Riders await the drop on Supreme Scream at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif. The park survived the pandemic with full-time staff intact and is poised for Scary Farm in September and October. / Photo by Jessica Peralta
Jeff Gahagan tells quite a feel-good story, standing on the balcony of the Charles M. Shultz Theater.
In the cool of a May evening, with the screams of roller coaster riders, thumping of dance music, and buzz and whirr of arcade games filling the air around him, Gahagan, vice president of maintenance for Knott’s Berry Farm, is talking shop.
If it wasn’t for the masks, and the story Gahagen is telling, it would all be basically … normal. That road back to almost normal for Knott’s has been long. But at least it had some pleasant surprises.
“In maintenance, I have 195 employees, and 175 are full time. We kept all 175 working,” he says. “There was six weeks when we had a 25% reduction in hours, but then we went right back to it.”
He says a combination of ingenuity, loyalty and teamwork kept the crew together and helped put the park in better shape for summer than ever before.
The park’s May 21 reopening to the general public — and the approximately 1,700 new hires as part of a virtual hiring day in March — were an overt sign of optimism by Knott’s and its parent company, Cedar Fair, based in Sandusky, Ohio. It was also a reflection of Southern California’s comparatively high vaccination rate.
“We’re still following the state and county recommendations,” says Ken Parks, vice president of entertainment. “Nothing so far has been business as usual, but we’re back to what we can be.”
Currently open to California residents only by reservations online, including annual passholders who were able to enter on May 6, attendance is limited on rides and across the park. Masks are required for all visitors, except in designated dining areas and visitors get a temperature check at the front gate. Social distancing is also required, and in the queue areas for several rides, Plexiglas shields separate guests.
Knott’s has not said how things might change after June 15, when the state is due to drop current COVID protocols, other than allowing non-California residents into the park.
Knott’s remains Buena Park’s largest employer, and generates almost a third — or just under $52 million — of Cedar Fair’s typical annual revenue, according to analysts Dun & Bradstreet, so even sort of normal will be welcome as the country emerges from the pandemic. And since all but one of the 16 other amusement parks or water parks the company owns are seasonal, Knott’s will play a big role in its rebound.
Plus, 2020’s planned 100th anniversary celebration and opening of new ride Bear-y Tales are simply taking place “better late than never” on the calendar.
“I sat down with the entire staff on March 13 (2020) and said, ‘We’re closing for two weeks. But you are essential workers,’” Gahagan says. “Being maintenance, we had to maintain the facility. Keep everything going, because we thought we’d be reopening in two weeks. So we kept everyone on, and we had construction going on for Bear-y Tales. It was essential for the business.”
But as the pandemic continued, full-time employees were soon faced with a situation their seasonal compatriots knew all about.
“We said, ‘OK, it’s not good to have our roller coasters sitting on their wheels.’ We hadn’t done what our other parks had done, winterizing of the attractions. We had a huge learning curve,” Gahagan says. “We asked our other parks, ‘What do we do? How do we take these down?’ We brought our staff back and everybody was adjusting as we went. There were no guidelines on how to do everything, we had to work with the staff and say ‘maintain your six feet.’
“We had to rethink how to do jobs. Reinvent what we do,” he says. “Time kept going and we kept our staff here. Then we shifted gears and thought ‘what do we do that gets us ahead for when we reopen?’”
Ken Parks says to go forward, they looked back to the beginnings of Knott’s.
“It’s about people taking what they have and making the best out of it,” he says. “You can go right back to Walter and Cordelia [Knott]. They made chicken dinners because they needed to make ends meet and she sold some chickens out of the back of the house.”
So, to keep everyone on, people did whatever jobs needed doing. Maintaining, repairing, cleaning or polishing. When the gates would someday reopen, they’d be ready, Gahagan says.
“We remodeled kitchens with ride mechanics. They had never done stuff like that,” he says. The new Bear-y Tales ride was done, but with the extra time, “We enhanced it with scenic artists who were available to go in. We used the entire year to rehab all of our attractions. This year, we won’t have any rehabs. Besides that, we did a lot of projects that we probably would have never gotten to.”
Partly because of that, Knott’s was able to have small, outside, food-oriented events each season. Even when the rest of the park was shut down.
“Guys that typically work on rides were working on decorations,” Gahagan says. “Normally, we go to outside services to do the Fall-O-Ween, Christmas and Boysenberry decorations. Instead, the guys did the install and strike, table movements and anything you can imagine.”
How the Knott’s reopening will affect Buena Park’s Beach Boulevard Entertainment Zone, the run of restaurants and bars that include Medieval Times, Pirates Dinner Adventure and Rock & Brews, is yet to be determined, but Knott’s management seems relieved to celebrate its belated centennial, with the chance to look ahead to the return of its biggest annual event, Scary Farm.
“We haven’t announced we’re doing Scary Farm,” Parks says, “but we haven’t announced we’re not doing it, either. I’m looking forward to it.”
Entertainment producer Eric Nix is willing to be more certain.
“We are working on Scary Farm very hard. It’s huge business for us and it means so much to so many people, so nobody was more upset than us not to have it last year,” Nix says.
In the meantime, Parks says things will be concentrated more outside and COVID-safe for the time being, including a nightly lighting of a cake.
“We tried to recapture a lot of what people remember the most (about the history of the park). We’ve got gunfighters up on the buildings, a saloon singer up on the building, and a medicine show, which was such a part of Ghost Town.”
Nix touts a QR code history tour of the park that includes photo op-ready replicas or fronts of some of Knott’s long-gone attractions, from the first fruit stand to Kingdom of the Dinosaurs, the Haunted Shack, the Soapbox Racers and the Sky Jump.
But he jokes the oldest attraction is still readily available. “This park was founded on boysenberries and fried chicken.”