Review & Interview: Shaqtoberfest – L.A.’s new Halloween festival is a must-see
13th Floor Entertainment Group’s Christopher Stafford on launching the family-friendly event in the shadow of the Queen Mary.
October 6: This post has been updated with additional photographs and a review, included after the interview.
Perhaps the most welcome news of Halloween 2022 was the June announcement that the Queen Mary would host a seasonal haunt for the first time since 2019: Shaqtoberfest will transform the Long Beach location into a Halloween festival designed to appeal to all ages.
With the aging vessel closed for extensive repairs, Shaqtoberfest will not take place on board. Instead, the Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group and ABG Entertainment, working with basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, will install Shaqtoberfest on the gangways, midway, and fishing village near the Queen Mary.
Shaqtoberfest will offer two entertainment experiences, taking place before and after the 8pm “Witching Hour.” By day, there will be trick-or-treat stations, inflatable play zones, and other family-friendly fun. At night, the tasty treats are replaced by twisted tricks, and once-safe trails become haunted by monsters that may be too scary for children.
Attractions include Diesel’s Pumpkin Patch (play zones by day, EDM light show by night); Midway Madness (street carnival with rides, games, and food options); Lost City Boardwalk (featuring souls lost in the 1920s); Shipwreck Graveyard (rusted vessels haunted by seafaring undead); Dead Man’s Wharf (nautical fisheries and eerie bait shops); and Pirates Cove (buried treasure hidden among dark alleys and caves of a waterfront village overrun by pirates). O’Neal is scheduled to appear in person to launch the event, but don’t expect to see him there every night.
Shaqtoberfest: Christopher Stafford Interview
To get the scoop on how Shaqtoberfest came to be, Hollywood Gothique spoke to 13th Floor Entertainment Group’s Christopher Stafford about the whys and wherefores of crafting a Halloween haunt suitable for the Shaquille O’Neal business brand (which includes events such as Shaq’s Fun House, an annual music festival). This is 13th Floor’s third Halloween attraction in Los Angeles, following their acquisition of Los Angeles Haunted Hayride and Delusion Interactive Theatre. Our coverage of those events will be linked below as time permits, and we will return to update this article with a review and/or video.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Hollywood Gothique: What’s the story behind creating this new Halloween attraction from the ground up around the Queen Mary?
Christopher Stafford: We were introduced through a mutual friend that knew we were doing different types of live events and also knew that Shaq and his team were getting more involved in a lot of events. The concept was hatched back before Covid, and it was put on pause temporarily, so we’re happy to be able to put it together this year. Being that Shaq’s kind of brand image is all about having a good time, that’s really what Shaqtoberfest is about – celebrating Halloween.
Hollywood Gothique: This started before the 2020 pandemic? Were you in talks with Queen Mary while they were still doing their Dark Harbor Halloween event?
Christopher Stafford: No, we weren’t even sure that it would be in Los Angeles. It just happened that, in talking to the Queen Mary folks in Long Beach after Covid, they were excited to bring something back for a Halloween celebration, so it just worked out.
Hollywood Gothique: Once that decision was made, was there much thought about having a theme that relates to the ocean. An odd thing about Queen Mary’s Halloween events is that they have not always done that. They would have a circus, and I would wonder what that had to do with the Queen Mary.
Christopher Stafford: Yeah, at Shaqtoberfest, the themed areas do lean in on the location being next to the water. We’ve got Dead Man’s Wharf, Pirates Cove, and Shipwreck Graveyard. That maritime theme was only fitting. We always intended to theme the event around a location, like a town or a village, so we were thinking of Salem, but more in the sense of a fishing village than a spooky, creepy witch village, so there’s a lot of maritime elements.
Hollywood Gothique: In the past, there would be three or four mazes aboard the ship, depending on the year. What can you do with the area around the Queen Mary when the ship itself is taken out of the equation? For instance, the fishing Village always makes a nice location for a haunted walkthrough.
Christopher Stafford: I’m not super familiar with past events there, but I do know that they had basically the same event envelope. Outside of not going onto the ship for a scare maze, the footprint of the event is very similar. There are three different elements that actually are very close to the ship. The Lost City Boardwalk is right alongside the ship. The Tiki Terror Patio and Bar is alongside the ship. Then the third element is a VIP area up on the transom.
Hollywood Gothique: It’s embedded in the name already, so you’re clearly selling this as a Halloween festival as opposed to a Halloween Horror Show.
