A few months ago I was given the opportunity to travel backstage inside the Calico Mine Ride ride at Knott’s Berry Farm. The fantastic folks at the Walt Disney Birthplace held a fundraiser hosted by our friends Bill Butler and Garner Holt of Garner Holt Productions. GHP refurbished the attraction with new scenes, animatronics and updated technology this past year.
The attraction is located on three levels, starting on the second level, you gently descend to the ground level and then travel up a 25 degree lift hill that takes you up to the third level. Then you coast back to the second level and unload.
There is a small tunnel, the disguised entrance to the dark ride’s backstage located right after the unload dock. Once you travel through the tunnel, you are treated with massive pumps and pipes that feed the facade’s water features. You go down a staircase and are now on the ride’s ground floor.
The attraction isn’t housed on three distinct floors, but is more like three levels built independently of each other inside the building’s shell. The ground floor has some tight clearances as the ride track is mere inches above you. The pathways lead toward the only backstage entrance of the Glory Hole scene. All of the figures in this scene were slid in through this point. Directly behind us was the lift hill. Some of the unused figures from the original incarnation of the ride are piled right under the lift. This area is directly below the Bubbling Pots room. If you were to keep on going, you would come across a staircase to the second and third levels.
As you turn around and head back, you walk past a set of backstage restrooms, travel up another set of stairs and are now in the ride vehicle maintenance bay. The two storage tracks can hold two trains, one is typically always in storage. You can also catch a glimpse of the lift hill in the maintenance bay. Despite all of the engineering that the attraction’s designer, Bud Hurlbut, put into the attraction, one of the beams is placed six inches to close to the track. The roofing of the locomotives would hit the beam if the train is pulled into the track, so they need to back it in instead.
Inside the boiler cap (the door on the front of the locomotive with the number on it), houses the chips for the RFID controlled narration system.
Creative Director Bill Butler showed us one of the three control panels used for the animatronics. All of the figure programing is stored on a single micro SD card. They could have multiple sets of different programs and change the card, new figure animation would now be in place. The lighting and audio is all controlled through a closed ethernet system, so anyone on the Knott’s ethernet could change the show’s lighting and audio without being inside the show building.
Another piece of new technology installed during the refurbishment was the block control system. This will stop any train that gets within the block zone that another train is currently in. If a train gets in an occupied zone, the train will stop and trigger the house lights to come on. There are small lamps that are disguising the block lights, they are green when the next zone is clear, and red if it’s occupied. This control system is located above some server cabinets and next to the staircase that takes you up to the third level.
Here is a picture of one of the block lights.
Right next to block control panel is a large gap that is open to the ground level. This was one of the many moments when you see how much void space there is in a relatively small and cramped show building. This is just another testament to the genius that Bub Hurlbut truly was. Above this area is the explosion tunnel. Here you get a good look at how the rock work was constructed. Structural steel gets erected and rebar is added in a loose shape of the rock work. On top of that they add chicken wire and spray the concrete onto the chicken wire and sculpt it. All of the structural steel was manufactured by US Steel, the same company who make all the steel used in the Matterhorn at Disneyland.
After taking a backstage glimpse at all the new technology added to the attraction and the original infrastructure, we got to take a lights on tour of the dark ride. Lots of the attraction’s effects, show action equipment and utilities are hidden in plain sight with the show lights on, but are visible when the house lights are turned on.
Once you take a backstage look inside a dark ride such as the Calico Mine Ride, your perspective of how a dark ride is operated and designed changes completely. I hope you enjoyed this look backstage at the Calico Mine Ride and gained some insight on the new technologies added during the major refurbishment. I would love to give a huge special thanks to Bill and everyone at Garner Holt Productions for letting us tag along during the event.