Knott's honors the past with an upgrade of Calico Mine Ride

Knott's Berry Farm has transformed the Calico Mine Ride--an aging classic ride from the early days of the park — into a retro marvel that introduces state-of-the-art technology while paying tribute to the past.

After a six-month rehabilitation, the 1960 Calico Mine Ride is to reopen Saturday at the Buena Park theme park with audio, lighting, electrical and structural upgrades as well as about 50 new animatronic figures.

Legendary ride designer Wendell "Bud" Hurlbut, who conceived, built and operated the Calico Mine Ride along with the 1969 Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knott's, was one of the first creators of theme parks in the United States. Knott's breathed new life into the old log flume last summer with an extensive rehab.

During a preview tour earlier this week, I rode the Calico Mine Ride while work crews were still putting the finishing touches on the attraction and found the experience to be the ideal blend of technological wonder and memory-lane nostalgia.

The realistic animatronic miners, dynamiters and gold diggers, added by San Bernardino-based Garner Holt Productions, brought to life the mine scenes that had grown static because of age and neglect. In many cases, the new animatronics replaced figures fashioned from chicken wire, papier-mâché and 1960s department store mannequins.

Walking up to the attraction, riders will notice that the exterior rockwork has been spiffed up but will find the station house largely unchanged. The trains and passenger cars, the originals built by Hurlbut, have been rehabbed and re-aged to maintain their vintage character.

A recorded spiel offers the first sign that things have changed on the 54-year-old mine train. Purists will long for the original train conductor’s banter, but the consistent and clear patter makes it easier to understand the ride backstory and hear the talking animatronic characters along the route.

Once inside, the centerpiece of the attraction remains the 65-foot-tall glory hole, which the train passes on three levels. Everywhere you look in this amazing scene, gold miners climb ladders, push wheelbarrows and saw logs.

In a scene reminiscent of a horror movie, the swinging pick ax of one miner casts a creepy shadow on a craggy wall. My only wish is that the trains could slow down or briefly stop to let us take in all this activity.

A new psychedelic paint job combined with improved lighting and audio effects have turned a stalactite and stalagmite cavern that was once a dated and bizarre curiosity into a trippy, tie-dyed riot of eye candy with an angelic echoing organ soundtrack that will make you feel as though you stepped into a 1960s drug-addled version of heaven.

A tandem pair of water scenes add some humorous activity to the trip, as a teetering worker with a fishing net tries to snare some fish from a swirling school. Nearby, a miner panning for gold leaves you wondering how his pan keeps filling with water (but never gold).

The eight-minute journey on the Calico Mine Ride is now peppered with about 50 animatronic miners that show up in small scenes as the train travels through the tight confines of the mine.

At one point, a huffing and puffing miner pushes a ladened ore cart just before the train briefly pops outside for a peek at the theme park. A pair of squawking animatronic vultures hover above the tunnel as riders reenter the mine.

Some of the best vignettes employ clever or comedic mechanical gags with characters so close to the mine train you can examine every detail in their lifelike silicone faces: a pair of Chinese immigrants rising up and down on twinned elevator lifts; a miner lighting a pipe with a match while sitting atop a barrel marked "Danger: Highly Explosive"; a caged canary fluttering its wings.

Riders may miss the most creative sight gag in the attraction: a miner climbing a tottering ladder being saved by a dog with a rope in its mouth. The pocket scene occurs while many riders will be looking in the opposite direction at the glory hole.

By far, my favorite character in the ride was a wild-eyed animatronic miner waving a stick of dynamite and hollering "Fire in the hole" just before the explosive finale when powder kegs rattle, the ceiling collapses and smoke fills the tunnel.

My only hope is Knott's will use the successful renovations of Calico Mine Train and Timber Mountain Log Ride to bring back some of the park's other classic dark rides such as Kingdom of the Dinosaurs or Bear-y Tales.


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