Halloween 2005: Magic Mountain Fright Fest - review

Last weekend, we tried out the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest for the first time this Halloween season. Despite some initial concerns, it turned out to be a worthwhile experience, although not quite a match for its more experienced competition, Knott's Scary Farm and the Queen Mary Shipwreck. As a general guideline, we would say that, if you're strictly interested in Halloween, you would be better off at either of those two haunts; however, if you love rides (especially roller-coasters), then head out to Magic Mountain, where the haunting is just the icing on the cake.

Our first concern arose when arriving in the parking lot in the late afternoon. The park barely seemed decorated for the season; if not for the giant balloon spider poised on the side one of the roller-coasters, it would have looked like business as usual. Walking toward the entrance,we saw banners for a new Batman Begins attraction, but nothing about the Fright Fest. Finally as we reached the main gate, we saw huge dangling spiders and large heaps of cobwebs that let us know the Fright Fest was indeed in operation. As we entered we saw a warning that, come dusk, the Six Flags Plaza and the Gotham City backlot would be "haunted" by roaming ghouls.

This points to the first deficiency of the Fright Fest. In general, Magic Mountain does not have an atmosphere as condusve to Halloween as Knott's or the Queen Mary, and only the two above-named sections are truly revamped for the season, with appropriate decorations and roaming ghouls on the loose; the rest of the park looks as it would on any other day.

In addition, if you are not familiar with the layout, you may have trouble finding your way to the haunted mazes and other special attractions, which are not evenly distributed throughout. The map we were given upon entering made no special mention of the haunts; it was just the usual map of Magic Mountain. So we were left to search for anything Halloween-related - which we presumed (not entirely correctly) would be located in the aforementioned Six Flags Plaza and Gotham City backlot.

Fortunately, there are some helpful signs located strategically at various points that will direct you toward the haunts, but even this assistance can be frustrating. The arrows point you in a general direction, but in some cases you go past several twist, turns and intersections without any more signs to let you know you're on the right path.

After pausing for the Viper, the Roaring Rapids, and Colossus, we managed to find our way up the hill to the Willoughby Mansion, our first haunt experience for the night. This is a pretty straight forward "old dark house" setting. It's good, but the scares are pretty conventional: lots of ghouls hiding around corners, jumping out unexpectedly, shouting "Boo!" -and rattling cans or banging on the walls to shock you with the sound. There is some nice decor, including spooky blacklight rooms.

Sadly, this haunt was our first evidence that Fright Fest falls prey to the typical syndrome that afflicts crowded theme parks: thick crowds lead to long lines, which leads to an assembly line feel as you're herded through the mazes. If you're stuck in the back of the group, you're likely to miss the scares because the ghouls jump out at the first people in line, then go about re-setting their positions for the next group.

Although the park seemed sparesly populated by daylight, crowds had started to form by the time night fell; and even though the line for Willoughby Mansion was not terribly long, there was nevertheless a feeling for rushing the customers through as fast as possible. In one case, we passed a room where a bungie-jumping ghoul had apparently just completed a leap and was readjusting for the next attack. Although we tried to pause (hard to do with the crowd pushing from behind), all we saw was the actor readjusting his harness, which apparently was too tight in the crotch. Ouch!

Leaving Willoughby Mansion, we again frustrated by the lack of a map pinpointing the haunted mazes: after the long walk up the hill, it would have been nice to know for a fact that we weren't missing anything else before going back down. (We were not.)

Next, we found our way to Dead Man's Bog. We achieved this feat by the simple expedient of walking until we saw a large crowd waiting in line - a method probably more effective than the signs posted around the park. Dead Man's bog is actually set up in the area that houses the waiting line for the Tidal Wave water ride. It's sort of an outdoor haunt, not really a maze, per se: you're walking through a more or less straight path marked by handrails on either side, with netting obscuring the ghouls haunting the area parallel to you. As the name implies, there is a swampy feel. The effect is not bad but not particularly memorable either; like the Jaguar Temple at Knott's Scary Farm, this is really just filler on you way to the ride (which is open for business as usual).

The bog does get points for one small detail: With the success of Japanese horror films like RINGU and JU-ON (not to mention their American remakes THE RING and THE GRUDGE), we were wondering whether any signs of those films would show up in this year's Halloween haunts. Well, this was the first we saw: one Oriental-looking young woman in a white dress with her dark hair mostly obscuring her face as she silently pursued us along the way. Not sure whether she was supposed to be Sadako or Kayako, but she was a nice touch.

Next, we finally reached the Gotham City backlot. This section was packed with people looking for good scares. Like the Haunt Zones at Knott's Scary Farm, this area has free-roaming ghouls moving through the crowds, looking for timid young female teenagers to terrorize. After forcing our way through the dense population, we managed to find the line for our next maze.

