Be forewarned, lots of spoilers below. If you plan on attending the event, I'd skip this, but basically…yeah, this event is awesome. Also, I didn't take any pictures. Both Dan and Albert were there being shutterbugs, so I'm sure we'll see some great coverage on their respective sites over the next couple weeks.
Last year, I raved about a smaller local Halloween event in Brea called Sinister Pointe (Review right hurrrr
). While only containing two mazes, I thought they showed more ingenuity and creativity than the larger Southern California Halloween attractions. I was eager to see what they were up to for the 2010 Halloween season.
Well, it turns out the Sinister Pointe crew were part of a team assembled hired by the Queen Mary to replace the lackluster "Shipwrecked" event. Thus the new title of the "The Dark Harbor". The “Dark Harbor” concept, look and feel came from Creative Director Tom Cluff, a former Knott’s Berry Farm haunt designer with theme park credentials from Tokyo to Abu Dubai. Sinister Pointe caught his attention last year too, and its maze producer was brought in to help create the “Dark Harbor” mazes.
(note: I had initially included some erroneous information in my initial review, the above section has been fixed to be accurate to the creative team behind the event!)
So..with a larger budget and, a bigger venue and a team of theme park professionals to work with, would be they be able to create a really awesome, unique Halloween event their first year out?
Dark Harbor is really fun, pretty scary, and like I said, very unique. It doesn't have the giant budgets of Universal or the over-abundance of mazes and scare zones like Knott's, but it makes up for it (much like Sinister Pointe) in overall creativity and atmosphere.
After going through security and ticketing, you enter into the open mouth of a shipping container. Only this shipping container (more like a bunch of connected containers) is filled with thick fog, minimal lighting, and a very creepy atmosphere. It basically acts as the prologue to the entire event. It's subtle (something most Halloween events don't do) and immediately gets you in the creeped-out/what's-going-to-happen mood. As you navigate through the series of winding containers, there's so much fog and dim lighting that you can basically only make out about three to five feet ahead of you. There are a smattering of scareactors, but it's more of an effective use of atmosphere that creates the perfect "What the hell am I getting into?" mood. You get the sense this is VERY different from what Knott's and Universal do.
The shipping container pseudo-maze spits you out into The Barricades, an area that is very similar to a paintball field. It's filled with, yup, barricades and walls. This is essentially the event's "scare zone", and it is pretty well done. It won't blow you away, but it's novel, and serves as an effective BIG SCARE area after the understated creepiness of the shipping containers. Quite a few scareactors try to direct you into different areas for good scares. Fire spits out of the top of stacks of shipping containers, giving a really awesome apocalyptic feel. Can never go wrong with fire!
The perimeter of The Barricades dumps you to the main midway, where you can then go to any of the event's five mazes.
There are three mazes located on the Queen Mary ship itself, and two mazes located on land.
The Queen Mary Mazes:
All three of the mazes benefit greatly from the already creepy atmosphere of the Queen Mary itself. No amount of money can replicate actually being on an old, freaky ship, and the mazes uses this to their advantage.
(Sidenote: If any of you are familiar with the video game Bioshock, the feel of all three ship mazes is VERY similar to walking around the empty halls of Rapture. The scareactors are very reminiscent of the Splicers. I would urge the Queen Mary people hook up with 2K and try to do an official Bioshock maze, because the potential here for something spectacular is beyond belief. I would sell vital organs for a Bioshock maze on the ship. Just saying.)
ALL the mazes at Dark Harbor do a very stellar job on line control (more on this later). This is a big plus, as you basically NEVER experience the dreaded "Haunted Line" problem you get at the bigger events. Groups are split and properly timed, so that you never run into the people ahead of you. On all of our maze experiences, we felt alone and subject to all the gags and scares set up in the mazes as the designers intended.
Here's a rundown of the three ship mazes.
An effective play on the ship-hospital-gone-wrong concept. First off, let me mention that the scareactors were totally on their game in this one. They were all playing their characters perfectly. Some were funny, some were freaky, but they were all dead-on perfect and had their scares down to a science. There's some great gags (especially one with a wheelchair). The level of talent on this one shines through more than any other mazes.
