Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2018: Refining The Approach

Graceful Gale welcomes you to Queen Mary Dark Harbor.


The word I associate with this year’s Queen Mary Dark Harbor (running now through November 2) is: Sophistication. The event matured a few years back, having started as a scrappy haunt with a bunch of rough edges and a lot of enthusiasm and then becoming a genuinely professional holiday destination as it became the Dark Harbor we know today. Since then, it’s clear that the producers of Dark Harbor are taking the time each year to refine how things are done: Streamlining the logistics, constantly upgrading production values and finding new ways to make themselves stand out.

There are a lot of professional haunt options in the Southern California area. Families with young kids will always enjoy Disney’s offerings, Universal is a media giant and Knotts is the global legend in this field. Where Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor is carving out a niche is in a young adult (and adult young-at-heart) audience that wants both superior mazes and scare performers and cool music and variety acts, good food in a seaside setting and the chance to enjoy grown-up beverages in between screams. It’s a tough balance to achieve, but they’ve got it and they’re clearly looking to fine-tune it.

To take this interesting mixture of fear, fun and relaxation to new levels, Dark Harbor is experimenting with new ways to make things interactive and to give guests intriguing twists on the usual offerings.

One standout is Ice Cave (a separate, non-secret bar located next to the Intrepid maze) was a fun little ice bar—you put on a parka and go inside the refrigerated room, where ice sculptures and frosty furniture await you, and you drink from a selection of flavored vodkas. It wasn’t my first time in an ice bar when I went, but it was an opportunity to try new taste sensations—I won’t say which of the two drinks I sampled was my preference (and which was absolutely not!), but let’s just say you’ll find some surprises when you go into this chilly tavern…

Speaking of bars, there are a few secret (hidden, in most cases) bars inside some of the mazes this year—getting into them is fun, and if you feel like having a little refreshment before going back out into the maze (exiting puts you back into the fearsome action!), you won’t be sorry. You can’t get there from here unless you find the secret entrance and get past the monsters there! I visited a couple of them and saw another that wasn’t quite as hidden, and they’re good fun. (If you’re 21+, of course. Visit monster mazes responsibly.)

The entertainment, general ambience, rides and food and so forth were all up to the usual high Queen Mary Standards…

The Voodoo Priestess and her performers will raise your spirits nicely.

…ah, but what about the mazes? That’s what we’re here for!

Well, let’s look them over…

…beginning with the mazes constructed on and in the actual Queen Mary cruiseliner…

Scary Mary needs you to sing her a Lullaby.

Lullaby is a journey into a nightmare—literally, because you’re walking into the twisted dreams of the ghost of Scary Mary, a horrifying little girl who drowned aboard the Queen Mary long ago. This maze emphasizes mood and building suspense and emotional effects, and it’s got some of the best acting Dark Harbor has to offer. There are definitely jump scares (none of the mazes lack for those), but this is one that’s trying to get under your skin and does it very nicely.

B340 is less of a “who dunnit” and more of a “how’s Samuel the Savage gonna kill us?”

B340 is an extended series of serial murder crime scenes perpetrated by the vicious Samuel the Savage. Your tour of this gruesome gallery is punctuated by visits from ghostly Samuel himself, who’d like to add you to his official list of victims. It’s a really nice premise for a maze, and there are some very good touches in it, but my experience was that it wasn’t quite ready for visitors when I went through. It was still early in the run for Dark Harbor, and actors will learn their pace and positions by experience of course, but it did have some areas where one could try to see them as atmosphere zones but you knew that scare performers just weren’t there.

The Chef wants to know where you’ve been — it’s dinnertime…

Feast puts you in the middle of the action, because you are the unlucky new cook who is late to their first shift aboard the haunted Queen Mary. Worse still, your new boss is The Chef, a ghostly cannibal fiend who serves up poison, human flesh and evil a la carte. The Chef and the rest of the kitchen crew are none too pleased at your tardiness, and you’ll have to scramble through a lot of foul places to avoid becoming part of the evening’s meal. The theming here was very strong, and there were plenty of grossout visuals with and without blood. The monsters here enforced a pretty quick pace, which worked well with the shocks around each corner.

As we leave the shipboard mazes behind, I just want to remind newcomers that these mazes set on the Queen Mary itself do involve stairs, narrow passageways and other terrain that can be challenging to people with physical limitations. You have to be prepared to handle these things, as there’s really nothing that can be done to make them differently accessible. Also, a couple of mazes (out of all of the mazes, not just shipboard ones) have scenes where you must crouch or crawl under a very low barricade—not the best moment to have a painful lower back, I can assure you!

(And oh yes, before I forget: You can get lost in some of the mazes!)

Ironmaster doesn’t think you want to know what’s under his kilt.

Intrepid is a delightful train ride to hell. With machine noise vibrating through the floors so that you do get that locomotive sensation, well-timed fog effects, and just a lot of fun to the ideas and performances on display, Intrepid and its overlord monster—the Iron Master, who came across as both horrifying and funny—really stands out. Since you’re going to hell by way of the Scottish Highlands, you can expect kilts, really effective ghosts and bog creatures, and the occasional rough brogue. No Nessie, but hey, you’re on a train…

Circus is, of course, the tent and sideshow of a particularly sinister traveling show. Controlled by the spectral Ringmaster, the circus (and Circus) is an annual visitor to Dark Harbor that brings all kinds of sinister entertainment for ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages. The maze is themed along these lines, with the requisite evil clowns and various wandering sideshow freaks and pickled punks, and it does have fine production values. The flaws for me were that it was another case (on my visit) of the actors not quite being there (in terms of timing, energy, etc.), and—well, I enjoy circus-themed stuff of all kinds, but it just doesn’t scare me. That’s only my personal taste, of course, but it’s important to note that despite a couple of jump scares, you really kind of have to be clown-phobic and/or circus-phobic to be affected by any circus-themed maze.

That’s not how you do the limbo, Half-Hatch Henry.

Deadrise is a smaller (landlocked) seagoing vessel that’s Queen Mary-adjacent. It’s the smoky haunt of Half-Hatch Henry, daring undead crewman aboard this voyage into hell. As a (mostly) free-standing maze unrestricted by nautical corridors and spaces, Deadrise makes very good use of its real estate and the monsters are very enthusiastic. It’s a classic-style maze that has loose enough theming that some nicely unexpected effects can appear in it. It was quite entertaining!

Before I wrap this up, kudos to the designers at Dark Harbor (especially new addition Jon Cooke) for their hard work and how it’s been realized, especially the consistently excellent sound design and the magnificent use of lasers in fog to create curtains of light to hide scares. There’s a widespread use of lighting and darkness, fog and other elements to leave visitors groping blindly through the fearsome tableaux, and it’s very successful. These things, plus a memorable bridge crossing that makes you feel like you’re in real danger, are the stuff Halloween maze memories are made of…

Visit Queen Mary Dark Harbor now through November 2, 2018. You’ll have a ghoulishly good time at an attraction that’s the equal of anything you can find at Knotts, Universal or Disney, but with that “relaxing by the sea” vibe that none of the others can offer. And say hi to the Captain, will you?