A lot of friends out here in Southern California ask me which Halloween theme park event they should attend. They usually ask me because I've been to Knott's Halloween Haunt for the last several years, as well as Halloween Horror Nights at Universal. Mixed in with those annual treks has been a smattering of other events that include Mickey's Halloween Town, Spooky Town, and whatever it is the Queen Mary is calling their fright fest this year.
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and I take every October very... very, seriously. The Angel and I spend more money in October than any two months combined, mostly because we can't resist all the adventures available to us out here. As such, we've pretty much figured out what does and what doesn't work at theme parks, for us.
And before I begin my opinions, you must first realize that the above comment is essential to what you may or may not enjoy at these ghoulish places of commerce and terror.
Now then, let's get to it...
First and foremost, it baffles me that anyone would consider going to these events during their peak hours. Unless you have no other option, wading through the crowds on a Friday or Saturday near Halloween will become more horrifying than the actual monsters that reside within.
If I say it once, I'll say it again- GO AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE. AND IF YOU CAN, GO ON A WEEKDAY.
You can't underestimate the importance of this aspect when making your decision. It's a simple equation. Shorter crowds + shorter lines = more scares.
The key to a good experience is your placement in a line. This can affect the entire mood of the night. When you walk through a maze with a never-ending line, you undoubtedly see many of the scares before they are supposed to occur. Nothing is worse than having the appearance of a monster's hiding place ruined by you because of a long line or overzealous group of teenage girls shrieking. Yeah dude, your mask is awesome, but I knew you were there.
You can't really control who you are surrounded by, but you certainly can control your odds of a personal experience. It's like playing blackjack, you have to know the odds. Play them. So, let's say it all together again- GO AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE, AND IF YOU CAN, GO ON A WEEKDAY.
For example, this past week, The Angel and I went to Knotts on a Thursday night. There were virtually no lines, and the place was so empty that we could pick our spots as far as entering a maze. Many times, we waited a few minutes until just the right amount of time had passed. It provided us with a completely individual experience fairly unrivaled as far as haunted houses go.
After you get these basic rules etched into your head, you're ready to decide which event to go to. Here's my unbiased opinion on many of them.
KNOTTS: I have nothing but respect for Knotts and their history. It really is quite amazing how innovative they are. I'm not just talking about Halloween, but the park's history as a whole. I mean, you have Knotts to thank if you like boysenberries. They really are incredible with their new ways of thinking. You kinda have to think outside the box with the bottomless pits of Disney money attacking you just down the street.
Their Halloween event is revered within the spook industry, and with good reason. Scare actors come from all around the country just to get one of the coveted street-walker spots within the park. Your hit with such a barrage of creatures that they seemingly outnumber the actual patrons within the park. It really is that massive.
If you've never gone to Knott's Halloween Haunt, you owe it to yourself to go.
First off, you can't beat their prices. We got in for $34 bucks apiece. That includes all rides and 13 mazes, plus six shows if that's your sort of thing. And again, don't forget the street creatures (in many ways the best part). This is the place you go if you want a never-ending buffet of horror at all times.
They aren't heavy on the rides, but one trip each on Ghost Rider and Xcelerator is all you really need. They're both incredibly fun roller coasters that despite being complete opposites, provide the same level of excitement. You really feel like you might just fall out of either one. Plus, the ghost rider at night is absolutely enthralling. Picture the bumpiest, oldest wooden roller coaster in the dark, and you pretty much have the Ghost Rider.
The 13 mazes all provide different themes, though to be fair, many of them seem like extended repeat mazes of other mazes. Still, 13 mazes is a ton of walkthrus, especially compared to other parks.
My only complaint with Knott's Halloween Haunt is that nothing can beat that first experience of going there and seeing it for the first time. You walk out totally feeling like you got your money's worth. And let me be clear, you still feel that way with every annual visit. I have never felt ripped off by Knotts. The value is always the best in the area.
But things do become monotonous. I personally think Knotts has lost its edge. It's sad for me to say that, but Knotts has always been at the cusp of innovation when it comes to these things. They aren't anymore. They're awesome, but awesome in the sense that they're classic. If you want the standard twisting boxed-in maze with actors around the corner, they have it. But innovative scares? Not so much.
For example, we walked through all 13 mazes. Never once did someone jump out from below, and very rarely from above. Their tactics consisted of trying to guess which monster in a hallway was alive, and which one wasn't. Frankly, it was always obvious. So, for a veteran, it can feel tired. The exception to this is their log flume scare ride, which although being the same every year, still provides unique scares. There's nothing quite like zooming through the dark in a boat with stuffed taxidermy all around you.
In my opinion, they also need to differentiate their monsters a bit more. For example, a stroll through their crazy clown area is always fun. But, not for nothing, does EVERY clown have to wear red hair? Clowns do have other wigs. You've heard of the Joker, right guys? Eventually, every clown kinda looks the same. Knotts also seems to be big fans of what I can only describe as 'rotting face masks'. It seems every monster has been mutilated in some form. By contrast, we saw two werewolves the whole night. And no vampires.
