When it comes to storied rivalries, there’s nothing like the Red Sox vs. Yankees, Army vs. Navy or Arizona vs. Arizona State.
You’re probably nodding and thinking, “Sounds about right, but I haven’t been to Knott’s Berry Farm in years.”
If visions of gunslingers and outdated attractions are going through your mind, it might be time to ditch Disney for a day at the farm.
It’s time to go Walt on Walt (Disney and Knott, the parks' respective founders) in this category-by-category matchup between Southern California theme-park heavyweights. (As you’ll see, Knott’s is no lightweight.)
Disneyland: From $64 a day (if you buy a $320, five-day passport good for one park a day) to $135 (for a one-day pass during the busiest time of year). The most popular ticket may be the $330 three-day Parkhopper.
Knott’s: One-day admission is $50 if you buy online for a specific date or $62 if you buy an online ticket good for any day. Admission is $80 at the gate.
Disneyland: Add MaxPass for $10 a day per person. It allows unlimited downloads of photos taken by Disney photographers and the ability to schedule a Fastpass from your phone instead of finding a kiosk.
Knott’s: The Fast Lane pass ($69 to $75 when purchased online) allows buyers to bypass the line to 13 rides. The $32 dining plan allows the user to order entrées and side dishes all day as long as there are 90 minutes between orders.
Winner: Knott’s. On busy days, Fast Lane tickets allow you to make the most of your time.
Knott's: The $30 discount for buying admission online is a 37 percent savings. If Disney offered similar savings, a one-day ticket would be about $80.
Disneyland: With three hotels and a fourth on the way, there’s usually room at a Disney inn. If not, there are dozens of others within a mile or two, from tacky to tremendous with prices to match. Many of those not within walking distance offer free shuttles.
Knott’s: The Knott’s Berry Farm hotel at the front gate offers decent rooms at a price 20 to 30 percent higher than the few hotels in the area. With just one other hotel within walking distance and a handful of others within a mile (no free shuttles), lodging is the biggest chink in Knott’s armor. But as we’ll see later (under Crowds), the park probably isn’t concerned.
Winner: Disneyland, by a length too far to walk.
Rides and attractions
Disneyland: No one outdoes Disney when it comes to experience, details and consistency. Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure have some of the best rides and attractions in the country. From Pirates of the Caribbean to Haunted Mansion and the new Star Wars Land opening in summer 2019, Disney remains the theme-park standard.
Knott’s: The oldest theme park in Southern California now tilts toward thrill rides, thanks to eight roller coasters and assorted adventures that lift and twist you high in the air. Its latest, HangTime, is the first dive coaster on the West Coast, and the classic wooden coaster Ghost Rider offers an incredibly smooth ride.
Winner: Disneyland, but not by as much as you'd think.
Disneyland: As soon as you enter Disneyland (and, to a lesser extent, California Adventure), you are immersed in Walt Disney’s vision. Berms and buildings block the outside world, and everything from architecture to paint schemes are designed to take you out of reality. No details are too small. Even the food kiosks and trash cans are designed for specific locales.
Knott’s: Most of the effort is put into the ghost town, with solid results. But the immersive environment is lacking elsewhere, particularly along the Boardwalk. It comes across more as a county fair, down to the plethora of midway games that lend a cheesy look and attitude.
Winner: Disneyland, and it’s almost unfair, like Usain Bolt racing against Zumba instructors. Those teachers are in great shape, but still …
Disneyland: Since the very first popcorn cart it installed, Disney knew the important role food plays in keeping people happy and, more importantly, in the park. It starts with the churro, a hand-held delight, and goes up the culinary ladder to the upscale fare in Blue Bayou. Fare ranges from serviceable (pizza and hamburgers) to outstanding (breakfast at Carnation Café, dinner at Carthay Circle Lounge in California Adventure).
Knott’s: The food lines are shorter, the empty tables more numerous. The offerings rarely rise above, "Yeah, it's fine." Knott’s pins its culinary reputation on Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant just outside the front gate. The fried chicken is succulent and crispy but could some herbs and spices. The farm's signature boysenberries elevate everything from preserves to pie.
Winner: Disneyland. But Knott’s boysenberry pie rivals Jack-Jack’s Cookie Num Num (California Adventure) as best dessert served warm.
Disneyland: Old-timers still recall days when waits for even the most popular rides rarely exceeded 45 minutes. They speak of pathways so clear that normal walking speeds were easily maintained. Crowds now range from "heavy" to "I've seen worse." And when the visitor apocalypse descends with the new Star Wars Land next summer, it will be the end of (reasonable wait) times.
Knott’s: Assuming the Disney old-timers are correct (answer: they are, as I am one of them), visiting Knott’s today is like stepping into a Disneyland of yesteryear. Even as wait times climb toward an hour for the most popular rides, the walkways remain easily navigable.
Nature of crowds
Disneyland: Families and more families, many with children who require strollers. Looking at the pedestrian traffic yields no clue that America’s birthrate is actually dropping.
Knott’s: Unaccompanied teens enjoy unfettered access thanks to an affordable annual pass ($127) and parents who find $127 a reasonable price for adequate summer-long teen care. As the park closes, a blocks-long line of cars stretches from the designated pickup spot.
Winner: Knott’s, due to well-behaved adolescents and dearth of strollers.
Disneyland: Cast members beam as if they are truly having one of the happiest days of their lives, without a hint of the eerie Stepford vibe you’d expect from perpetual glee. Whether you ask for directions or plead to ride the train up front with the engineer, you get the idea that employees really want to help, even as they apologize profusely because someone’s already keeping the engineer company.
Knott’s: Teens with summer jobs act like teens with summer jobs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Winner: Disneyland. And no, we don’t want to learn any secrets from former cast members about their Disney indoctrination.
Lines and loading
Disneyland: Cast members quickly feed riders into open slots, chewing through lines like sausage through a meat grinder. They often do so with a personality that matches the attraction, particularly the appropriately morbid hosts of the Haunted Mansion who welcome you to the ghostly realm with any number of puns. (“We’re dying to see you.”)
Knott’s: Knott’s is largely hands-off when it comes to the preride experience. Allowing visitors to choose their own seats isn't very expedient (sorry, Southwest Airlines). Nor do many people have qualms about jumping the line to join friends.
Winner: Disneyland, but Knott’s if you’re a free-range teen.
Final score: Disney 6, Knott's Berry Farm 5.
Disney has been, and will be for many years to come, the place to go when planning a theme-park visit. But should you ever need a vacation from Disney – anyone who’s collapsed from exhaustion on a Disney bench in the middle of the day knows what we’re talking about – carve out a day to see how Knott’s Berry Farm has changed in the 20 years since you last saw it.
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