Tepper Services Incorporated
Knotts Berry Farm

Cleaning Knott's Berry Farm

This classic American amusement park welcomes 5 million visitors every year.Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how it's kept clean.

By Donald E. Tepper

Knott's Berry Farm is quiet. It's after midnight, and all the guests have finally left. The roller coasters are still. The steam train is silent. The merry-go-round and Ferris wheel are unmoving.

While yesterday's guests and tomorrow's visitors are asleep, there's much work to do. Rides have to be steam cleaned. Cups, leaves, and debris have to be swept up. Restaurants must be cleaned. And there isn't much time to do all that. Tonight only seven hours. Sometimes just three.

During the day, while the park is open, the Operations Division handles the light cleanup-the sweeping and dumping of trash. But the heavy work is performed at night by the Facilities Maintenance Division.

The Big Picture

To understand how the Facilities Maintenance Division cleans Knott's Berry Farms, you first need to know what's in the park. Spread across 150 acres 30 miles south of Los Angeles, Knott's has six themed areas:

  • Camp Snoopy, a six-acre area featuring 30 hands-on attractions for children.
  • Ghost Town, an Old West Boom Town of cowboys, stagecoaches, a steam train, a log ride, and an area to pan for real gold.
  • Fiesta Village, a salute to California's Spanish legacy, complete with spicy thrill rides, architecture, food, and works of art.
  • The Boardwalk, with some of the most exciting rides including the Windjammer roller coaster, HammerHead, Boomerang, plus music, food, and arcade center.
  • Indian Trails, celebrating the lore, legends, crafts, music, and dance of Native American Tribes.
  • Wild Water Wilderness, recreating a California river wilderness park of the late 1800s, highlighted by Bigfoot Rapids, an outdoor white-water river excursion.
Two major dining facilities--Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant and Knott's Family Steak House--serve thousands of meals a day. And there are over 40 other places to eat-no concessionaires, all owned and operated by Knott's, serving more than 270 menu items.

The park welcomes over 5 million guests annually. On a busy summer day, attendance can run as high as 30,000 guests.

Timing's the Key

The secret to cleaning Knott's Berry Farm is timing. Not just doing it quick and well. Rather, it's an intricately choreographed process.

Alan Holmes, Supervisor, is in charge of the Knott's Custodial Department, Facilities Maintenance Division, which performs the night cleaning and maintenance. As Holmes describes the night clean-up strategy, the image that comes to mind is of a complex football play diagrammed on a blackboard with crisscrossing lines, arrows, and circles. Meanwhile, the players have to listen closely for audibles--changes made on the fly.

The work begins at 12:30 a.m. Four cleaners are assigned to Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant and another four to the Knott's Family Steak House.

And it's a big job. Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant, for instance, serves about 1.5 million meals a year. That works out to over 4,000 a day. The food is made from scratch; each dish is cooked to order. It keeps the quality high, but from a cleaning standpoint is a lot messier than, say, prepackaged food that only needs to be reheated. There's a lot of grease, flour, and other leftovers to clean up in the kitchens.

One cleaner at each restaurant is assigned to pull all the screens from the exhaust hoods, clean them, and replace them. The screens and hoods at the two restaurants are done nightly. Some of the other locations only need to be done twice a week. An outside contractor is brought in to clean the flues.

Cleaning at both restaurants must be completed by 3 a.m.

Meanwhile, four more people are assigned to clean The Boardwalk, merchandise area, and the "back stage" offices. And when there's a production in the 2,100-seat Toyota Good Time Theatre, that team of four cleans the theater too. This crew, too, has to finish by 3 a.m.

Another cleaning function is sweeping and blowing. On a busy day, Holmes assigns six people to that task. Their job: to get rid of the cups, debris, and leaves from the day before. Their deadline: 4 a.m. When they're done, three will be assigned to do the hose-down. The others will be assigned to wipe down benches and to join up with the Rides Crew.

The park's trash cans are dumped by the day crew, but it's up to the night crew to clean the inside and outside of the cans. A flatbed truck-the "Barrel Truck"-picks the trash cans up to be steam cleaned.

The trash ends up in 140 bins around the park. Two crew members use tractors to pick up and dump the bins. On a busy night, that can be 30 tons of trash.

Knott's has a cardboard recycling program. The cardboard is baled separately for recycling and amounts to 12 tons per month. Also recycled are glass, aluminum cans, and white paper. There's an aluminum can receptacle by each soda machine, and a blue recycle trash can at each desk. Knott's employees transfer their white paper daily from their individual desk cans to a centralized area in each location. The custodial staff empties the large can at each facility.

