One of the most iconic and impressive theme park attractions in California is the Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm. Built in the late 1960s by Bud Hurlbut and Arrow Dynamics, the famous log ride began operation on July 11, 1969 in Buena Park, and has thrilled countless millions of guests ever since. Today, the Timber Mountain Log Ride is still considered by many industry professionals and fans alike to be the greatest log flume attraction ever built, due to its physical length and one-of-a-kind experience. To compare, Timber Mountain is to Knott’s Berry Farm what Pirates of the Caribbean is to Disneyland; a timeless classic that stands as a monument to the pioneers of the industry, while entertaining and thrilling generations to come.
During Timber Mountain’s past several decades of operation, it has succumbed to a great deal of wear and tear, as well as perhaps a bit of neglect, to be fair. The fact that it’s a water-based attraction automatically means that its upkeep is going to live somewhere between “nightmarish” and “next to impossible”. During Knott’s Halloween Haunt each October for the past 40 seasons, show sets and talent have moved into the mountain, and that too, has taken its toll. Over the years, maintenance has of course, been ongoing within the log ride; however, the classic attraction was always fixed up and maintained “as needed” by Cedar Fair, along with executives at Knott’s over the past couple decades. By the late 2000s, Timber Mountain was really starting suffer at the hands of complacency.
Enter Raffi Kaprelyan as the new General Manager of Knott’s Berry Farm, and Matt Ouimet as the new President and Chief Executive Officer of Cedar Fair, along with new, hand-picked Knott’s managers and team members working for them since 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Kaprelyan has extensive history with Knott’s Berry Farm spanning more than 30 years, during which time he worked in various roles ranging from custodial and ride operations to even being a Halloween Haunt monster. Raffi worked his way up the chain of command at various Cedar Fair Parks including a role as Vice President and General Manager of Canada’s Wonderland, and now stands at the helm of Knott’s as its GM. During the short time he has been General Manager at Knott’s, the theme park has seen a staggering change in operations and physical appearance, coming almost 180 degrees from where it had been in recent years. More than temporary “face lifts”, the park has undergone a miraculous transformation in all areas; colorful flowers bloom from planters all around Ghost Town, the food at Knott’s now has become the standard in theme park cuisine in Southern California (Disney’s high-end restaurants excluded), and the company has finally turned its focus and attention to its rides. Not only are three brand new rides coming online for Summer 2013 in the re-envisioned Boardwalk area, the park’s iconic log ride is finally getting the much-needed love its been lacking for a long, long time.
Matt Ouimet also needs to be credited in this tale, since he is the new top man at Cedar Fair. Known throughout the industry for his attention to detail and true understanding of theme parks and the value of good show, Matt also feels that Knott’s and its history are absolutely critical to the legacy of Cedar Fair; he has really gotten behind Raffi on the Timber Mountain project, and has ensured that the funding is there to do the massive renovation correctly. When you have both the CEO of Cedar Fair and the General Manager of Knott’s dedicated to not just preserving, but renovating and bettering the log ride, that sends a clear message to fans and the theme park community as a whole that they are very serious about the future of Knott’s, and that they understand the significance of Timber Mountain.
The job of renovating Timber Mountain Log Ride is a massive undertaking. It calls on all disciplines of creative design, from concept art to installation of new show sets and figures; nearly 50 humans and critters in total. For that massive job, Garner Holt Productions was tapped early in the process, and was deemed to be the group that Knott’s wanted to partner with to pull this renovation off. Garner Holt has long been a fan of Knott’s Berry Farm; he and his team of designers all felt very strongly about being part of this historical project and were more than ready to go to work once the call came from Buena Park.
Garner and his team are world-class designers, best known for their advancements in the field of audio animatronics, as seen recently in Disney attractions such as The Little Mermaid and Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure. The company also does excellent show set and scenic work, which can now be seen within Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor attraction. GHP’s work is top quality, and the fact that they are excited about working on the Timber Mountain project is enough to make us more than thrilled; they get it, and they are going to do an amazing job on this renovation!
The Cedar Fair team is also leaning heavily on Kent Maulsby, the park’s Vice President of Maintenance, who is one of core leaders overseeing the project. Kent and his team are working with multiple vendors on this project, and he knows just how critical it is that they get this rehab right.
“The log ride is historic,” said Kent in a meeting we had with him at the beginning of the project. “It’s part of the beauty here. They really don’t build them like they used to anymore. It’s got that character that comes from being a really old-style ride, and so it’s really important to preserve that; that’s part of what Knott’s Berry Farm is. It’s part of our essential identity, and so it’s really important to preserve it, to make it better, to make sure that it’s around for a long time, and to make sure that it’s looking good; that it represents Knott’s Berry Farm the way that it should.”
