Fancy a trip aboard the Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017? Will it be smooth sailing or stormy seas ahead? Read on to find out...if you dare!
Since rebranding its annual Halloween event as "Dark Harbor" back in 2010, the Queen Mary has been navigating the ominous ocean about as fast as a blind mariner avoiding reefs in a fog - which is to say, progress is sometimes slow, with few changes from year to year. With only one new maze for Halloween 2017, the venerable ship-turned-hotel might seem to be dropping anchor in the same old Dark Harbor. Has the itinerary changed enough to justify booking passage once again?
The good news is that Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 has substantially revamped and expanded its existing attractions, creating a Halloween experience that is much more than a return voyage to the same old port o' call - including an unexpected bonus feature.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 Review: What's Different
We noted several changes for Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017. The up-charge attractions (Sideshow Freaks, Hex Paintball) are gone, though it is still possible to shell out extra bucks for a private cabana or exclusive time in the RIP Lounge. The Dome (formerly home of the Spruce Goose) no longer houses any of the mazes, which means that two have been moved to new locations. The returning mazes have been altered: sometimes it's a matter of sending guests through in a different direction from previous years, but many layouts and sets are different, including several sneaky twists and turns; almost all of the introductory scenes have been dropped. The biggest surprise of all is that, despite the official count, there are really eight mazes this year, not seven. We will explain momentarily.
We also sensed more light within the darkness. It would be an exaggeration as vast as the ocean to suggest that Dark Harbor is now a lights-on haunt, but we noticed more oases of illumination, which the ghost and ghouls used to dramatic effect, lurking in the shadows of the long corridors, then emerging into the eerie spotlight like a character making an entrance on stage. The effect is quite moody and unnerving - a subtle improvement over a simple jump-care.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 Review: Feast
This Halloween's new maze is Feast, featuring the Chef. As you can guess, what's on the menu is not the usual seafood. The concept of a chef cooking up human ingredients is not the most inspired choice, but Feast uses the Queen Mary's available space to solid effect. It starts in what appears to be luxurious corridors, as if approaching a dining area, before taking visitors behind-the-scenes, into the kitchen, where angry waiters, cooks, and dishwashers bang pots and pans to nerve-jangling effect. The sense of ugly horror lurking behind the respectable facade is palpable and convincing, thanks to the genuine ship's corridors.
The highlight is a crawlspace (yes, we know - been there, done that), which leads into the Oven. Kneeling down to squeeze through an opening about the height and size of an oven door is intimidating; even more intimidating is emerging into red-hot room that is literally hot, with a baked human cadaver to prove it. The claustrophobic space, with no obvious exit, forces some uncomfortably close interaction with other victims, before you find a way out. In this case, the crawlspace is essential: it clearly separates the Oven from the surrounding rooms, making it seem, at least momentarily, inescapable.
Feast suffers from being a little too maze-like. At one point we took a wrong turn and ended up confronted by an outraged character telling us we had skipped half the maze. Also, on opening night, the cast didn't seem up to the task of improvising dialogue for visitors who paused more than a second or two. After the obligatory "Do you like what I serve?" (i.e., bowls full of eyes and fingers), there wasn't much more the waiter had to say. Hopefully, the characters will develop throughout the month of October. Regardless, of the Queen Mary's gruesome mazes, this is our favorite this year.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 Review: On Land
This Halloween's three land-locked mazes all seem substantially altered and/or augmented, creating haunt experiences that are familiar but largely new. Or to put it in advertising terms, "But, wait - there's more!"
Deadrise has never been our biggest favorite, because its simulation of a capsized ship cannot stand up to the reality of the Queen Mary. Fortunately, the journey through the tragically torpedoed vessel has been extended to make room for more scares, and the damned crew mates are truly on a mission to terrorize the living. As always, pulsing fireballs from cracked smoke stacks lend an urgent atmosphere - not to mention an uncomfortable blast of heat. Also, some mildly explosive water effects seem designed to make passengers think twice about filming everything with their mobile devices.
The Circus has always been a bit of an anomaly at Dark Harbor (exactly what does it have to do with an ocean-going vessel?), but it offers a clownish form of horror that contrasts with the drab, dank corridors of the Queen Mary. No longer inside the Dome, The Circus has been enhanced for Halloween 2017: it now occupies a space roughly where the old Sideshow Freaks & Oddities was situated. Elements of the Sideshow have been incorporated - the portion known as "The White Ghost" when it was a stand-alone, up-charge attraction. The gimmick is that, instead of darkness, the metallic corridors are bright white - filled with a blinding fog that camouflages the eponymous spirit. The Circus's most memorable room (in which visitors must walk across a floor knee deep in bouncing balls - remains a treacherous bit of fun.
Intrepid, like The Circus, has been relocated from the Dome - moved next to the Fisherman's Village, with unexpected results. The layout has been rearranged to suit the new location, but familiar props and set pieces have been ported over. It's not a bad maze - we rather like the visual contrast between dark hallways and glowing molten metal - but the thematic connection to the Queen Mary is a bit of a stretch: the premise is that visitors are moving through the foundry where iron of the Queen Mary was forged - but the mad Scotsman in charge does not like intruders.
Fortunately, Intrepid features the biggest surprise of Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017: an unannounced bonus maze! The exit from the iron foundry leads directly into the Fisherman's Village. Occasional appearance by the mad Scotsman suggest that this is still the Intrepid maze, but the settings and atmosphere are completely different - a throwback to the catacombs seen in previous Halloweens, along with a bog reminiscent of the Voodoo Village maze in Dark Harbor 2014 and 2015.
