Tarheel Tourist: Traveling Back in Time

by Sep 1, 2020North Brunswick

Hop on a plane from ILM to LAX for a surprisingly low-key Hollywood-esque adventure in Southern California.

We all want to roll back the clock, step back in time and feel younger, live in the moment, spend time with the people we love. There’s a place where you can do all of these, and while you’re there, it’s a matter of moments before your joy makes you forget the world you left behind.

That place is Southern California. But it’s not what you’re thinking. No politics (thankfully), just the right amount of Hollywood (without setting foot in Hollywood), and very little unnecessary avocado on your lunch (it comes with everything) — just fun. Anaheim and Buena Park share a border and another connection: theme parks. Knott’s Berry Farm, a classic throwback theme park in Buena Park, claims to be the oldest in California, while next door, Anaheim’s Disneyland has been one of the top amusement parks in the world for decades.

Now, about that time travel and touch of Hollywood I mentioned.

Remember Back to the Future? Three movies about a DeLorean that’s been so souped-up it’s a time machine that carries characters into the future and the past, including the Wild West (where ZZ Top performs at a town dance; hey, it’s Hollywood). Knott’s Berry Farm serves as your stand in for the old-West version of Mill Valley, the setting for Back to the Future III; several of the buildings here were transplanted from an Arizona ghost town and house shops and restaurants, blacksmiths and printers while costumed outlaws roam the streets, avoiding the sheriff and looking for a gunfight.

Across town, but in a galaxy far, far away, Disneyland has opened a portal into the distant past with their newest addition, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Walking in, you forget the grandeur of Main Street, U.S.A. and put the costumed cartoon characters out of your mind as soon as you enter the Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu. Here, squads of Storm Troopers patrol the streets and friendly Imperial Rebels run shops and concessions in a bazaar resembling Jabba The Hutt’s palace.

So, in Southern California there are two theme parks where you can lose yourself back in time and have whole new worlds to explore.

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At the Galaxy’s Edge
Entering Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, there’s a subtle shift from Disneyland to the Planet Batuu. Batuu, and all of the Black Spire Outpost, sounds different from the rest of the park. The music piped in throughout the park gives way to crickets and birds that are familiar, but just odd enough to be from another world. Then the lampposts and trash cans, which look like lampposts elsewhere, get an Imperial-industrial look and the trash cans take on a distinctly droid-like silhouette.

The path curves and the grasses grow taller, wilder, more like an outpost than a park, and that’s when we hear our music: an orchestral crescendo with a John Williams feel (Williams, who scored the Star Wars films, wrote music and sounds for Galaxy’s Edge). I felt a charge, a thrill, rise as the music took hold. Around me, the crowd lightened, lifted and then hushed as we saw what was walking toward us: Chewbacca.

When Chewie began to speak in his growling, barking language, I cheered and everyone within earshot laughed and clapped because right here in front of us was a 7-foot walking carpet that we’d grown up seeing on TV screens and in the movies. We owned the toys, put the stickers on our notebooks, retired our love for this weird creature and brought it back off the shelf decades later when Star Wars returned to the big screens. For some of us, the excitement was doubled as we’d shared this joy with our kids or grandkids, nieces and nephews and here we were immersed in the world.

Immersed is the perfect word. Just steps away, an X-Wing Fighter sat on a maintenance pad. Beyond that, a shop-lined thoroughfare resembling like the streets of Tatooine. Jedi robes, Leia’s dress, a snowspeeder helmet, all for sale in Resistance Supply shops. On the other side of the park, where the First Order, the remnants of the Empire, are stationed, shops sold Storm Trooper armor and face masks like Kylo Ren’s. There, Storm Troopers patrolled, blasters in hand, and “interrogated” guests, especially those wearing or carrying anything from the Resistance: a sympathetic t-shirt, a Chewbacca messenger bag, a lightsaber.

Yes, you can buy a lightsaber here. You can build your own or buy a legendary saber like Luke’s or Vader’s, Obi Wan’s or even Darth Maul’s. You can also build your own droid or buy a full sized R2 Unit that’s fully programmable.

As jaw dropping as that was, nothing prepared me for the moment when I saw the Millennium Falcon sitting in a docking bay. She didn’t look like a movie prop, she looked like she could take flight. Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run is one of two rides in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the other is Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, and both feature Disney’s remarkable animatronics (as characters tell you the backstory for your ride) and the ultra-realistic surroundings that anchor you in this fantasy world.

