In Hollywood Gothique’s Queen Mary Dark Harbor Interview, Tom Cluff and Paul Haught explain plans for upgrading the floating hotel’s annual Halloween event.
The Queen Mary Dark Harbor sees the majestic ocean-liner-turned-hotel revamping its Halloween presentation for 2010, with the long-term goal of challenging the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood – a daunting task approximately equivalent to taking on both Dracula and Frankenstein in a tag-team wrestling match. How does the Queen Mary hope to defeat the twin titans of terror? The strategy is to create an event with broad appeal to both hard-core Halloween fanatics seeking scares and a more general audience of people hoping for a good time in a festive atmosphere appropriate to the season.
Consequently, Queen Mary Dark Harbor is centralized around a plaza containing a stage and an outdoor bar, inviting people to sit and stay after perambulating through the various walk-through mazes. There is also an area known as “The Barricades,” where visitors may wander, only to encounter random ghouls lurking in the shadows. In both cases, the idea is to present Dark Harbor as a place to hang out for an evening of Halloween fun, not just a place to visit and leave.
To implement this plan, the Queen Mary’s new management company, Delaware North, examined their previous Halloween event and opted to move the operation in-house, hiring Tom Cluff, Robert Koval, and Seruto & Company to design the event, with an assist from some people who had worked on Sinister Pointe, a popular Halloween haunted house attraction in Brea. Paul Haught, Director of Events, Attractions & Entertainment at the Queen Mary, explains the long-term thinking that went into this decision.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor Interview: Changing Course
For many years, the Queen Mary presented an annual “Halloween Terrorfest” that was produced by Shipwreck Productions, yet they are now out of the picture. Why the changeover?
PAUL HAUGHT: It’s a long and storied past. I don’t have a lot of experience, having been here only a year. Many years ago [our Halloween event] was produced in-house; then it was handed off to an outside company, without the Queen Mary really driving it. With Delaware North coming in, we felt we really needed to manage our own event. We started looking at Shipwreck, and we felt we needed an event that spoke to the property here. The idea was to create a holistic event that made sense with the ship, the port, the water – which had not been done in the past. Shipwreck did not address the property as a whole; it was a bunch of very diverse attractions. We came to the conclusion that we needed to launch a brand new event. As we talked about how we wanted to make it viable for the future, I looked around and decided we need to partner with some folks who get it, who have been involved with producing Halloween events in the past, because we’re really looking at this as the kick-off. Dark Harbor is our new event, and we’re going to continue to grow it over the next few years.
Bringing the event in-house also allowed for great quality control – ensuring that the operation runs smoothly. Some individuals who worked on the Queen Mary’s Halloween Terrorfest are back on board, but many new artists have been brought in as well.
TOM CLUFF: We’re building a design corps for all disciplines. We’re bringing in a composer to create themes for all the mazes. We are taking on a more aggressive design control. So actors aren’t coming in with their own scary masks.
PAUL HAUGHT: We started that this year by treating it as an audition. It wasn’t a job fair. People came here recognizing that we’re looking for a different level of actor. We’re serious about this, and we want people who are serious about the craft of Halloween
TOM CLUFF: Scaring is harder than people think. They want a quick job around Halloween, and they think this will be fun. Well, after that first forty-five minutes, you go, “Yo, I’m hot!” Because we know that, we’re building in a cycle time for employees, so that that doesn’t happen. We’re trying to address that.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor Interview: Competing with the Big Guns
You’re trying to go head-to-head with Knotts Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights. What would you say to people who go to one or both, and wonder, “Why should I go to the Queen Mary, too?”
TOM CLUFF: They all have their viability. Knott’s Berry Farm has been since ’89-’90 the pre-eminent haunt; now Universal is being a little bit more consistent on theirs. I would say the reason why [you would come to Queen Mary] is you’re coming to an event here. As the person who built up Knott’s in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I know why we won then, and it had to do with the fact that the farm was naturally spooky. We also know that there was a desperate need in the 16-24 age group. Universal tends to skew a little bit older. We are intentionally skewing toward a group of people who don’t normally go to a Halloween haunt. It’s a little big age-oriented, because if you’re young, I think Knott’s Berry Farm’s great for you. I think you’ll have a great time here, too.
