Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA
Ladies and gentleman, today's update is yet another massive photo spread, detailing what has become one of my favorite theme park offerings. Yes, it's summertime, and we're checking out Knott's Berry Farm today, so that means we're taking a look at this year's iteration of the wildly popular Ghost Town Alive! immersive theater offering.
If you haven't been paying attention to our past two summers' worth of Ghost Town Alive! updates, you're missing out on some of the best interactive entertainment in the theme park industry today (so good that it won a THEA Award this year for immersive theater). GTA! transforms Knott's Ghost Town area into the charming town of Calico. Various citizens have roles throughout the town, associated with many of Ghost Town's actual historic structures--the sheriff's office, bank, town hall, saloon, schoolhouse, and more have corresponding characters. Throughout the day, a series of events occur, culminating in the resolution of [most of] the day's mysteries at the annual Founder's Day Hoedown.
What separates this event from just a regular show, however is its immersive nature for visitors. Guests can play a role in the proceedings by impacting the storyline and participating with the Calico citizens--be it in the form of games and activities or by playing messenger roles or joining alliances. The audience participation also allows for a level of improv, which means that each day's session of Ghost Town Alive!--though aligned to a set general storyline--has its fair share of unique moments and special deviations. So no day of Ghost Town Alive! is ever really the same.
This offers a level of escapism that is addictive to both children and adults. And, as I've praised multiple times before, the interactions and memories that occur between actors and guest participants create a truly stellar magic that creates lasting impressions. So what does this year's Ghost Town Alive! have to offer? Read on...
Just as in previous years, the entirety of Ghost Town and Calico Square comprise the palette for Ghost Town Alive! The show takes place throughout this corner of the park, allowing guests to explore both the exterior and interior of Ghost Town's historic buildings. Special treats come in the form of being able to enter most of the area's famous "peek-in's," sets within the authentic Ghost Town buildings depicting scenes in the Old West. These form the basis for the backstory of many of the town's characters, who we'll meet in a moment.
Welcome to yet another Founder’s Day in the little ol’ town of Calico! This year marks the 77th iteration!
Signs and details everywhere set the ambiance for the Ghost Town Alive! environment.
Issues from the fictitious Calico Gazette provide updates to the storylines of the day. There are several published within the course of a single day, and guests may even find their names within the paper!
Normally closed during the other parts of the year, many of the buildings of Ghost Town—such as this Assayer’s Office—are actually open.
Guests can explore inside and take a closer look at the theming.
This really helps set a level of immersion to the whole event.
Here’s Goldie’s Place, the town hotel.
The interior is luxuriously furnished.
Guests can enter and take a look around here too.
It’s all pretty nice!
In the Sheriff’s Office, there’s a nice homage to a couple Ghost Town Alive! characters from last year who are no longer a part of this year’s story.
The General Store is home to a new character for the 2018 Ghost Town Alive! It’s also an actual store, like usual.
The Livery Stable is open to guests as well but sometimes becomes the scene of some sort of interaction with a Ghost Town Alive! cast member.
The Bird Cage Theater is home to a park show and is not directly involved with Ghost Town Alive!, but it factors into the lore.
Town Hall is once again host to the mayor and his wife.
Guests can come in and interact with various Calico officials or take a look at some newly arrived artifacts.
The Schoolhouse is open throughout the year but plays a role in Ghost Town Alive as well.
There are no classes in session on this day, since it’s a “holiday!”
The Miner’s Bank of Calico seems to be constantly under threat of robbery, and this year is no exception.
The Saloon plays host to an exciting shootout scene, just as it has in previous Ghost Town Alive! seasons.
Guests can also explore inside the Barber Shop.
Something cool and flattering for me—the park used a photo I took last year as part of the decoration and theming of the Newspaper Office!
There’s also plenty of GTA! merchandise for fans. And the product does sell!
Of course, you can’t mention Ghost Town anything ambiance without the Catawampus! Last year, (s)he was missing throughout the summer (being real-life refurbished) before returning with an offspring Kittiewampus. This year, there’s no drama with Catty. The two wampus…es (-i?) relax in their usual spot by the windmill and Livery Stable.
You couldn’t ask for a more authentic and convincing setting!
There are many familiar, returning characters to Ghost Town Alive! this year, but also a few fresh faces. In some cases, a new face is a veteran actor playing a different character. And in others, the actor is new as well. But newcomer or old favorite, they all play vital roles in the progression of the overall tale--be it primary story-driving or secondary supporting. Lets meet the cast of Ghost Town Alive!
