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Knott's Berry Farm breathes new life into old mine train ride

A long-overdue renovation of the Calico Mine Ride will introduce state-of-the-art technology to the first major Knott's Berry Farm attraction while preserving the groundbreaking work of a legendary theme park innovator.

Photos: Calico Mine Ride at Knott's Berry Farm

After transporting more than a million riders a year over the past half century, the 1960 Calico Mine Ride at the Buena Park theme park is undergoing a complete overhaul that will see the addition of nearly 50 animatronic figures as well as technical and structural upgrades to the seven-story manmade mountain.

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.

Timber Mountain Log Ride renovation: Preview | Review | Photos

The Knott's mine ride - along with the similarly themed Mine Train through Nature's Wonderland that debuted the same year at Disneyland - were among the first immersive themed rides featuring elaborate show elements and animated characters.

While the Disneyland attraction closed in the 1970s, the Knott's ride has endured despite changing consumer tastes and a heavy toll on the attraction that caused some animatronics to grow static and stiff.

Built for $1 million in 1960, the Calico Mine Ride at Knott's carried riders by ore car into the dimly lit tunnels of an 1880s gold mining operation. After a slow climb up a series of narrow passageways, the dark and spooky ride passes underground waterfalls, mysterious glowing caverns and dangerous cave-ins while making several passes along the edge of the 65-foot-tall gold mining glory hole, the centerpiece of the attraction.

The delicate balance of modernizing and preserving the Calico Mine Ride falls to Garner Holt Productions, which has outfitted dark rides at Disney and Universal theme parks as the world's largest designer and manufacturer of animatronics.

Photos: Inside Garner Holt Productions | Profile: The man behind the magic

About 60 engineers, mechanics and artisans at the San Bernardino-based scenic shop have been busy since September building animatronic miners, dynamiters, gold diggers and donkeys for the classic mine ride which is set to reopen this summer.

During a recent visit to Garner Holt Productions in an unassuming low-slung warehouse complex in a quiet industrial park, I watched as workers tested the movements of animatronic forty-niners that will soon populate the Calico Mine Ride.

Throughout the warehouse, an army of life-size animatronic figures stood in varying states of completeness - including headless "Terminator"-like steel skeletons, gun-metal grey fiberglass bodies and fully dressed characters with realistic silicone faces and hands. Every so often a hidden motor brought to life the frozen-in-motion mechanical miners.

The animatronic miners were each labeled with masking tape bearing descriptive names like Dynamite Guy or Powder Man. A miner panning for gold knelt on one knee with outstretched arms. Another hoisted a bird cage that will hold a canary. A choreographed team of sawmen sliced through square-cut timber.

The most complex figures hold items that react to their body movements. My favorite: A miner whose head and arms moved as he pushed a wheelbarrow that rolled back and forth on a hidden track.

In a nearby storage room, a collection of old figures pulled from the 54-year-old Calico Mine Ride stood in varying degrees of decay. A vintage 1960s department store mannequin with leather work gloves for hands expressed no surprise at his naked nature. A primitive metal animatronic with cotton stuffing tied around his legs leaned face-first against the wall as if ashamed of his fate. The plaster face of another miner rested on the floor beneath his hollowed-out head.

A handful of the best-preserved figures will be rehabbed and returned to the ride. The rest will be replicated with near-doppelgangers or replaced with characters performing new sight gags.

Unlike the Knott's log ride that Garner Holt Productions rehabbed last year with new animatronic scenes, the mine train's confined layout offers few places to expand on the original storyline. A few of the new characters and vignettes that I saw during my visit (but can't talk about just yet) looked clever and fun.

Upstairs in a room overlooking the warehouse floor, rows of lifelike silicone faces and hands that will eventually adorn the miners lined a countertop like the morbid trophies of a sick and sadistic serial killer. Many of the Halloween-like masks have been replicated from Garner Holt's extensive library of hand-sculpted molds used on past projects. The distinctive faces in the Calico Mine Ride will represent the diversity of workers who toiled in the mines - from Chinese immigrants to Latino laborers to Native American Indians.

In another room, a pair of figure finishers worked on a donkey chewing chunks of hay in his yellowed teeth. The finishing touch: a section of garden hose that will give just the right amount of flexible rigidity to a tail, allowing for 14-hour days of fly swatting.

The final stop on my tour of Garner Holt Productions brought me to a 3D printing lab where a high-tech copying machine rapidly "grew" plastic fish that will be added to an early section of the ride.

With audio, lighting, scenic and structural upgrades already underway on the attraction, Garner Holt Productions is expected to begin installing the new Calico Mine Ride animatronic figures on Monday.

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