I find myself the victim of an unfortunate contretemps as I sit down to expand upon my mini-review of the new Ghost Ship Halloween attraction in Newport Beach: a bit of an online brouhaha has erupted between Ten Thirty One Productions, the event's organizers, and some disappointed customers. I would prefer to offer my impressions of Ghost Ship without wading into these turbulent writers - or even acknowledging them - but full disclosure forces me to note that my previous praise of the haunt has been cited on the Ghost Ship's Facebook page as evidence to contradict negative comments from critics, while at least one of those critical customers has reached out to me, to voice a complaint. This situation cannot be fully addressed here; however, my awareness will inevitably influence my writing, as I diplomatically attempt to assess Ghost Ship's merits without pouring fuel onto the fire.
GHOST SHIP DEPARTURE
We attended Ghost Ship on opening night Friday, October 14. We found the drive to Newport Beach to be long and difficult; slow traffic added over an hour to the expected travel time. When we reached the docking area, we saw only two small signs pointing toward "Ghost Ship." Unfortunately, both were pointing straight ahead, suggesting we should continue down the street, instead of turning into the appropriate driveway. We passed our destination (the actual address is not easily visible from the road) and had to circle back after realizing our mistake. Our attempt to quickly find parking was hampered by the lot's cash-in-advance policy; after digging ten dollars out of our pocket (the price is steep but not unexpected, considering the area), we careened down the ramp, dumped the car, and raced back upstairs to the dock, but all to no avail. We quite literally missed the boat.
Lesson learned: this is not the kind of event to which you can afford to be even a little late; start early, especially if coming from Los Angeles.
We killed a couple of hours at a local eatery (Eat at Joe's Crab Shack, a fun, family-oriented place, that we recommend, especially if you are not in the mood for the dressier establishments nearby, such as the Rusty Pelican). Then we returned to the Ghost Ship and this time made it on board. We were sorry to have missed the maiden voyage, but we hoped that, the second time out, the crew would have worked out any opening night kinks.
GHOST SHIP MIDDLE DECK
The haunted vessel turns out not to be a rusty, barnacle-encrusted ocean liner but a moderately-sized cruise ship, identified only by the "Ghost Ship" banner hanging off the stern. We suspect this may be the source of some disappointment, but really - what were we expecting? This is not a simulated ride at Disneyland; this is a real ship that takes visitors on a one-hour cruise around the bay. It has to be sea-worthy - as much as we might have preferred the sight of the Flying Dutchman or the Marie Celeste.
Our first stop was on the middle deck, which is dimly lit and decorated for Halloween. True, the windows are not blocked by algae, nor are the bulkheads festooned with cobwebs, but Jack O'Lanterns illuminate the bar, and skulls serve as lovely centerpieces on the table.
This deck acts as novel variation on the traditional "scare zone" - the place, in almost any haunt, where you encounter the undead even before standing in line for a maze. The crew is creepy, including a ghost captain attempting to enlist you – or at least parts of you – to join up. There is a bar and dance floor populated with ghouls. Spooky servers carry drink trays topped with broken cocktail glasses. A putrefied pianist tickles ivory keys while a post-suicidal chanteuse (note the slit throat that should have severed her vocal cords) seductively breathes old tunes into an antique microphone.
The back story of Ghost Ship is that the vessel was used in the 1930s to house the criminally insane - homicidal maniacs so vile, it was feared, that no walls could safely restrain them on land. The effect of the musical accompaniment provided by the singer-pianist duo is to create a sort of faded elegance that invokes this 1930s era - rather like the use of the song "Home," performed by Henry Hall and the Gleneagles Hotel Band in Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING. To some extent, you feel transported, as if that earlier era has impinged upon our present time.
As the Ghost Ship pulled away from the dock, we enjoyed a decent if unspectacular martini at the bar. The $7 price tag did not impress us as astronomical, but the serving was a bit microscopic - no chance of a customer getting drunk and falling overboard on this cruise! There were also snack foods available, but we decided not to indulge in anything that might lead to sea-sickness on a voyage the promised to make us queasy with fright.
