Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA
Happy Sunday, folks! Today, as an interlude before we fully launch into our autumn spooky time coverage, we bring you what’s become an annual end-of-summer tradition: coverage of the conclusion of this year’s Ghost Town Alive! event at Knott’s Berry Farm!
In its fourth year, Ghost Town Alive! has really hit its stride as a fluid, complex, multi-layered example of interactive theater. With a main story arc that allows for some amount of variations, different characters playing up different connections, and guests joining along a now-familiar and rich heritage of backstory, Knott’s incredible show has developed a backbone that has become self-sustaining!
The plot, character development, and expanse of this season was the most elaborate and enjoyable yet, and everything came to a head on Labor Day, when Ghost Town Alive! concluded its fourth season with a bang and several twists that left fans stunned.
If you’ve been reading these end of season reviews, you’ll know that the title of each update is a punny semi-spoiler of the season finale developments. But just what exactly happened on this final Founder’s Day of “1888?” Read on to find out!
Before we get to the main plot and side storylines, lets run through the cast of this year’s Ghost Town Alive! Now, for whatever reason, there were a few readers in the last update who were dismayed that I didn’t get photos of more of the characters. Unfortunately, I can only photograph the people who are there, as opposed to those “in Stillwater,” and I’m pretty sure I did get the citizens of Calico in attendance that day, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But also fortunately, for the season finale, EVERYONE was in town. It’s one of the rare times in the season when that happens, and it’s a real treat to see each location in Ghost Town “fully staffed,” and the full team of various walk around characters. So to get you familiar with the Ghost Town Alive! players (in case you weren’t already), here’s the full line-up!
This final day of Ghost Town Alive! 2019/1888 started just like the others. After nearly a year’s absence, the Mayfield Gang barged into town proclaiming that this day was “Mayfield Day,” after trying to obtain the deed to Calico the previous year. The action progressed further when the U.S. Cavalry arrived, scouting a location for a new fort and announcing that Calico was on the list of nominees.
The government men’s appearance was all too timely, because—as they’re apt to do—the Mayfield tried to rob the Calico Bank. Or rather, in this case, Tiny Mayfield was caught redhanded exiting the bank with a bag of money and immediately apprehended by the Colonel Hudson and his men. There was something peculiar, though. Tiny kept proclaiming his innocence all the way to jail, claiming that he had been framed. Even more odd, Calico Bank teller Cookie Lemon actually agreed, noting that Tiny had not been there to rob the bank.
While these inconsistencies were being resolved, the Cavalry continued on with their study, observing the townsfolk to see if there were any irregularities or flaws that might preclude Calico from being a fort site. This encouraged everyone to be on their best behavior, but certain citizens and many guests couldn’t help but notice inconstancies in the Cavalry members’ stories, their protocol, and even their strange “MB” tattoos, which kept standing for a different phrase depending when or which member was asked.
In the early afternoon, the Cavalry announced the results of their investigation, and sadly, Calico would not be recommended as the site of a new United States government fort. Given its history with being regularly robbed by a gang of mischievous though oddly tolerated bandits, the citizens’ apparent short term memory of events, its regular reliance on other guests to do their own tasks, and more, Calico appeared to exhibit a grossly negligent mode of operations. At that point, Colonel Hudson’s concern switched from that of proper fort suitability to the safety of the citizens. What would happen if, say, a band of ruffians such as the infamously vicious Mad Bucks Gang came to town? Calico and its valuables would be completely unprepared.
The solution, of course, was to have the bank put everyone’s money and treasures into a U.S. Cavalry chest, which would be guarded 24 hours, 7 days a week in front of the Sheriff’s Office. Strangely, the Citizens seemed to think that this was a great idea, and other than a few reluctant folks, plus Cookie Lemon and the reformed Wisconsin Wes at the Bank, everyone complied.
Meanwhile, there was still the fate of Tiny Mayfield to be dealt with. An hour later, he was paraded from his holding cell at the Sheriff’s Office over to Town Hall, where he was put on trial with help from his legal defense team of five honorary citizens. Judge Roy Bean skeptically heard everyone’s testimony defending Tiny, but when he called for the more supposedly reputable Colonel Hudson to explain his side, the town was shocked to find that the U.S. Cavalry members had vanished—along with the trunk of valuables!
