As regular readers might recall, last year’s launch of the new Queen Mary haunt event, Dark Harbor, was a quantum leap upward in quality from the venerable attraction’s old Shipwreck haunt. A year later, the question was: Has the Dark Harbor stepped up its game?
The answer: Ohhhhh, yes…
The opening weekend crowds (and resulting lines) were big and the atmosphere was red-hot at Dark Harbor 2011, with more monsters, scares and good times than ever. The bands, food and drink were upgraded from an A to an A+, and overall, let’s just say: Knott’s and Universal, better watch out.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t any downsides to all this upgrading. Remember that Dark Harbor is a smaller venue overall than any of the Southern California amusement park haunts, so the creators of the event have to work smarter, not bigger. Fortunately, they look to be up to that challenge and then some. On the other hand, even with recession-friendly ticket and food prices, nothing can change the fact that success will mean long waits for their mazes. And are the mazes worth it? Absolutely. Things can always improve, but this year’s mazes were top-notch and filled with a mixture of good scares, excellent production design and really unique atmosphere… the kind you can only find by visiting an actual haunted ocean liner!
Scare zones have become a staple of haunt events, being kind of open air, freeform “monsters chase everyone” themed areas. Dark Harbor has one of the best I’ve ever seen in The Barricades, which is soaked in fog and filled with frights, and really helps set the mood for your evening. The only problem they have is that traffic patterns are set up so that visitors only need to go through The Barricades once in order to enter Dark Harbor, where in a best-case (beast-case?) scenario you’d have no choice but to face your fear again and again. When you visit Dark Harbor, make it a point to take the scenic route and go back through The Barricades to get where you’re going. You’ll be scared you did!
Along with the Queen Mary Dark Harbor event’s hellish fire motif (if you’re a pyro like me, you’re gonna love just hanging around the place), they’ve also brought back their very own horror hostess, the demoness Bundarra, and this time she’s sparring with her equally evil sisters Mattenoot and Searer. It’s horror street theater like this that gives Dark Harbor a real sense of fun and imagination, and you should definitely take the time to watch their antics.
(By the way, timing your visit is important with all haunt events like Queen Mary Dark Harbor, Knott’s Halloween Haunt or Universal Halloween Horror Nights. In my opinion, you’ve got two arcs of quality going on at every venue: Monster energy and monster timing. The earlier you go in the season, the more overall energy the monsters have, but the less timing they have in their performances (because they’re still working on it). The later you go, the better their timing is, but the lower their energy. You might favor one or the other, but I generally look for a “sweet spot” where the two arcs are closest together. Of course, the later you go, the larger the crowds, so that’s going to influence things, too. At Dark Harbor, their opening weekend had dynamite energy from the monsters and generally good timing, but as you’ll see below, there were one or two rough spots on timing.)
When you go to Dark Harbor, you really have to experience all the mazes, but I’m going to rank them here in the order of how they impressed me. Your ghoulage may vary, of course, but here’s my two cents:
1. Village of the Damned
A favorite from last year, Village is just beautiful-looking (in a grisly way), full of delightful fiends and impossibly, surreally long! You keep thinking to yourself, “Okay, this maze has to be over now. It has to.” And then the path turns and you’re back in the fun again. This one really is a marathon of screams and you’ll really, really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth — because you are.
2. The Cage
Housed in the massive dome where the Spruce Goose once stood, The Cage is really a unique and bizarre maze that disorients you as much as it frightens you. There’s nothing like it anywhere else, and you just have to experience it first hand. It’s at least as much about hallucinatory light and sound as monsters and mayhem, so let it wash over you while you jump out of your skin.
Really, really fun cast of monsters here, with a particularly creepy little girl along the way. The ship is sinking and no matter where you go, you’re going down with her. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of company. And you might just get wet, too! One of the great Dark Harbor haunt moments is in this maze, too, because the ship’s swimming pool room is just one of those eerie, unearthly spaces that momentarily takes you away from the scream-and-jump and into the strange and uncanny.
I have to admit that the smoke used in this one is just a bit much at points, but it’s another shipboard maze (like Submerged and Containment) that you just can’t miss. There’s a big surprise shock waiting for you down in the industrial depths of the ship, but I can’t tell you what it is without spoiling it. Suffice to say that as much as I dislike those on-ride cameras the amusement parks have, this is one spot that almost cries out for one!
They clearly had a little bit of an off night when I toured this maze, but talk about style. If you’ve got any kind of germophobia, this one will get under your skin but good. Medical horror is always a nice, visceral creepout, and Containment does offer some chills you’ll remember.
Queen Mary Dark Harbor runs Fri-Sun Oct. 14-16, Thurs-Sun Oct. 20-23, and Thurs-Mon Oct. 27-31. Don’t miss it! All the details are online at the official website.