A Detailed Review of New Knott’s Scary Farm Mazes for 2015

Knotts Scary Farm 2015_5895Knott’s Scary Farm has evolved into such a massive Halloween event, that its lineup remains fairly intact from year to year, with the exception of a couple old mazes fading away, and a couple new ones cycled in to replace them and keep the haunt fresh and exciting for returning guests. Many of those returning guests are an army of hard core Knott’s fans, who wait almost year-round to learn what the new attractions at Scary Farm will be. They rush in to the Knott’s presentation at ScareLA to get the first news of what’s to come, and then gather at the park itself shortly thereafter to witness the annual full reveal event that is hosted in the Charles M. Schulz Theatre. Just the unveiling of things to come at Knott’s Scary Farm has become a thing!

With the event being so multi-faceted these days, it’s impossible to cover Knott’s Scary Farm in one review or story here on the site as we do with most other haunted attractions during October. In order to get the new maze information out to the public and fans as quickly as possible, we’ve agreed with Knott’s to review all new attractions first, and then let the major Scary Farm review follow in the weeks to follow. That said, this year’s event featured two brand-new mazes and one haunted attraction, which we’re excited to discuss and share with you now!

DEAD OF WINTER

Dead of Winter is the latest Scary Farm offering from designer Gus Krueger (Gunslinger’s Grave, The Witch’s Keep), and is located inside the Boardwalk Ballroom. The story of Dead of Winter is that a Snow Queen is hell-bent on avenging the murder of her family, and she has raised an army of undead Viking warriors to help carry out the bloodletting of anyone foolish enough to enter her icy domain.

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It sounds like a good backstory for a Scary Farm maze. Unfortunately, Dead of Winter has a lot of serious challenges, and ultimately, it comes off more confusing than anything; it’s not scary, it’s not bad… it’s just… odd.

When haunted attractions have serious troubles, more often than not, it’s due to storytelling. As haunts in general evolve, we’ve seen them try and become too complex; odd environments with complicated backstories that no one is going to get – or really care about. While I don’t think this is necessarily the main issue that Dead of Winter has, I will say that lack of understanding what the story is to begin with has greatly crippled the guest experience… and in this case, that issue starts before we’ve even set foot inside the maze.

One of the best tools a designer has is a haunt’s facade; it can tell a huge amount of backstory without making guests do any heavy mental lifting. Take a look at Black Magic’s entry statement; or Pinocchio Unstrung; or just about any other maze at the Scary Farm. The facade is key in setting the tone for what’s to come, and it is the cornerstone storytelling tool used in each of those cases. Dead of Winter has no facade – in fact, this maze’s only entry statement is a Line Control person standing there with a generic sign with the name on it near the end of the line. That’s inexcusable from Knott’s, really. I’m not pointing fingers – because at the end of the day, regardless of reason, it’s inexcusable coming from the park that started this industry.

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We know – and I have made no attempt to hide the fact that I strongly disagree – that the park’s executive team has handed down the mandate that Scary Farm is to be mostly hidden away during the day, so as not to interfere with the park’s normal operations. That eliminates any of the very few in-park mazes from having elaborate facades anymore. I don’t like the policy, and I think it really undermines the importance – the legacy – of Knott’s Scary Farm as the special place where everything started over four decades ago. If it were up to me, I would beat that drum loud and strong – Scary Farm would be the headliner at Knott’s throughout the season, and if anyone coming during the day truly had a problem with that, I’d direct them to Anaheim and tell them to have a Happy Halloween. I really would. Because by now, most visitors at Knott’s know the tradition; they understand the history. It’s not a secret, nor is it something that should be treated like a low-key operational “bonus” after dark. It’s Knott’s Scary Farm! It’s Halloween Haunt! Whatever you call it, it’s the original. I wish Knott’s would embrace that and not shy away from it during the daytime. I miss not having mazes all over the park. And I really miss those that are not getting the same attention to detail when it comes to their facades – the case of Dead of Winter makes that issue glaring to me.

