Knott’s Scary Farm 2016 Review

knotts-scary-farm-2016_19292016 has been a very interesting year for Knott’s Scary Farm. The grandfather of all theme park Halloween events, Knott’s presents a wide variety of attractions this season, giving the Scary Farm some interesting new tech, along with very familiar old-school vibes and experiences.

In all honesty, we were braced for a very tumultuous year for Knott’s. In the months leading up with the theme park’s biggest annual event, there were major changes internally that could have really disrupted (and did in some regards) the execution of this year’s Scary Farm. Several long-time Knott’s employees left the company during the critical ramp-up period before Haunt, including Lara Hanneman, who had served as Director of Entertainment Production at the park for many years. As summer began, Raffi Kaprelyan was promoted to Regional Vice President at Cedar Fair, and Jon Storbeck was announced as the park’s new Vice President and General Manager. Adding chaos to the mix, two long-time Marketing representatives departed just as the publicity machine for Scary Farm 2016 was getting fired up. In short, we were braced for a mess this season, figuring the infrastructure of Knott’s Berry Farm had reached the operational breaking point.

While there were issues the Halloween event became burdened with as a result of the internal shuffling and restructuring, I am very pleased to say that the Knott’s family came together and really pulled it through in the 11th hour, giving us a very strong, multi-faceted Halloween production for 2016. HUGE kudos to the entire Knott’s Berry Farm team for working through the past several months of craziness and restructuring.

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Before we get on with the complete break-down of the Scary Farm offerings for 2016, I would be remiss not to mention an attraction that was created – and then almost immediately pulled from the Haunt lineup because of outside pressure on Cedar Fair regarding its content:

One of the new tech-driven experiences designed for Knott’s this year was a virtual reality attraction named Fear VR: 5150. As indicated by its name, this was a virtual reality-based attraction in which visitors were escorted into a psych ward where a certain subject was being held and observed, due to her strange and harrowing telekinetic abilities; in actuality, she was demon-possessed and extremely violent, which was depicted in the film, which was shot for several Cedar Fair parks. The code “5150” is used by police to call out an involuntary psychiatric hold on a subject that is at risk of harming himself/herself or others. In the course of the 15-minute experience, guests were escorted into a facility, shown a pre-show video and then strapped individually into chairs and fitted with VR headsets. The technology behind the virtual reality portion of the show was powered by Samsung Gear VR, which worked well enough to deliver a unique and fairly freaky experience, which included faux “needle pricks” and vibration, eliciting screams from guests strapped into their chairs.

Sadly, a few special interest groups including Saddleback Valley Community Church took issue with the term “5150” as well as the content of the attraction – which none of them ever saw – and pressured Knott’s Berry Farm publicly to reconsider operating the experience. Much to the chagrin and very vocal dismay of Knott’s fans and the haunter community not just here, but everywhere, the attraction underwent a name change and then was shuttered after just 3 days of operation as the outside groups kept the pressure on to “shut down the ride” – further proving that none of them actually had any clue as to what it was that they really were protesting.

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I’m not going to get too much into this issue here, because that’s not the point of our 2016 review of Knott’s Scary Farm. I assure you, there will be a forthcoming commentary here on Theme Park Adventure about this – because it’s something that we really have strong feelings about. For now, let it just be known that we’re extremely disappointed that Cedar Fair’s executive leadership completely bent over without hesitation, completely killing a project that many really hard-working, talented people had poured themselves into for the better part of 8 months. Matt Ouimet and his team without question, sent the wrong message to the masses, just as Universal Studios Hollywood did years ago when it cancelled its Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure in response to a small handful of offended people, including a staff member at VICE. The whole situation is a mess, and Cedar Fair did more damage to the community than a goodwill service to a small few with their undies in a bunch over something none of them even experienced in person. Losing Fear VR was definitely a blow to Knott’s Scary Farm this year; thankfully, it wasn’t detrimental enough to be seen as a major setback for the overall event. Ironically, the actions of a few have made 5150 more legendary than it ever would have been had people not opted to get all riled up about it and ruin it for everyone else.

Cedar Fair – you can do better. Stand up for your employees. Stand up for Haunt’s legacy. Halloween isn’t the place for thin-skinned whiners or executives afraid of mega-church social media pressure. You owe it to your fans and employees to do better from now on in cases like this.

Okay – I am off my soap box for now, and have kicked it into a dark, foggy corner in Ghost Town. Let’s get to the real meat here, shall we? This year marks the 44th Knott’s Scary Farm event in Buena Park, the genesis of it all. The big kahuna. The Great I Am of Halloween haunts. The original. Call it Halloween Haunt. Call Knott’s Scary Farm. Hell, just call it Haunt – and everyone in Southern California knows exactly what you’re talking about.

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For 44 years, terrified guests have made their way through the fog-choked streets of Ghost Town as they traverse the Berry Farm between mazes, through scare zones filled with nasty, gnarly creatures of every shape and type. I’d be lying if I didn’t say Knott’s Scary Farm isn’t special to us. It’s been part of my life since the very early ’80s, when I first attended as a child with my church youth group from Irvine. In 1994, when I created Theme Park Adventure, Knott’s was one of the first companies I formed a professional media relationship with. We began with incredibly modest reviews in our printed newsletter, accompanied by a few black and white photos each year. Then, we merged onto the Internet when that became a thing. Very early on, we approached Knott’s about taking and posting photos of Haunt build progress; a request that left the Marketing department at that time completely confused – why would anyone care about that? It’s hard to imagine the Internet or any haunted attraction without construction teaser images. Soon after, and I don’t exactly remember how it came about – we began shooting video flow-throughs of each maze at Knott’s; something I am very proud that we pioneered with the Farm as a media outlet. It’s a tradition that goes back the better part of 20 years, which we’ve taken the next step with this season using our new 4K video camera to capture and share Haunt’s wonderful mazes with fans around the world. As you’ll see, the detail we’re able to capture now is much better than ever before (10 times clearer than HD, in fact) and the talent at Knott’s went all-out for us this season, creating some of the best Scary Farm flow-through videos we’ve ever recorded. Once again, it has been a pleasure to walk through the gates of Scary Farm and document the event; this is our 22nd year doing so, in fact. With that in mind, if you’re a long-time reader, I hope you enjoy our thoughts on this year’s event. If you’re new to TPA, perhaps this little background crash-course will give you an idea of our history with Knott’s as we rattle off our observations and feelings about everything we experienced this year. Either way, sit back and have fun; take away what you will from my pondering, enjoy the pictures that were taken this year by Chris and Lisa Husby (Johanna was out of town on business unfortunately, so for the first time in years, she didn’t shoot the majority of our maze stills), and enjoy the videos on a big TV in a darkened room with some Halloween candy!

