Inside Theme Park Entertainment with Knott’s Berry Farm Producer Eric Nix
Entertainment has been a growing part of regional theme park offerings over the past few years, especially across the Cedar Fair park chain. Things like food festivals, concerts, and holiday events have been spreading across regional parks as they try to find new ways to engage visitors. Nowhere is this more true than at Knott’s Berry Farm, which these days seems to have a festival going on all the time. From the upcoming month long Boysenberry Festival, to Ghost Town Alive, to the annual Scary Farm and Merry Farm, Knott’s has a packed entertainment calendar. One of the key figures behind those growing entertainment offerings is Knott’s Berry Farm producer Eric Nix, who spent a long career at Disney before joining Knott’s in 2017. We had a chance recently to talk to Eric about his background in theme park entertainment, what goes into the near continuous stream of new festivals and events, how entertainment at a park like Disney compares to Knott’s, and much much more. Check out our full interview below for lots of great insight into the world of theme park entertainment!
(note: the interview has been slightly edited for clarity.)
Inside the Job
Coaster101: Thanks a ton for taking the time to talk to me Eric, could you just tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in the theme park industry?
Eric Nix, Producer at Knott’s Berry Farm: I grew up in Southern California in Temple City, a small town nestled between Pasadena and Monrovia. Being within driving distance of Knott’s Berry Farm, Disneyland, and Universal Studios, my family would take me and my sister on yearly pilgrimages to each of those parks. Thus, my love of theme parks and themed entertainment was born.
I knew from a very early age that I wanted to work in this industry, and I can distinctly remember writing to the Disneyland PR team to inquire how to become an Imagineer and to see if they’d tell me their upcoming plans. One such letter resulted in a hefty envelope being sent to me which detailed their “Disney Decade” they had planned in the ’90s, and it was right then I knew where my compass would always point: themed entertainment. The idea that companies like Disney spend so much time and energy devoted to taking their Guests into these immersive environments, fascinated me.
All through my school years, I studied art and eventually landed in my high school’s A/V & Theater club “Dragon Flicks”, which really opened my eyes to the world of live entertainment. My path would eventually take me elsewhere and I concentrated on graphic design for a bit in college and left the world of theater behind. It wasn’t until later in my career that the call of the theater would beckon me to come back in a roundabout way, thru the ENTERTAINMENT art department at Disneyland. Ever since I worked for that team in 2003, I’ve grown so fond of the Live Entertainment side of theme parks that I can’t see myself anywhere else. Where else could a professed introvert sit behind the scenes and help bring to life such wonderful projects?! Entertainment can be such a nimble tool in a park’s arsenal and I think that’s where Knott’s is exceeding expectations these days.
C101: You’ve been at Knott’s Berry Farm for a couple of years now, could you tell us a little bit about the role you’re in, and what specific projects you’ve been involved in since you started?
EN: My role at Knott’s is Producer for Live Entertainment, but I wear MANY hats at the park. As Producer my overarching goal is to ensure that each entertainment project we put in front of our guests is delivered on-time, on-budget, and fulfills the creative intent supplied by our design and creative staff. Part of my role is to also ensure that all the other divisions in the park (Merchandise, Attractions, Operations, Food & Beverage, etc.) are kept in the loop on our projects and that those respective divisions are also delivering product consistent with whatever project we’re producing. I also have the unique opportunity to wear the creative hat in many meetings. I’ve helped to come up with attraction concepts, Scary Farm maze ideas, and show pitches that have (and will) come to life here at the Farm.
I joined the Knott’s family April of 2017, so I’m coming up on my second anniversary at the park. Since joining the team I’ve help produce quite a few events including: 2017 Knott’s Scary Farm announcement event, 2017 Knott’s Scary (including new mazes/shows/etc…), 2017 Knott’s Merry Farm, 2018 Peanuts Celebration (including the mounting of all the shows included within the festival), 2018 Boysenberry Festival (including our first art show “Tied Up in Knott’s), HangTime Media Event (including the live music/fireworks/lighting package moment), 2018 Summer Program (Beach Blanket Beagle & Calico Mountain Jamboree), 2018 Knott’s Scary Farm announcement event, 2018 Knott’s Scary Farm (including The Depths & Dark Entitles, Forsaken Lake, Balcony Burlesque, etc…), 2018 Knott’s Spooky Farm, 2018 Knott’s Merry Farm. (This year) the cycle started over with 2019 Peanuts Celebration (including Silent Disco, Woodstock’s Birdseye View, and Space Beagle).
As you can see, this job is all-consuming and I’m only one cog in a machine that helps to crank out these productions, season after season!