If you cannot use a facade to set the tone or help tell your story, then you’re left to signage, audio, and video to help. Dead of Winter has none of these things; the marquee on the Ballroom isn’t even changed to say the name of the maze. What’s up with that? Even some icicles hanging from the marquee would help; a snow machine blowing flakes over the guests in line outside – anything would be better than nothing, you know? For whatever reason, Dead of Winter got none of that – and it crippled the experience immediately.

There is no portal to step through, where guests can check reality and step into fantasy. No frozen archway, no hull of a Viking ghost ship, no town gates – you just walk inside of the Ballroom and head down a dark hall with no theming, and then suddenly find yourself in the first scene – a snow-covered village. The transition is jarring at best; very difficult to wrap your head around so quickly.

Once inside the maze itself, guests travel through a bizarre collection of scenes – a village; a snow cave that is completely reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, with strung-up Luke and a pissed off Wampa, to boot; an Ice Spider cavern; a mirror maze (which felt out of place all together); and finally, the Snow Queen’s throne room. Along the way there are characters – villagers and undead Viking warriors for the most part – but you don’t really know who’s who or what the interaction is supposed to be. When we finally encounter the Snow Queen, she doesn’t seem terribly menacing or wicked – she just is kind of there, waving her arms, pointing, and scowling at people as they pass by. And then it’s over – you leave the building and are left to collect your thoughts about what you’ve just seen. There’s a story there – somewhere; unfortunately, it simply doesn’t come through at all, and leaves everyone detached, unaffected, and unsatisfied.

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Then there’s the whole Frozen thing. With Disney cramming Frozen down or up every orifice of every human on Earth, who doesn’t have Princess Elsa on the brain these days? Good or bad, everyone knows Frozen and everyone knows what Elsa looks like. Unfortunately, the Snow Queen and the color palette that was chosen for Dead of Winter… scream Frozen, even to casual passersby. The Snow Queen looks like a pissed-off Disney princess. I don’t know whether that was Gus’ intent or decision, or if his design was lost somewhere from concept to Wardrobe – but something happened, and it now has people singing “Let it Go!” as they journey through the maze. I am pretty confident that Gus didn’t envision that when planning Dead of Winter. But… there it is. And unless there are drastic costuming changes next year (assuming it returns), the whole Frozen: The Maze thing isn’t going away at all – which is great, if Scary Farm is targeting 10 year-old girls. Not so great, otherwise.

So far, it seems I am doing a total slash-and-burn on Dead of Winter. That’s actually not the case, because there are a lot of things that I do really like about it. The idea is good – and for a haunt maze concept, I like it. Dead of Winter features probably the best Skeleton Key room at Knott’s this year, with really cool tech surrounding guests as they witness the maze’s pre-show.

The Ballroom was equipped with new air conditioning units for this maze (and of course, future use), so that when it’s not a hot October night (too many of those this year, sadly) and the maze isn’t a conga line of guests, it’s actually really cold inside; I love that! Kudos to Knott’s for doing that – the temperature is something that I don’t think has ever played such a strong role in a Scary Farm maze before; at least, none that I can readily think of.

There is some very nice design work throughout Dead of Winter. I do particularly like the look of the village scene – and I also really like the fact that the maze’s route takes guests in and out of that scene more than once; that’s cool, although I think the walkways through the scene are too wide, making it feel bigger than it needs to be. I would tighten up the walkways and bring props/monsters right in on people so that they don’t feel so disconnected from the action.

I think the mirror maze would work better if there were more “frosted” surfaces and less straight-up carnival mirror; darker lighting in that scene would help, too, along with different styles of monsters in that space; I wasn’t fond of the shiny metallic masks at all, as that doesn’t fit the story theme.

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The Ice Spider cavern is cool, although the brightness of the show lighting throughout Dead of Winter doesn’t help things. Early on, Knott’s touted that they were going with a “brighter” type of maze where you could see everything – and that it would still be scary. I think that has been tried, and doesn’t work too well in this case. Hopefully, we’ll get a lot of rich, deep show lighting next year and an overall physically darker maze.