A bemused Clay Mayfield announced what should have been obvious all along. Calico had been robbed, and the perpetrators were the Mad Bucks Gang! They had been masquerading as Cavalry members the entire time, and the town had entrusted them with protection and riches while falsely casting suspicion on the Mayfield family. Fortunately, Clay and his gang promised to pursue the Mad Bucks and return the money, so that they could be the ones to rob it properly, as Mayfields do! With guns a’blazing, Calico’s lovable traditional antagonists rushed out of town in hot pursuit of the new threat.
Although many questioned the wisdom of entrusting the Mayfield to right a wrong, a little while later, Clay and company made good on their word and showed up at Town Hall with all four Mad Bucks members in tow. From there, they were summarily marched to the Sheriff’s Office and jailed. Order had been restored, so it seemed, but would that translate into an uneventful Hoedown?
One thing we haven’t talked too much about in past Ghost Town Alive! reports are the little mini-storylines that progress throughout a typical day. These often vary from day to day, and they’re frequently influenced by guest input and participation, creating an organic form of improv that follows through late morning and afternoon. In many cases, they are stock narrative branch lines available for the cast to use. A lot of these typically involve some sort of romantic endeavor across various Citizens, with some of the gentlemen trying to court some of the ladies for the Hoedown at the end of the day, and love triangles sometimes arising. Others spring up as a result of an idea from a guest that the actors run with. All of this makes for interesting and unique days, and for both guest and actors, the value of returning for a different experience is very high, because no two days of Ghost Town Alive! are every completely alike!
On this last day of Ghost Town Alive! this year, lets just quickly run through a few of these little side plots!
To accommodate real life scheduling issues, Ghost Town Alive! either has Mayor Horton Parnell or Deputy Mayor Milton Howell play the part of town leader and decision-maker. It would seem that the season finale would be more of the same, as the Mayor was nowhere to be seen all morning, while the Deputy Mayor was the face of the town. However, around noontime, Judge Roy Bean discovered a tied up Mayor Parnell in the back room of Town Hall. Furthermore, the mayor accused his second in command of perpetrating the deed in an effort to seize power! Deputy Mayor Howell’s reaction was a priceless mixture of astonishment and flabbergast, and he professed his innocence, but the ruse was quickly unveiled when Mayor Parnell admitted that it was all an elaborate joke, and Powell had been “Calico Pranked!” A laugh and a hug later, both gentlemen picked up joint duties for the first time all season for the remainder of the day.
Another running gag involved lawyer Kid Friday, who paraded most of the day in long underwear and a colorful robe for modesty. Though the other citizens chastised him for his impropriety and urged him to put on legitimate clothes before the Hoedown, he stuck to his wardrobe choice—at least until the end of the day, when he did change into a suit in time for the celebratory event.
Even though he was a newcomer in town, Colonel Franklin Hudson couldn’t help but be smitten by one of the Calico citizens. In this case, it was schoolteacher Miss Nell Elliott. But unable to find a way to express his feelings and his hope to take her to the big, end-of-day dance, he turned to a couple of guests to help him along—only to feel the sting of learning that another Calico citizen had already beaten him to the proposal.
Though he is a Mayfield, Fluke Mayfield is treated differently from the rest of his family, because his innocence and sincerity brought a lovable charm that endeared him with the other citizens and with the guests. Of course, part of that was also thanks to his… unique set of smarts that didn’t always make sense, but always meant well. That would sometimes earn him a bit of a chagrin, such as was the case when he earned a dunce cap on this afternoon for something he said.
A recurring gag all season has also been the hot and goofy temper of the reformed Fluke Mayfield. He would frequently get in a silly argument with a typically child or adolescent guest and challenge him to a duel… of Rock Paper Scissors. This actually earned him a citizen’s arrest last Monday when an honorary citizen of Calico (a guest) detained Fluke to stop him from his unnecessary misbehavior.