SCARE ZONES

This year, Knott’s Scary Farm has four distinct scare zones – large sections of the theme park where monsters roam at will, terrifying guests as they navigate the event. Knott’s hosted the first scare zone over four decades ago, unleashing monsters on the streets of Ghost Town, just as they do now. Fittingly, that’s where we start our review:

Ghost Town is the grandaddy of all scare zones. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect setting than Calico at Knott’s Berry Farm to fill with fog and lurking monsters once the sun goes down. It is here that you will find what I believe is the soul of Knott’s Scary Farm. Ghost Town’s streets are paved with legacy – imprinted with 44 years of screams and scarred by decades of sliders perfecting their craft from the darkest of shadows.

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While Ghost Town used to be the spot where the event’s most veteran of characters usually ended up, that isn’t the case anymore. Now, GTS is a rich mix of long-time Haunt monsters and “fresh meat” – folks new to the Scary Farm that have gone through an audition process and have proven that they can hang with the best as they roam Calico at will. I will say that most of the event’s more iconic street monsters can be found in Ghost Town, including the original Green Witch – the longest-remaining old-school Haunt vet with more than 30 years of experience under her belt.. er, hat. Other monsters that we love to be stalked by include The Bride, Slither, and Death! So many fabulous fiends have passed through Ghost Town through the years, that it really is “ground zero” of Halloween in so many ways to me.

This year, GTS is stocked with incredible talent darting in and out of the fog. The abundance of flickering Jack O’Lanterns and ambient show lighting makes this area of the park the place to be. One could easily spend an entire evening simply sitting and watching the action from the patio of Ghost Town Grill or a nearby bench. Since “Fog Alley” is one of the main arteries into Knott’s Berry Farm, monsters scare guests there non-stop, and the “show” is always amazing.

Ghost Town is the original. It’s where it all started. Definitely take the time to enjoy the sights and sounds of terror here. Ghost Town is the classic.

CarnEVIL once again is the Boardwalk’s alter ego once the sun goes down, filled with naughty, naughty clowns of all shapes and sizes, wielding all manners of strange props and vile weaponry. Of the scare zones at Knott’s, I believe this is the most demanding of its talent, considering how large the overall area is, the fact that it’s so brightly-lit in most places, and there is nowhere to hide – not even behind a wall of fog. Everything and every character in CarnEVIL is out there in the open for all to see. The talent has zero surprise attack advantage; guests can usually see killer clowns approaching for 100 feet or more, which really makes scaring in CarnEVIL extremely challenging; the best bet is for monsters to come up behind guests and get them that way. Savvy Haunt fans know this, and spend most of their time passing through CarnEVIL looking in both directions – a lot.

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I’ve pounded this drum for years, but I really wish Knott’s would beef up the thematic elements throughout CarnEVIL. It doesn’t appear that the zone is going anywhere any time soon, so spend some money and beef it up. Bring in “freak show” stages to go along with the posters that are strewn about the Boardwalk. Better yet, bring in sideshow tents and put freaks and oddities in there and charge $1 for people to pass through and check them out at will – I think it would be very effective and would off-set the cost for Knott’s. A buck isn’t going to make people grumble for a sideshow freak tent experience, and the dollars will add up nicely over the course of the event. A small performance stage would be welcome here as well with fire breathers, jugglers, etc. It works well at Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor; it would work just as well in CarnEVIL.

Other than the lack of thematic support, the talent in CarnEVIL has all of our respect, considering the challenges I’ve mentioned. They’re “on” at all times – and they bring it hard. We’re not creeped-out by clowns, really, but can and do appreciate the level of energy and sheer freaky factor these men and women present each night. As usual, CarnEVIL has its challenges, but the talent doesn’t disappoint!

Fiesta de los Muertos is the Scary Farm theme that takes over Fiesta Village each night of Halloween, and is relatively new in the event’s evolution. This zone is relatively small compared to the others at Knott’s, and this year, seems well-staffed with talent.

Mexican/Latin-styled ghosts and ghouls of all shapes and sizes move in the shadows here – from brightly-painted Dia de los Muertos characters, to the wailing woman… La Llorona herself.

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At the heart of Fiesta de los Muertos, you will also find a DJ, where guests of all ages can mix and mingle with one another – and monsters – while dancing the night away. This is a popular party-like spot that feels like its own little vacuum within the greater scope of Knott’s Scary Farm. But don’t let the friendly-type atmosphere fool you; those who let their guard down completely get the crap scared out of them sooner or later by the monsters that roam Fiesta Village.

The talent this year in Fiesta is really great – we’ve always been fans of this area being part of Haunt, so the more monsters here, the better. The thematic overlay is perfect, and absolutely spot-on with the general ethnicity of the area itself as large Dia de los Muertos props and figurines line the walkways and planters in this section of the theme park. It’s not very dark in Fiesta compared to Ghost Town or The Hollow – but the talent here does an exceptional job of blending into the crowd and popping up unexpectedly in guests’ faces, the timing of their scares usually impeccable.  Hopefully, Fiesta de los Muertos will continue to thrive and evolve as part of the Scary Farm for years to come – there are so many great aspects of the Latin culture that could be explored and used here, that the potential is really exciting to me.

