Looking for a frightfully fun way to enjoy Halloween in Los Angeles? Then climb aboard the Griffith Park Ghost Train!
What a difference five years make! Hollywood Gothique last rode the Los Angeles Live Steamers Ghost Train in Halloween 2008; our return visit last night reveals an event that seems almost completely new. Riding the old Ghost Train felt like driving past a few dozen mildly spooky yard haunts, featuring static decorations that would frighten only the most timid of trick-or-treaters. The 2013 Ghost Train has morphed into a locomotive tour through a demented Disneyland, filled with mechanical monsters and spectral illusions.* Best of all, there is a subtle hint of Halloween horror this year - not enough to be truly terrifying, just enough to delightfully frighten the kiddies, without giving them nightmares.
The improvements are immediately apparent. A hearse is parked outside the station house. Nearby, a miniature garden railroad display is populated by skeletons, one of whom is toppling a tiny train off its tracks, a al King Kong. As you wait in line, you see a cemetery with a ghostly horse-drawn carriage projected on the wall of a tomb, and mechanical monsters writhe a few yards away.
After boarding the 1/8 scale train, you embark on a 3-mile-per-hour tour of the 13- acre park, filled with Halloween scenes of all shapes and sizes: twisted toys, toxic dumps, fog-filled tunnels. The carnivorous plant from the musical Little Shop of Horrors sings a verse or two. Norma Bates from Psycho rocks in her chair and muses about not hurting a fly. many others. Giant inflatable Cheshire Cats grin as you train slides beneath them. Skeletons outside a Mexican cantina celebrate Day of the Dead. Amorphous ectoplasmic emanations glide up a hillside as if dancing in the night air. Characters from Frankenweenie inhabit a miniature house, and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is represented near the end of the line, with writhing Christmas wreaths attacking victims before a fireplace hung with stockings.
There is a familiar sight or two, but always with a new twist. Alien bodies are still on view, but this time they are accompanied by a flying saucer (an amazing prop fused together from a trampoline, a satellite dish, and a disco lighting system). The giant spiders are back, but they are not just inflatable props; there are one or two moving mechanical versions.
As before, there are no actors in costume lurking the shadows trying to scare you, but this time there are a few thrills. A fireworks stand with a clown flashes and pops as if you might be shot. An animatronic ghoul throws the switch on an electric chair, sizzling an unfortunate victim. The walls of a wedding chapel (remember: "Till death do us part...") threaten to collapse. As you pass through an old mining tunnel, an intersection corridor shows hordes of bats, following by the collapse of the tunnel. None of this is in the least disturbing, but you will hear the night air punctuated by the happy screams of laughing victims.
The sense of proximity seems greatly increased. Back in 2008, we saw static tableau at a distance, with lights, decorations and props, but little in the way of animatronics or up-close effects. Halloween 2013 features several mechanical characters who talk or move, and they are close enough to be just a bit sinister. There are also several phantoms (achieved with video projection), such as a skeletal pilot navigating through a storm and a ghostly librarian (a la Ghostbusters) who morphs into a terrifying demon.
Lest this deter you from bringing your children, rest assured that the overall tone is frequently juvenile, including more than one flatulence sound effect. Kids will have a blast. (Also, there is a slightly intimidated display outside the entrance, which you can use as a gauge: if your kids can handle what they see there, they will be fine to ride the train - assuming they meet the 34-inch height requirement.)
The only large-scale tableau that we noted last night occupied a wide clearing, suggesting Stonehenge, with a mannequin wizard standing among eleven-foot tall structures while lights pulsed in time with dramatic music pouring through invisible loud speakers. This display is the only one we thought could be improved by the inclusions of a few live actors, to help convey the intended story, of a wizard holding the powers of darkness at bay; even in its present form, the mystic setting provides a bit of colorful spectacle. (The scene turns out to be the brainchild of Sean Jones, who used to host the Pirate Cave Yard Haunt in Northridge few years ago, before moving on to greener pastures.)
Halloween 2013 has us completely revising our assessment of the Ghost Train. We used to recommend this attraction for families with children, but not for hardcore Halloween enthusiasts. However, the Ghost Train is now filled with so many imaginative displays and fantastic effects that it is a virtual must-see for Los Angeles haunt-goers. It may lack the visceral thrill of its chainsaw-wielding competitors, but that is an advantage, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the magic floating past as you circle the area at a comfortable three miles per hour.
Think of the Ghost Train as a milder version of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride. Moving at a similar speed and last approximately the same time, the Ghost Train contains far fewer scares but far more sights and sounds. In fact, the two provide a perfect contrast, and their close proximity (both located inside Griffith Park) make them an ideal double bill. Something to consider while making your Halloween plans.
The Los Angeles Live Steamers Ghost Train is located at Griffith Park, 5202 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90027. Remaining dates are on October 25-27, 30-31, from 7pm to 10pm. $10 donation per person benefits the non-profit Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum, which maintains the site year-round as an educational-historical facility. For more information call (323) 662-8030, or check out the Los Angeles Live Steamers website.
Thanks to Gary Baker for giving us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ghost Train.
*Footnote: I am making a pun here. The projection effects were provided by a company named Spectral Illusions.