C101: I know that before Knott’s you worked at Disney, both WDI and the parks. I was wondering if you could kind of compare working at a place like Disney compared to Knott’s?
EN: I started my career in themed entertainment back in 1997 at Disneyland and moved around the park in several departments including Costuming, Attractions and Guest Relations. I then worked as a consultant for the Entertainment Art department as a Graphic Designer/Illustrator, moved into a full-time Event Manager position, and eventually founds myself working as a Production Manager for the Entertainment Production team. I was then moved over to WDI Creative Entertainment to work as Sr. Production Manager on the Galaxy’s Edge entertainment program. I was on that project for over 2 years before I made the leap as Producer over to Knott’s Berry Farm.
When comparing Disney to Cedar Fair, and ultimately Knott’s Berry Farm, it’s important to keep scale and scope in mind. Disney is an IP powerhouse that has many studios cranking out new product on a consistent basis and Disney’s success lies in the synergy of those projects, ultimately (and hopefully) seeing those new properties realized in some form of themed entertainment in their parks. Cedar Fair doesn’t have the backing of a studio providing content to realize in their parks, but what they do have is a strong family brand that stretches across 13 parks across the US and Canada. In many ways, not having any major IP (with the exception of the Peanuts) allows us to create without the constraints of the boundaries an IP could impose. (We don’t have to think “Would Darth Vader really hold his light saber that way?”). I think that’s why you see Knott’s succeed in the haunted attraction arena, we’re able to create our own stories, characters and branding outside of a studio’s oversight and rules.
Knott’s is also VERY nimble, with a MUCH smaller management structure than Disney. In many instances, Ken Parks (VP of Entertainment), myself, and Jon Storbeck (VP & GM) will be in the same room talking about a project and walk away with a green or red light VERY quickly. Quick decisions like that can’t happen at Disney because every project has many stakeholders that all have a vested interest in the project, so one decision could require 4 to 6 approvals from various leaders before you can move forward. That may sound tedious but the scale of their projects are such that you NEED that sort of buy-off to ensure your multi-million dollar project’s funds are being spent wisely. Again, it goes back to scale and scope. We’re small and nimble, but sometimes we lack resources. The flip-side of that coin would be Disney with all the resources you could want, but with a MUCH larger staff and many more decision points that can slow down the process.
C101: It feels like there’s some big festival or event happening at Knott’s at every time of the year. You just finished the Peanuts Celebration, and the Boysenberry Festival is coming up in about a month. Even being more nimble, how long ahead of these events do you guys have to start designing and planning these productions?
EN: Another key responsibility of my role is to try and get ahead of these festivals/celebrations. I was brought in to help manage those event timelines and hopefully get us ahead of the curve; after getting some better systems and processes in place. Ideally, we want to get to a place where we know at least 12 months out, what we’re doing. Slowly we’ve been making that happen; starting with our most resource-draining event; Knott’s Scary Farm. I’m very excited to announce that as of last week, we began construction on a new maze for the 2019 Knott’s Scary Farm season! The ONLY way we were able to achieve this was to approve new designs during last year’s Scary Farm season and accelerate our design timelines to have finished designs sent to our production teams by the end of January 2019; which was met in spades. I can see a world where we will have our designs for the next year done one year in advance. Our whole entertainment divisions is striving for that goal and I’m certain it’s achievable.
C101: How big is the team that you have working on these productions? Do different producers take the lead on different events, or do you sort of work on them all together?
EN: Our production team (the folks who help build our sets/mazes/shows/etc…) grows and contracts with the seasons but the designers and creative staff that come up with those great ideas stays constant. Currently there is only one Producer on property (yours truly) but I’m hoping that one day we can add a position or two that would report to me and assist with the production of all these projects.
Integrating Shows and Rides
C101: Changing gears a little bit, back at the HangTime opening we talked a little bit about the potential to use the Lighting Package from KCL on the ride integrated with shows and events. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve been able to do that and whether there have been any new ways you’ve learned to use it?
EN: We have a VERY talented Lighting Designer name Doug Castillo that programmed the HangTime media event moment and really dug into the nuts and bolts of that system. Having his expertise has allowed us to create other musical lighting moments for Scary Farm and Merry Farm. We were able to achieve these timed events due to his know-how and a few small pieces of equipment that we purchased. We’re excited to expand on the idea even more in 2019.
C101: Related to that, Knott’s has some pretty iconic rides that fit in with the different areas. With something like the railroad or the Calico Mine Ride mountain, and the upcoming Calico River Rapids, do you guys ever think about ways to integrate those with the entertainment part of the park, either as props/sets or even as stages (like the walk through actors on the train ride)?
