town Alive!, guests can side with the baddies if they choose to, and many do!  Throughout the day, I saw guests gleefully plotting antagonistic intentions with the Mayfields.  And the Mayfield family members did their best to be as much of scoundrels as they could.  The whole display harkened back to the innocent elementary school aged make-believe--especially from my own youth, where kids would pretend to be cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians during recess and enact their own stories of imagination.

As the day progresses, the Mayfields find that their deed is declared as fake by the judge of Calico.  Enraged at being denied, they vow to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs and engage upon a crime spree, robbing several establishments throughout town.  Fortunately, the Sheriff rounds up a posse of deputies and is able to put an end to this, even arresting Tiny Mayfield, though there is insufficient evidence to convict the rest of the gang.  This allows ringleader Clay Mayfield to declare his candidacy for mayor of Calico--a move no doubt designed to seize power one way or another.

The Election

The afternoon leads to a town-wide election in which any person can participate.  This means the Knott's Berry Farm guests of all ages and backgrounds, and all for free ("no poll tax").  And as far as I can tell, it is a legitimate election--guests line up and cast their vote by selecting a slip of paper for either the incumbent Mayor Parnell or the upstart rascal Clay Mayfield, and whoever gets the higher count is actually proclaimed the mayor.  This creates a nice "choose your own adventure" element to Ghost Town Alive!, as the characters have to react and shift the storyline accordingly depending on the day's results!

The Hoedown

Everything culminates in the big Calico Hoedown in the town square, which happens to be the park area where the old Calico Stage stood (the new stage has been moved across Calico Square to the former location of the Screamin' Swing--and before that, the Haunted Shack).  On this particular day, because the devious Clay Mayfield had won mayorship, it was revealed that he had actually perpetrated voter fraud by rigging the election.  Fortunately, Sheriff Wheeler was able to administer justice and arrest Mayfield, and Mayor Parnell was reinstated as rightful leader of Calico.  All of that settled, it was time for a grand celebration of music and dance!

As you can see, a commitment to Ghost Town Alive! can easily last a majority of the day, keeping guests occupied from late morning all the way to late afternoon.  Of course, since all of this is fun, the experience is not without tongue in cheek.  Jokes in the Calico Gazette include advertisements for the elections, such as "Vote Parnell for Mayor--Because Change Is Bad," or his later tagline, "Vote Parnell for Mayor--More of the Same."  Many lines are scripted, but some are ad-libbed, as when the the Sheriff jokes that his newly anointed deputies can spend the entire day with him looking out for the Mayfields instead of riding rides.  But that's the thing--some of them do exactly that.  With great earnest, they join his posse and keep an eye out for the Mayfield family gang and run messages to and from other players in town.  Other guests embark on criminal endeavors and support Mayfield's crime spree and later quest for public office.  And still others deliver notes between Doc Carter and Schoolteacher Miss Sierra to facilitate their eventual love connection.

Ghost Town in the golden afternoon sun.

Ghost Town Alive! runs until Labor Day, September 5th.  It's a great experience and an absolute joy to both experience and take part.  In fact, I found the whole production so inspiring that I found myself wishing I had gotten a season pass earlier in the year so that I could have come earlier and repeatedly.  Certainly, if Knott's decides to bring this back next year (I think they should--and I know a lot of guests and fans think so too), I would definitely purchase a season pass to visit.

Judge Roy Bean poses for a photo at the end of the day, after the Ghost Town Alive! story has concluded.

Clearly, the park leadership has seen fit to make great moves to increase the family friendly appeal of Knott's Berry Farm and really rekindle that magic and intimacy that was so prevalent when the Knott's owned the park.  Ghost Town Alive! is a rousing example of this direction, and the entire design and production team should be applauded.  

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.