For fans looking to get an up-close photo of the Headless Horseman that haunts the Stagecoach trail at night, the train/stagecoach crossing on the border of Fiesta Village and the Boardwalk is a fantastic spot for that. Very often, the Horseman will sit atop his faithful steed there, as curious guests snap photos and capture video of the elusive ghost.

The Hollow is brand-new at Knott’s Scary Farm for 2016, now that we finally have Camp Snoopy back as a scare zone in the wake of Infected. Inspired by the lore of Sleepy Hollow and The Headless Horseman, The Hollow is filled with menacing creatures – from fallen Revolutionary War soldiers and farmers, to the Horseman himself, who can be seen riding along the outer boundaries of Camp Snoopy and Ghost Town along the park’s Stagecoach trail.

One of the biggest challenges of any scare zone in this section of the park, is that it is very dark. Actually, that’s great for monsters and guests – it’s just lousy for the small percentage of us trying to snap photos or video for you guys; I know… first-world media problems!

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We love the soundscape of The Hollow, which is actually a mix of the soundtracks to The WitchSicario, and the first Purge movie. They work perfectly with the scare zone, dense with fog and trees that loom overhead in the darkness. A very nice touch are small lanterns that have been placed in some of the trees – a very cool visual touch.

The talent in The Hollow is really good, whether they’re chasing guests through the dark or simply blending in with their surroundings, patiently waiting to spring on folks as they pass by. Scarecrows, figures with Jack O’Lanterns for heads, and other shrouded figures are right at home here, lurking in the shadows.

There aren’t any props per se that stand out; we would love to see more attention to detail as the new scare zone continues to evolve into the coming years. What those props might want to be – that’s up to the design team. The Hollow simply feels like it has a lot of growth potential, so we look forward to seeing that happen in the future. As with any new scare zone at Knott’s, it seems like they always start very conservatively, and then start adding to it in the years to follow. In 2017, The Hollow could use even more talent, as well as some cool scenic elements to support the theme of an old Colonial/New England kind of vibe. It’s off to a good start – The Hollow simply needs to pick up and maintain forward momentum now that it’s established.

Again this year, we ran into the “no pictures” policy that has been set forth by Knott’s management. I cannot tell you how many times guests would ask monsters for photos only to be ignored and/or disappointed. I hate this new policy. It’s something that Knott’s has adopted from Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, and it’s a mess. I’ve said it before, and I will continue saying it – no one attending Scary Farm believes the monsters are real. Everyone gets that they are folks in costume. When guests want photos with said monsters, it doesn’t mean the talent needs to break character – there are ways of maintaining your demeanor while stopping long enough to make people happy with a quick photo. It’s also good for viral marketing, too; you can’t beat free publicity, which is exactly what Knott’s gets any time someone poses with a monster and posts it to social media. Knott’s is where street monsters began. For decades, Scary Farm was a photo-friendly environment and the monsters had fun with it as much as the guests did. To suddenly shut that down and emulate what HHN does (which sucks, in our opinion) by almost being rude to guests wielding cameras – that’s not necessary. Knott’s is the original when it comes to street monsters – there is no need to change or to emulate another event. The company should be flattered that fans want to take pictures with monsters at Haunt. We hope that Knott’s has new management that will revisit this discussion and look at it from different points of view and reassess how their street monsters are allowed to interact with guests. Fingers are crossed for 2017’s policy on this.

ENTERTAINMENT

One of the key components of any large-scale Halloween event is its live entertainment offerings. Granted, one could argue that the entire event is “live entertainment”; that’s not the line we’re inclined to buy, and it’s not what we mean when discussing it here on Theme Park Adventure. In my mind, “entertainment” is anything at Haunt other than roaming monsters, or mazes. Since there are no small stage productions anywhere at Knott’s these days during Scary Farm, that leaves some slim pickings this year for guests. The two shows offered at Knott’s are Elvira’s Danse Macabre, and The Hanging: Finding Gory.

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Elvira has been a Knott’s Halloween icon on and off for many years. “Everyone’s favorite ride at Knott’s” has graced the stage in the park’s big theater for a long time; more than 20 years, although not all in succession. Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) is 65 years-old now, and while she definitely still has the sex appeal and garners cat calls while on stage, the Mistress of the Dark has hinted at retirement lately, and seems to maybe be slowing down a bit career-wise.

I think that Knott’s has reached the point that while Elvira’s legacy as part of the event is definitely important historically, she really isn’t that huge of a draw that the company should spend a huge chunk of its budget on her as a headliner. Honestly, I don’t know of anyone under 35 or so that is really that excited to see her show each year at Knott’s; and those of us who grew up with Elvira as the main entertainment at Halloween Haunt – guess what? We ain’t the target demo anymore. I’d wager to guess that most of the Millennials visiting Knott’s each Halloween aren’t buying tickets because Elvira is returning; most of the event’s younger guests don’t have any idea as to who she is, or why she’s even there, likely. And while older fans may scoff at that – it’s reality, man. When was the last time Elvira had a television program? How about a movie? Hit record? You see what I am getting at. I’ve met Cassandra a couple of times, and she is lovely – very friendly and nice to deal with. However, the intellectual property of Elvira simply isn’t a driving, relevant force, in my opinion; certainly not one that I’d invest a lot of money in securing/promoting. Again, this isn’t a swipe or slight at Cassandra Peterson – it’s just the way I see the marketability of an IP that really is past its prime. If it were my call, I would allocate those funds to another headliner (we miss the hell out of Ed Alonzo), as well as smaller performances/acts throughout the park.