At one point in the later afternoon, even Judge Roy Bean found himself the victim of a bit of citizen vigilante justice, as he was put in jail for a season’s worth of signing warrants without actually reviewing them. Naturally, he needed to be held accountable for being so irresponsible. A man of the law, he took his punishment with dignity, though he jokingly warned that his captors would pay once he got out.
All season long, returning guests had also been embroiled in an investigation with Doc Linville Carter’s Paranormal Society of Calico. It turns out that one of the town founders, Pop Wing Lee, had left a multi-month scavenger hunt that would reveal “his greatest treasure.” Every few weeks, guests would have a new puzzle to solve, which would direct where to place the jade dragon, which would unveil a new clue. Ultimately, his greatest treasure was revealed. But rather than actual gold or riches or some priceless artifact, it was the revelation that his grandchild, Hop Wing Lee (the never-seen town launderer) was in fact his granddaughter! But wait, hadn’t the town seen a very male Hop Wing Lee at the end of season three? This would bring new questions to the Hoedown…
The heart of Ghost Town Alive! is the bond that is forged between guest and actor. Whether it is season passholder guests who return regularly to replay their interactions and engage in variations of the storyline or completely new, first time guests who don’t even know what Ghost Town Alive! is but are drawn into the story to participate for an hour, GTA! creates some incredible memories for all participants involved.
As an observer to the event, it’s heartwarming to see the young children drawn into this world of make-believe and Wild West fantasy. The actors are amazing in engaging with guests and making them feel welcome… seamlessly looping them into active roles while maintaining character and preserving the illusion. For many guests who might otherwise struggle with social interactions and are just more introverted, this sort of engagement helps foster connections that they might not otherwise achieve (or achieve more slowly). And best of all, Ghost Town Alive! is a place that cultivates a sense of belonging. A non-judgmental space of escapism where anyone can play out dreams and storylines with other like-minded guests—be they children or teenagers or children-at-heart. This acceptance is the core strength of this amazing event, and it really does make a difference in the guest experience and in the lives of those who come back to participate again.
Nowhere are the impacts of Ghost Town Alive! more visible than on the day of the season finale. There’s a sense of “last day of school” on this day, but much more bittersweet, as recurring guests spend the day engaging with their favorite Citizens, knowing that they won’t see them for another year. Some make mementos and gifts to show or give to the cast, while others collect signings and messages for their personal scrapbooks and journals. And the emotions flow both ways, with the cast members visibly showing their appreciation and sentiments toward those who’ve followed and played along… familiar faces that enrich their own performances and experiences and give them added fuel to drive through their parts each day.
It’s the Final Hoedown [of the Season]
Did you mentally sing the title above with the vocals of Europe? No? Just me?
Oh well. The concluding Founder’s Day Hoedown for this edition of Ghost Town Alive! proved to be an incredible eventful affair. And given that it was the season finale, it was also the most crowded, with throngs of fans and guests packing Calico Park and giving poor Scruff Mayfield the unenviable task fo trying to organize and call out his line and circle dances. Everyone managed, though, and backed by the Ghost Town Miners, enjoyed a merry time—even the Mad Bucks Gang, shackled up and all.
Thanks to the Mayfield’s apprehension of this season’s real bad guys, there had been a quorum called to determine if this would remain Founder’s Day or become Mayfield Day after all. To decide, guests were asked to divide into one of two sides bisecting the park. On this finale day, the Mayfield’s had a hefty advantage. As Clay came up to give a celebratory speech, however, the first of several surprises appeared in the form of Phyllis “Ma” Mayfield, who had not been seen all summer! When asked why she was in town, the Mayfield matriarch simply replied that she was here to “pay a visit to a dear friend.” Her revealing glances to Judge Roy Bean sparked an “oooo” from the crowd, as well as consternation from her estranged but still optimistic husband, Ox Mayfield.
Things got even more interesting when Doc Carter commandeered the stage to share his discovery of the lineage of one of the town founders. There was initial shock and confusion, especially with memories of last year’s shocking appearance of Hop Wing Lee at the Founder’s Day Hoedown, but upon putting two and two together and realizing that that gentleman must have been an imposter, the Mayor and Judge Bean declared that the deed would thus need to rightfully pass on to the next closest living descendant of the Calico founders. Those who recall last year’s storylines made the connection almost before the announcement came: Phyllis Mayfield was the rightful owner of Calico!
