Ghost Town Alive! 2019 Review

Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA

We’re a little late with this edition this year, but it’s that time when we swing by Knott’s Berry Farm to once again check out its fantastic, escapist, thoroughly alluring Ghost Town Alive! summer immersive theater event! Ghost Town Alive! is now in its fourth year, and as the event has grown and evolved, it has crossed into the realm of tradition and even become a bit self-referential! Each day, the town of Calico comes together to celebrate its Founders Day—only for a series of escapades and adventures to take over. All the while, the citizens engage a mix of the overall plot and unique side storylines, interacting with guests to create a charming and wondrous melding of role playing, interaction, and fun.

What’s going on with Knott’s THEA award-winning event this year? Well, read on…

The Ambiance

Knott’s Ghost Town once again plays setting to Ghost Town Alive, serving as the fictious town of Calico for the event’s storyline purposes. This year, coinciding with the reimagining of Calico River Rapids, Ghost Town Alive! has taken on an explorer’s facet, with new characters and a storyline that centers around the prospects of constructing a new fort just outside of town, by the river rapids. A couple of the new characters, for example, have been on the hunt for mythical creatures (ala a certain large-biped beast once alluded to in a nearby water attraction), and the area has become a bit of a map of markings that demonstrate various critter sightings.

In town, guests are invited to step into some of the “peek-in’s” of the town and interact with various citizens, all playing off a fantasy Old West story. There are also activities and puzzles scattered through the land, useful for side diversions for guests who want to participate on a superficial level or for those who want to commit themselves deeper into the GTA! lore and solve a mystery that plays off the finale of last year’s finale, which revealed that the sole surviving descendant of the town’s original founders was none other than launderer Hop Wing Lee! Although there is once again no sign of Lee this season, the running puzzle this year involves a bit of a scavenger hunt from Lee’s grandfather, Pop Wing Lee (one of Calico’s Founding Seven) that unlocks more clues as the summer progresses. Perhaps Lee will make an appearance again before the season is done.

Throughout it all, the authenticity of Ghost Town remains the single, most powerful strength of Ghost Town Alive!, lending it a credible and literally real ambiance that cannot be replicated in any theme park environment. Guests are playing cowboys and robbers in a setting that, historically, saw actual cowboys and robbers! It’s certainly a uniquely cool aspect of the event.

The Players

Season 4 brings yet another round of changes for the Citizens of Calico, with many returning faces, some characters who have moved out of storyline, and a lot of newcomers as well!

Some of the well-known mainstays are back—Sheriff Bryce Wheeler (thought not on this visit), the Mayfield Gang (Clay, Scruff, and Fluke on this day, though Tiny, Ike, and Ox are also around), and the Mayoral family of the Parnells and the town’s Deputy Mayor Milton Howell. GTA! favorites like Doc Linville Carter and Bixby Knolls and Judge Roy Bean are back too. Other familiar names, like Augustus French, Zeke Connelly, Cannonball, Quint Campbel, Emery Mund, Cookie Lemon, Wisconsin Wes, Violet Lee, Lucy Nolan, and Sierra Mist have also returned.

Other Calico mainstays have moved away, though. Percy Boyer, the town barber, sold his shop to Doc Carter and headed over to neighboring Stillwater. Ophelia and “Peg Leg” Cinch don’t seem to be in town this year either. Also missing is Phyllis “Ma” Mayfield, who seems to have disappeared again. Town Clerk, Kenny Storm, has taken a post elsewhere, and Calico Gazette reporter Izzy Malloy has moved on from the journalism field too. And Colonel Clem Potter, owner of the General Store and newcomer last year, appears to have made way for a different colonel.

That brings a solid number of new faces to town. Tying into Calico River Rapids, John Colter and John Potts are explorers searching to mythical creatures in town. Deputy Skyler Haney joins the Calico sheriff force with the returning Deputy Travis McCance. Though Hop Wing Lee is once again visiting family in San Francisco, after last season’s acquisition of the deed of Calico through, he has appointed lawyer Herbert Bird to manage his affairs and look after the town. Ashley Kendall manages Gertie’s Dress Shop, while Chester Davenport has taken on a position as Doc Carter’s assistant at the barbershop. And most prominently (especially in the storyline), Colonel Hudson and Private Brady are members of the U.S. Cavalry come to town looking for a suitable location to construct a Western fort.