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Elvira’s Danse Macabre is a good show; it’s not great, but it’s definitely solid. These days, Elvira’s shows at Knott’s have become fairly formulaic – she comes out, does a monologue and then her routine is broken up by high-energy dance numbers while she costume changes, etc. This year, there is a bit of audience participation which is always appreciated and good for some easy laughs and cheers. One thing that I did particularly like, was the inclusion of aerial performances – specifically, two women spinning and swinging from a large chandelier; that was done very well and the crowd seemed impressed, too.

The rest of Danse Macabre is exactly what you’ve come to expect from an Elvira show; some awkward humor, some genuine laughs, and Cassandra Peterson strutting her stuff across the stage for about 30 minutes. Speaking of her stuff… while it may seem that I am down on Elvira as an IP, I’d be remiss not to reiterate that she is 65 years old this year; we should all hope to look as good and be so energetic at that age! Kudos to her for keeping in shape and maintaining her persona so nicely.

If this is Elvira’s final year, then her Scary Farm run has ended nicely. I do think however, that if she does plan on retiring, it would be fun to perhaps do 2017 and announce that it’s her farewell show. I believe that would definitely drive traffic to Knott’s and it would be a classy, nostalgic way for her to wrap up her legacy in Buena Park. Like so many things Haunt-related, what comes next regarding Elvira will simply manifest in the months ahead as we creep closer to summer.

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The Hanging is obviously another cornerstone of Knott’s Scary Farm. It’s been the second-largest crowd draw for decades when compared to other entertainment offerings during the event. What started out as a very simple “witch hanging” at midnight has become a massive stage spectacle, where popular culture is lampooned, sliced, and diced in the most violent and irreverent ways possible several times each night in front of thousands of cheering guests at the Calico Stage. I’ve always been a fan of its crude and over-the-top outrageousness, so it is a component of Haunt that I look forward to each season.

The biggest change in The Hanging this year is the stage itself. Earlier this year, the Calico Stage was removed and a much larger, newer stage was built on the border of Ghost Town and the Boardwalk, near Charleston Circle (the big fountain). This was part of the Ghost Town 75th Anniversary happenings, for several reasons. The viewing space is now much bigger, and will accommodate significantly larger audiences. Also, the rear of the stage backs up directly to the backstage area of the Charles M. Schulz Theatre, making it much easier for performers and crew, as well as management now that the park’s two main theatrical venues are connected. As the show started, it struck me – for the first time in my life coming to Scary Farm, I was standing in a different location in front of a different stage to see The Hanging; that’s a super-weird feeling after seeing the show each season for the past several decades. I will say that the new stage is gorgeous, and the sound system is fantastic. Knott’s should be very excited about that.

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As for the show itself – it was everything we’ve come to love and expect from The Hanging: crude, adult humor mixed with gratuitous violence and more pop culture references than any human should be able to catch in the period of 30 minutes or so. Naturally, since we are in an extremely volatile election season, much of The Hanging had to do with political figures including Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; I was surprised by the amount of laughter and audience engagement coming from younger folks – quite possibly very indicative of how important this coming November vote is to younger generations. Throughout the show, we also were treated to characters ranging from Spider-Man to Tarzan.

This year, there are a lot of really naughty phrases and innuendos scattered all over the show, which kept us belly-laughing. Hands-down, the highlight for us (and a glaring example of Knott’s MEANING it when they say The Hanging is NOT for children) was a young boy next to us asking his dad aloud, “What does ‘banging the brown’ mean?” I laughed so hard at the kid’s question and the dad’s total FML expression that I thought I was going to pass out! Pure Haunt magic right there, folks; pure Haunt magic!

Ironically, there was very little Dory in “Finding Gory”, the name of this year’s Hanging spectacle. There definitely were lots of good-natured jabs at Disney, as there often are. Dory makes an appearance at the very end of the production in a way that isn’t really funny or fitting… kinda a weird choice, honestly.

There was a lot of negative reaction to The Hanging this year, and I am not quite sure why. Was it the best Hanging ever? Definitely not. Was it the worst? Again, definitely not. The Hanging: Finding Gory was pretty much what we expected it to be – crass, naughty, bloody and loud. If you’re looking for much more than that, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. We love a good laugh each year at Scary Farm, and that’s exactly what The Hanging delivers. This year’s cast and crew looked great – some real ringers this time around! Kudos to all of them for putting on a fun, high-energy production.

We had a good time watching the two big shows at Knott’s this season. When compared to years past, however, the entertainment offering is lacking. For an event the size of Scary Farm, the Wagon Camp and Bird Cage Theatre, along with the stage in Camp Snoopy, Indian Trails and smaller pop-up stages should all be loaded up with acts of all types, appealing to a broad audience visiting the park each night. There’s no doubt that this is all budgetary; Cedar Fair needs to see and understand this, and allocate more cash for entertainment if necessary. I’m personally not a huge fan of theme park entertainment – but it’s absolutely a necessary and valid need for events such as Knott’s Scary Farm. If Elvira’s retirement needs to come in order for more variety of entertainment to come back to Knott’s, I am all for it. Knott’s Scary Farm is a complex event offering something for everyone – the entertainment options there should be included in that.

SKELETON KEY ROOMS/EXPERIENCES

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This year, Knott’s shifted gears regarding its use of Skeleton Key Rooms. Yes, the Skeleton Key still serves as a front of line pass for the mazes; it also gets you into several stand-alone experiences found throughout the park. Each Skeleton Key experience is unique from the others, and definitely a fun, interesting idea. The main problem each of these suffers is capacity, which is relatively small considering the tens of thousands of visitors the Scary Farm hosts each night. Even with a minimal amount of people in line ahead of you, your wait for a Skeleton Key room could easily be much longer than you’d think – or be comfortable with. The best way to tackle Skeleton Key rooms is to hit them hard and fast at the beginning of the night right when the park opens – or to hit them late at night, in the last 90 minutes or so of operation; that said, on busy nights, they may likely still have lengthy wait times.