Large crystalline formations in the maze and the ice tunnels/arches found throughout are really cool design-wise. That really works for me, and solidifies my belief that those icy arches absolutely need to be extended to the entrance of the Ballroom to set the tone and story in motion properly. Transitioning from the outside queue into a fog-filled, cold ice tunnel – a done deal, in my opinion. It would set the experience up much better from the very beginning. Add a strong audio overlay in the entry/queue telling the story (the same way Pinocchio Unstrung does), and the backstory issue can be eliminated very easily. Fingers crossed for some major entry modifications/additions next year.

Snow “falls” throughout the maze, which is also a really cool touch. The snowflakes are actually small soapy suds – so too much, and you have a slippery mess to clean up and worry about. However, Dead of Winter has just the right amount, and it looks great! Combined with the cold air inside the maze, the snow is a perfect touch and one of those fine details that we’ve come to expect from Gus.

Dead of Winter’s soundtrack is fairly mellow, and thus, doesn’t play a big role in the maze the same way audio does in other Scary Farm attractions.

Each time we went through Dead of Winter, we found the talent to be really good. Whether village folk or Viking undead, everyone seemed to be into it and the engagement with guests has been spot-on. As stated earlier, no one is really sure what the characters are supposed to be, so their really strong interaction with people is sadly, tempered quite a bit by the disconnected storytelling. Kudos to the talent, regardless – they absolutely deserve positive recognition.

First year mazes at Knott’s with lots of problems either get drastically tweaked before they return the following year, or they simply don’t come back at all. If I had to bet, I’d say that we’ll see major changes made to this maze, and that it will return much-improved for next Halloween season. It’s not a question of Gus’ capability as a designer or his sense of placemaking; he’s proven that completely by now with various projects he’s been involved with at Knott’s both for Scary Farm and the rest of the park. Whether or not Dead of Winter can be salvaged is quite simply up to the design team’s bandwidth and the resources (money) that is made available to them to make it happen. I think it can be fixed, and look forward to seeing what’s implemented design-wise for Dead of Winter 2016.

MY BLOODY CLEMENTINE

One of the biggest announcements made regarding Scary Farm 2015 was the return of talent to the Mine Ride, as it would be transformed into a new attraction called My Bloody Clementine. Under the direction of senior Scary Farm designer Daniel Miller (Black Magic, Pinocchio Unstrung, Tooth Fairy), the mountain would tell the tale of a young girl named Clementine and her father, who were brutally murdered in the Calico Mine; their spirits now roam the shafts searching for those who wronged them, seeking revenge at every turn.

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Again, not bad for a haunted attraction backstory. And, once again, we are left with a very confusing and somewhat uneventful experience when all is said and done. It’s been a few years since Knott’s has put talent into the attraction, since its major renovation in 2013-2014. Fans have been asking when Knott’s would return monsters to the mountain (both mountains actually, as the Timber Mountain Log Ride has also been talent-free since it too underwent a massive renovation a few years ago). For years, Theme Park Adventure took the very unpopular road and called on Knott’s to stop using the two iconic attractions for Scary Farm, as each season, the installation of the haunt’s overlays, as well as the wear and tear caused by so many people roaming the mountains had really started to take a major toll. Once Knott’s renovated both attractions, we were thrilled that the park decided to exclude both the Log and Mine rides from Scary Farm; we felt it was the right decision.

We also understand the importance of tradition when it comes to Knott’s Scary Farm. For decades, both mountains have been the star attractions during the Halloween event. So, when it was announced that talent was returning to the Calico Mine Ride, we winced, but understood. And we also felt certain that Lara Hanneman and her team would no doubt, understand how incredibly delicate the Scary Farm installation and execution would need to be, as to not damage the new figures, lighting, and thematic elements now in place throughout the attraction. As long-time fans of Scary Farm, we were curious and cautiously excited about the Mine Ride being put back into the Halloween mix.

In retrospect, perhaps the saying “you can’t go home” really has rung true in this case. I’ve long said that both mountains pale in comparison to the rest of Knott’s Scary Farm’s attractions these days, simply because the quality has improved so much over the past 10 years or so. To keep the two mountains in line with the quality of the rest of the haunt event, Knott’s would have to allocate much larger budgets for the two attractions for dramatic effects, large-scale props and more sophisticated scare tactics; the days of having people in masks along the tracks or flume – those days are gone.