Christopher Stafford: Yep, exactly. Shaqtoberfest is more of a Halloween festival than than a Halloween scare attraction. We wanted to make the whole event focused around Halloween fun. We’ve taken an all-ages approach. During the early hours it’s very family friendly, and then during the evening we turn up the scare factor a little bit. Part of designing the event was self-reference criteria: my wife loves to celebrate Halloween, but she doesn’t like to be particularly scared that much. I think that’ll be a unique thing about Shaqtoberfest – being in that atmosphere and choosing your level of scare. If you want to come earlier, when there’s really no scare actors, that might be your speed. You might come to the event but don’t choose to go through the Twisted Trails that are later at night. And if you’re into scares, there’s going to be that for you there as well.
Hollywood Gothique: Is there a particular strategy to make something kids-safe that can also deliver scares?
Christopher Stafford: Our approach, whether it’s gonna be the right one or not, is from 5pm until 8pm, there’s trick-or-treat trails that you go through: a giant pirate ship, an old barn, and a Lost City Boardwalk. Then after the 8pm Witching Hour – we may adjust that on a daily basis depending upon the crowd – they turn into Twisted Trails. We add in the scare actors, and animatronics come to life. We still make being scared as it relates to walking through any scare points very optional. The sound and the light change; obviously, later in the evening is when the lighting and the sound really take effect.
Hollywood Gothique: Is there anything you can do with lighting to make the Queen Mary look more sinister?
Christopher Stafford: Well, it’s already lit, and I think it’s always been a little bit creepy and eerie at night.
Hollywood Gothique: Los Angeles is a highly competitive market, so when you were planning Shaqtoberfest, what were you trying to offer that would attract visitors – things that maybe people aren’t getting from Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios.
Christopher Stafford: What we’re trying to do with Shaqtoberfest is make sure that there’s something there for everyone, from little kids all the way up through grandparents. I think that’s a little bit different of an approach – not leaning in on on trying to be the ultra scary Halloween Scream Park. I definitely see us being the Halloween fun park. The people that want a little good jolt of a scare, they’re gonna get it, but I think the ambiance and hanging out with your friends and celebrating Halloween with your families is what this event is all about.
Hollywood Gothique: If things go well this year, is there a long-term contingency plan for returning to the Queen Mary and making this an annual event?
Christopher Stafford: Absolutely. With what we’re investing in the event this year, we hope this becomes an annual favorite, much the same as as other events that we produce.
Hollywood Gothique: My understanding – and I don’t know if they’re on schedule – was the Queen Mary’s repairs were supposed to be completed by the end of this year, so are you looking forward to what you might be able to do on the ship itself, should the opportunity arise next Halloween?
Christopher Stafford: Yeah. You know, the the ship is so magnificent – it’s fun to just be there next to it – but being on it will add an extra level. Of course, the city’s working diligently to make repairs and get the ship on target to reopen to the public, so we’re not going to make any plans until there’s definitive dates set, but surely in the future we’d love to incorporate that.
Hollywood Gothique's Review of Shaqtoberfest
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Shaqtoberfest fulfills on its promise to deliver a fun-filled Halloween festival that appeals to all ages. Though the family-friendly branding may worry hard-core haunt seekers eager for thrills, the haunted event skillfully pulls off a high-wire balancing act, being all things to all people. Not only is it kid-safe by day and spookier by night; even after dark, the scare-tactics are calibrated so that parents can hang out and enjoy the horrors without fear of traumatizing their children.
Shaqtoberfest Review: Kid-Safe Halloween Scares
The strategy at Shaqtoberfest is simple but effective. By daylight, with sound and mechanical effects mostly turned off, Shaqtoberfest resembles an amusement park with a Halloween overlay. The scare zones are simply decorated areas, and the walk-through attractions are trick-or-treat trails. There are some characters here or there, but they are completely benevolent.
It’s a mild form of haunting. Probably scariest daylight attraction is the inflatable giant fish which visitors enter like Jonah being swallowed by a whale (or Pinocchio by Monstro, if you prefer). It’s dark inside and hard to find your way, so there is a little tension even without any jump-scares. And of course the very concept evokes a shudder of disgust when you consider that you enter by the mouth, which means you emerge by being excreted out the other end.
