The Queen Mary's annual Halloween voyage offers new encounters with spirits of the drowned and the damned. Should you book passage or jump ship? Read on to find out - if you dare!
Hollywood Gothique's admiration for the Queen Mary's annual haunt has long been second to none. Ever since we started reviewing the spookier side of the Southland in 2004, the venerable ship-turned-hotel has been among our favorite Halloween events in Los Angeles. Even when other haunt-goers dismissed the aquatic terror-tour as an also-ran, lagging behind the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, we extolled the virtues of Shipwreck Productions' Queen Mary Halloween TerrorFest (as the event was known).
Since Shipwreck Productions (an outside company) was relieved of duty in 2010, and replaced with a new in-house crew, Queen Mary Dark Harbor has been sailing on an even keel, gradually modifying course from year to year while trying to overtake the competition. Furthering that quest, Halloween 2014 sees some of the biggest additions to the October itinerary; however, the dark and dreadful inhabitants of these new ports 'o call are not enough to produce an appreciably more terrifying voyage. First-timers will no doubt get their scream's worth; returning passengers may question the value of another descent into the depths of Davy Jones' locker.
The Dark Harbor layout has been revamped to make it more conducive to a leisurely stay. Makeshift "lounge" areas dot the area, with bars and fast-food stands nearby. Though we wax nostalgic for the days when the Queen Mary would let scary Halloween folk like us enjoy a real meal in one of their fine shipboard restaurants, the food stands in Dark Harbor offer a tolerable variety, and the bartenders serve some satisfying beverges.
Free-roaming ghouls lurk within the Monster Midway, scaring unwary souls. The Ferris "Squeal" from 2013 has been replaced with a new ride imported from Michael Jackson's Neverland. Live music blasts through the night air, and Dark Harbor seems to have booked acts appropriate to the season. Thank the infernal powers that we did not have our ears assaulted by another DJ booth sponsored by the once-ubiquitous Power 106!
The Queen Mary's familiar Halloween crew is on view: the Captain, Graceful Gale, Savage Samuel, Scary Mary, and Half-Hatch Henry. Besides encountering them the mazes, you can hear their stories related by the Ringmaster from the main stage. Dark Harbor has always had an unfortunate penchant for camp; the "humor" of these presentations is strained, and the tales do little to enhance one's appreciation of the mazes. And as we have mentioned before, the Ringmaster - a circus character - is an intrusive anomaly at an ocean-theme haunt. Queen Mary would be wise to exploit the potential inherent in its sea-going setting, rather than dragging in a generic land-lubber.
There are sideshow booths with fortune tellers and other strange personages. The Freakshow attractions are again open for business, though the cast of characters has been reshuffled (no sign of Sparky, the Sit-Down Skeleton Comedian from 2013, unfortunately!). The Freakshows are essentially mini-mazes offering personalized scares for small groups of two or three people, and you have to pay a little extra for them.
If you are deciding whether to spend your hard-earned dollars for this up-charge event or for Dark Harbor's new Exclusive Encounter...well, don't decide until you have read our account of the latter experience, below.
For Halloween 2014, Dark Harbor offers four new attractions: one on land (Voodoo Village) and three aboard ship: Soulmate, B340, and Exclusive Encounters. (Two returning mazes, the enjoyable Submerged on the Queen Mary and the inappropriate Circus in the Dome, round out the attractions this Halloween.)
Attempting to cash in on the interactive, intimate trend in haunted attractions, Dark Harbor's Exclusive Encounter takes a dozen passengers on a paranormal trek through forgotten sections of the Queen Mary that have not seen Halloween use for many years.
The concept is great: You and your fellow passengers are on one of those tours during which the guide attempts to b.s. you into believe the place is haunted - only the place really is haunted! Unfortunately, the haunting manifests itself in the mildest way, with lights going off, a few sound effects, and a crackle of electricity here or there; only a handful of ghosts materialized, spaced so far apart that their impact is diminished.
Exclusive Encounter occasionally comes to life. At times you cross paths with other tour groups, the guides exchanging quips about how many passengers they have lost so far. At one point, there is a crawl-through tunnel that forces you to make your way on your hands and knees - before it suddenly shrinks, forcing you onto your belly like a worm.
This leads to a room guarded by a demonic figure who demands one of the passengers sacrifice himself to save the others. After some incantations, flashing lights, and a sudden plunge into darkness, the sacrificial victim disappears! This scene is the highlight of the tour; more of this, and Exclusive Encounter could have been a winner. (By the way, don't worry about the victim - he shows up later, trapped in a cage, from which he is rescued.)
We're happy to see Dark Harbor expanding the number of walk-through attractions on board the Queen Mary, and it was nice to revisit sections of the ship we had not explored since the primordial days of Shipwreck Productions' Halloween TerrorFest. However, as much fun as it was to see the ship's colossal propeller once again, the scene failed to deliver a satisfying send-off: the propeller's observation room is haunted by a single ghost given no distinctive action to perform. As an opening shot across the bow, this encounter would have been fine, but not as a climax.