My Bloody Clementine features a handful of projection effects, a smaller handful of large props, and an even smaller handful of live talent. It’s a massive disappointment to most Scary Farm fans in just about every way – especially after waiting in a long line to experience it.

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One of Clementine’s major problems, like Dead of Winter, is the loss of story line. The story of the father and daughter murders could be told any number of ways to guests as they wait in the queue – from audio to storyboard-type signage. However, none of that was attempted by Knott’s, leaving guests to their guidebooks or again, the blurb of a paragraph on the Knott’s website that describes this particular haunted attraction. The only thing guests get is a creepy Clementine song repeating over and over in the queue. It should have been a storytelling opportunity. Hell – why not have the father and daughter ghosts appear somewhere in the queue and tell the story themselves? That’s a relatively easy add, and could have been very well-received by people.

Instead, guests are stuffed into the train vehicles and take off into the mountain with little more than a haunt name to go by. If you sit in the front car behind the engine, you’re hosed, because all of the show elements are geared to the mid-to-rear of the train. The way guests are jammed into the vehicles, turning around to see what’s happening behind you in the dark is much easier said than done. Do NOT sit in the front car of the train if you want any kind of haunt-like experience. Literally everything in My Bloody Clementine played out well after we’d passed (we were in the front car), which was very disappointing – and frustrating.

The installation of My Bloody Clementine is not a substantial one, as I’ve already noted. There are some neat projection effects, but the main one in the ride’s Glory Hole chamber is very weak due to Knott’s not using a strong enough projector to make the pay-off apparition of Clementine a “wow” moment. The shadow play projection of the witch years ago when it was “The Witch’s Keep” was much better by comparison.

While there were a few figures (static and talent) throughout the mountain of the little girl, Clementine, we didn’t see any trace of her father, with whom she was murdered. If he is in there, it’s so briefly and so slightly that we missed it completely. That’s a big miss, in my opinion, since the story is supposedly about both of them seeking revenge.

One of the greatest new elements that was put in place when the Calico Mine Ride got its renovation was the installation of an on-board audio system, so that soundtracks can be played, triggered by sensors along the tracks throughout the mountain. Despite the added production cost, one would think that Knott’s would be all over utilizing the ride’s on-board audio capability for something like My Bloody Clementine. Music, narration – the whole shebang! Sadly, that didn’t transpire, leaving a fantastic new resource/tool completely untapped for this Scary Farm attraction.

What could have been a glorious return to Scary Farm for the Mine Ride, has fallen flat with most guests. And that’s a shame, since everyone was so excited by the prospect of an all-new haunted attraction in the mountain.

Daniel Miller is a legendary designer at Knott’s – over the years, he’s delivered some of Scary Farm’s most terrifying mazes since the ’90s. I have to believe that there were major constraints put in place during the design of My Bloody Clementine that greatly hampered Miller’s vision and execution; constraints that insured against damaging the Mine Ride with the haunt overlay. If that is the case, the serious question needs to be asked – with both mountains now fully renovated, is it feasible or necessary to add Scary Farm overlays to them if they are lame duck executions that don’t live up to the quality of the rest of the event’s attractions?

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I’d give My Bloody Clementine another shot in 2016 if major tweaks can be made, including a soundtrack utilizing the on-board audio capability of the trains. Should the attraction return again with little or no changes, I think it’d be a huge mistake, because Scary Farm fans expect more from Knott’s, whether it be one of the mountains or any of the mazes. The stakes have been raised – now more than ever, if the Farm is going to put the mountains back into the Scary Farm rotation, they must increase the designs and budgets for each substantially, or else they will fall flat and fail. That would be a sad way to end the long-standing legacy of their roles through the years as Knott’s Scary Farm’s signature attractions.

PARANORMAL, INC.

Every couple of years, a new maze is announced for Knott’s Scary Farm that for whatever reason, gains instant popularity and greater than normal buzz, practically sight-unseen. That is what happened with Paranormal, Inc. this year, which can be fantastic for a particular attraction at Knott’s that lives up to the expectations, or can be disastrous all around when the hype isn’t worth it.

