2012 Halloween Recommendations: The Best Haunted Theme Park Events in Los Angeles

What will be 2012's Best Los Angeles Halloween Events? Which should you seek like Professor Challenger finding the Lost World? Which should you avoid like Dracula shunning sacred ground? To reconnoiter our recommended haunts, come along with us...if you dare!

Halloween in Los Angeles begins in earnest this weekend, with the simultaneous openings on Friday, September 21, of both the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. As usual, Hollywood Gothique will be there to give you all the gory details needed to make informed decisions about where to spend your hard-earned blood money during the upcoming scare season. However, for those of you who like to plan ahead and buy tickets in advance, we are offering this, the first in a series of 2012 Halloween Recommendations.

We commence with a perusal of Halloween Theme Park Attractions. This is a perennially popular subject, which we first elucidated in a 2008 post titled "Best Theme Park Halloween Attractions in Los Angeles." Since then, the article has been tweaked from time to time, to prevent it from falling hopelessly out of date, but now we will take the opportunity to re-examine the subject with fresh eyes (thank you, Dr. Frankenstein - those old orbs were worn out!).

How to divine best Los Angeles Halloween events, when we have yet to encounter the ectoplasmic entities that await us this year? Our assessment here (and in subsequent articles) will be based upon a mad scientist's distillation of a few esoteric elements:

  1. How consistently have these Halloween events performed over the years?
  2. How scary/memorable/original/innovative were last year's haunted theme park events?
  3. What - if anything - new can we expect this year?

Stand back - as we prepare to prognosticate the highlights of Halloween 2012.

La Llarona at Halloween Horror Nights
La Llarona at Halloween Horror Nights

There really are not many Halloween theme park attractions in Los Angeles - or even within reach of Los Angeles. Besides Halloween Horror Nights, only Queen Mary Dark Harbor and the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest are within the city limits. Joining Knotts Scary Farm in Orange County is Disneyland Halloween Time. For those who do not mind a longer sojourn into dangerous and uncharted territory, there is the Castle Dark Halloween Haunt in Riverside and the Legoland Brick-or-Treat event in Carlsbad.

But truly, the competition for providing the biggest dose of theme park Halloween Horror in Los Angeles comes down to a battle among Knotts Berry Farm, Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and the Queen Mary. The arcane advantages of these vicious venues breaks down along these bloodlines:

La Llarona at Knotts Scary Farm. Competition, maybe?
La Llarona at Knotts Scary Farm. Competition, maybe?

Knotts Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt continues to surpass all other Southern California haunted house events in terms of sheer size; there is so much to do that it is hard for even a technically superior theme park attraction to outperform Knotts. Universal's Halloween Horror Nights is by far the Mount Everest of haunted houses, in terms of set design, makeup, special effects, and the impressive scale of its spectacle. The Queen Mary has the enormous advantage of its location, with its dark metal corridors, redolent of Davy Jones' locker, suggesting sinister spooks year-round, not merely during the Halloween season. Magic Mountain's Fright Fest offers an all-day event that allows you to ride the roller-coasters during daylight, before experiencing a different form of fright by night.

If you know your own scare preferences, you can probably already make your own decisions, based on the above knowledge: Would you choose quality over quantity? Do you prefer authentic environments over Hollywood-style sets? Are you solely interested in ghosts and ghouls, or do you want the adrenalin rush of rider a roller-coaster backward? If you are still not sure, read on for our specific recommendations.


Note: We are considering not only the theme parks as a whole but also the individual attractions contained therein. Enjoying Halloween in Los Angeles is not merely a matter of which parks you attend; it is also a matter of which attractions contained therein are worth the wait in line.

Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt - Top Pick

Knotts-Scary-Farm-2012-40th-anniversary croppedThis year's top recommendation goes to Knotts Scary Farm. Why? Looking back over our reviews from 2011 and 2010, we recall being supremely - almost supernaturally - impressed with the Knotts Halloween Haunt, and we expect to be equally electrified this year. Five new mazes await us, like lurking monsters hungry for victims: Trapped, The Evil Dead, Dominion of the Dead, Trick-or-Treat, and Pinocchio Unstrung.