EN: Absolutely! It’s hard to not look at those long-standing, iconic, uniquely “Knott’s” attractions and not pair them with stories. Last summer our Calico Mountain Jamboree had a storyline that brought the miners of Calico and the loggers of Timber Mountain come down for a good old-fashioned, friendly competition. Our nightly Christmas Tree lighting at Calico Park has a small nod to the Timber Mountain loggers for bringing down such a gorgeous tree to Calico Park. Our entertainment team is always looking for ways to bridge stories across attractions and other entertainment offerings, bringing it all together into one connected world where it make sense.
Ghost Town Alive
C101: On Ghost Town Alive specifically, it’s still unique as far as I know in the theme park industry. I know you weren’t here for the start of it, but I was wondering if you could still kind of go into what it’s like to work on, and how you guys make something that different from the traditional theme park show?
EN: Ghost Town Alive was/is Ken Parks passion project and; in my opinion, one of the greatest disrupters in the themed entertainment arena. Ken set out to create a form of storytelling that brings Guests together with performers and helps Guests feel that their decisions have impact on the overall story. GTA is about connection and community, getting Guests off their smart phones and having a meaningful interaction with characters you actually care about and want to help about their day. The production process is no different than our other projects; a concept is put together and fleshed out, that’s given to our design/creative staff to support and ultimately handed to our production team to fabricate, mount and rehearse. I think what makes GTA so unique is Ken’s passion for the story and unwavering goal to deliver the very best, sincere interactions to our Guests.
C101: Are there any particular lessons or take-aways you’ve learned from the past Ghost Town Alive seasons that stood out to you as really important? What kinds of changes beyond just the story have you guys made to it as it evolves?
EN: Every season we learn a bit more about human nature and what is important to each style of ‘player’ in our story. We have to develop techniques that not only engage the common Day Guest, but for the Guest who may come multiple times a week thru the whole season. We’ve learned to equip our performers with more missions to help those folks that grind thru the story VERY quickly.
C101: Can you tell us anything about what might be coming to this years Ghost Town Alive? Any hints at what might be different this year?
EN: Ken has some very exciting ideas to bring to this year’s iteration of Ghost Town Alive. It’s too early to reveal any of the details, but rest assured it’ll be another exciting summer on the streets of Calico.
C101: I know it’s probably tough to answer, but do you have a favorite “season” at Knott’s? A favorite event?
EN: That’s probably like asking a parent who their favorite child is!? In all honesty each one comes with a unique assortment of individual projects that all help to make Knott’s unique, BUT if you cornered me and told me I had to answer…Knott’s Scary Farm. I’ve been coming to Knott’s Scary Farm since the mid-90s and it was always the highlight of my Halloween season. In the same vein, the Knott’s Scary Farm Announcement Event is probably my favorite project to produce each year. I hate keeping secrets and bottling up all that I know about Scary Farm each year is REAL hard! So, the announcement event lets me breathe a HUGE sigh of relief because I don’t have to bite my tongue any longer AND I love seeing/hearing the reactions for all the amazing new things we bring to the event this year. Speaking of which…just wait for 2019…
C101: Finally, because we like to think of ourselves as still primarily a roller coaster site even though we love all theme parks, and because Knott’s has some pretty good roller coasters, do you have a favorite roller coaster (or non-coaster ride) at Knott’s Berry Farm? And assuming you’re a ride fan in general, what about a favorite non-Knott’s ride?
EN: My favorite Knott’s coaster is probably Silver Bullet. It’s relentless, smooth and that final helix still makes my legs feel like they’re going to be torn off. My favorite non-Knott’s attraction would probably be Tower of Terror at Disney Hollywood Studios or Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland. The level of storytelling and theming is just incredible and immersive. (Editors Note: I completely agree)
Once again, a huge thank you to Eric Nix and Knott’s Berry Farm for talking to us, and going into tons of great detail about the entertainment at Knott’s and how the industry in general works. Hopefully if you’ve ever been interested in getting into theme park entertainment or been curious about it, this answers at least some of your questions. If you want to experience Eric’s work, that’s easy, go check out the Knott’s Berry Farm Boysenberry Festival starting in just a couple of weeks on the 29th of March. You can find out more on the Knott’s website. If there’s anything else you’d like to know about Eric or his work at Knott’s, ask us in the comments below or hit us up on Facebook or Twitter and we’ll reach out to him.
For more looks inside the world of theme parks and roller coasters, check out some of Coaster101’s past interviews with everyone from park GMs to roller coaster designers to executive chefs. Finally, if there are any other people or careers you’d be interested in us interviewing, let us know. We’re always looking for more people to talk to!