I’m pleased to say that in the case of Paranormal, Inc. the fans are thrilled, and designer Jon Cooke should be very pleased with his creation – it exceeds what people expect from Scary Farm, and is going to go down as one of the great steps forward in maze evolution at Knott’s for years to come.

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The backstory of the attraction is that a ghost hunter television show – Paranormal, Inc. – is going to take visitors on a live investigation of an abandoned asylum, known as Hayden Hill Sanitarium, where the overseeing doctor and his head nurse carried out unspeakable acts of torture and pure evil. Naturally, things go horribly wrong, and the live audience that has gathered inside the abandoned asylum find themselves trapped between the world of the living and the spirit realm as all hell (literally) breaks loose around them.

Paranormal, Inc. is a new breed of maze for Knott’s Scary Farm, in that it combines many tools – from projection technology to large-scale animated props – with good old-fashioned scares that Knott’s is known for, as well as some new tricks, to deliver an experience up and beyond any maze we’ve ever seen at the haunt. It also features several key show moments that I did have major concerns about initially, since any show moment in a maze such as this is a proven line killer, backing up queues greatly not just at Knott’s, but at any haunted attraction. I made my concerns known very early on, and had several conversations with Cooke about them; he remained positive and confident that they’d worked out ways to make the impact as minimal as possible on the line. After seeing Paranormal, Inc. in operation, I would say that the Knott’s team did do a very good job at making the maze a people eater when it comes to capacity, swallowing about 50 guests at a time, and routing them down separate paths once inside for about 40% of the experience.

One of the new tricks that guests encounter in Paranormal, Inc. is a scene in which one of the investigators gets literally sucked out of a scene through the roof by an unseen force – a definite “wow” moment that fans have been raving about since the opening night of Scary Farm 2015. This type of stunt is new to Knott’s, even though there have been bungee jumpers in mazes for years; this gag is more elaborate – and is executed very nicely, eliciting both screams and applause from guests as they witness this particular moment. On a larger scale, it is reminiscent of the type of thing we’ve seen the past few years in Delusion, one of Los Angeles’ most popular theatrical horror experiences. To have a maze at Knott’s pull off something similar with such a much higher guest throughput is really impressive; kudos to the team for pulling that off.

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There is a lot of backstory for Paranormal, Inc. The difference between this attraction and the other two debuting this year at Knott’s, is that great care was taken in getting that story across to guests by way of monitors in the queue, and a tremendous pre-show, where everything is explained one more time. By the time all hell breaks loose, we get it – we understand completely what’s happening and what we’re experiencing. This maze is a prime example of storytelling at its best, where each guest is equipped with the knowledge of what’s happening, who the characters are and why they should be emotionally invested in the events at hand. Huge props to Jon for putting so much effort into setting up the story of Paranormal, Inc.

Aesthetically, Paranormal, Inc. is on par with the greatest mazes and attractions that have been designed for Knott’s – including Voodoo, Terror of London, Delirium, and 13 Axe Murder Manor. The detail in each room is top-notch, reinforcing the notion that Knott’s continues to improve its design excellence each year, pushing the boundaries of what’s come before at the Scary Farm. This is a strong testament to those crews responsible for installing this maze – painters, scenic, tech – everyone did a tremendous job, and it’s not gone unnoticed by fans and the media. This is as good as it’s ever been aesthetically, and it pushes to be more by the gags and effects that are employed throughout the experience.

The first half of Paranormal, Inc. is definitely the strongest. Toward the end, guests find themselves in spaces that aren’t quite as strong aesthetically or story-wise as the first part of the experience. I’d love to see Jon tweak the back end of the maze so that it’s as strong as guests run out as it is when they first step in to Hayden Hill. A better variation of demons and monsters would be welcome, too; Knott’s is definitely doing much better these days creating masks in-house for mazes – Paranormal just needs a few more different types to mix it up a bit and strengthen the assortment of monsters guests encounter. These things are nit-picky, however. This maze is nothing short of badass for its first year – and we’re thrilled to have it as part of the 2015 Scary Farm lineup; it should only get better in the years to come as this maze matures and receives new additions and tweaks.