Watching other boats drift past, we bantered with the salty sea captain, listened to a few tunes, and watched the magic show, which runs at intervals throughout the cruise. Gradually, it dawned on us that the Ghost Ship is essentially a short pleasure cruise with a sort of "value added" Halloween theme. The enjoyment one receives is much as one would expect on any cruise: the refreshing chill of a cool sea breeze on the observation deck; the glittering lights of docks and buoys reflected off the ocean; the relaxed, transitory camaraderie of fellow travelers sharing a deck on a ship sailing over water smooth as glass. There was an October ambiance in the air, but little actual Halloween horror.
For that, we would have to seek elsewhere.
GHOST SHIP UPPER DECK
Venturing upstairs, we found the stage set for a trio of executions, staged for the audience's entertainment. We also found one of the biggest problems with the Ghost Ship: the audience itself. Newport Beach apparently attracts an upscale crowd that does not want to appear easily frightened. Sarcastic comments and lame jokes filled the air in a forced attempt to create a sense of hipster detachment, but honestly, we got in the only good laugh line of the evening: After the lights suddenly extinguished, plunging the deck into unfathomable gloom, one would-be wag jest-fully inquired, "Is everyone still here?" Into the awkward silence that followed, we replied, "I'm not."
The executions themselves are a series of gross-out gags that are funny in concept but sometimes weak in execution. The first features a criminal strapped to a table, who is melted with acid. The effect consists of dimming the lights so that the actor can jump off the table to be replaced by a skeleton; unfortunately, by the time this happens, the lights have been low for so long that the audience's eyes are adjusted to the darkness, making it all too easy to see what is really happening.
The second gag works much better: a killer is wheeled out on a slab, behind a rather dangerous-looking, industrial-sized fan in front of the audience. As the blades rev faster and the condemned man's screams build to a crescendo, once again the lights go out - and the audience feels the ghastly spray of blood in their faces. When the lights come back on, the slab is wheeled away, with only a severed arm remaining (a nice touch that would have been even better if we had not seen the prop arm in place when the victim was first wheeled out).
The final execution does not go as planned. Off-stage, the killer escapes; the lights blink off, and the audience sits in darkness while one or more unseen convicts careen in and out of the rows of chairs, blasting the audience with pressurized air cannisters. The punchline occurs when the lights return, revealing that the tables have turned: the executioner has become the executed, his intestines hanging from his ripped belly.
There is a ghoulish Grand Guignol appeal to the proceedings; the sick sight gags are worth a laugh of disgust if not a scream of fright. Unfortunately, the pacing is awkward, the build-up misjudged. The unexpected escape generates a certain sense of frenzied chaos, eclipsing the subsequent death of the executioner, which feels anticlimactic. Afterward, only the executioner's mute, mumbling assistant remains to wave us away. His inarticulate grunts and gesticulations are not quite enough to make it clear that the performance has truly ended. We need a curtain to drop, a music cue to play, or an amplified voice to urge us desperately, "Ladies and gentlemen! Run! Run for you lives before it's too late!"
GHOST SHIP LOWER DECK & RETURN TO PORT
The lower deck offers the most traditional of the Ghost Ship's Halloween horrors: a walk through Psych Ward 7. The enclosed setting of the ship's narrow corridors creates a more genuine sense of being trapped in a real place than one feels in most Halloween haunts. The props and sets lend an appropriately ghastly atmosphere, and there are numerous mechanical and gore effects that should prove effectively frightening to all but the most hardened sea salts.
Our favorite bit was more creepy than shocking: one of the ward's patients, an apparently naked woman, in a tub, twisting and contorting as if she might emerge and inflict some mayhem. The description of the action may not sound like much, but it was freaky to behold.
Psych Ward 7 offers intense thrills that rank it along side some of the best mazes we've seen on land this Halloween. Our only problem with it is that it could work just as well on land; it doesn't really exploit the nautical setting. Next year - and we do dearly desire a next year - we hope to see some slithering sea creatures, mermaids, gill-men, kraken, and other titanic terrors from the briny deep.