Exclusive Encounter might have been scarier if the audience had anticipated only a standard tour and then been sucker-punched with the unexpected spectral manifestations. However, the advertising promises "extreme terror" that will leave a "lasting impression" - a promise that raises expectations beyond the tour's ability to deliver.
The disappointment would have been tolerable in an ordinary maze, but it is intolerable in an up-charge event. The tour is too restrained to justify the extra expense you pay for the small-group experience. Save your money and go through the Freakshows instead.
Graceful Gale, the ghostly platinum blonde seen floating through Submerged in previous years, gets her own maze for this Halloween's Dark Harbor. Soulmate replaces the old Containment maze, whose day was done, but the new maze makes less effective use of the ship. The great advantage of setting a haunt inside the Queen Mary is the dark metallic corridors, yet parts of Soulmate consist of hallways lined with black drapery - something you could see at any Halloween event in Los Angeles.
Graceful Gale is supposed to be a dancer, and the premise of Soulmate is that you are headed toward a ballroom. This creates a rising sense of anticipation, and there are some intriguing rooms on the way (including one with a tailor who wants to fit you with a tuxedo for the big event). There is also a creepy bit with a ghostly bride sitting at a vanity table, who suddenly turns her angry attention upon the intruding passengers.
Ultimately, the ballroom promises more than it delivers. The beautiful, oddly shaped room is filled with male mannequins (one of whom may come to life), while Gale glides across the dance floor. The mood is sad and spooky - quite eerie, really - but as the culmination of the maze, it leaves one expecting a bigger scare. Perhaps a more elaborate Danse Macabre, with Gale attempting to lure visitors into joining her and her dead friends?
Soulmate felt under-populated to us. To be fair, we did go through a second time, with a group of frightened young women who had asked us to act as their human shield. They screamed in delight from start to finish, proving the maze's ability to terrorize.
Replacing Hellfire (one of Dark Harbor's more enjoyable mazes), B340 is devoted to the character of Samuel the Savage, an insane passenger found ripped to pieces in his cabin. The emphasis here is slightly gorier, though not excessively so. Unfortunately, this aspect is depicted through re-using props and set pieces from the defunct Containment maze; for brief moments, it almost feels as if Containment has simply swapped placed with Hellfire.
But only for moments. B34o is enhanced with some new decor that is truly impressive: early on, the corridors are cobwebbed with what we can only describe as giant, tentacle-like formations, impeding one's pathway through the darkness. We have always praised the available ambiance of the Queen Mary's formidable hallways and dismissed attempts to turn the ship into something it was not (such as those drapery laden corridors in Soulmate); however, B340 truly does manage to improve upon the reality of its surroundings..
Too bad Savage Samuel makes little impression. He's a fearsome enough character in publicity photographs, but enshrouded in the darkness of the Queen Mary, he blends into the scenery, looking like a generic ghoul; in fact, you might miss him entirely (unlike Graceful Gale, who truly is a distinctive and memorable spectre).
Far more frightening than Samuel is the narrow metallic bridge, on which you walk, high over the floor below. The vastness and darkness of the room enhance the sense of altitude, creating a dizzying vertigo. If you suffer from acrophobia, beware of this maze!
The Fishing Village near the Queen Mary has been a reliable location for Halloween mazes for as long as we can remember. The quaint, old-fashioned buildings suggest an isolated, period setting; in the darkness, they can pass for a middle-European town haunted by vampires, for example. However, they cannot quite pass for the West Indies, which leaves Voodoo Village feeling like a square peg shoved into a round ... um - let's see - cranium of an unfortunate victim?
The attempt to create an apparently exterior setting inside the buildings - a swamp infested with the walking dead - is only partially successful, falling short of what Knotts Scary Farm achieved in their Voodoo maze this Halloween. The latter section of Voodoo Village abandons the voodoo aspect and reverts to familiar scenery (the bog monsters are back - again), and you will recognize several perennial props (e.g., the split-headed mannequin).
Voodoo Village does contain some good scares; though widely spaced, they should be enough to startle timid haunt-goers. And the Voodoo Queen's striking appearance is almost enough to redeem the whole maze - keep your eye out for her.
With tickets starting at $20, Queen Mary offers the best cost-benefit ratio of any Halloween event in Los Angeles (there is more to do here than at the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, for example, which charges considerably more). Screams were coming fast and furious all night long during our voyage through Dark Harbor, but the Queen Mary probably functions best as an entry level event for timid trick-or-treaters testing October's ominous waters. More seasoned travelers will probably seek out stranger voyages to other haunted lands.
Dark Harbor's remaining dates are October 10-12; 16-19, 23-26, 29-31, and November 1-2; hours are 7 p.m. to midnight. The Queen Mary's address is 1126 Queens Highway Long Beach, CA 90802. Tickets start at $20 for Happy Haunting Hour tickets (admission before 8pm). General Admission is $24; VIP is $86. Costumes are allowed only on Halloween Night and on November 1 and 2 (the latter of which are being designated Dias de Los Muertos). Click here for more information at the official website.