Some of the new characters who weren’t in Calico on this day include Audrey Morgan who helps at the Calico Gazette, Miss Nell and Mr. Noble Johnson at the School House, and a few others I wasn’t able to catch the names of.

Lets meet the characters who were around Calico on this particular visit!

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 Interactions

I’ve said it time and time again, but Ghost Town Alive! amazes me most in how the actors forge cohesives and often lasting bonds with the guests. There are day guests who interact for a certain amount of time and then continue on their way, of course. That part is impressive enough, because more often or not, a guest is attracted by the curiosity of what’s going on, and then before he or she knows it, is roped into helping with some task—delivering a package or a message, for example—and then suddenly, the guest is a part of the story and the play that unfolds throughout the day.

But beyond that, the connections between the cast and recurring guests is even more touching. I’ve said before that there are guest who come back throughout the summer and revel in the escapism, role playing with the characters over and over again, taking on different supporting roles, shifting allegiances, but keeping that aspect of play and interaction and immersion alive above all. The cast members recognize these guests and go out of their way to acknowledge them and treat them like part of the Ghost Town Alive! family. But at this point, in its fourth year, there are guests who have come back across multiple summers to catch up with their favorite Citizens and cycle through the game all over again. For these guests, Ghost Town Alive! has become a tradition—one that is deeply rewarding in the heartfelt relationships it has created.

This impacts guests of all ages. Kids are the primary demographic, of course, being more inclined to surrender themselves to the make-believe and just dive into the story and the enjoyment of it all. But teens and adults have fun too—with some actively participating and others simply enjoying and taking everything in. There is a certain sense of therapy this seems to imbue among certain guests—a sense of belonging. In Ghost Town Alive!, there may be a litany of wild progressions throughout the day, but everything always turns out alright, which is reassuring in light of the novel and daily improvisational nature of each day.

The Story

In Ghost Town Alive season one, we were introduced to the Mayfield Gang and their banditry, which always seemed to be thwarted by Bryce Wheeler and his deputies. The season culminated with the unexpected arrival of Ox Mayfield, patriarch to the clan, breaking the Mayfields out and escapiing out of town after commandeering a locomotive. Season two saw a similar sequence of events, with the Mayfields growing in numbers and trying to gain control of town through unscrupulous election means, but nothing really mattered at the end of the season, when “Peg Leg” Cinch struck it rich in the Calico Mines, and it was revealed that Calico was sitting on top of a motherlode, making the townspeople rich! Last year, it was revealed that Phyllis “Ma” Mayfield, also thought to be long dead (like Ox prior to the previous season), was in fact alive and very much well. She was one of several parties who laid claim to the Deed of Calico and therefore ownership and control of the town. It all led to the discovery of the actual rightful owner of the deed, the only living descendant of the town’s founders: Hop Wing Lee.

What happens this year? Well, 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! 2019.  I’ve found this year’s story to be the most intriguing, well connected, and enjoyable yet. The ties to previous years, humorous self references, integration of new characters, and fun surprises (even if they become obvious) are excellently performed, and the new characters have blended very well with the veterans to produce a fantastic show.

As usual, the actors are fantastic, showcasing terrific improvisational skills and lending entertainment and excitement every moment, even in subtle ways. Watching the cast interact with guests remains an absolute pleasure. One can’t help but revel in the joyful connections being made, and whether one participates or not (I always recommend playing along, since that keeps the energy going), Ghost Town Alive! is a theatrical thrill that is unlike any other theme park attraction.

Ghost Town Alive! runs daily for another month, now through Sunday, August 11th. Afterwards, it runs on weekends only through Labor Day, September 2. And then, it will ride off into the sunset again until next year. Head to Knott’s Berry Farm this summer and make sure you take part in the adventure! Then, when you’re done with daytime playtime fun, stick around for Knott’s Summer Nights. There’s plenty to see and do at the Farm. Make it a part of your summer tradition!

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