In fact, we would like to see more of that on the middle deck as well, which is where guests spend most of their time, anticipating little more frightening than a spilled drink. This calm, however, presages an unexpected storm. As the Ghost Ship returns to shore and the guests drain their cocktail glasses in anticipation of disembarking, a warning siren blasts over the loud speakers. What's gone wrong? The inmates have overrun the asylum. Lights strobe; the 1930s piano tunes are blown away by throbbing heavy metal rhythms; the delicate chanteuse morphs into a screaming, head-banging banshee; and demented maniacs of every shape and size bounce from table to table like pinballs blasted from a canon. The effect is a bit like the circus mania near the end of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride (which is also produced by Ten Thirty One Productions, the people behind Ghost Ship). This brief eruption of mayhem is the horrific highlight of Ghost Ship - a perfect moment that fully realizes the attraction's Halloween potential.
Our biggest issue with Ghost Ship is potential so vast that it almost cannot be fulfilled. We suspect this has much to do with the consumer complaints we have heard. Unmet expectations are a curse that taint the soul; disappointment eclipses countervailing virtues, robbing us of potential amusement, taking experiences that are good - but could have been better - and rendering them, in our perception, as worse than they actually are. Wherein does the fault lie? With the customer - for demanding too much? Or with the proprietor - for over-hyping the attraction?
In this case, Ten Thirty One Productions may be the victim of their own success: their L.A. Haunted Hayride, now in its third year, has earned a well deserved reputation as one of the most entertaining Halloween events in Los Angeles; after that, anything less than perfection would seem disappointing.
But it's not just a matter of customers demanding too much. The lower-deck maze is great but could be more suitably themed to match the shipboard setting. The upper-deck executions definitely need work; at very least, pick up the pace so that the audience has less time to sit back and notice any imperfections.
More decor and a bigger cast would also help. At present it is a bit too clear that there are two crews on ship: the real crew and the ghost crew. The former keep a mostly low profile after departure, but they are not in costume, nor in character, and as they answer questions or direct you from one deck to another, their immaculate dress somewhat counteracts the ghostly ambiance the event otherwise seeks to generate. A few more actors in costume would help overshadow the less ghoulish denizens on deck. And it wouldn't hurt to swap out the clowns and maniacs for some zombie pirates ransacking the vessel, along with a few Lovecraftian monstrosities from Rl'yeh.
Ghost Ship - like the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride - places its customers in a moving vehicle they cannot leave. This isolation separates Ghost Ship from most other Halloween events. There is also a fairly unique opportunity to interact with the ghouls on the middle deck, engaging in conversations with the creepy captain while rubbing shoulders with the demented drink servers. More could be achieved in this area: have the singer perform requests or solicit audience participation. Don't let guests sit back in safety; force them to get involved. Exploit the fact that they are a captive audience with no means of escape (short of plunging into the ocean).
Currently, Ghost Ship is an enjoyable novelty: a cruise with a Halloween theme. We feel about it roughly as we felt about the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest: the happiest audience will be one that enjoys the regular attractions and appreciates the Halloween elements as something extra. Fans of pleasure cruises will not balk at the $59 tickets - a not unreasonable price for an ocean-going tour without the Halloween frills. Hard-core horror hounds, expecting 60-minutes of intense scares on the high seas, will be disappointed.
Those scares are available in the Psych Ward, but it would be nice if there were more menace throughout the ship, a sense of danger lurking around any corner. Build up the story by having characters drop dire hints that the dementia below deck might erupt and intrude into the apparent safety of the bar and dance floor - which indeed happens at the very end of the evening. More moments like this could swell the Ghost Ship upon a tidal wave of terror that could meet and exceed all expectations.
The Ghost Ship is docked at 2901 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, CA 92663. Its remaining voyages launch at 6:30pm, 8:15pm & 10:00pm on October 21-22, 28-29. Tickets are $59. Get info here: www.ghostship.com