Growing up as a Star Wars fan, I was geeking out just standing in line for the ride, but once inside the Millennium Falcon — to deliver of a load of much-needed supplies to rebels — I was transported. The curved hallways, the holo-chess table, the bits and pieces and details that I’d forgotten surrounded me. I was ecstatic. When my group of four stepped into the cockpit, I got goosebumps. Strapping into my seat as a gunner on the Falcon, I was living a childhood fantasy. But when the ship went into hyperdrive and those stars elongated into a wild, sci-fi tunnel, we cheered, we whooped, we high-fived, and all of us were lost in a place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

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The Wild West, but More Thrilling
As the name implies, Knott’s Berry Farm was once a roadside berry stand that became famous when Walter and Cordelia Knott began to grow boysenberries and serve fried chicken dinners. When the fried chicken became such a hit that the Knotts had hundreds of people waiting in line to eat, Walter decided they needed to do more, so he purchased a piece of an Arizona ghost town, the Gold Trails Hotel. This became the heart of the Old West Ghost Town, one of the park’s distinct areas and one that takes you back a 150 years or so.

In the Ghost Town, costumed cowboys and nefarious outlaws walk the streets, itching for a gunfight. Can-can dancers watch from the wings and everyone from the blacksmith to the barber to the sheriff and his deputies and the town newspaper — printed fresh throughout the day — has info you need to know regarding pending showdowns, times for the Wild West Stunt Show (don’t miss it) and happenings throughout the park. And if you’re thirsty, head to the Saloon for a sarsaparilla and snacks.

Throughout the park are rides. And rides and more rides. Rides for little kids, water-park lovers, adrenaline junkies and coaster enthusiasts.

And they’re good.

Silver Bullet, an inverted roller coaster (where your feet are dangling and the track is overhead), carries the Old West theme through to the thrill rides. So does GhostRider, a wooden coaster that’s the tallest, fastest and longest such coaster on the West Coast. Over on the Boardwalk, a throwback oceanside themed area, Hang Time delivers adrenaline in big doses thanks to a 96-degree drop from 150 feet in the air and an impressive series of loops, turns and hills on a track that’s only 2,200 feet long.

Coasters aren’t for everyone, and Knott’s Berry Farm knows that. Enter Camp Snoopy, an area designed just for kids. This 6-acre spot features costumed PEANUTS characters and 15 rides and attractions, including a couple of smaller, but no less thrilling, coasters (they’re just right to give your pint-sized thrill seekers a taste of the big rides).

Throughout the year, Knott’s Berry Farm has seasonal events that celebrate the park’s history and the best of each season. On weekends there’s a PEANUTS celebration. Spring sees a Boysenberry Festival, a tasty lineup of boysenberry-loaded dishes as well as concerts, shows and other live entertainment. In summer 2020 the park celebrates its 100th anniversary. For Halloween, Knott’s Scary Farms — and Knott’s Spooky Farm, a tamer version for kids — brings haunted house elements into play with some 1,000 creatures and costumed baddies throughout the park. Finally, the park gets festive with Knott’s Merry Farm and all the Christmas decor, carolers, gifts, bites and sips you can stand.

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Turn Back the Clock
However you chose to turn back the clock — with a trip to the Old West or a journey across galaxies — there’s plenty waiting on you in Southern California. Both Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland are kid-friendly, but adults looking for some time away will find everything from boysenberry beer to fine scotch to spectacular food in both parks.

Ready to Go?
Southern California’s on the other coast, so you’ll need to fly there. Fortunately, tickets to Los Angeles International Airport from Wilmington are only around $300, and a flight into John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana (much closer to Buena Park and Anaheim) are around $360 (less expensive when you factor in those Uber rides across LA).

Reserve your tickets for Knott’s Berry Farm and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (and your other days in Disneyland) online. Tickets for Knott’s Berry Farm (knotts.com) start at $47; tickets for Disneyland (disneyland.disney.go.com) and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge start at $104 with discounts for multi-day passes.

If you’re short on time, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is open in Orlando at Walt Disney World, and flights to Florida run as low as $190 out of Wilmington.

Wherever you go, you’ll need a place to spend the night. Disney properties are fantastic and offer a number of perks for park guests, but price can be a barrier. If you’re looking to stay in Anaheim, check out VisitAnaheim.org for a list of hotels and accommodations. If you’d rather stay in Buena Park, where you can stay at the Knott’s Hotel and get a little more room for your buck, check out VisitBuenaPark.com for a list of hotels, restaurants and more.

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