When the Witching Hour arrives (8pm most nights), the lighting, sound, and mechanical effects kick in, and the ghouls comes out to play, transforming the trick-or-treat paths into terrifying Twisted Trails. The giant fish does not change that much – it is dark inside even by day, and there is not a lot of room for scare-actors – but the other walk-throughs becomes significantly creepier. Here is our rundown, more or less in order of preference…
Shaqtoberfest Review: Diesel’s Pumpkin Patch
Thanks to the giant talking skeletons outside the entrance, you can’t miss Diesel’s Pumpkin Patch, the longest of Shaqtoberfest’s walk-through attractions. The path moves through an outdoor maze formed by bales of hay, occasionally entering some interior shacks (or “shaqs”) and a large barn. During they day, it is a fun place for kids to bounce around; after nightfall it is haunted by living scarecrows (great makeup and costumes) and chainsaw-wielding crazies. There is also a giant skeletal monstrosity wielding a sword that takes things to the next level. (Unfortunately, the other mechanical monster, a spring-loaded creature with a Jack O’Lantern head, was inoperable on the night we attended.)
Shaqtoberfest Review: Pirates Cove
Pirates Cove takes place aboard and around a lovely pirate ship. The exterior is eye-catching, and the interior is convincing. A short walk through the interior takes you to a surprise bonus features, a bar serving rum, but you need a VIP glow stick to enter; otherwise, you are directed outside to the second half of the maze, where you will encounter more pirates and an undersea world feature a live mermaid queen.
Shaqtoberfest Review: Midway Madness & Lost City Boardwalk
Lost City Boardwalk gets credit for using a theme not often exploited for Halloween horror. The setting is the 1920s, a time of speakeasies and gangsters. There is a funhouse feel to the sets, which are cartoony rather than convincing, they hit the right note for this particular presentation. The cast seemed to enjoy being dressed up as casino dealers or snappily dressed gangsters lurking in back alleys. It’s not the most intense form of fear – it’s more a fun sort of scare, probably safe for kids even at night.
Monster Midway is the obligatory circus/clown maze, and you all know how we feel about those! Nevertheless, we enjoyed the way the colorful façade presented a friendly face completely belied by the horrors lurking within, which included a couple of nice mechanical effects and one particularly persistent female clown, who insisted on engaging with us at length. Whenever an actor delivers a characterization instead of just a jump-scare, it makes the experience something special.
Shaqtoberfest Review: Shipwreck Graveyard
Shipwreck Graveyard is easy to overlook. Particularly by day, the maze looks like part of the scare zone as you first enter the park. This is a good one to do as you leave Shaqtoberfest, because walking through it leads you directly to the exit gate. It’s relatively short, so you can manage it even if you’re tired, and it is enlivened by a couple of giant mechanical monsters definitely worth seeing.
Shaqtoberfest Review: Dining & Drinking
Shaqtoberfest also offers rides, games, a funhouse for kids, and more than enough food options to satisfy every pallet. There is a Block Party area with a stage, where rap artists deliver energetic performances with a Halloween flavor, backed by some amazing visualizations project on a movie-sized screen.
The other themed areas are Tiki Terror patio and bar, Deadman’s Wharf, and Diesel’s Boat House, where guests can sit down to dine and/or drink. Tiki Terror, tucked near the aft section of the Queen Mary, is the best of these, some nice decorations and a bar serving excellent themed cocktails. This is the place to go while waiting for the Witching Hour to arrive or resting after walking through the mazes.
In additional to General Admission and Fast Break (one-time fast entry) tickets, there is a VIP Slam Dunk offer that includes unlimited fast entry, preferred seating at the block party, and access to the VIP lounge. General Admission ($24.99 for children, $29.99 for adults) is probably good enough on slow nights; otherwise, we recommend Fast Break ($39.99 for children, $44.99 for adult). Unless you are planning to go through all the mazes multiple times, we do not think this is worth the extra expense ($89.99). Outside of offering a bird’s eye view of Shaqtoberfest from the transom near the Queen Mary, the VIP lounge is not particularly remarkable, and you can satisfy all your cocktail needs at the Tiki Terror bar. Otherwise, Shaqtoberfest is must-see Halloween entertainment.
Shaqtoberfest runs at the Queen Mary on weekends and select weeknights through October 31. The address is 1126 Queens Highway in Long Beach. Get more information at shaqtoberfest.com.
More: Christopher Stafford Interviews
Shaqtoberfest Review: Photographs
Photographs copyright 2022 by Warren So and Steve Biodrowski