In the end, I'm being nit-picky and still love Knotts. I especially enjoy their Terror of London maze which seems to be a maze all onto itself. It has a cool backdrop, and they do try and showcase different elements.
And if I didn't make it clear already, their street creatures are by far the best of any park I've ever been to. You have no idea how uncomfortable it can be when trying to walk through an absolute dust cloud of fog when suddenly a nine foot tall beast is centimeters from your face.
UNIVERSAL HALLOWEEN HORROR NIGHTS- This has steadily gotten better each year, to the point where it's hard for me to argue that it's not the best. You do pay a premium to get in, and lines are usually long, even on off days. That being said, they constantly seem to be raising the bar as far as news scares go. Last year, they kept me guessing in nearly every maze they had. This, of course, is the key to getting scared. You don't know where the monsters are coming from. Universal obviously has been trying to get scarier with each year, and I have high hopes for 2011 (I have yet to go).
In addition, Knotts simply can't compete with the FX and makeup of Universal. Nor should they, as Universal is a movie studio, not an ageing theme park. The detail the monsters have on their costumes is unprecedented. You often want to stop and stare because you can't believe how real their get-up looks.
Universal also has the advantage in terms of recognizable monsters. Because they own the rights to many classic characters, their mazes feature movies we're all familiar with. It's hard for Knotts to compete with Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. Sorry mutilated biohazard waste guy, you're just not as cool as Jason Voorhees.
Than there are the rides. You can get on almost all of Universal's classic theme park rides in no time at all. That means a quick dose of Jurassic Park and King Kong awaits you at every turn.
I'd like to take a minute and discuss the absolute abomination of the Queen Mary and their annual Shipwreck (now Dark Harbor). First off, I can't speak for this year. I haven't been, and I hear they're under new management again (meaning, their Halloween event).
But I can speak for earlier years. The Queen Mary used to be my favorite event. The Angel and I loved it. They didn't have theme park rides. They didn't have a lot of mazes. And they still charged a hefty fee.
But that didn't matter. Because it was awesome. Mostly on account of the fact that it was on the Queen Mary, which is... you know, supposedly haunted. The Queen Mary had such an advantage when it came to a unique experience. They simply put it out there. No bullshit- We have a haunted, creaky, old ship and we're going to put people inside that ship to scare the hell out of you.
Their motto was often fulfilled. They didn't need gimmicks. Or themes. In fact, I'd argue that there was no theming at all. Every monster basically wore all black, save for a faint mask of twisted expression. They also generally blasted death metal.
It. Was. Awesome.
Except that the Queen Mary, for what many of us fans assume was due to some sort of cost-cutting measure, no longer employed the services of the people who ran the event for so many years (you can research details online if you wish). You see, every year, the Queen Mary hires an outside scare company to run their event. Then they switched companies a few years back.
And. It. Was. Atrocious.
It was literally the worst Halloween event I had ever attended, and I've been to a lot. First off, there were few monsters. secondly, those that were there were all about the size of small droids, mostly because they couldn't have been much older than 18. Worst of all, they seemed totally and completely disengaged. Many times, the scare actors 'woke up' after realizing we were in their room. It was truly awful, and we vowed to never return, because nothing is worse than feeling ripped off.
We weren't alone, as many veteran haunt goers felt the same, and the Queen Mary has been hurting ever since.
Now, as I understand it, last year was a bit of a rebirth for the Queen Mary. The new company they hired allegedly did a fantastic job, and reviews were mostly all positive. Supposedly it's back and possibly even better than it was in its heyday.
I'm waiting to read 2011 reviews, but it has peaked my interest...
If you have kids, than it's Mickey's Halloween Time. This isn't even a question. It's a fun-filled family experience with little to no scares. But, seeing thousands of adults and kids in costumes is worth the admission alone. Honestly, if you have some disposable income and kids, why wouldn't you go?
I used to go to Spooky Town. I always thought they did a decent job, especially for an independent, but I think they no longer exist. Not sure.
I keep hearing about how cool Sinister Pointe is. Then there is the Haunted Halloween Hayride and Pasadena Old Haunt.
All in all, Universal remains the current champion of monster haunts in Southern California for me.
But again, it depends on what you're looking for. Knotts seems to have the quantity, while Universal has the quality. You can't go wrong with either choice.
I do recommend you give a smaller company your time as well. Hopefully the Queen Mary keeps its momentum from last year, and other independent haunts continue to attract guests.
Los Angeles, and Halloween fans, are always better off with more options.
Happy haunting people...
Kurt Edward Larson just published his first book. Finding the Super-Hero Within.
You can buy it in paperback or ebook form by clicking this sentence.