With chants of “Meema! Meema!” echoing from the crowd, Ma Mayfield gleefully accepted her deed, much to the chagrin of now-former Hop Wing Lee legal representative Herbert Bird. With that, it was off to another round of dancing to celebrate the happy news.
That would seem to wrap it up for this year’s Ghost Town Alive! festivities, but there were still more developments to come! As the second dance was coming to a close, a figure was seen manually pushing a handcar up the tracks of the Calico Railroad. As the mysterious man arrived, a murmur of surprised recognition fluttered through the crowd, for it was none other than Mudd Mayfield (may God rest his soul)! Thought dead since after season one after he reportedly fell off a cliff while being chased by Sheriff Bryce Wheeler when Ox Mayfield had commandeered a locomotive, Mudd was in fact very much alive (may God unrest his soul!). I suppose this shouldn’t have been a complete surprise. As we’ve learned from four years of Ghost Town Alive, anyone thought to be long departed often has a knack of showing up very much living.
If that wasn’t enough, however, Mudd had more astonishing news to share. Rather than align himself with his fellow Mayfield, Mudd revealed that he was actually a member of the Mad Bucks Gang, and he was here to free his captive cohorts! Furthermore, in a parallel to Ox Mayfield’s dramatic end-of-season-one appearance, Mudd had Calico surrounded, and affirmed it with several bandits appearing on the balcony of the Calico Saloon and other locations around the park. A quick skirmish and ensuing chaos gave the four Mad Bucks members the opportunity to escape, winding up on Mudd’s handcart. It would appear that a true escape was still long odds for bandits requiring a manually operated railcar to leave, and Sheriff Wheeler even called out to that effect. But when the question came if Mudd Mayfield was the leader of the Mad Bucks Gang, the answer knocked everyone by surprise.
Rather than Mudd acknowledging an affirmative, it was Phyllis Mayfield who turned to the flabbergasted town leaders to announced that it was she who lead the Mad Bucks! She reminded everyone of her vow when she arrived last season—that she would have her revenge after being presumed dead and ignored for so long. Turning to Judge Roy Bean, she shrugged a “sorry,” and taking Ox’s hand, she let out a thanks for his act this entire time, revealing her final ruse—that her flirtations with Judge Roy Bean had been part of the hoax to gain trust and lower the guard of the normally protective official. As Phyllis and Ox raced to join their Mad Bucks brethren, a broken-hearted Judge Bean could only look on shock. Taking advantage of everyone’s frozen amazement, the Mad Bucks pedaled their way back out of town, whooping and hollering at their sensational triumph over the townspeople of Calico!
The stunned crowd hardly had time to process the change of events when Sheriff Wheeler and his deputies and the Mayor and Deputy Mayor finally shook out of their daze to start their pursuit. Rather than end on a high note, fans were left to ask questions and mutter amongst themselves. And unlike last year, when the the entire cast gathered for a group photo and formal goodbyes, only the remaining citizens were left to interact and bid their farewells.
Ultimately, that is what they did, though the Mayfield clan still in town were left to piece together how their parents had literally abandoned them to lead a rival gang. Out of all the surprises that have occurred across the years of Ghost Town Alive!, this was certainly the most ground-shaking. And yet, the day had to come to a close. And so, with hugs and tears and the remaining cast members signing a large banner, Ghost Town Alive! wrapped up a momentous though slightly confusing close of events.
What will come from next season? Who knows. But this finale certainly sets up a host of questions that will have fans buzzing until next May. Will Phyllis return to Calico and implement new changes as its legal but antagonistic owner? How will Clay, Ike, Scruff, Tiny, and Fluke react to the betrayal of Phyllis and Ox? How did Mudd survive? Where is the real Hop Wing Lee? Will she ever show up? And what new developments will come to Calico as a result of all this?
Come back next year—Knott’s Berry Farm’s centennial, in fact—to find out!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.