Zeke Connelly is the town assayer and can usually be found at the head of Ghost Town, across from the entrance to Ghostrider.
Joining him most of the time at the Assay Office is “Peg Leg” Cinch, who discovered gold in the Calico Mine at the conclusion of last year’s Ghost Town Alive! and owns the largest gold nugget found in these parts. Apparently, “Peg Leg” is just a nickname and does not reflect the actual status of his limbs!
Miss Donna Ferndale has taken up a role running Gertie’s Dress Shop while Gertie is away on business.
Calico favorite, Sheriff Bryce Wheeler (right) stands proud with his favorite deputy, Travis McCance.
There’s also a Deputy Stillwater on the Calico sheriff’s force, but he wasn’t present on this day.
Miss Violet Lee is managing Goldie’s Place while Goldie is out on tour with the saloon girls. She resumes this same role she picked up last year, but she has aspirations of gaining glamor and fame herself!
Colonel Clem Potter, a new character this year, has opened up the General Store for Calico’s supply needs.
Bixby Knolls is back as the editor of the Calico Gazette. Fortunately, getting famous for reading the news to horses hasn’t gone to his head.
Clem and Bixby pose with Emery Mund, who works at the post office. There was no sign of past years’ postmaster, Quint Campbell, though.
Calico Gazette staff reporter Izzy Malloy faithfully reports on the news to the most accurate of her abilities.
Prospector Flint Stahlek is a common sight throughout town. He seems to constantly be reaping the misfortune of having his gold stolen, but the blow is perhaps softened by his adorable pet donkey.
Miss Marybelle Starling is new to Calico this year. She is one of two teachers at the old Schoolhouse.
Miss Lucy Nolan is the second. She sometimes minds Town Hall when the Parnells are both away for business.
Speaking of which, the lovely Pearl Parnell poses next to some old Calico artifacts delivered earlier in the morning by train. On this day, her husband, Percy, the mayor, was away on business. So she functioned as the de facto mayor of Calico.
Town clerk, Kenny Storm (left) and Judge Roy Bean are also common fixtures at Town Hall. They return from both season one and two.
The bank has hired a new guard due to all the attempted robberies that have occurred recently. His name is Antonio, and he is from Italy.
Cookie Lemon still minds the finances at the Miner’s Bank. There seems to be no sign of the bank’s owner, Tate Fortune, however.
Then there are the various members of the Mayfield Gang. There’s Ox, the patriarch who made his dramatic debut on the last day of season one of Ghost Town Alive! and was a mainstay last summer throughout season two.
The dashing Clay Mayfield is back too. He seems to have reformed a bit and avoids more trouble than in previous years.
Clay’s brother, Ike, is also back, and still up to his strange and quirky mannerisms.
Clay’s son, Tiny, is also back. He finds himself caught in the middle of the family drama that surrounds this year’s storyline.
Scruff Mayfield is also back. When not participating in banditry trouble, he also battles nerves in trying to ask Miss Lucy out to the Hoedown.
Two new characters play an integral part of season three’s storyline.
Phylils “Ma” Mayfield has made a sudden return after being thought long dead. This seems to be a trend among the Mayfields—those thought to be long gone are actually anything but.
She’s brought along a gentleman named “No Name” Cunningham (who told me to call him “Jim”), who views Phyllis as a motherly figure who raised him as an adopted son. Both have had their fair history of illicit activities but claim to now be reformed.
Dr. Linville Carter (left) and Miss Sierra Mist return to Calico as well.
Being a man of many talents, Dr. Carter fills in at various positions throughout town. He’s also the only doctor in Calico, now, as Dr. Dillard Marsh—recurring character in the first two seasons—has moved back east.
Miss Sierra, having been a schoolteacher in season one and a town poet last year, has now taken on the role of working for the governor. Clearly, she is going places!
Abigail Dynamite is the town’s gunsmith and plays a secondary roaming character.
Standing next to Judge Bean, Bernard is another secondary character whose job was described to me as “making sure things are in order.”
Missing from the above collage were a few regulars who weren't present, such as Mayor Horton Parnell. But here are some more photos of the Citizens of Calico I was able to meet this past Saturday.
Last year introduced deepened audience participation components to Ghost Town Alive! in the form of puzzles and extended storylines to resolve. Knott's visitors might recall a mysterious character called "The Raven" leaving markings and clues around town buildings. This year, more side mysteries have been introduced.
