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Knott's brings Wild West stories to life with 'Ghost Town Alive' interactive experience

Knott's brings Wild West stories to life with 'Ghost Town Alive' interactive experience
Swing by the sheriff's office for a crooked game of cards during the "Ghost Town Alive" interactive experience at Knott's Berry Farm. (Knott's)
As a kid in the 1970s, Lara Hanneman always dreamed of stepping inside the peek-in scenes scattered throughout Knott’s Ghost Town and bringing the stories of the animatronic townspeople to life.

"I wanted to make those places come alive even then," said Hanneman, now creative director of Knott's Berry Farm. "I imagined looking in the peek-ins and seeing the guys in there talking and doing things. And I thought it would be fun to go play in there."

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Tired of hearing visitors express the same desires — or worse, ignoring the peek-ins all together — Hanneman created a new interactive entertainment experience that will inject Wild West characters and improv storytelling into the original heart of the Buena Park theme park.

"Everybody understands the concept of play," Hanneman said. "You did it when you were a kid. What we're trying to do is keep it simple and make it fun."

Set to debut in May, "Ghost Town Alive" celebrates the 75th anniversary of the original themed land of Knott's that grew to include a saloon, blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, train depot and stagecoach stop.

About two dozen characters in 1850s Wild West period costumes will interact with Knott's visitors and assign them duties to complete throughout Calico ghost town. Visitors will play an active role in shaping daily events and propelling forward the overarching story that develops throughout the day.

"We're really letting the people help drive the story," Hanneman said. "It's almost like a choose your own adventure."

No two daily story arcs in the live-action role playing adventure will ever be the same. Visitors can decide to pledge allegiance to the notorious Mayfield gang of bandits or help save the day with a posse of courageous cowboys.

"It's an improv play," Hanneman said. "It's not a show that you just sit back and watch. It's completely interactive."

Peek-in locations with animatronic figures throughout Ghost Town will be transformed into working establishments and open to visitors who want to step inside. Stop by the barber shop to catch up on the town gossip. Or swing by the sheriff's office for a crooked game of cards. But beware: Your face could end up on a wanted poster.

"The story varies depending on where you go and where you start," Hanneman said. "You don't have to start anywhere specific."

Hard-core players will be able to extract intimate town secrets from the actors and unlock "Easter eggs" that will open up new storylines in the ongoing and ever-changing tale.

"You can be involved and participate in things as much as you want," Hanneman said.

The goal of "Ghost Town Alive" is to engage and entertain the Knott's audience while hopefully creating memories that last a lifetime, Hanneman said.

"We're trying to interact with people in a whole new way," Hanneman said. "It's a time to put down your cellphone and actually pay attention to what's around you."

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"Ghost Town Alive" is ultimately a ghost story — although the characters don't know they are ghosts or that they live in a ghost town.

Characters will include a gossipy barber, a steadfast sheriff, a wise-cracking blacksmith, a meticulous assayer, a petulant postmaster and a dishonest banker. Calico's mayor seems untrustworthy but that might just be a side effect of having to deal with his primly proper wife and scandalous daughter.

The main character of the eternally unfolding story is Goldie, a world-traveling entrepreneur who's based on Hanneman. Goldie owns a mercantile and textile shop in Calico, where her sister sews dresses for the townswomen. Drop into Goldie's tea room and she might show you photos from her travels or ask your advice about what to wear to tonight's 75th anniversary celebration of Calico's founding.

Watch out for the Mayfield Gang, which is always trying to stake a claim to the town with a phony deed. You can be certain the bandits will try to rob the train that is bringing supplies in for the evening's anniversary celebration. It's up to everyone involved to catch the gang, throw them in jail and save Calico.

"We'll have dilemmas throughout the day," Hanneman said. "That's where you can change the story."

Horses and donkeys will return to the Calico barn, where kids can pet the animals and learn how to make lassos. A daily newspaper will have headlines that can change based on the day's events. And you might be called on to draw a wanted poster for the Mayfield Gang based on an eyewitness description.

Hanneman wanted to have the barber offer real shaves and haircuts, but that involved abiding by too many county health codes. Instead, the barber will paint handlebar mustaches on young and old alike. And Hanneman still isn't sure whether she'll authorize the sheriff to deputize kids and let them throw their parents in jail.

At the end of each day around 6 p.m., the town will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of Calico with a hoe-down dance party. The celebration will take place at the new Calico Stage, which will be relocated to an area formerly occupied by the Screamin' Swing thrill ride.

Knott's Ghost Town dates to 1940, when Walter Knott relocated the Gold Trails Hotel from Prescott, Ariz., to his Buena Park farm in hopes of entertaining customers waiting in hourslong lines for his wife, Cordelia's, chicken restaurant. The hotel lobby featured the first attraction of what eventually would become Knott's Berry Farm — a cyclorama called "The Covered Wagon Show" depicting the Knott family's westward journey.

Over time, Knott expanded on the popularity of the hotel with additional buildings from deserted ghost towns. In 1951, he bought and restored the Calico ghost town in San Bernardino County and adopted the deserted mining town's name and aesthetic for his burgeoning theme park. He enclosed the park in 1968 and instituted a $1 admission fee.

The new "Ghost Town Alive" interactive entertainment experience is part of a larger refurbishment of the oldest area of the park. The Ghostrider wooden roller coaster will be retracked and reprofiled to create a smoother and faster ride. Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant will get a complete refurbishment along with the addition of a cocktail bar. And new shows are planned for the relocated Calico Stage, Calico Saloon and Wagon Camp arena.

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