Am I a fan of this year’s Skeleton Key experiences? On paper, they’re fun and I can see why the team has gone down this path with them. In reality, their capacity is a problem, especially when you’ve spent years training your guests that “Skeleton Key = fast access”. When it comes to theme park haunted events, I am generally not a fan of small capacity experiences, simply because no matter how you cut it – the majority of your guests won’t get to participate. That goes for Skeleton Key holders as well; we know plenty of folks who attended Scary Farm with Skeleton Keys, only to skip the individual experiences simply because the wait times were extensive; that’s a no-go in my book when all is said and done. I get the desire and allure of offering exclusive, “fun-size” frights at Knott’s; the operational reality of it though, is that you’re getting very little return on the investment because it’s not being utilized by the majority of your guests. It’ll be interesting moving forward to see how Knott’s learns from this year and carries out future Skeleton Key offerings.

Visions is located in Ghost Town, in the space that used to house the Haunt Museum. This was the one Skeleton Key experience I was most excited about, due to its use of augmented reality. Augmented reality, in simple terms, is the same type of tech that is used by Pokemon GO! Viewers look through a piece of hardware’s camera – be it a phone, iPad, etc. – and animated content appears to be part of the scene, over the “real” image you’re seeing in real-time. The use of AR is something I really think we’re going to see integrated more and more into theme parks in the way of queue entertainment, as well as more deep-dive content, such as scavenger hunts. It’s an exciting technology that has almost limitless potential; definitely at an event such as Knott’s Scary Farm.

This experience is based on the witch trial of one Sarah Marshall, with guests using “Phantom Finders” to explore the room; pointing one of these tablet-like devices at various posters affixed around the interior of the room caused different “spirits” to materialize in the darkness, culminating in an in-person encounter with the Green Witch herself.

Visions is my favorite of the Skeleton Key experiences this year, just as I’d hoped it would be. The tech is nifty, and certainly has people screaming and laughing. I see beyond this year, however – to Halloweens on the horizon where Knott’s and their team will continue to use this technology, integrating it more and more with the overall Haunt experience. Jon Cooke certainly loves his tech, so I suspect that he’s already pondering what the next step is in the evolution of augmented reality at Knott’s Scary Farm; that is very exciting to me and I look forward to what comes next.

Slasher is a fast, fun experience located in The Hollow (Camp Snoopy) that ushers guests into the world of a serial killer known as the “Angel Maker”.

Guests find themselves huddled together in the middle of the experience as lighting effects and live talent ratchet up the intensity level nicely here. The climax is the Angel Maker revealing his masterpiece to each unsuspecting group, which is pretty cool.

In this room, guests are made to stand over a large grating. Because of what transpires in the show, I believe at one point, there was to be a decent amount of water used as part of the gag. I’m glad that’s not the case. I am not a fan of getting wet or wandering around theme parks with damp clothes. I hate the gratuitous use of water gags at Universal (in their rides as well as Halloween events), and I would not want to see that become a thing at Scary Farm. I’m happy to report I exited Slasher dry… and not moist.

Prey is another Skeleton Key experience that uses current, forward-thinking tech as part of its story vehicle. In this attraction, guests are given lanterns, powered by Gantom Torch technology; light sources that can flicker and go out at pre-programmed spots or moments, which is great for haunt designers and absolutely horrid for terrified guests!

This is a hay bale maze of sorts, with dead ends and tunnels guests need to make their way through as vicious monsters lurk in the darkness. No one is alone, though – because every few seconds, more and more beasts are released into the maze to join you. Good times, and a very clever and fun implementation of a technology that has become very popular with haunters.

Unlike the other Skeleton Key experiences, Prey shares itself with Spooky Farm during the day, as a family-friendly hay bale maze with cute photo ops along the way (also located in Camp Snoopy). This is really a great dual-purpose attraction from an operational and budgetary point of view. In the end, it serves both adult and kids who are fans of Halloween at Knott’s – and that’s awesome!

ZOZO is seemingly the fan favorite this year when it comes to Skeleton Key experiences at Knott’s Scary Farm. It’s a simple story that simply strikes deep chords of fear in guests – in small groups, people enter a room and are asked to call on a demon using a Ouija Board of sorts to do their bidding. What follows, as you might guess, is an up-close-and-personal encounter of the most terrifying kind – a common thread in this year’s Skeleton Key experiences.

The interesting thing to me about ZOZO, is that many guests tap out the moment they’re asked to interact with the Ouija Board. People truly get that freaked-out and worked-up by the mere thought of it, they stand up and declare, “NOPE!” as they leave the attraction.

ZOZO also incorporates some interesting mechanical tricks that are in place for dual purposes as well – to freak guests out, as well as to keep them and live talent safe when it gets real. My mind is always picking things apart like this as I experience new attractions, and I have to say, I was super impressed by the design thought that went into ZOZO.

If you are short on time, I would say that ZOZO (located in Fiesta Village) and Visions are probably the two most unique of the Skeleton Key experiences – and definitely my two favorites. They still suffer from capacity headaches, but if you have the opportunity to do any of them, these are the two to check out first, in my opinion.

MAZES

If the scare zones – Ghost Town in particular – are the soul of Knott’s Scary Farm, then the mazes are its heart, pumping thousands of guests through each night. Mazes have been a key component of Haunt since just about its inception in the early 1970s; over the past four decades, they have become more polished and more technically-advanced than ever before. What Knott’s specializes in, are original concepts – not IP-driven mazes, such as you find at Halloween Horror Nights. I love the freedom Knott’s has to explore any theme they want, and have in recent years, from the vintage style of Trick Or Treat to this year’s Japanese-inspired Shadow Lands maze, which is simply stunning.

The mazes at Knott’s Scary Farm have always been my favorite part of the event, even as a child when I started attending in the early ’80s. To this day, I my pulse starts racing and I get anxious (in a good way) when walking into a new maze for the first time. From the very get-go, I start working out in my mind how we’re going to shoot it, making mental notes of special shots and big “Wow!” moments that we need to capture for fans around the world.