On the other hand, because we have a bar, because our stuff is a little bit more based on the wacky part of what Halloween is – which attracts 20-year- to middle-aged adults – we’re working on an event that attracts a whole different group. So my answer to those people [who go to Knott’s and/or Universal] is ‘You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before.’ And to a whole group, who doesn’t even go, we’re also trying to attract them. One of the things we’re looking at is how to focus on a lot of separate groups and how to attract them to a Halloween event – because everyone loves Halloween, even if it’s someone who just wants to be a fairy princess. Everybody likes playing at Halloween time, and we want to address that, too. So [Dark Harbor] is built around a different kind of scare, and it’s built for a whole evening.
PAUL HAUGHT: You know what to expect elsewhere. What we’re trying to develop here is, you really don’t know what to expect. We’re treating this differently than the other folks do. Once you are in the environment, you are in the environment; you don’t get that anywhere else.
TOM CLUFF: We’re all used to hearing, ‘Rob Zombie’s willing to do this.’ That is very good marketing; it brings in a certain crowd. But there is something about creating a story line here that is ours, so we know why we’re building what we’re building. Whether people get it intellectually, they’ll get it emotionally.
ROBERT KOVAL: A lot of folks will get it. An equal number may not get it or care about the storyline, but they will understand there’s a thread that ties this altogether. It also keeps the event from having a clown maze and a vampire maze. We were mandated by the Queen Mary, I’m happy to say, not to design a clown maze.
TOM CLUFF: One of the reason I didn’t want to do Vampire Town was we’re on a vampire high, and I didn’t know if I could find enough good looking men and women to be naked with blood all over them for the TRUE BLOOD moment. But with ECLIPSE and the Anne Rice stuff, everybody’s into it – which is great. But also there’s more than just that.
ROBERT KOVAL: That’s what’s freeing: we don’t have to follow trends. We do have to create an event that everyone enjoys, but we don’t have to follow trends. Some of these theme parks require that their designers always follow trends.
One challenge for the Queen Mary Dark Harbor, in terms of competing with Knotts Scary Farm, is that the the theme park’s annual Halloween Haunt is so large that not only can it offer something for everyone; it can also bat less than a thousand per cent and still deliver enough entertainment to be viable. With five mazes and relatively limited space, the Queen Mary must hit a home run
ROBERT KOVAL: If you like half of it and you hate half of it, I’m batting .500. If I did that in school, I’m not passing. I think we have the opportunity here to hit home runs every time because we’re not looking at a full theme park and having to do something for every… We have a clear picture of what we’re doing here. If we can hit home runs with every one, that is more important than “We liked some but some are really lame.”
TOM CLUFF: It’s a little more pressure. It is more critical to do things really well, than to do 50 things that are just mediocre. I have no fear of our mazes, or the bar area, of the barricades – that’s why we built those things. We also knew they had the chance of being something no one else has seen – and whacked out and fun and playful.
ROBERT KOVAL: We had made a conscious decision to take on what we could do well. We knew if we did that well, we would have the opportunity to move forward.
PAUL HAUGHT: Because we are re-branding, the important thing was that we do a quality job. I think that will resonate with the folks who come here, rather than just having more to do.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor Interview: Planning for the Future
You have a long-term plan for building up Dark Harbor from year to year.
PAUL HAUGHT: From the get-go, we were talking about what we want this to be, with an eye toward 2011, 2012, and beyond…
TOM CLUFF: We’ve got the center [Hell’s Bell Tower] that we’re building from, and we’ll add more things over the years. When I worked at that other place [Knott’s Berry Farm] …we grew a thousand fold in four years, and I can see the same thing happening here. To build something like that again – but something completely different that’s built for the aughs [’00s], if you will – there is just something about that like it’s chance number 2.