Knotts Scary Farm 2015_5976Is Paranormal, Inc. the greatest maze ever at Knott’s Scary Farm? It’s definitely a great one; I’m not sure I’d call it the best ever. Then again, I am not 100% certain which maze I’d give that distinction. Is Paranormal, Inc. perfect? Not at all; no maze is, which is why designers continue to tweak them throughout the run and in the years to come. That said, this is Jon Cooke’s first solo project as a haunt designer at Knott’s. Let that sink in for a moment and then ponder this – if Paranormal, Inc. is the first maze Jon’s brought to life at Knott’s on his own… just imagine what’s to come years down the road. I for one, am really curious and excited to see where Jon’s career as a designer takes us all from now on. Knott’s should be very pleased and excited about this maze, and they should understand how excited everyone is that Jon is part of the design team now – he’s on track to make a huge impact on the Knott’s Scary Farm story.

As is the case with any new attraction at Knott’s Scary Farm, the line for Paranormal, Inc. can be very long on busy nights. Additionally, even with maze’s solid capacity capability, the show moment at the beginning does have an impact on wait times. It is our recommendation to hit this maze right at the beginning of the night as soon as the event opens; even better if you do Pre-Scare Dinner and get into the event early. Hit Paranormal first, or very last, right before the event ends. If you go to Knott’s on a busy night and try to do this maze during peak hours, you’re going to find yourself in a huge line. Be smart, plan ahead, and you’ll be able to do this maze multiple times before the line gets too long. Trust me, you’re going to want to see it more than once; it’s that good.

Kudos to everyone involved with Paranormal, Inc. From the design and installation, to the crew that makes it happen every night at Scary Farm – what a tremendous job!

*     *     *

Theme Park Adventure began its media partnership with Knott’s Berry Farm 21 years ago. Covering the Scary Farm is one of the cornerstones of TPA, and in turn, we’ve blazed a lot of trails at Knott’s. We were the first fanzine to begin publishing stories on individual monsters in Ghost Town and reviewing each maze individually; we were the first to bring images and then video to the Internet from Knott’s Scary Farm; TPA was the first publication to bring fans build pictures from Buena Park. It’s been an amazing journey – and while our style/depth of coverage has grown and changed over the decades, our love of Knott’s Scary Farm has remained a pillar of our own story. Long gone is the time that TPA can spend up to 8 nights in the fog, documenting every aspect of the world’s most famous haunt. With a Halloween stop schedule that is nothing short of daunting, we do however, return to Knott’s Scary Farm more than any other event during the season as part of our annual coverage; each time, it’s like a homecoming. Knott’s Scary Farm will always have a special place in our hearts; we grew up with it, and it is ground zero for much of the haunt industry that we follow, and are a part of today.

– Rick West

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One Response to A Detailed Review of New Knott’s Scary Farm Mazes for 2015

  1. baforrest929 says:

    Once again, a very fascinating, and accurate, review. I agree, for the most part, with your perspective here, and not enough disagreement to put up a fuss (LOL). I think Dead of Winter showed a lot of potential, and hopefully it will be given a nice overhaul next Halloween. I have to say, however, I liked the “Mirror-Mirror” nod, and even if that was not the intent, I still saw it in that regard.
    Paranormal Inc. needs to work those kinks out, but, as I stated elsewhere, this could potentially be around for a long, long time, because it is ‘set-up” in a way, that there can be minor tweaks here and there, focusing on changing some rooms up, thru the years and not growing stale for quite some time.
    I liked Clementine, merely because, I had almost no expectations. I can’t recall seeing any “father” in the storyline, but, I just appreciate having something, anything, in the Mine Ride once again.
    I had the fortune of attending twice so far, two times more than I had originally anticipated, but it seems that you did not encounter the same complaint I had both visits, and that is: the limited number of actors inside both the new and older mazes. I also have to gripe that of what I did see, there appeared to be a lack of enthusiasm. I do not apply that opinion towards all the talent involved in these mazes; however, I do find, you can have a dozen very good actors involved, but those two or three that appear bored, can bring down the entire ship. Just the way I see it, anyways…..

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