Trapped sounds truly innovative - a lengthy, reservation-only maze that seeks to generate a higher level of interactivity by allowing in only small groups. The Evil Dead maze appeals because we have long wanted to experience a maze based on the film franchise. Dominion of the Dead resurrects the vampire theme that Knotts had done so well in Lore of the Vampire. And Trick-or-Treat actually harkens back to traditional Halloween imagery - something attempted by too few haunted events in Los Angeles. As for returning mazes, we have fond recollections of Terror of London and of Dia De Los Muertos. Overall, this is the theme park event we most eagerly anticipate.

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood - Second Pick

The Walking Dead: Dead Inside Halloween Horror Nights maze 2012We have no doubt that Universal Studios Hollywood will once again deliver the most convincing monsters and mazes to be unearthed in Los Angeles crypt this October, far surpassing any other 2012 Halloween events. We enjoyed last Halloween Horror Nights immensely, but we felt that we were seeing too many old props and set-pieces recycled and rebranded - old plasma in new bottles.

We hope Universal taps a fresh vein this year; conceptually, however, 2012's bloody brood of new and returning mazes does not jolt us to life like a lightening bolt striking the Frankenstein Monster. La Llarona was decent enough in 2011 but did not leave us eagerly awaiting a return engagement. Silent Hill has its fans among videogamers, but the film from a few years back did not inspire us to want to walk-through a 3-dimensional realization of its imagery. We have seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before at Universal: sure, the previous one was based on the remake, and this is based on the original, but it's still a guy in a leather mask wielding a chainsaw. Universal Monsters Remix will offer classic Universal characters (hurray for Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy), but backed by modern dance music - a potentially comically incongruous combination more outlandish than anything Dr. Frankenstein stitched together.

Truly, we are only looking forward to two mazes. Alice Cooper Goes to Hell in 3-D seems promising, based on last year's Alice Cooper Welcome to My Nightmare maze. The inside joke here is that the album Alice Cooper Goes to Hell was a sequel to Welcome to My Nightmare, featuring a new set of songs and imagery; hopefully, the Halloween maze incarnation will be as big a change of pace as the album was, offering something new, not just a rehash.

We also have high hopes for the new maze based on The Walking Dead. We are big fans of the AMC TV series. If Universal Studios can capture the essence of the show, and not just offer up generic zombie mayhem, this maze could be something special. And as always, we expect the back lot tram tour to be a marathon journey into terror.

Queen Mary Dark Harbor

queen mary dark harbor logoThe Queen Mary totally revamped its Halloween event in 2010, creating a new back story and attempting to create an all-night entertainment experience. The haunt-in-a-box approach to the land-based mazes was cast overboard, while the shipboard mazes continued to exploit the eerie ambiance of the venerable Queen. Our hopes were raised that this would be the first step in creating a monstrous new Halloween attraction that would rival Knotts Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights; unfortunately, 2011 saw little new in the way of realizing that potential.

So far, 2012 sounds as if it will be much the same as before, but at least this year's Dark Harbor will offers a new maze: DeadRise. The description of this one (the wartime crew of a ship that sank while escorting the Queen Mar, rises from the depths) has us hoping for a watery form of claustrophobic terror, equal parts saltwater and supernatural. We also eagerly anticipate a trip through last year's Hellfire Maze, whose buckling bridge - suspended high in darkness while sparks erupted nearby - briefly made us feel as if we were about to topple head over heels into Hell itself. Long have we ridden the waves with the Queen Mary during the Halloween season, always enjoying the dank corridors draped in darkness, but the on-shore entertainment has yet to equal the shipboard scares. The Dark Harbor theme is brimming with briny potential; the tide is turning in its favor, but will it reach Tsunami proportions in 2012? Too soon to say...

Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest

Magic Mountain Fright Fest ghoulsOur two past visits to the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest, including one in 2011, have not been the most exciting trips to the crypt ever in our Halloween-loving memory. Nevertheless, we cannot write Fright Fest off for 2012. Last year, The Aftermath was one of our favorite mazes anywhere; its return bodes well for this October season.  We are also pleased to see that Willoughby's Haunted Mansion is getting a new coat of paint, along with a new name: Willoughby's Resurrected. With its traditional haunted house theme, Willoughby's has been a perennial Halloween highlight of Six Flags for many years now, but it risked losing its allure due to over familiarity. Hopefully, the new twists and turns will yield new shrieks and screams.

Subsequent articles in this series will examine Los Angeles Halloween Haunted Houses and Hayrides; Halloween Yard Haunts; Halloween Horror Shows and Excursions, and 2012 Halloween Horror Screenings.