Trying to give the feel of a sinking ship, this maze has a ton of great uses of water effects, and not just "Hey, we're going to spray water at you" gag that gets old and annoying. Again, very enthusiastic scareactors, including a really awesome use of a little person! The real highlight of Submerged is that they bring you into the famous indoor pool area of the Queen Mary. This area is reported to be actually haunted, and while I'm not a believer in the supernatural or "real" ghosts, the area is VERY cool and VERY creepy. The creative team did a great job of not overdoing this room with actors or effects, just a few really well done moments and placements. Very fun, and again…an experience you can only get on a creepy-ass ship.
Themed opposite of Submerged, to fire and steam. Great use of tight corridors, steep stairwells, and disorienting rooms. The highlight of this is walking over a catwalk some 50 feet above some very industrial equipment inside the ship. If you have a fear of heights, stay away.
As for the the Land mazes…
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
This is probably the most standard-fare in terms of mazes. It takes place in the old gift shops, which have facades that look like something out of an old European village. The maze itself is a typical "zombie villagers want to eat you" type thing. There are some great rooms, but unfortunately, we must have gone through during a shift change, as there were gaping holes in terms of scares. Friends who had done it earlier said it was much more intense than our walk-through. Not a bad maze by any stretch of the imagination, but more in line with a typical Knott's type experience.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, here's a maze that Knott's or Universal would have a tough time pulling off. Located inside the famous dome that housed the Spruce Goose, The Cage includes one of the most simple but creatively brilliant "features" I've seen executed in a maze. I know I said there would be spoilers, but seriously…if you have any chance of going to this event, skip reading about this maze. It's for your own good.
***START CAGE SPOILERS***
You enter the Dome and then into a very basic white sheet tent with some ghostly projections being cast onto it. It doesn't look like much to be honest. Infact, the maze doesn't have any elaborate theme or story like the others. It's very minimal. Upon entering the tent, you are met with a bunch of trippy lights and lasers. Nothing out of the ordinary, but enough to disorient you.
You travel further into the maze, where you are met with, well, what can only be described as an actual maze. Yes, they basically lead you into a room filled with multiple black sheets, almost no lighting, and absolutely NO direction on how to get out. It's dead simple, and yet so fucking brilliant. Disorienting doesn't even begin to describe it. Here we are, a group of seasoned Halloween event veterans, utterly confused as to where the hell we are and where we should be going.
"Is this the right way to go? This just looks like a place a scareactor would hide in…this can't be right? Here? No. Here? Ummm."
We probably stumbled around that room for three solid minutes, finding dead ends or circular pathways. And yes, there are very well placed scareactors. Open up the wrong sheet, and there they will be just to freak you out. it's an absolute mind-fuggle.
Eventually we found our way out, and we're greeted with an audio-sensory overload in a room filled with metal fences and scareactors. You're so off-put by the previous room that your senses are heightened an insane amount. Your typical haunt scares are here: rooms filled with hanging dummies, severed heads, even a pathway where water is squirted on you if you step on the wrong part of the floor. It's all fun, but really nothing can compete with the absolute craziness of the "maze" room.
We did this sucker twice, and upon entering on the second-go around, we saw a very confused group of people coming back out the entrance and having NO idea what was going on or where they should be. Definitely a maze that plays with your senses and psychology. Again, simple but just wonderfully effective and unique. Total props to the creative team on this one.
***END CAGE SPOILERS***
If I have one complaint about the event in general, it's that their grouping/spacing was almost too thorough. We waited in a fairly short line to do Hellfire, but it ended up taking almost 30 minutes to get into the maze. Lots of just complete stops in line flow for minutes upon minutes at a time, because of them trying to create lots of spacing for the groups. I love that they are trying to create a more intimate experience than Knott's or Universal, but I can't imagine being there on a busy Saturday late in the month and waiting in a gigantic non-moving line like that. It seems like they could work out a good middle ground between ultra-spaced-out and haunted line.
Overall, Dark Harbor is a big success, especially for being in its first year.
Crowds were light where we were able to do almost everything twice. The scareactors were all excellent, from the mazes to the the ones roaming the midways. We had plenty of great and unexpected moments that really solidified this as a memorable experience.
Knott's and Universal are both great, world-class events, but it's such a nice change of pace to see a Halloween event that really lets creativity shine. I felt this way about Sinister Pointe last year, and I feel the same about Dark Harbor this year. There's a new kid in town, and I hope it forces everyone to up their game. I cannot wait to see what the future holds in terms of So Cal Haunts!
Basically, get the word out guys. Dark Harbor is a really really awesome Halloween experience.