Trick Or Treat is back once again. Despite being more than several years old at this point, the maze itself has held up very nicely. The theme is something I adore; when Trick Or Treat debuted in 2012, I declared that it was my favorite Haunt maze since the original Dominion of the Dead vampire maze, which was huge at Knott’s in the ’90s. Everything from its beautiful detail, vintage Halloween style and period music came together to make Trick Or Treat an amazing component at the Scary Farm.

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The story of Trick Or Treat is that you have entered the home of the Green Witch – the kinda-sorta mascot still of Knott’s Scary Farm. While exploring the house, guests come face-to-face with the witch’s minion, known as Tricksters – children who have been lured into the home and have been enslaved to do the wicked woman’s bidding. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it’s fun. The overall “Wow!” factor of Trick Or Treat diminishes greatly each year now, not because it’s a poor concept or design, but because it was so original and executed so beautifully, that the awe factor has faded; we have become used to Trick Or Treat being part of the Knott’s Halloween landscape. When that happens, it’s time to move on and shake things up a bit to keep the experience fresh. We’re grateful for another solid, fun year with Trick Or Treat, but feel that it’s time for this one to fade into the history book.

Voodoo – Order of the Serpent has returned to Knott’s Scary Farm, and looks just as gorgeous as it always has. Much better as a linear experience (when it debuted in 2014, guests could choose their own routes at different points) that has one path, Voodoo takes guests on a trip through the backwater bayous of Louisiana to face the creatures and characters that happen to be right at home in the over-grown swampland.

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One of the more complex attractions at Knott’s Scary Farm, a large section of Voodoo is built over large pools of water; if you get the chance, I highly recommend peeking over the side of the walkway as you pass through – seeing the various assortment of props placed at the water level is really cool. Dealing with water in a maze of this scale is substantial, and Knott’s continues to make it work beautifully each Halloween season. This year, Voodoo’s Skeleton Key Room for 2015 has been incorporated into the entirety of the maze itself, making this experience even more of a journey. Unfortunately, without the backstory of what that part of the maze actually is, it’s kind of a muddy point – we’re in a room with a giant snake-thing sculpture-alter type of deal, and there is some sort of snakey-like creature bobbing and weaving around us… okay, then! It looks good. The character is creepy enough I suppose, to work; it’s just a weird and disjointed beat story-wise, and kind of a shame there is no way to work it into the queue experience somehow. That said, it is what it is – and Voodoo definitely remains very strong.

Paranormal, Inc. is a huge favorite again at Knott’s Scary Farm, thanks to its broad appeal and stunning design. Now in its second season, Paranormal Inc. takes guests on another scary trip through the Hayden Hill Sanitarium as demons and other ghostly apparitions pour through a rift into our world.

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There is basically no difference between last year’s Paranormal, Inc. presentation and what we have this season at Knott’s. And that’s totally fine; last year, this new maze was so well-received that fans are completely happy to have it back in its original form. Those guests who didn’t get a chance to see it last year now have their chance. If there is any difference this year, it’s that the monster crew is more comfortable in their roles, and is absolutely on fire. The talent in Paranormal is fantastic, and you can tell they are really proud to be part of such an important maze in the Scary Farm legacy. Do I think Paranormal, Inc. will change drastically over the coming years? That’s hard to say. Without a dramatic retooling of the entire story arc, I’m not sure how much wiggle room Jon Cooke and the design team have here. I suppose the more abstract “other side” sections of the maze toward the end could be altered into something new and terrifying. That said, Jon has made it very clear that he prefers to move on to new ideas and designs rather than re-visit old ones to make changes or improvements. Knott’s has a history of using its design team to change up or plus each others’ mazes when they begin to age or have challenges that need to be tweaked. It would be interesting to see what someone else would bring to the table here, although I am not 100% sure Paranormal needs that just for the sake of change. I think this attraction will be around for a couple more years, and I am fine with that. It’s a fantastic part of the Scary Farm and has taken the art of maze design at Knott’s to a new level.

The Tooth Fairy, which debuted at Knott’s Scary Farm in 2014, continues to be one of the most uncomfortable and tension-inducing mazes to ever grace the event. As guests move into the realm of the Tooth Fairy, the almost deafening whirring of dental drills and screaming of patients in pain makes this walk-through seriously badass and gnarly in every way.

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Very little has changed with this year’s iteration of The Tooth Fairy in the way of scenes or props. Like Voodoo, last year’s Skeleton Key Room for this maze has been incorporated into the whole experience for everyone – and it weaves itself into the story just fine, as we pass through a child’s bedroom as something evil and dark is starting to happen.

The talent throughout this maze has been excellent all season, from opening night onward – they are more than comfortable in their roles, and they definitely work it and focus on using their environment to make already-uneasy guests feel absolutely terrified.

Is The Tooth Fairy past its prime? That’s a tough call, even though the maze is now several years old. It’s definitely a good one, and it definitely is nasty as hell; one of designer Daniel Miller’s finest efforts, I would say. He’s the Scary Farm’s “Godfather of Gore”, for sure. Tooth Fairy has held up very well, and I would not be surprised in the least to see it return again in 2017. People hate dentist-related horror; while the concept of crossing over into the scary, twisted realm of the Tooth Fairy is a bit out there story-wise, it works, and as long as those drills keep spinning… the masses will keep screaming for more!

The Red Barn is one of 2016’s new offerings, and is a combined effort between Knott’s designers Gus Krueger and Daniel Miller. The concept of The Red Barn is pretty straightforward. Inbred-type folks kidnapping innocent victims, doing horrible things to them – from cannibalistic sacrifice to some sort of occult worship and bizarre rituals. Located within the Wilderness Dance Hall in Ghost Town (psssst… it’s actually a large, red barn), the maze is a twisted labyrinth of bales of hay and wood-lined corridors.