Green "MB" logos have been emblazoned upon an almost comical number of signs, buildings, even articles of clothing throughout Calico. And though the citizens can guess what "MB" stands for, they're at a loss for why it's appeared. In addition, someone has been leaving a series of cryptic messages and clues about the safekeeping strategies of the bank, which can only be uncovered by deciphering numerical combinations to open hidden compartments. In addition, odd artifact boxes have been left at several Calico establishments showing illustrations of specific scenes, with a certain spot marked "X." Solving the mystery of what "X" stands for is required to open the boxes and reveal what's hidden inside. Finally, Calico's principal buildings have been marked with various playing card numbers and suits, which ties into yet another puzzle solving adventure guests can partake in.
Thus, in addition to the extroverted interplay between guest and actor, the various side mysteries also allow for a deeper layer of detective work that further engages guests and sets them into active members of the story. It's pretty fantastic how Knott's has further improved on these guest entertainment amenities!
Goldie’s Place may have no vacancies, but it also seems to have a seal from a mysterious “MB.”
The locals surmise “MB” stands for Miner’s Bank, but no one—not even the bank employees—can explain why the logo is everywhere.
Elsewhere, at various locations, there are locked boxes and containers that contain hidden clues or messages that send guests on a scavenger hunt.
There are also puzzle boxes that require physical back and forth to decode.
This one is at the Assay Office.
Some locations, like the bank, have color coded books and a combination lock in a hidden shelf below.
Figure out the correct pattern and discover the proper combination.
This is not unlike what one might find at an escape room.
The clues for the right sequence are all around. One just needs to know where to look…
Although everything outlined above is impressive enough, what I absolutely love most about Ghost Town Alive! are the interactions between actors and guests. This is theme park magic at its purest. Guests are sucked into an adventure--often whether they are conscious of it or not--and all too often end up staying longer and further plunging themselves into the story.
The people who play the Citizens of Calico are mostly trained actors who have roles elsewhere in the park during other seasons (or at other parks or other theater companies). As such, they're very adept at maintaining character and really bringing the world of the Old West to life. They're also incredibly engaging, seamlessly asking guests to take part in the live theater by performing tasks, delivering packages and messages, and recruiting other people. What's remarkable is how well everyone seems to remember the names and previous actions of guests who return later in the day, or who come multiple times in a season. Various characters even build up followings from devoted guests who just cannot get enough of this addictively escapist experience.
The impact on the guests is also remarkable. There is a sense of pure joy from the children who get to play the most realistic game of "Cowboys and Robbers" possible. Adults gravitate to Ghost Town Alive! because they see how much excitement it brings their children. And for some, the show is cathartic for them as well. I've witnessed people who might otherwise be socially awkward or even outcast (just because they are deemed different in traditional circles) fall into comfort and enthusiasm with the help of a very accepting and supportive cast. I've seen people with mental disabilities open up in response to the earnest interaction from the Citizens of Calico. People who return often mix in their own parts, dressing up and immersing themselves deeper into the plot. And the level of acceptance throughout Ghost Town Alive, both between actor and guest and also among guests, is truly amazing.
Dr. Carter chats with a guest in the Sheriff’s Office.
Cookie Lemon writes up documents for a guest who has opened up a “new account” at the Miner’s Bank of Calico!
“Peg Leg” Cinch ascertains the value of gold that a young guest has brought to be assayed.
Sheriff Wheeler, in particular, seems to attract a lot of love and affection. He’s the gruff-looking cop with a grizzled exterior but a heart of gold.
Bank guard Antonio asks a guest to deliver a package to another Citizen of Calico.
Colonel Potter engages with two young guests, asking them to help with a task.
A child practices the fine art of rocking chair lasso’ing, with the encouragement and coaching of Sheriff Wheeler.
Dr. Carter and a young repeat visitor share an adorable moment grooming ponies.
These are the heart-warming moments that make Ghost Town Alive! so fulfilling for both guests and actors.
There’s plenty of fun to be had at Ghost Town Alive! On this day, several fellow Citizens and a few guests took it upon themselves to play the newest smash hit game of Pin The Clothespin On Bixby Without His Knowing.
Some guests even become a part of the central plot, helping campaign for various members of town.
Deputy McCance plays some cards with a young guest in the Sheriff’s Office.
The Hoedown provides plenty of moments to engage with the cast.
It’s a grand celebration of Calico’s Founders Day, but it’s also a celebration of the dynamic between guest and player.
People can literally dance the festivities away.
It’s all a lot of fun.
And the memories and sentiments developed are very sincere.
These are just a handful of the countless meaningful and impactful interactions between cast and guest. There are also various scheduled activities throughout the day that function as games for guests to engage. A pony race, bingo game, and round of whiskerino are just some of the contests in which guests can participate. For some guests, this involvement become recurring, with season pass holders returning and continuing the story or trying a different alliance or following a different character. And the actors do an amazing job of maintaining character while acknowledging return guests.
