During a recent trek up north, Hollywood Gothique visited two Halloween haunts in the East Bay area near San Francisco: The Candle Lighters Ghost House (reviewed here) and the Pirates of Emerson. We had been hearing about the later for years, and the Haunt Mistress (whose Haunted Bay website offers news and reviews of Halloween attractions in and around San Francisco) recommended it as one worth checking out. Having finally walked the plank, we fully understand the haunt's favorable reputation.
Pirates of Emerson used to be a single walk-through maze located in Fremont, but it is now a multi-maze attraction situated at the Alameda County Fairgounds in Pleasonton. It's a cash-only business, but there is a mobile ATM machine set up in the dirt parking lot near the box office. Your $20 admission entitles you to six mazes: Habitat of Hags, Lockdown, Doll Hostel, Pirates of Emerson, Wicked Wild West, and Mental Maze. There is also a corn maze for an additional $10, and you can purchase "monions" (small tickets) for additional activities, such as fortune telling and games.
Pirates of Emerson describes itself as a theme park, but if one things of theme parks as being something along the lines of Disneyland, the description is a bit misleading. The overall atmosphere is more along the lines of a fairgrounds attraction, loaded with scary sideshows. There is a pleasantly hand-crafted feel to the event, and some of it is quite impressive, particularly in terms of offering a variety of themes and environments.
As you enter, you see a pirate ship belching balls of flame from its masts while pirates clash swords on the deck below. A mechanical monsters roars outside the exit of the Wicked Wild West maze. Pirates and other creatures wander the grounds, sometimes startling you, sometimes posing for pictures. You know you're in for a good time, even before you reach the mazes.
Habitat of Hags is perhaps the most generic of the mazes, with lots of ugly old crones lurking in rooms and corridors. There is a bit of a run-down backwoods ambiance, and some scenes even suggest an outdoor setting, with an alligator (a stationary prop) in a swamp.
Lockdown presents a prison under siege, with many dangerous criminal types on the loose. This one feels more modern and metallic than the others - a nice change of pace, with some aggressive actors.
Doll Hostel goes for the spooky childhood scare strategy, and works very effectively. A memorable bit involves walking into a closet of hanging clothes that extends on and on, your view obscured by pajamas and dresses, so that you have no idea what might be lurking right next to you.
Wicked Wild West presents saloons and other old-fashioned scenery, including an outdoor segment with a miner's tent. The hand-made construction of the mazes was particularly appropriate here, effectively simulating an old west setting.
Mental Maze is a real maze, made of chain link fence (somewhat like Insane Reaction at the FrightFair Screampark, although here there are no monsters antagonizing you). This one is not too difficult if there are lots of other people in it with you: you can watch their progress and get a sense of where you should be going. We recommend saving this one for last; otherwise, you will be too anxious to get out and get to the other attractions.
Pirates of Emerson is still the highlight. Like the other mazes, this one features corridors fashioned from wooden flats, but these are well decorated and there are several impressive settings as you make your way through the pirate ship. One room is absolutely dizzying in its depiction of being inside the hull, with walls that shift back and forth as if the whole boat is about to come apart. It's an amazing illusion that will leave your head spinning.
Besides the mazes, there are also several gaming booths, a corn maze, something called the Bumpkin Patch, and a small cafe called "Cursed Coffee," which serves snacks (and presumably cursed coffee). We didn't have time to find our way through the Corn Maze, but we did buy a few monions in order to purchase a passage through the Bumpkin Patch, a smaller corn maze with two or three ghouls lurking inside, including one with a chainsaw. It's short but sweet.
One nice thing about not being a real theme park is that Pirates of Emerson is not spread out. Its mazes are packed closely together, which saves you from walking too much. On a Sunday evening, we managed to get to everything we wanted in about a couple hours - which was just right. The closest thing we have to Pirates of Emerson down here in Los Angeles is Nightmare: A Haunted Attraction at Fairplex, but Pirates of Emerson easily outguns our local haunt (no smear against Fairplex, which is fun and hasn't had nearly as many years to get ship shape). If you find yourself in the Bay Area, looking for Halloween horrors, definitely take a voyage with the Pirates of Emerson.
Pirates of Emerson continues at the Alameda County Fairgrounds (at the intersection of Bernal Avenue and Valley Avenue in Pleasanton, California ) on October 21-23, 25-31. Hours are 7:05 pm-11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays; 7:05 pm-10 pm on Sundays and weekdays; open until midnight on the 29th. Get info here: www.piratesofemerson.com.