Kent is on a mission, and it is very apparent to us that he’s not just talking the talk. The afternoon that we met up with Kent at the park, a special friend of Knott’s met our group as well to talk about the log ride – John Waite, one of the first employees of Bud Hurlbut, who helped in the opening of Timber Mountain in 1969. It was the first time that these two gentlemen had met each other, and once I introduced them, something quite incredible happened; something that caused me to take pause, step back and simply listen for a while.
As a member of the executive team overseeing the log ride project, Kent took great and sincere interest in John’s history with the attraction. The two men discussed the different scenes in detail, and Kent listened quite intently to everything John had to say about his time with Bud, the early operational challenges the Hurlbut crew faced and most importantly, why certain elements are the way they remain today within the mountain. It was frankly, very moving for me to witness a Knott’s veteran explaining how it was to a relatively new member of the management team, and for the conversation not to be a polite formality. Kent really took mental note of everything John spoke with him about and understood the log ride in a different light by the time their conversation came to an end. It was a moment that was nothing short of magical for me – these types of meetings don’t occur much in this industry, and when they do, members of the old guard are generally treated respectfully and then the current guard simply proceeds to do what they intend once the formalities are over. Not the case here, which makes it extremely satisfying to me as a fan and industry professional myself.
Not only has John’s clear memory of the Timber Mountain Log Ride served the project well, his input has actually been taken under advisement by Knott’s as they move forward with the re-imagining of the log ride.
“That darn tree,” John laughed, pointing at a tall pine near the front of the mountain the afternoon we met with he and Kent at Knott’s. “You know, someone gave that to Bud as a gift in a bucket. It was just left there, and it grew and grew over the years. It was never intended to be there, and now look at it! It obstructs the entire front of the mountain!”
And John was right; the tree had out-grown the mountain and not only destroyed the view of the attraction, it completely ruined the forced perspective of the attraction’s facade and exterior landscaping. Kent was fascinated by the story and as he and John spoke, you could see the wheels being set in motion. The next time you visit Knott’s, you will now enjoy a completely unobstructed view of the Timber Mountain Log Ride, thanks to that meeting between the two gentlemen!
John Waite’s love for Knott’s Berry Farm is evident whenever he speaks of the park. The two classic attractions that Bud Hurlbut built and operated – Timber Mountain and the Mine Train – have a very special place in John’s heart and his eyes light up with absolute enthusiasm whenever he chats about either.
“I’m so excited about riding it once it reopens here!” beamed John as he stood in front of the drained flume outside Timber Mountain as we talked. “I know the company that’s doing some of the scenery work, and they are outstanding! And I know that they’re doing this with their heart, because they really, really respect this attraction and what it means to the amusement industry, and theme park industry as a whole.”
With great care, and yes – with their hearts – the team at Garner Holt Productions received many of the original figures from Timber Mountain at their shop 50 miles away in San Bernardino. The team’s first task was to use the best existing heads from the log ride figures to cast new molds from. This process was delicately carried out so as to produce as many molds as possible from the original log ride figures so that the new residents of Timber Mountain would look very similar to their predecessors. Creating the molds from the original figures was an involved, challenging process, due to their extremely fragile state after all those years in the mountain. This extra step was a detail likely lost on most guests that will ride the attraction in the decades to come. However, it was something that Garner’s team wanted to do, to preserve the integrity, spirit and character of Timber Mountain’s original figures. We love that, and applaud them for adding that personal touch as the team began to bring the classic attraction into the 21st Century.
“We wanted to preserve some of the best sculpts from the original attraction, since they had so much character.” said Bill Butler, Director of Creative Design at Garner Holt Productions. “So we made molds of the best faces, poured clay positives, and added some additional detail to the sculpt so all the figures look like they belong in the same family when poured in the final silicone mask, like our other figures in the show.”
The renovation of the Timber Mountain Log Ride is on a much larger scale than most people are aware of. Virtually every scene within the mountain has been gutted, foliage and figures removed and rock work stripped away. Very little of the original interior elements remain as work on the attraction’s infrastructure is taking place each day and evening at Knott’s. When the classic attraction opens at the end of May, the public is going to be stunned by what’s taken place. Many of the figures that are being created for Timber Mountain have a much greater range of motion than most of the figures in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean attractions – a huge step forward in pneumatic animatronics technology has allowed the GHP team to really create some stunning characters that will wow Knott’s visitors and industry fans alike.
In Part 2 of our story, Theme Park Adventure will take you behind the scenes at Garner Holt Productions in San Bernardino for an intimate look at how the team created the amazing figures for Timber Mountain; look for that coming soon!
To be continued…
– Rick West
Historical images provided by Knott’s Berry Farm. All rights reserved.