What’s in store for us in the future, not just in terms of mazes but of developing the Dark Harbor back story?
TOM CLUFF: This year you will be introduced to Queen Bundara. In later years you’ll find she has two sisters, and you’ll learn why the Barricade was built. Slowly but surely we’re building this story about the Queen and one demon taking over the town and one demon taking over the ship, and the battle that ensues. Ultimately, you will be coming back for the ‘further adventures,’ if you will…
You must have had ideas this year that you were not able to implement, that will be used next time. Anything in particular stand out?
TOM CLUFF: For me, as someone who believes in the future and wants to know what direction everyone is growing, it’s really answering certain questions, like: “Why do you walk through a maze?” Do you have to walk through? Is there a way to move the maze around you while you remain stationary. Is there a way to move you a space that isn’t normal?” We started working on that idea this year; the problem was the science side of that – the safety issue – takes more than a few months to put together. Those are questions we have aggressively tried to answer.
PAUL HAUGHT: It’s thinking outside the box. What’s new? What’s the next big thing? That’s what Tom and his team have been good about: locking in this year while thinking about what to do next year.
TOM CLUFF: The icons [Hell’s Bell Tower, the Barricades, etc] are going to be there every year, so let’s engineer it so that we can build it every year. There are a lot of these issues; we wanted to make sure those are addressed.
ROBERT KOVAL: We gravitated here because it was clear they were serious about creating a quality event. They let us say, ‘We’ve got this great idea. We know we can’t do it this year, but can we at least vet it out?’ They allowed us, so we could build this year with some of idea of where it could go next year, so that we don’t have to jumble the entire event. That’s something I’ve most appreciated about Paul and his team.
TOM CLUFF: It’s like any master plan for the future: we have left the holes for expansion. And it’s not just leaving room to build more; it’s to push the ‘weird’ envelope. One of the ultimate goals for me is to turn this into a huge art fair by day, so that it has a different quality. That’s one of the things I have to thank the Queen Mary for, because they have allowed us to think in a different direction. Whatever the new movie is, we know that’s going to go to Universal, and it’s the same thing at Knott’s: we have an idea what they’re going to put in the barn. It’s not that we know, but you have a sense because of the longevity. Now we have a chance of building something new so that you won’t know what’s coming up.
PAUL HAUGHT: We’re not tied to a movie or a property. We’re free to come up with any attraction we like. We’re not constrained other than by the history of the Queen Mary, which will always be respected.
Okay, Tom, you caught our interest. How else would you move people through a haunted attraction?
TOM CLUFF: Let me put it this way: I am not opposed to putting everybody on an auto-crawler, one where you lie on your back. I’m not opposed to putting everybody in a wheelchair. I’m not opposed to putting people on roller skates or a moving escalator. These are all things to explore: how to do that safely but in a scary format? How do you do an event that happens around you? We have ideas, but there is a certain to this that you have to try beforehand, so it’s for next year.
I can certainly see the potential. Even something as old-fashioned as the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride has its own unique effectiveness, because you cannot set your own pace, and you cannot avoid the monsters looming in the road ahead of you.
TOM CLUFF: That can make a surprising difference. But the problem there is, you’re on a trailer, being pulled by a tractor, with a half dozen of your friends, and what’s happening to them on one side is not what’s happening to you. I’m trying to figure out, ‘What’s the personal mode of that?’ We can’t give everybody Segues.
ROBERT KOVAL: Or can we?
TOM CLUFF: We’re trying to find those answers. It’s a ‘stay tuned’ kind of thing. I know we’ll do something. Part of the thing is by taking away your normal sphere of influence, I can create more fear. One of the best ways to do that is to take away your control of movement. We all know the psychology: white room, dark room – you naturally walk into the white room. But we’ll force you to go into the dark room.