The Queen Mary's annual Halloween event sails into Long Beach. Can it capsize the competition?
When the Queen Mary rechristened its October attraction two years ago, the new Dark Harbor was intended to generate a titanic tidal wave of terror that would eventually rock the boats of rival theme park events, the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. With a new layout, new mazes, new characters, and a new brand name (the old moniker "Queen Mary Halloween TerrorFest having been thrown overboard), the Queen Mary Dark Harbor managed a successful relaunch for Halloween 2010. The following year saw the Haunted Queen Mary remaining on an even keel but offering a nearly identical cruise, with little effort extended toward steaming past its rivals. Fortunately, the Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2012 features a course correction that reveals new horror arising from the ocean depths.
Gone are the icons of the past two Halloweens, Bundara and her sea-hag sisters, replaced by new characters that tie in with the Queen Mary's alleged haunted history. There are more monsters and a new maze; the overall layout has been significantly changed, and the new RIP lounge offers a chance to relax between screams and imbibe enough liquid courage to brave the aquatic terrors a second time. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Queen Mary offers an "all new cruise into terror" for Halloween 2012, but Dark Harbor is has been substantially improved - more than enough to make it worth a return visit.
The first, immediately obvious change is the layout, which is now more open. Hell's Belltower, with its belching flames remains, but you no longer enter Dark Harbor through a mini-maze of corrugated metal that deposits you inside The Barricades (a scare-zone from the past two Halloween seasons). Instead, a short entrance deposits you in a more open food court. The Barricades are gone, sadly, along with the impression of being cut off in a fog-filled limbo loaded with monsters. Fortunately, the calm exterior, featuring fast-food vendors and picnic tables, is deceptive: there are even more monsters than before, but instead of creeping up on you in the mist, they attack while your are distracted by your grub.
There is a new maze clearly visible, the DeadRise, which resembles a ship re-emerging from below (ground, not water, unfortunately - but we'll give the Queen Mary the benefit of the doubt that the later would have been too difficult to achieve). Otherwise, the mazes remain the same in name if not in substance (this Halloween's cast of characters adds new sea salt to the old briny brew). Near the Fishing Village you can still find food and alcohol (dispensed from the quaintly named "Captain's Corpse). And once again, a stage offers live musical entertainment. (We were pleased to hear a power trio actually singing songs appropriate for the Halloween season, including one about pirates and vampires.)
The food situation has not much improved. We were happy to see a booth offering pizza and calzones, but the latter were off the menu that night - too long to cook, we were told - and so we were left with fast-food pizza slices. If the Queen Mary truly wants Dark Harbor to be a place where customers hang out after braving the mazes, this is an area that needs improvement. There are excellent restaurants on board the ship; how hard would it be to have one of them set up a booth in the Dark Harbor?
The sliders and shakers haunting Dark Harbor this Halloween are predominantly nautical in theme, although there are exceptions. The rather campy sea witches from 2010 and 2011 have been replaced, and no one is like to regret the change of crew.
Most prominent is the Captain, who has risen from the depths to reclaim Dark Harbor from Bundara and her sisters. As with most Halloween themes, you are not likely to notice this unless you read the press materials. If you are lucky, you may hear the Captain rant about this from above the entrance as you make your way inside; otherwise, the implication of a battle for supremacy between rival supernatural beings is lost. We won't torpedo the Queen Mary for this oversight - it is, after all, par for the course among most Halloween haunts in Los Angeles - but we do believe this is an area with vast potential for improvement that should be tapped if Dark Harbor is to outmaneuver Knotts Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights.
This year's other characters are Graceful Gale, Scary Mary, Samuel the Savage, and Half-Hatch Henry. The latter two, despite excellent prosthetic makeup, are a bit too generic in design to stand out among the numerous other ghouls inhabiting the Queen Mary, but Graceful Gale and Scary Mary are memorably additions. Graceful Gale is a 1930s era beauty, trapped for eternity on the dance floor, seeking a partner. Her glacial beauty and stark white makeup provide a memorably subtle and chilling alternative to the more mangled faces of the other ghosts. Scary Mary is a young girl who has haunted the ship since drowning in its pool. There have been generic child ghosts featured in previous Queen Mary Halloween events, but Mary is showcased in a memorable way (about which, more below).
This Halloween, Queen Mary Dark Harbor features six mazes: three on land, three on board. In fact, this is the same number of mazes as seen in the last two years. How can this be, when Queen Mary advertised only five mazes in previous years?
The explanation is simple: the new DeadRise is a much expanded and redecorated version of the anonymous entry maze from 2010 and 2011, with the old corrugated corridors put into new service. This is not to suggest that the Queen Mary is pulling a fast one by claiming they have added a new maze for Halloween 2012. DeadRise is substantially different haunt experience, with a clearly defined theme, that definitely qualifies as new; it has simply cannibalized a few old sets. DeadRise is spectacular in appearance - the prow of a ship bursting upward from the ground, its smokestack belching flame; the interior is packed with frights, all of them nautical in nature, and we were glad to see Dark Harbor exploiting the thematic potential inherent in the Queen Mary setting.
Our only objections are that the DeadRise is not suitably barnacle-encrusted after having been supposedly sunken since World War II (when it was torpedoed while escorting the Queen Mary through U-Boat infested waters), and the concept of the undead sailors reclaiming Dark Harbor for their own is not presented in any substantial way. (At the very least, we wished we had seen them fighting off Bundara and her minions, maybe making them walk the plank or endure a cat-o-nine-tails.)