At the same time, five days a week, one person bonnet cleans the carpets in the offices and restaurants. An outside carpet contractor comes in to do extraction cleaning.

And now we get to the rides. There are more than 165 rides at Knott's Berry Farm. Eight cleaners work the rides. Five of the eight do "runs" on individual areas. They blow all trash out to the Midway and then hose down the queue lines.

The three others handle special tasks like steam cleaning the chain drives and tracks of the roller coasters. Facilities Maintenance has two lifts-a 60' Condor and an 80' Grove-to clean the roller coaster tracks and the areas over the rides.

Or, if the water is drained in one of the lakes, the night's task might be to de-lime the paddle wheel boat prior to repainting. Or they steam the Midways to remove chewing gum; hose-downs aren't always enough to get rid of the gum.

On lighter days, the hose down is performed with garden hoses. On heavier days, fire hoses are used. Fire hoses are more effective, but they're harder on backs.

Once the Rides Crew finishes, around 6 a.m., they shift over to do detail work.

Other individuals are assigned to Ghost Town and Freedom village. Another handles the huge "Virginia's Gift Shop."

Most of the work has to be completed by 5 a.m. There's a 15 minute break at 3 a.m. and another at 7 a.m. "Lunch"--a half hour break--is at 5 a.m. The shift runs from 12:30 a.m. until 9 a.m.

That's a challenge even when the park closes at midnight. But on special occasions-such as the "Halloween Haunt"-the park will stay open until 2:30 a.m.

The seasons of the year also affect cleaning needs. For instance, in the winter and spring, rides usually can simply be mopped. In the summer, with the extra soda and candy spills, they have to be hosed down. And the park is open longer hours in the summer: 9 a.m. to midnight, leaving less time to do more cleanup.

The fall brings fog to Southern California, and the extra moisture makes slippery surfaces even slicker. So in late September, outside areas are power washed to reduce slippery-prone spots.

With the wide variety of cleaning, and the day-to-day unpredictability, all the cleaners are cross-trained, usually in two or three different jobs. And there's a bonus: "They don't get as bored. It keeps them interested," Holmes says.

Special Challenges The Knotts Difference

All theme and amusement parks rely of make-believe and illusion, and Knott's Berry Farm is no different. Even the terminology reflects this: "On Stage" is anywhere the guests go;

"Back Stage" is anywhere they don't go.

But at Knott's Berry Farm, there's more than facades and fantasies. And it goes back to the origins of the place.

Back in 1920, Walter and Cordelia Knott and their three young children arrived in Buena Vista Park and began farming 20 acres of leased land. After his first successful harvest, Walter set up a roadside produce stand to market his crops. Twelve years later, Walter began propagating a new fruit-bearing plant that he named the boysenberry.

In 1934, to help make ends meet during the Great Depression, Cordelia started serving chicken dinners to the public on her wedding china. The price: 65 cents.

Cordelia's dinners were so popular, and attracted such a crowd, that Walter decided to build a small entertainment area to occupy waiting diners. The Old Trails Hotel, a landmark in Prescott, Arizona, was relocated to Buena Park in 1940. It's the first building in the Old West Ghost Town.

Other attractions at Knotts Berry Farm also have real, and interesting, histories.

In 1952, Walter bought America's last operating narrow gauge railroad, the Denver and Rio Grande, and moved it-engine, coaches, rails, caboose, and all-to Knott's Berry Farm, where it operates today.

Nearby, a genuine Overland Trails stagecoach, more than 100 years old, carries guests.

Ghost Town's Haunted Shack first stood in Esmeralda, Nevada, and was reconstructed nail by nail.

The restored 1896 Knott's Carousel was fabricated by Gustav Dentzel, one of the few remaining examples of the Golden Age of Carousals.

There's even a real church, Church of Reflections, the site of more than 125 weddings each year.

Then there's the landscaping. One Knott's area, the Wild Water Wilderness, recreates a California wild river park of the early 1800s. The trees, all indigenous to the Far West, include the California black oak, coast redwood, and Torrey pine.

And even when something's not authentic, it comes pretty close. In 1966, a brick-by-brick replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall was constructed, complete with a 2,075 pound Liberty Bell, accurate down to fingerprints in the brick, just as in the original. When the real Independence Hall was restored in 1976, its original blueprints could not be found. The reconstruction committee contacted Knott's and asked to borrow the park's plans.

