Review: Knott's breathes new life into Timber Mountain log ride

Review: Knott's breathes new life into Timber Mountain log ride
The Calico hootenanny scene in the refurbished Timber Mountain log ride at Knott's Berry Farm. (Knott's)

Knott's Berry Farm has restored a theme park attraction considered groundbreaking in its time to a technological level its legendary creator could have only imagined when the ride was conceived more than four decades ago.

Photos: Timber Mountain log ride at Knott's Berry Farm

The 1969 Timber Mountain log ride, still the most popular attraction at the Buena Park theme park, reopened Friday after a multimillion-dollar renovation that lasted five months.

I rode Timber Mountain several times over the weekend and found the animatronics and storytelling on the refurbished log flume to be nearly equal to anything found at Disneyland. As with any great attraction, I found myself wanting to ride again and again to see if I could find something I hadn't noticed before.

The team from San Bernardino-based Garner Holt Productions treated the rehabilitation project as a tribute to ride designer Wendell "Bud" Hurlbut, a theme park pioneer who essentially invented the flume-ride concept along with Arrow Dynamics. Legend has it that Hurlbut had to pitch his log flume idea three times to park founder Walter Knott before getting the green light to build and operate the ride.

Standing in the shadow of Disneyland, the refurbished log flume will naturally draw comparisons to animatronics-filled attractions like Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean. And while Timber Mountain doesn't contain any of the sweepingly expansive rooms found in those classic Disneyland rides, the rehabbed Knott's ride does include several intimate scenes filled with detail, humor and visual storytelling.

The Disney-level quality of the rehabbed Knott's ride should come as no surprise. Garner Holt Productions has produced animatronics for attractions at nearly every Disney theme park around the globe — from Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage to Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure and Radiator Springs Racers.

A contemporary to the 1967 Pirates of the Caribbean and a predecessor to the 1989 Splash Mountain, the Knott's log ride had fallen into disrepair over the decades with animatronic characters no longer operating or replaced in some instances with department store mannequins.

Garner Holt Productions added about 60 new animatronic figures, from lumberjacks and saloon girls to wolves and bears.

During my first few trips through the mountain, I found a couple of the human characters to be a bit wooden in their movements, their clothes still crisp and clean with that first-day-of-school sheen. In a few instances, the frozen faces looked all too eerily alike, as if an army of inbred lumberjacks had taken over the mountain. And the outdoor characters could use a splash of show lighting to keep them from disappearing in the dark when night falls.

But I trust those issues will be addressed in the coming weeks as the show elements get adjusted and a layer of dust and grime adds a weathered patina to the new scenes to match the mountain's advanced age. Hopefully Knott's asks Garner Holt Productions to come out and refresh the ride from time to time so that it lasts another four decades.

The renovation introduces 10 new scenes that take riders past sawmills, cabins, tents, toolsheds, locomotives and steam-powered machines.

Among the highlights was a river-bend junction scene in which a banjo player sits on a porch with his dog at his feet while on the opposite shore, a pipe-smoking granny relaxes in a rocking chair.

My favorite character was a solitary lad in a cavern dangling precariously from a rope ladder with a lantern in his free hand as water fell all around him.

The level of detail in the characters was so high that I found myself trying to spot the hitchhiking hobo's missing front tooth on each of my journeys.

The playful scene of a campground overrun by animals did a wonderful job of juxtaposing humor with fear. After laughing at the skunk turning to spray riders I shrunk back in the log as a mountain lion threatened to pounce.

My favorite sight gag involved a head-high trough of flowing water that miraculously stops just as our log passes, sparing riders a deluge guaranteed to soak them to the skin.

The ride's marquee hootenanny scene travels through a timber town where Calico Kate dances the can-can and Log-rolling Larry runs in a constant state of motion.

Hopefully Knott's doesn’t do anything to adjust the endlessly looping audio track that's cycling way too fast in the TNT-laden finale. Our log full of riders thrilled at chanting "Fire in the hole" every three seconds just before the 42-foot free-fall drop. Let's hope a new tradition is born.

The success of the Timber Mountain rehab naturally begs the question: Will Knott's give the same treatment to the 1960 Calico Mine Train? Garner Holt Productions has already drawn up concept art for a makeover of the mine train, another Bud Hurlbut creation.

But why stop there? Why not bring back the Knott's Bear-y Tales and Kingdom of the Dinosaurs dark rides? Or build a Halloween Haunt-themed year-round attraction in Ghost Town?

The possibilities are endless.

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