While some are calling The Red Barn a “knock-off” of Slaughterhouse – one of the longest-running mazes in Haunt history – I think it’s got enough new facets to it that let it stand nicely on its own. Granted, it’s got much of the same vibe as Slaughterhouse (it’s gory and there are Southern bumpkin folks throughout the maze), but I really like it.

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On a technical note, I’m a big fan of the show lighting – the whole “warm palette” makes for really great photo and video shots! Geeky tech talk aside, the warm amber lighting throughout the maze also lends itself to the bloody rawness of body parts being strewn about, and the feeling of death hanging heavy in the air all around. And Red Barn has a large, in-house-created animated creature, which is absolutely something that long-time fans of Scary Farm know is a true Knott’s hallmark; it may not look as pretty as a slick, off-the-shelf piece, but it’s unique and home-grown. We love that.

Is The Red Barn earth-shattering? No. It’s a good old-school raw and gritty maze that features lots of blood and guts, whirring saw blades, and lots of corpses along the way. It fits into the balance of Knott’s Scary Farm very well – because at an event this size, there should be something for everyone; Red Barn certainly checks off the “Bloody” box! Does Red Barn have a long lifespan at Knott’s? In the big scheme of things, I don’t think it’s a one-and-done maze, but considering the prime space it occupies, it’s probably on the short list of Scary Farm attractions looking at the years ahead.

Special Ops: Infected

Of all the mazes at Knott’s Scary Farm 2016, Infected is by far, the biggest surprise of the season for us. After consuming the entire quadrant of the park that is Camp Snoopy for several years, Infected has become a maze, taking up residency behind Mystery Lodge – a location that has housed some of the largest walk-throughs in Haunt history, including Terror of London and 13 Axe Murder Manor.

While the location of Infected changed this year, the idea behind the experience didn’t. Guests are split into small squads and given military assault rifles, which they use against zombies and creatures coming at them from every direction. The more hits – especially headshots – they get, the more powerful their guns become. This is yet another example of how Knott’s has inserted tech into the Halloween experience to drive the story, which we are big fans of.

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The major difference is that being a maze now and less of an outdoor obstacle course, Infected is much more intimate, and absolutely much more terrifying. The footprint for Infected is very large, and the use of space is fantastic, taking guests from extremely tight indoor spaces to open, outdoor scenes littered with debris, including a downed helicopter; it’s really impressive. Another beautiful section of Infected has guests moving through a subway train; if you get the chance, take a look at some of the subway station names – lots of great Easter eggs there!

In the end, Infected suffers only in that guests really have no great idea of how they’re actually doing as they rush through the maze; there are too many things to look at, too many monsters lunging from the darkness, and too many soldiers shouting at you to truly care, honestly. It’s fun just to traverse this maze and shoot in the direction of anything that moves. Maybe down the line, we’ll see a score integrated somehow with a Knott’s Scary Farm smartphone app so it can be shared easily on social media platforms. There’s definitely time, considering Jon Cooke and his team just gave Special Ops: Infected a brand-new lifespan at the Scary Farm. I would be shocked if Infected wasn’t around in its current form for at least three more years. Knott’s didn’t simply move Infected to a new location in the park – they completely re-imagined it and the result is freaking great.

Another nifty little tech ditty  that’s been incorporated into Infected – are animated blood splatters that monsters trigger when they are shot at. The result is graphic novel or video game-like blood blasts against walls that really are a cool touch – it happens so fast that guests may not process what they’ve seen right away, but look for it, and when you see it, you’ll cheer and love it just like we do! I love this type of thing being worked into Scary Farm mazes!

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If there is anything carried over from Infected’s original state that I don’t like, is that by the very nature of the beast, this maze often has huge wait times. The gun component really can be a capacity-killer on busy nights, so it is our strong suggestion that as soon as the event begins, you make a beeline to Infected; otherwise, be prepared for massive wait times on peak nights. Hit Infected first-thing or very last during your visit to Knott’s and you should be okay. Good luck! Headshots only!

By the way – a HUGE shout-out to the Infected crew for delivering what is most definitely one of the finest TPA Knott’s flow-through videos of all time! It was exciting as hell shooting it, and I could tell I was witnessing some amazing stuff through the monitor!

Dead of Winter is back and much improved this season from last year. Veteran designer Daniel Miller took his virtual bucket of blood to the maze and painted the frozen landscape red! In addition, the show lighting was greatly reduced, which also helped create an atmosphere of dread and disorientation within the maze itself, which is actually a fairly large footprint – or at least, it feels that way.

This maze got off to a really rough start last year. It was too brightly-lit, the story was not very clear, and fans immediately hobbled it by referring to it as “the Frozen maze”. Not helping the cause was Knott’s not having a facade for the maze, but rather the bland entryway to the Boardwalk Ballroom and its standard marquee acting as the its frontage. We were hoping the facade issue would be corrected this year – alas, it didn’t happen, and that sucks; Knott’s knows better than this. If Dead of Winter returns in 2017 (I would assume it will, considering the money they spent changing it this year), I don’t see how “feasible” it would be to spend money on a facade for a three-year-old maze – so the chances of it ever having a proper entry portal are pretty slim at this point, I’d say. That’s really too bad, because it deserves proper Haunt treatment and won’t get it for whatever reason.

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With gore galore at every turn, Dead of Winter has taken on an absolutely new vibe in 2016 – and while the story is still as lost as it can be on guests (especially now with no Skeleton Key Room to set it up), people get what they need by the visuals – humans have been slaughtered in and around their village, with blood splattered across the snow and ice everywhere we look. There are nasty creatures and ominous characters lurking in the shadows – it’s a desolate, frozen place that is definitely not friendly or safe.

Despite its inherited stigmas, Dead of Winter features some very nice scenic design and several really impressive visuals, including corpses encased below our feet in a frozen waterway, nicely-sculpted ice caves, and even falling snow! Normally, guests would be really excited by these elements; for some reason, it’s just one big uphill battle for Dead of Winter.