The Fisherman's Village has always been the only land-locked location that can compete the Queen Mary's ominous interiors. The old-fashioned architecture in the Village is perfectly suited to simulating an environment haunted by ghosts of the past; the hallways serve well as ancient corridors, hidden tombs, and other mysterious spaces, creating the illusion that one truly is walking through a haunted fishing village in some foggy, forgotten harbor of the damned.
The Queen Mary's decision to drop the Fisherman's Village from its itinerary of mazes during Halloween 2016 was a mistake as foolish as dropping anchor in Innsmouth (in fact, we would love to see a maze based on Lovecraft's "Shadow over Innsmouth" in this space). Combining the Fisherman's Village and Intrepid into a two-for-one voyage into terror is more than enough to justify a return trip to Dark Harbor.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 Review: Aboard the Ship
Constricted to the available space within the corridors, the mazes on board the Queen Mary herself have not been obviously expanded for Dark Harbor 2017. Nevertheless, there are some noticeable changes.
Lullaby: Since its debut in 2015, this maze has been the Queen Mary's Halloween highlight, thanks to the presence of Scary Mary, a vindictive child-ghost who appears repeatedly in the dark corridors, always eager to stop visitors and ask them to play with her - forever. Scary Mary is every bit the scene-stealing child-star she was last Halloween, and her maze has been altered to play tricks upon expectations. The route has been revised so that one of the more famous sights in the attraction appears to be accessible - but isn't, due to an invisible barrier.
Lullaby is the only maze that retains its opening scene: Scary Mary's funeral, in which ship's chaplain unconvincingly tells mourners not to fear the dead girl's ghost - a nice prelude for the haunting to follow.
Our only objection is that, instead of using Queen Mary's actual rooms and hallways to tell Mary's story, sets have been added to suggest domestic settings. Is Scary Mary haunting not only the ship where she drowned but also her own home? Why? The Queen Mary is such a perfect location that trying to turn it into something else seems misguided.
Soulmate: Graceful Gale, a 1920s platinum blonde, haunts this maze, hoping to assemble her perfect mate piece by piece. Soulmate features some good gore scenes and effects, including a talking severed head, but we think that Gale has been awkwardly shoe-horned into a story-line ill-suited to her ethereal presence. The grizzly approach doesn't exploit the full potential of the character, who seems better suited to a spooky haunt with a touch of elegance (as was the case when Soulmate was situated in a different section of the Queen Mary a few years ago). Gale should be lurking silently around every corner, luring visitors to join her on an eternal dance floor; instead, she appears once or twice, never dominating Soulmate the way Scary Mary dominates Lullaby.
B340: We have never been particularly enthralled by the back story of this maze's star character, Samuel the Savage, who makes such a meager impression that we can never remember seeing him. His anguished mother and a threatening nun (presumably Samuel's very strict school teacher) are far more memorable, and other strange characters flit in and out of the darkness.
A rather large, starkly white asylum room has been added, with an angry straight-jacketed inmate confronting those who wander in. It's a solid addition, but what really makes B340 work is Queen Mary's real settings, such as the terrifying trek over the metal walkway suspended high above a cavernous space inside the bowels of the ship.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 Review: Other Attractions
There is more to Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 than mazes. Live entertainment runs on several stages; you can watch from the comfort of a rented cabana, or you can relax in the RIP Lounge that looks down upon the surrounding area.
We never feel comfortable simply sitting around at a Halloween event, so the only other attraction we truly recommend is Panic: A 4-D Experience, whose debut thrilled us at last Halloween's Dark Harbor. This computer-animated 3D film, presented in a single, continuous take, simulates a first-person walk - well, more of a run - through a haunted house, enhanced with in-theatre effects (e.g., every time you seem to fall down, the seat pokes you in the back). Our memory may be playing tricks, but we noticed several scenes in Panic that we do not recall from Halloween 2016, making a return trip to the theatre essential viewing this year.
Just remember: no filming in the theatre. Even if you affect a cavalier attitude toward copyright infringement, you will not appreciate having your camera/mobile device doused with water when the "blood" starts flying off the screen.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 Review: Conclusion
The Queen Mary's progress through Dark Harbor's stormy seas may have been slow recently, but this year's cruise smoothly navigates a new course to many of the same destinations. The return of the Fisherman's Village is a welcome surprise, and the alterations to the returning mazes show that the venerable ship is not simply treading the same old waters.
Except for Scary Mary, we are not completely enamored with any of the characters. More should be done with Graceful Gale and The Captain. We would also like to see new characters with a thematic connection to the setting. In fact, our most profound wish is that Dark Harbor would narrow its focus on themes suited to the Queen Mary. With the vast, mysterious depths of the ocean at their disposal, there is no need to incorporate circuses and asylums. The ship must have a kitchen, so a crazed chef is not completely over-the-rails, but what's the point when it would infinitely more satisfying and scary to populate the vessel with drowned soldiers, mermaids, and sea monsters? Using generic motifs dilutes the Dark Harbor; with a little effort, the Queen Mary could offer the most uniquely themed Halloween attraction in Los Angeles.
Dark Harbor continues at the Queen Mary through November 1. The address is 1126 Queens Highway in Long Beach. For more information, visit queenmary.com/darkharbor.
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More in this series:
- Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017: Opening Night Photos
- Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2017 Review