Brutal Planet (the title pehaps derived from Alice Cooper's 1999 album?) turned out to be the highlight of the Fright Fest - the haunted maze that really made the trip worthwhile. The line was long, leading to what seemed to be a behind-the-scenes backlot area. Fortunately, the scares started even before you reached the maze, with a couple of ghouls lurking around or even in the line.

The maze itself has an industrial feel; the idea is that we're seeing a future world gone to hell thanks to popultion or radiation or something. Whatever the back story, the maze is a highly unusual one, filled with a variety of different rooms, each with its own special shock. Perhaps the most unique aspect is that you are not really going through a series of corridors; instead, there is a large central room with doors that lead to smaller rooms on the sides. You zig-zag back and forth, with ghouls directing you from one door to the next so that you follow the correct path even without any ropes or markings to show you the way. Each small room has some simple effect or gag; then you emerge back into the main room, which feels like total chaos, with roaming monsters lurching back and forth, cutting through the lines, and just generally making you feel like horror may hit from any direction. For Halloween fans, this is definitely the one to see at Magic Mountain.

By this time, after going on some rides, doing a little shopping, stopping to eat, and waitng in line, the hour for closing was fast approaching, and we had only hit half the mazes, so we made our way quickly to the next line for what would be our final Halloween treat at Magic Mountain. The long wait was for this one was slightly off-set by a goofy comedy act nearby - a take-off of TV cooking shows, featuring the "Galloping Ghoulmet." At our distance it was hard to hear the dialogue, but the sight gag of a sliced pie dripping an apparently endless red stream - of what looked like blood - was easy enough to see, and pretty funny, too.

Carnage E. Hall, set up inside the park's theatre, is a bit deceptive. After the long wait outside, you get inside only to find you have to wait some more. There are some cobwebs on the lighting fixtures, but the haunt does not take place in the auditorium itself; you go back stage, behind the curtain. The premise is that you're in a group shopping for real estate, and you're inspecting an old theatre. This gives an excuse for one of those motion-simulator elevator rides (it bounces around to make you feel as if you're dropping). The effect was ruined by the absence of a ceiling on the elevator (you can easily see it's not moving), but the bellhop's humorous performance was ample compensation on the night we attended.

The rest of the maze is fairly standard, but the theatre setting did give it a touch of distinction. There was also a truly excellent stunt gag at the end, as a real estate agent appeared to give us the closing sales pitch. After moving freely about the room, she stood on a slightly elevated platform near one wall with a black curtain - and mid-speech she was suddenly yanked backwards through the curtain as if by a powerful unseen force! This was the cue for the lights to flicker and the doors to open, disgorging a band of zombies that chase the prospective "buyers" out the exit. A very memorable ending for what might otherwise have been just another haunted maze.

By the time we left the theatre, the hour of ten o'clock was upon us - closing time for Magic Mountain, unfortunately. On the way out, we passed another "monster zone" that had probably been inhabited by the living dead earlier in the evening, and there were signs pointing to mazes called "Asylum" and the "Jokester's 3D Hideout." Alas, it was too late to enjoy these treats, but their titles suggest they were similar to mazes you can see at other haunts around Los Angeles. (Just about everyone does an "inmates have overrun the asylum" maze, and 3D killer clowns have been ubiquitous for several years now).

In retrospect, we realize we made a mistake by turning left at the entrance and roaming in a circular clockwise direction through the park. This took us past most of the conventional rides first and probably prevented us from completing all of the Halloween attractions. If you're there to see the Halloween stuff, we strongly recommend turning right as you enter and moving counter-clockwise.

Our overall impression after our first trip to Magic Mountain's Fright Fest is that its haunted mazes are good, but for the most part you won't see much that you cannot find somewhere else. The major exception is Brutal Planet, which is so good that it makes the whole trip worthwhile - this one's top notch and worth catching, even for jaded haunt-goers.

A final word of warning: The ticket price at the gate is nearly $50. You can get two-for-one discount coupons at Jack in the Box restaurants. Or you can order discount tickets online (you can print them out immediately and avoid the shipping charge, if you have Adobe Reader on your computer).

UPDATE: In a comment that was lost when this website transposed to its new digs, a reader calling himself Nightmaretony wrote on April 7, 2007 to say:

A small point of interest, Alice Cooper's album was named AFTER the maze, not the other way around. Brutal PLanet was originally owned by Distortions in Colorado and Six Flags purchased and had several built. Alice Cooper was approached to sponsor the maze and he ended up cutting the album. For reasons unknown, the deal fell through.

So of interest, there is also the original Brutal Planet soundtrack which is an entirely different soundtrack from Mr. Cooper's.