Few buildings or facilities are built with the primary goal of ease of cleaning. But theme and amusement parks pose special challenges. For example:

Some large structures-the roller coaster, for instance-are surrounded by grass. Driving lifts across the grass to clean the tracks of the roller coaster would chew up the well-manicured lawn surround the structure. The solution? There are Concrete cones called "Turf Blocks," roughly the size of coffee cans, hidden in the grass. The crew rests sheets of plywood on the cones. The lifts drive across the plywood, supported by the Turf Blocks, while protecting the lawn.

Fences surround some of the large rides. But some of the fences have sections that lift out, allowing easy, direct access to the rides.

Lots of light colors are used throughout the park-appealing to the eye but light colors show dirt more than do dark colors, and so require special attention.

The Midway pavement is painted. It can be powerwashed with hot water, but steam cleaning breaks up the paint. And, this being California, the crew must use "environmentally friendly," biodegradable chemicals, especially on anything that gets washed into storm drains.

The Indian Trails area recreates the architectural styles of Native Americans, including an authentic Big House and tipis of the blackfoot, Nez Perce, Cheyenne, Crow, and Kiowa tribes. Because the tipis get dirty, they're power-washed every other week.


With anywhere from 47 to 70 cleaners working at night, moving from one location to another, one assignment to the next, good communications-both among the workers and between Facilities Maintenance and the other Knott's departments-are critical.

Contact is maintained with walkie-talkies with color-coded channels for various park functions.

Of course there are telephones with voice mail--two in Holmes' office and one in the area where the custodians get started. And the park is linked by a computer network with e-mail.

When the shift leaders arrive, they check the work orders. There are three levels of work orders: regular, emergency, and preventive maintenance. And Holmes has to use his judgment. A request may come in to "steam clean" floors, when scrubbing or hosing is really the better choice.

The shift leaders also check the daily sheets to see if anything special is scheduled-special visitors or a live television remote broadcast, for instance.

Holmes' office is decorated with many old tools and farm implements--scythes, ladles, drills, and whatnot. This is, after all, Knott's Berry Farm. But you don't find him there too often.

During the night, Holmes spends most of his time traveling from one site to another on a golf cart, inspecting, supervising, and checking details. He also helps out when needed.

This night, for instance, instance, workers need to use a tractor. But the vehicle appears to be blocked in by a piece of heavy equipment parked by the day workers. The call goes out to Holmes.

Holmes takes a look at the tractor and the equipment blocking it in. He climbs aboard, starts the engine, and, gently manipulating the brakes and the steering wheel, drives the tractor out with scant inches to spare on either side.

Personnel Issues

All the employees in the Facilities Maintenance Division are full-time. Retention is good, and most terminations are due to absenteeism or lateness. Holmes tells his employees "You manage your own destiny."

Holmes himself started work with Knott's when he was 18 and worked there for eight years. Then he left, spending four years at United Arts Theater. He returned to Knott's two years ago.

There's also the chance for advancement at Knotts. "A lot of the day landscaping crew started in janitorial. We've been the beginning training ground for them. At Knotts, you can apply to move into different departments if you have the qualifications."

As mentioned above, cross-training is necessary, but it's also something Holmes believes in. He also likes to give employees more opportunities and responsibilities. Holmes points out one worker who takes care of a team of at least four employees and is responsible for an entire area. He carries keys and a walkie-talkie. Holmes explains, "Any problems, they're directed to contact their shift leaders. That helps if a position opens up. It prepares them."

Holmes' employees also participate in a number of incentive programs. One is aimed at reducing absences. Every six months, Holmes buys $300 of products-Knotts jackets, gift packs, and the like. All qualifying employees' names are put in the pot. Names are pulled, and the winners get to choose their prize.

There's also a safety program, with prizes that escalate for every month of accident-free work. One month, for example, earns the employees a continental breakfast. Six months entitles the employees to a cake and two dinner certificates to a Knotts restaurant.

Safety is further promoted with the showing of a safety tape at least once a month. Knotts provides lifting belts, and all employees are provided free of charge with rubber boots; many other facilities charge their employees for rubber boots.

Cleaning suppliers sometimes provide training sessions.

Knott's also compares and contrasts its operations with some of its competitors. Seven years ago, Holmes spent a whole day with the custodial manager from Disneyland. Soon after, the Disneyland manager spent a day at Knott's. Holmes found the experience useful. "Theirs is a bigger park. And they break down the duties somewhat differently. It was a good experience," he says.

Nevertheless, the goal isn't to imitate any other facility. Rather, it's to provide a high level of cleaning and service consistent with the nature and history of Knott's Berry Farm.
Donald E. Tepper is editor of Services.

This article originally appeared in the November 1998 issue of Services Magazine, published by Building Service Contractors Association International.