All Aboard the Fright Wagon! A review of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride

lahhAs someone who has grown up in southern California, I had never been on a haunted hayride before Saturday night – although I was familiar with the general concept, thanks to the Travel Channel, which always manages to profile at least one hayride in their yearly rundown of the country’s best Halloween haunts.

Something about riding around on a tractor filled with hay while ghoulies and ghosties popped out of the darkness at random has always seemed like the epitome of Halloween fun to me, so I was completely thrilled when I found out about the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride – our own little slice of rustic autumn magic, right here in our sprawling urban metropolis! I couldn’t wait.

Located at the King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas, the Hayride is just far enough from Los Angeles proper to feel isolated, and perhaps just a little bit dangerous. While the Hayride itself is, of course, the main attraction, there is also a small but very cool Haunted Carnival, as well as a Ghost Stories option to warm you up for the ride – or, alternately, prolong your terror buzz, depending on how you arrange your evening.

Upon entering the Haunted Carnival, one of the first sights you’ll be greeted with is an absolutely terrifying giant clown, attached to the front of an ice cream – excuse me, “I SCREAM” – truck, manned by a creepy ice cream man wearing an expressionless white mask. (And yes, this is an actual ice cream truck, from which you can buy actual ice cream!) There is also a small yet well-stocked pumpkin patch, a hay maze, a house of mirrors, and several Halloween-themed game booths, as well as standard carnival food like hot dogs and chili. All of the tents are orange and black, and the decor manages to lend the proceedings a distinct horror movie air, like you wouldn’t be surprised if “something terrible” once happened in that house of mirrors…

"Hello little one, would you like some I SCREAM?!"

"Hello little one, would you like some I SCREAM?!"

Step right up and try your luck at the Haunted Carnival

Step right up and try your luck at the Haunted Carnival

The theming extends even as far as the lines: While you wait for darkness to fully envelop the ranch – a necessity for the ride to start – you’ll be serenaded by three disembodied heads on spikes. The Porta-Potties even have creepy cloth on them!

Finally, when it’s dark enough, you’re allowed to board a flat trailer covered in hay, hitched to a tractor driven by an enthusiastic madman. As the tractor rumbles through the massive, cobweb-covered gate, the fog starts to swirl around the wagon and you’re off, cruising bumpily toward an uncertain fate.

Among many others, you can expect to encounter escaped mental patients, a demonic preacher, a headless motorcycle rider, improbably huge demons and scarecrows, the “I Scream” man (again!), and a gaggle of ghastly killer clowns that have completely renewed my faith in the scare potential of creepy clowns as a whole.

headsSo how was the Hayride? In no uncertain terms, it was awesome.

Maybe I’m just thrilled with the novelty of the new, maybe I’m a little burnt out on the major southern California haunts, but I have to say that the L.A. Haunted Hayride is the most fun I’ve had at a haunted attraction so far this year.

As I see it, there are three main reasons why this hayride idea works so well: First, you don’t run into the whole overcrowded maze problem that plagues so many of the walk-through attractions – automatic crowd control! Second, the slow pace of the tractor forces you to take in your surroundings and enjoy the scary scenery in a way that you might not be able to on foot. And third, the scares are even more intense because you feel trapped – and, in truth, you are! You can’t run away like you might be able to at Knott’s or Universal – all you can do is cover your face and hope they leave you alone. (Hint: If you establish yourself as a screamer, they certainly won’t leave you alone! Consider yourself marked.)

Unfortunately, the ghost stories couldn’t quite measure up to the greatness of the hayride. While the setting was fun – blanket-covered tree stumps surrounding a faux bonfire made of human limbs – and the storyteller gave it his best effort, I found my mind wandering, especially whenever the buzzing of chainsaws or the screams of hapless wagon riders floated to us on the chilly October breeze. I think the ghost stories might work better if they were included with the price of admission, and the storytellers delivered their tales to patrons waiting in line for the ride, rather than setting it up as a separate attraction with its own ticket price.

My only complaint is the brevity of the ride itself: At approximately 20 minutes, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is much longer than most walk-through mazes, but for $20-$25 a ticket, it seems a little skimpy. With any luck, next year they’ll extend the ride a bit (maybe another 10-15 minutes?), or perhaps add an additional walk-through maze. Overall, however, the Haunted Hayride was a fantastic experience, ideal for anyone looking for an inventive – and terrifying – haunted attraction to enhance their Halloween spirit. Go now, before the tractor takes off without you!

The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride runs through October 31st.