Best Theme Park Halloween Attractions in Los Angeles

Monsters lurk at the entrance of Universal Studios' House of Horrors, a recurring attraction at Halloween Horror Nights

Halloween is approaching, so I am anticipating the annual flurry of email messages asking: Which major theme park offers the most exciting Halloween events in Los Angeles? In order to avoid answering this question multiple times, I will address it in this post, hopefully once and for all.

People want to know what is the best way to spend Halloween in Los Angeles. We're not talking about yard haunts or even professional haunted houses - which are good for an hour or two of scares and thrills. We're talking about the A-list attractions where you can spend an entire evening - places with lots of money to throw around - basically, year-round theme parks that redress themselves for Halloween: Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt, Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights, the Queen Mary Terror Fest, and the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest.

Usually, the question is asked in reference to Knott's Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights, but my answer will encompass all four theme park haunts. Unfortunately, my answer is an elusive one:

It all depends on what you like.

Personally, I enjoy all of these haunted attractions, for different reasons, and hardcore Halloween enthusiasts in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas would certainly find it worth their while to attend all of them. Those who want to see only one or two may consult the following guidelines.

The decision rests on your answers to two questions:

  1. Do you want quantity or quality?
  2. Do you want more than just scary Halloween stuff?

If you can decide upon answers to those questions, you can decide which haunts you want to hit.

A gargoyle overlooking Knott's Scary Farm
A gargoyle overlooking Knott's Scary Farm

Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt is technically not in Los Angeles, but it is freeway-close for Los Angeles horror fans, and it is by far the biggest Halloween event in the Southland, and the most experienced, having been around the longest. This attraction boasts thirteen haunted mazes or rides, half a dozen shows, and four or five scare zones. There is so much, in fact, that even if you do not like half of it, you will still get your money's worth.

However, you can really take advantage of this abundance only if you go early in the season, before the crowds.  Get there near opening time in the first week or two of operation, and you can hit everything; you can even, in some cases, walk out of a maze and go right back through a second time time with only a minimal wait in line.

If you do not attend until later in the season, you will spend an hour in line for each attraction, and you will be lucky to get to half of it, let along everything. This seriously neutralizes the haunt's major advantage over the compettiion: if you're going to get to only five or six mazes, you might as well go to any of the others.

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Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood has the advantage of being set in the famous Universal Studios Hollywood, home of classic movies monsters Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. That means that HHN has an army of skilled craftspeople who know how to build sets, apply makeup, and rig special effects for the annual Halloween event. You are simply not going to find another haunted theme park attraction in Los Angeles that is this elaborate and beautifully done, and on such a large scale.

The downside is that their haunt is relatively minimal in terms of seasonal Halloween attractions. There are typically four walk-through mazes, one backlot tram tour, and half a dozen haunt zones. Without too much effort, you can get through everything in a few hours and still have time to kill; fortunately, the regular attractions (like Jurassic Park and The Mummy rides) will give you something else to do. (UPDATE: in subsequent years, Universal has expanded the number of mazes during Halloween.)

In 2008, Universal added a bit more to the pot: For a few dollars more, you could buy a ticket allowing you to enjoy the studio tour during the day and then stick around for the night-time haunt. (Basically, they borrowed this idea from the next haunt, which has used it as standard procedure for years.)

Hillbilly Scare Zone at Six Flags Magic Mountain
Hillbilly Scare Zone at Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest

Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest is a bit like Knott's Scary Farm lite. You get a great amusement park with lots of roller-coasters, plus the Halloween events. In terms of quantity, you get a little bit less than you would at the Queen Mary Shipwreck (five mazes instead of seven), and there are only three haunt zones (as opposed to five or six at Universal and Knott's). The mazes themselves are good but a bit generic, although they do feature some memorable gags, and we loved the 2005 maze called Brutal Planet (the title of an Alice Cooper album).

The big advantage of the Fright Fest has always been that Six Flags does not charge a separate admission to see the night-time haunt. You just buy your regular ticket, go all day to enjoy the regular rides, and then hang around at after sunset to enjoy the ghost and goblins. If you're only interested in Halloween, this haunt might not be for you, but if you enjoy roller-coasters and getting soaked in the river rapids, then the supernatural stuff may be just the icing on your cake. [UPDATE: The information in this paragraph is no longer true; in 2008 Magic Mountain began charging a separate fee to enter the haunted mazes, so your regular admission ticket no longer delivers both the daytime thrills and the nighttime frights. That leaves the only one major advantage for Six Flags over Knott's Scary Farm: proxmity - the Magic Mountain Fright Fest is much closer for Los Angeles Halloween fans.]

The Queen Mary Terror Fest (aka the Queen Mary Shipwreck) gets a lot of bad reactions from some fright fans because it is obviously not as elaborate as Universal Studios or even Knott's Scary Farm. There are fewer sets, props, and effects, and the land-bound mazes tend to be made of simple painted flats; the ship-board mazes use minimal decoration relying on the boat itself (and lots of darkness) to provide the atmosphere.

Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2011 two monsters
Two evil denizens of Queen Mary Dark Harbor

All of this may be true, but the simple fact is that those long, long corridors leading through the bowels of the boat (allegedly the longest mazes of any Halloween attraction in Los Angeles) really are genuinely spooky, and it certainly doesn't hurt that you are in a real place, not a set! I've never had a bad time at the Terror Fest; even if it doesn't have the elaborate production values of Universal and Knott's, the actors are enthusiastic, and the Queen Mary herself provides all the atmosphere you could need.

UPDATE: In 2009, the Queen Mary retired the old Halloween TerrorFest put on by Shipwreck Productions, replacing it first with the Haunted Queen Mary and later with the Queen Mary Dark Harbor. The new version of the venerable Halloween attraction features five mazes (three on ship, two on land) and one large scare zone called The Barricades. Overall quality remains much the same, but some clever and innovative touches have upped the ante, and there has been an attempt to create a more consistent theme throughout the event.