by Paul Ruben
There are many theme parks around that use the American Old West as their theme, or as one of their themes. You might think the best one would be located in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, or perhaps Kansas. But I think one of the best of the Old West themes is that found in Southern California.
That would be at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park outside Los Angeles.
Starting in 1920, farmer Walter Knott and his family developed their berry farm into a popular tourist attraction that now claims to be America’s first theme park. Originally Knott’s sold berries, homemade berry preserves and pies from a roadside stand. By 1940 they had also created Ghost Town, a Western themed destination. Craftsmen in Ghost Town demonstrate the arts of the blacksmith, woodcarver, glass-blower, sign cutter and spinner. The Western Trails Museum still features historical Western artefacts today.
Knott’s Western theming is pervasive. The park boasts the 60-year-old narrow-gage Calico Railroad, where passengers are threatened at gunpoint, or stopped by a couple of mean-lookin’ outlaws poking a gun up your nose, as pictured here.
Knott’s classic Timber Mountain Log Ride and Calico Mine Ride are beautifully-themed favourites. Newer, Western themed coasters include the Pony Express by Zamperla, B&M’s Silver Bullet, Zierer’s Sierra Sidewinder and Custom Coasters’ wooden Ghost Rider. There’s also Intamin’s Bigfoot Rapids rafting adventure and Mystery Lodge, a multimedia show by BRC based on an Expo ’86 pavilion exhibit featuring a Native American storyteller.
There is one Western themed attraction missing from Knott’s, however, and missing from just about every other park in the world. It’s an attraction I loved as a child, and was reminded of it while visiting York’s Wild Kingdom in York, Maine. They had pony rides, and it brought back a wave of nostalgia watching a young child being guided around the trail, riding a gentle pony led by a handler decked out in a cowboy hat. How Western is that?
Where have all the pony rides gone? Even Coney Island had pony rides for a while, as did my childhood park, Crystal Beach. I know, low capacity and high maintenance made them expendable, but what a joy for young children. Just think. They can ride a real horse, not a carousel horse. It was an authentic experience for me as a child, and although pony rides are few and far between, it remains authentic for children today.
Knott’s doesn’t have pony rides, but it does have horses. Real horses. Is there another theme park in the world that offers a ride on a genuine stage coach pulled by horses? Knott’s does. I loved it, and that night even dreamed that I was in the old West riding in a stagecoach. Suddenly, a man riding a horse pulls up to the left side of the stagecoach, and a riderless horse pulls up on the right. The man leans down, pulls open the door, and jumps off his horse into the stagecoach. Then he opens the door on the other side and jumps onto the other horse. Just before he rides off, I yell out, “What was all that about?” He replies, “Nothing. It’s just a stage I’m going through.”