Review: Temecula’s Headless Horseman Ride
Wow! We cannot remember the last time a Halloween attraction surprised us so thoroughly as the Temecula Carriage Company’s Headless Horseman Ride. In fact, we’re so thrilled that our natural inclination is to unleash a string of excited expletives to convey the intensity of our fervor; however, since we are discussing a family-friendly attraction, we will maintain a modicum of decorum. If at times our word choice suggests we are chomping at the bit like the wagon ride’s hapless horses straining to outrun the Headless Horseman, it’s only because we yearn to break free of our self-imposed restraints to express are true, unbridled enthusiasm.
At this point, our original plan was to fill the rest of the review with words like “dagnabbit,” “goldurn,” and “dang,” but that gets old pretty quickly, so just trust us that the Headless Horseman ride is totally awesome, for reasons we will explain below. The important thing to know up front is that, although it might sound like a cute little ride past some Halloween decorations while a guy in a black head-stocking spurs his horse in pursuit, the Headless Horseman Ride is actually an interactive mini-play on wheels, enlivened by creepy characters and somewhat spookier than the “family-friendly” designation might imply.
Temecula Headless Horseman Ride Review: Arrival
Temecula Carriage Company is a family-owned business located on private property in the wine country of Temecula City. This means the setting of the Headless Horseman Ride is real, not some fabrication. The area is rural, woodsy, off the main road, and apparently cut off from the outside world – the perfect place to encounter a phantom rider at night. The only neighbors are wineries catering to tourists, but they seem too distant to hear your screams, no matter how loudly they echo in the darkness….
Poetic license aside, the Temecula Carriage Company seems friendly enough by twilight, when the Horseman ride opens for business. There are some Halloween decorations to let you know you’ve found the right place, and the proprietors, the husband-and-wife team of Marika and Mark Matson, are happy to welcome arriving customers, offering tidbits of information to tease their sense of anticipation, such as the fact that, now in its third year, the Headless Horseman Ride is for the first time being offered on their own property, which may have some real-world consequences….
The sly strategy of this opening banter is that it mixes reality with fiction. There is a narrative thread to the Headless Horseman attraction, and the storytelling starts before the ride itself; in effect, the wait becomes a little prologue, foreshadowing what comes later. We won’t give away any spoilers, but we will admit we totally fell the deception, and the payoff was great!
Temecula Headless Horseman Ride Review: Creepy Encounters & Dueling with Death
Upon entering a carriage or a wagon (a variety of vehicles are in use), visitors are equipped with a sword or a leg bone (plastic) to defend themselves against the Horseman. The coachman explains the situation: although the route is on private property, there may be an encounter or two with unfriendly neighbors. Once the ride begins, it quickly becomes apparent that it is something more than a horse-drawn equivalent of the Los Angeles Live Steamers Ghost Train. Instead of simply driving past decorated scenes, the wagon conveys guests to a quartet of encounters with creepy, crazy characters – not counting the frequent intrusions of the Headless Horseman himself.
There are hitchhikers rescued from a graveyard; a crazy woman carrying dynamite she uses for mining gold; and a woozy drunk at a saloon, who gives (unreliable?) advice on the best way to avoid the Horseman and reach safety. All of the actors do a commendable job, but the standout is the black-clad preacher, full of fire and brimstone, who not only mocks but actually seems to relish the wagon party’s foolish decision to risk life, limb, and soul itself for a chance to glimpse the phantom rider. Appearing at the beginning, he sets the tone for what follows.
Along the way, there is a fair amount of deliberately silly humor aimed at amusing children on the wagon; also, the weapons handed out at the beginning are obviously an invitation to enjoy a fun-filled duel to the death with the Headless Horseman during the final furious flight to safety. During the twilight hours, when the surroundings are still clearly visible and the Horseman has a tricky time sneaking up on the wagon, the ride is fairly kid-safe.
At night, however, we suspect it is considerably more spooky. Though the coach driver’s jokey banter probably keeps things ever tipping over the edge, there is a fear-factor at play, of the adrenalin-rush, fight-or-flight variety that is more exhilarating than terrifying.
In other words, though played for laughs, it nonetheless a load of fun-filled excitement – like being cast as action heroes in a horror-western. Besides fighting off the Horseman at the conclusion, you might have to play soccer with a head he tosses into your coach or hurl away a stick of dynamite (which, in our case, got stuck on the wagon’s last step, forcing us to climb down and kick it off while the ride was in motion – one of the best, if accidental, interactive bits we have ever experienced).
Perhaps the best part, once the “bridge” back to safety has been crossed, is seeing the next carriage head out to an encounter with the Headless Horseman, their shrill screams echoing hopelessly through the night. Technically, we’re not supposed to believe any of them actually died; seen at a distance, the results don’t look good for the occupants unless you have really sharp eyes or a telephoto lens.
Temecula Headless Horseman Ride Review: Conclusion
We are probably overstating the fright factor of the Headless Horseman Ride. It is clearly designed to be spooky fun for the whole family, but interspersed with the jocularity (when the Horseman appears, the rescued hitchhikers are told to jump off and take their chances because they are slowing down the wagon), there are creepy moments that make this something more than a kiddie ride. The obvious comparison would be to Disney’s animated version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but we think the tone might be even closer to that of the 1990 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which was smart enough to know that kids enjoy a good scare as long as it’s not too scary.
Our only quibbles are that Headless Horseman Ride includes one or two more deliberately bad jokes than are absolutely necessary to drive home the point that this is a kid-safe event, and the dynamite gag would have been much better if it had ended with a literal bang (even if only a sound effect). Otherwise, this will no doubt be our favorite First Encounter of Halloween 2021.
- We are tempted to say “discovery,” but since we didn’t really discover the Headless Horseman ride, we’ll just call it a First Encounter.
Temecula Headless Horseman Ride Rating
More than a mere kids ride, Temecula Carriage Company’s Headless Horsman is actually an interactive play on wheels, with creepy characters and spooky thrills for the whole family. We would have given this a one hundred per cent rating, but we took off a point for one too many bad jokes and another for the anticlimactic end of the dynamite gag. Nevertheless, this one is Highly Recommended.
This year, the Temecula Carriage Company has added a Haunted Cookie House Workshop, which allows children to visit the farm and decorate haunted gingerbread houses; the workshop includes a tour of the Clydesdale Barn, where kids can see the magnificent – and impressively large – horses up close and personal.
The Headless Horseman Wagon Ride runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday Nights, 5:30-9:30pm. Reservations are Required. Tickets are $75 for a group of up to six passengers. The Temecula Carriage Company is located at 40001 Berenda Road in Temecula. Parking is free and plentiful, but the area is rural, so don’t expect much in the way of convenient amenities (in other words, if you are hungry, stop and eat before heading out there; the only food available nearby is crackers to go with your wine flight at the nearby wineries). Get more information at their website: temeculacarriageco.com.