Ghost Town Alive! 2018 Review

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...

The Ambiance

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.

The Players

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!

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.

The Mysteries

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!

The Interactions

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.

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.  

The Story

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.  

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.