When Ghost Town Alive! last left off at the end of summer 2017, "Peg Leg" Cinch had just struck it rich at the Calico Mine, unearthing the largest gold nugget this region had ever seen. This set off a gold rush that brought new excitement, investment, and visitors to Calico.
This year's storyline follows much of the same cadence established by previous years' versions. The plot immediately begins at Knott's Berry Farm park opening at 10am, when guests are given the chance to explore and meet the Citizens, starting their immersion into the story. Around noon, the first storyline surprise comes, and the rest of the day follows a familiar pattern from seasons one and two. There's a robbery at the bank, outlaws on the run, a posse formed to track down the bandits, a shootout, an arrest, a public hearing, an election, and a big hoedown to wrap everything up. But the details have been changed around to great a new and unique storyline that is both different and builds upon the mythology crafted in 2016 and 2017. And that provides a new experience even for guests who have attended previous years' Ghost Town Alive! showings.
The following contains spoilers from this year's Ghost Town Alive! If you do not wish to find out what happens, skip to the very bottom, or ignore the captions and just concentrate on the photos themselves.
We pick up photos starting in the early afternoon, but earlier in the morning, the governor delivered a gift to Calico in the form of a “time capsule” of sorts containing various artifacts of local living.
Also, Phyllis “Ma” Mayfield, matriarch of the Mayfield clan and long thought to be dead, turned up very much alive and with a companion named “No Name” Cunningham.
At around 1:00 or 1:30, the Calico Bank is robbed by not one, not two, but THREE parties. Only one is successful, though, making off with Peg Leg’s golden nugget.
Oddly enough, everything else is left intact and untouched.
To apprehend the perpetrators, the Sheriff rounds up a posse at 2:30.
Deputy McCance conducts the swearing in ceremonies of the volunteer guests.
Everyone swears to be solemnly up to no good. I mean up to good.
So they march to arrest the suspected robbers, Phyllis Mayfield and “No Name” Cunningham.
When the posse arrives at the Calico Saloon, they find the entire Mayfield clan there!
A big shootout engages as the Mayfields protect their mother.
Shockingly, Phyllis and No Name surrender voluntarily.
This is much to Ox’s dismay, who tells his wife to run.
The Mayfield kids are confused too and continue the shootout a couple times.
The Mayfield matriarch puts an end to this, however, and demands that everyone get back down to ground level this instance before the count of five.
Phyllis is just tired of fighting.
The rest of the Mayfields quickly listen to Ma.
The posse take Phyllis away in chains to the Town Hall. She’s none too pleased.
This is a case of mistaken identity, she claims.
No Name concurs, claiming innocence.
Ike Mayfield follows along, confused at the happenings.
In front of the townspeople, Phyllis Mayfield is given the chance to plead her case by Judge Roy Bean, who also reveals his romantic past with Ma Mayfield, much to everyone’s shock.
This was before Phyllis turned to crime, though. But Judge Bean seems to very much still have feelings for his old flame.
Phyllis appreciates the opportunity and reiterates her innocence and her simple desire to just have everyone stop fighting. She only came back to claim the deed to the town, which originally had her name on it before Ox crossed it out (last year).
Phyllis’ explanations go for naught, though, and the crowd calls for her conviction. All of a sudden, assayer Zeke Connelly rushes to the porch and admits his guilt.
He was the one who stole the gold nugget, because he couldn’t bear to carry the truth any longer. Peg Leg’s gold nugget was actually a fake—pyrite—fool’s gold!
This turn of events prompts outcry and confusion.
But in a rare turn of generous heart, Judge Bean decides that everyone is innocent and free to go, since Zeke only meant good, and he didn’t actually steal gold if it was pyrite after all, and Ma Mayfield didn’t actually commit a crime (even if she tried to), and the rest of the Mayfields were simply protecting Ma Mayfield and being good family members.
There is still the question of who rightfully should own the deed to the town, and a town meeting is set up at for 3:30 for the four main candidates to plead their cases.
In the meantime, the Sheriff helps guest deputies learn how to lasso things.
Meanwhile, Ox attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife through various messages and notes—but to little success.
At 3:30, everyone once again converges upon Town Hall.
Clay is here as one of the claimants to the town deed.
Ike is here to observe.
Ma Mayfield doesn’t seem to convinced as Clay makes his argument.
Clay recounts the events of Ghost Town Alive! season 2, ultimately reasoning that with all the arrests and non-appearances of various Mayfield members, the line of rightful inheritance of the deed ultimately falls onto him.