Becuase it is new, DeadRise is receiving the majority of the promotional push this Halloween. To our surprise, however, there were noticeable changes in the other mazes, particularly The Village of the Damned, which emerges as this year's unsung triumph. The path through the old Fishing Village sets has been altered (you're going in the opposite direction), and much of what you see inside is different. Yes, the old bog-monster camo-netting area is still tucked somewhere in the middle, but other than that, you are in for many malificent surprises. With its old-fashioned architecture, the Fishing Village usually provides plenty of atmosphere each Halloween, and this year the Village of the Damned exploits it excellently.
The Cage (also on land) seems a bit shorter this year (or perhaps we are just getting better at navigating our way through its pitch-black, sheet-draped first section, which can leave visitors walking in circles for many minutes if they are not careful. After that, the gimmick is that the monsters seem separate from you by chainlink fence (the Cage of the title), but guess what? There are hidden gates that swing open unexpectedly, unleashing angry monsters upon you. As with the rest of the mazes, the ratio of scares to square feet seems higher this year, thanks to a preponderance of monsters.
On board the Queen Mary herself, the Containment maze is much the same as before - a section of the ship that has been quarantined to prevent some kind of outbreak from spreading throughout all the decks. Samuel the Savage shows up in here somewhere, but in the darkness it is easy to miss him. As always, the reality of the location, with its metal walls and portholes creates a haunted maze more convincing than anything at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Hellfire inflicts only second-degree burns for Halloween 2012. With glowing embers dotting the darkened hallways, the ominous impression is of descending deeper and deeper into the infernal regions. Unfortunately, the decorations are rather sparse here, as are the scares. Most disappointing, the elevated walkway that startled us so profoundly last year (its rattling metal, accompanied by a shower of sparks in the distance, suggested an imminent plunge into the Pit) was much more subdued this year; without the sparkling suggestion of Hellfire, it was adequate but not memorable.
Submerged, as the name implies, offers a water-logged alternative to the flames of Hellfire. Some of the set pieces - which are designed to suggest a sinking ship - were not functioning fully on opening night (October 5), but the maze benefits from the appearance of two new characters, the previously mentioned Graceful Gale and Scary Mary. Gale cuts a strikingly memorable figure in the piano room (her icy stare chills your blood while some maniac pounds away at the piano keys), but we think even more could be done with her.
Scary Mary comes across as the most fully realized of the new characters - offering not a single jump-scare but a gradually escalating sense of unease. After having traversed so much of the length Submerged maze that you feel you must be nearing the end, you enter a section in which Mary's unseen voice whispers and echoes, asking you to play with her. The sense of an unseen ghost is appropriately unsettling, providing a subtle shiver instead of a crude shock. After passing through more rooms and hearing more whispers, eventually you reach the swimming pool, where poor Mary met her fate. Colored lights dance off the walls, dazzling the eye with the illusion of reflections from the pool's surface. Across the wide expanse of the high room, you see Scary Mary dancing and playing. Although she keeps her distance (as ghosts are wont to do in real-life ghostly legends), she leaves a wonderfully disturbing impression, akin to that generated by the spooky twins in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
Our overall impression of this year's Queen Mary Dark Harbor is that the annual Halloween event made good on its promise of more monsters: even if many of the mazes seemed much the same before, there were more scares. We miss the Barricades, but the food court is convenient - and scarier than you would think.
With six mazes, Queen Mary Dark Harbor provides more Halloween horror than almost any other Halloween event in Los Angeles - almost as much as Universal Studios Hollywood. Dark Harbor's big disadvantage is that it offers little else (e.g., no Back Lot Terror Tram Tour and no roller-coaster rides revamped for the October season, such as you will see at Knotts Berry Farm and at the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest). In this regard, the RIP Lounge (available to those with VIP fast-pass tickets) is a worthy addition to the itinerary; for once, we felt we had a reason to remain in Dark Harbor after completing all the mazes. More and better food options might have a similar effects for those who do not want to pay for VIP tickets.
There are also no Halloween-themed shows, but considering the low-brow humor of The Hanging at Knotts and The Bill and Ted Show at Universal, we count this as a plus. Thankfully, this Halloween we saw none of the campy confrontations that marked Bundara's reign over Dark Harbor in 2010 and 2011.
The Queen Mary is definitely cruising in the right direction, but it will take a few more Halloweens before it can leave Knotts Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights in its wake. Another maze or two aboard ship would help (the old Haunted Hull of Horrors, seen back when the event was titled the Queen Mary Halloween TerrorFest, took visitors through the engine room - an area not utilized as part of Dark Harbor). A more dramatic realization of the ship's haunted history would also benefit Dark Harbor. We like the concept behind the new characters and hope they will be more fully developed in future years; we would love to see some of their back story actually enacted. We would like to see more with Graceful Gale, and it would be nice if visitors could figure out who Half-Hatch Henry is without having to read about him on the Queen Mary's website (for the record, he's a fireman crushed by Hatch #13 while battling a blaze).
Until then, we give the Queen Mary Dark Harbor a B+ this Halloween. It's the Number 3 seasonal theme park-type event in Los Angeles, so it tries harder - hard enough, we think, to convert some of the naysayers who have long considered this an "also-ran" in the annual Halloween regatta.
And hopefully, next Halloween, there will be calzones.
Dark Harbor is located at the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach, CA 90802. Remaining dates of operation are on October 12-14, 18-21, 25-28, 31, from 7pm to midnight. Tickets are $24 for General Admission and $20 each for Groups of 15 or more. There are also $20 "Happy Hour" tickets (available online only), valid for entrance before 8pm. For more information check out our webpage dedicated to the haunt or visit the official website by clicking here.
More in this series:
- 2012 Halloween Recommendations: The Best Haunted Theme Park Events in Los Angeles (hollywoodgothique.com)