Yes, as the next in line, Clay deserves the deed.
Ike points out that he’s technically next in line, as the eldest Mayfield son, but Clay quickly distracts him away from the scene.
Ox makes his case next, admitting that he has made mistakes, but they’ve always been in the name of love.
Be it stealing a train to help his son break out of jail at the end of season 1 or trying to reclaim the Calico deed throughout season 2 because he loved the city or getting into a shootout earlier in the day because he loved his wife… Ox was only committing crimes out of love.
“Peg Leg” Cinch is next to talk.
He simply asks for another chance to prove that he is a better and caring man who will bring success to Calico if he owns the deed.
Finally, Phyllis “Ma” Mayfield reiterates that the deed has always been legally hers, first and foremost.
It may be justified to pass onto others because she was believed to be dead…
But as everyone can see, she’s quite alive! And thus entitled to the deed.
Tiny and Scruff Mayfield do see and are conflicted.
Which of their family members should they vote for to own the deed to the town?
Afterward, Ox practices stumping for votes.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Citizens try to figure out who to vote for to own the town.
Scruff and Tiny just can’t get over the family strife.
Separately, they are also sorry about the scuffle that unfolded over the earlier bingo game.
In a parallel storyline, “No Name” Cunningham woos Miss Marybelle to be his date to the hoedown later in the afternoon.
Fellow schoolteacher, Lucy Nolan, hopes that her interest (Scruff Mayfield) will work up the courage to ask her out too.
In the meantime, she tries out a dress on her friend, Violet Lee, for wear in the upcoming celebration.
Voting occurs at 4:15, and by 5:00, the Citizens are starting to close up shop.
Everyone will be headed to the hoedown, so the Sheriff and Deputy ready the office for the next day.
Over at the hoedown, “No Name” Cunningham has successfully brought Miss Marybelle to the dance.
Meanwhile, guests attempt to help Ox Mayfield with his reconciliation attempts with Phyllis by urging him to apologize.
Ox just can’t seem to bring himself to do it, however.
Phyllis tries to make Ox jealous by dancing with Judge Roy Bean.
It seems to be working.
Pearl Parnell calls the festivities on this day.
She thanks everyone for coming and invites Scruff Mayfield to call the dances.
Just as he did last year, Scruff explains how to do each of several dances that guests and actors partake in for the hoedown.
In between dances, Sheriff Wheeler announces a break in the case involving the mysterious messages scattered throughout Calico instructing people who to bypass the bank’s security systems.
It turns out the perpetrator was Antonio!
Antonio claims innocence several times before finally admitting to the deed and revealing himself as an infamous outlaw of many monickers.
He does express remorse over the pain caused to Miss Cookie Lemon, however, and is granted one dance with her and the crowd before he is whisked away into custody.
And so, there’s more celebrating as one case is solved! (But what the “MB” is all about is never confirmed, which means it will be revealed at the end of the season.)
Before the last dance, it’s time to announce the result of the election!
Judge Roy Bean announces the tallies, which are actual results based upon how people voted earlier.
The winner and new owner of Calico is Phyllis “Ma” Mayfield! Judge Bean gives her a scandalous smooch.
Phyllis thanks Calico and says she only wants peace and quiet for the town.
Her win, however, prompts Ox to come on stage.
He finally apologizes and asks her to take him back. And only partially because she now owns Calico. The other reason is because he still loves her (awwwww).
Phyllis suggests they dance it out and see where things go from there. And so, it’s onto the third and final hoedown dance.
Once again, the crowd participates as Scruff calls out the moves.
Pearl and Judge Bean get into an impromptu dance themselves!
Swinging back and forth.
It’s a happy ending to an eventful day.
Thus concludes another Founders Day in Calico!
And that wraps up this gigantic review of Ghost Town Alive! 2018. Although the event has settled into a pattern, I still find so much enriching content and wonder, and all these photos are my best to try to do a little bit of justice to this fantastic event. I love that GTA! is something that one-time guests can take with them as a long-lasting and cherished memory, and that it's also something that provides value to recurring guests. It is truly a wonderful offering, and I highly encourage everyone to stop by Knott's Berry Farm this summer and let themselves fall into the magic.
Ghost Town Alive! runs now through Labor Day, September 3rd. GTA! is performed daily through Sunday, August 19, then Friday through Sunday on August 24 - 26, and finally Friday through Monday on August 31 - September 3. And just like last year and the year before, guests can expect a unique ending on its final day. So what are you waiting for? Experience Ghost Town Alive! now!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.