I never thought Dead of Winter was that bad to begin with; God knows, in the past 22 years of covering Knott’s Scary Farm, I have seen a lot worse. I also think that Daniel Miller’s touches really work well in this maze, allowing it to take on a whole new vibe for 2016. The crew is good, and it certainly delivers on scares, making this maze successful in my opinion. I look forward to it returning for at least one more season next year.

The Gunslinger’s Grave: A Blood Moon Rises has returned for 2016, bringing all of its Old West characters and bloodthirsty werewolves with it. This walk-through, located on the outskirts of Ghost Town, is now in its fourth season at Knott’s Scary Farm. We have always enjoyed this addition to Haunt, simply because it plays so beautifully on the natural theme and history of Ghost Town.

This maze’s evolution has been interesting. What started out as a tale of revenge (gang kills cowboy’s wife, cowboy goes after them to settle the score) has shape-shifted into more of a monster maze, more than anything these days. And that works, because Scary Farm fans love a good werewolf theme. For added measure, there are other nasty characters and varmints thrown in along the way to keep you on your toes.

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I’ve always been a fan of Gunslinger’s Grave. I love the old Western town theme and the crew has always been really great. Before the werewolves were introduced in 2015, Gunslinger’s was very close to being a mask-free maze, which we were super stoked about. Unfortunately, that never happened – but they sure came close. Those who don’t have masks in this maze engage guests nicely and are extremely comfortable with their roles and associated banter.

Does Gunslinger’s Grave have a chance of returning yet again in 2017? That’s a really tough call; judging by how late construction began this summer on this particular walk-through, one can’t help but wonder if it even was supposed to come back this season, or if a last-minute decision was made to add it back to the Haunt lineup to bolster the event’s offerings further. Only time will tell; if this is the last year for Gunslinger’s Grave, it can finally rest in peace, knowing that it did its job – and that it’s secured its chapter in Knott’s Scary Farm history.

Shadow Lands is the new maze at Knott’s this year that everyone is talking about. Jon Cooke, who has rapidly become a major player at Knott’s in its design department and all-around Haunt fan favorite, has delivered another extremely well-done walk-through attraction on the heels of last year’s incredibly successful Paranormal, Inc.

Delving deep into Japanese lore, guests accompany a Japanese warrior who has been killed, his soul doomed to traverse the afterlife – the Shadow Lands – as he battles his own demons in the great beyond. What follows is a dark, very spooky journey through ancient temples and ornate pagodas.

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Along their dark journey, visitors encounter other samurai warriors, mythical beasts and a wide assortment of other hostile demons. Everything – the costumes, makeup, scenic design and music – it’s incredibly detailed, and continues to raise the bar of Scary Farm production higher than it’s ever been. Huge respect to Jon and the team – painters, carpenters, fabricators – everyone – who helped bring Shadow Lands to life for 2016.

Without a doubt, this was the most unique and “odd” maze going into 2016; it could have easily fallen flat and been seen as a mess on multiple levels. However, Shadow Lands is brilliantly executed, coming out of left field with an extremely creative and unexpected theme that has taken our breath away. The maze succeeds on many levels, the most important being the affirmation that Knott’s doesn’t need intellectual properties to drive its maze design or creative side of Scary Farm. The secret weapon that Knott’s has always had, is the freedom to dream up whatever nightmares they want and to just go for it. Sometimes that hasn’t worked out the best, which is to be expected. The up-swing, is that more often than not it does work nicely; in the case of Shadow Lands, the team have hit a grand-slam. Shadow Lands will be around for years, and will go down as one of the greats in Knott’s Scary Farm history, I have no doubt.

And that brings this year’s Knott’s Scary Farm review to an end! What a really great, very strong year it’s been for Knott’s. We are impressed by all of the new tech and forward-thinking going on, which will continue to evolve in the years ahead. Following a summer that was very tumultuous internally, the Knott’s Berry Farm crew has come together to deliver a world-class event that truly is impressive on many levels.

It’s exciting to see Ken Parks onboard as the park’s new Vice President of Entertainment, and look forward to seeing how his involvement shapes the future of the Scary Farm along with the direction of Jon Storbeck now at the helm of the theme park and its operations.

A huge shout-out as well to Chris and Lisa Husby, who stepped up and help shoot some of our photos this year when Johanna was out of town on business; be sure to head over to Hatbox Photography and show them some TPAer love!

Last, but certainly not least, we extend our love and thanks to the entire Knott’s Berry Farm team – from Marketing to the build crew, the makeup artists, wardrobe keepers, and men and women that knock themselves out night after night so that we have an event like this to enjoy and look forward to. These past 22 years of working closely with so many of you have been amazing. We look forward to many more adventures with each of you in the fog when the autumn moon rises and the wind begins to howl through the eaves of the old buildings in Ghost Town. Knott’s is Halloween.

  • Rick West

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ADDITIONAL MEDIA

Interview with Julie Owens, Director of Shows, During Final Shift at Knott’s:

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3 Responses to Knott’s Scary Farm 2016 Review

  1. B. Forrest says:

    Thank you for another fairly-balanced review. I am not a fan of the “I-can-be-a-dick-because-I-get-to-review-something”-Yelp-style reviews that i have read elsewhere. You always look at mazes and shows for what they are, and look at both sides of the coin before finishing with your own personal opinion.

    Personally, I think “Paranormal Inc” could exist for many, many seasons. To me, it is set up in such a way, that it allows the showrunners endless opportunitys to chage things up every couple of years, and keep it fresh. I enjoyed the fine-tuning of “Tooth Fairy” but it is starting to become stagnant, but “Paranormal…” is set up in such a way, that the alterations are endless, and open to a wide array of different twists-and-turns and story changes.

    I also would love to see “Trick or Treat” stay permanently. “You can’t keep a maze there permanently!!!” I hear everyone screaming. But, since “Trick or Treat” is a maze that is the closest tied to the Halloween theme, it seems a shame to rid of it. It could be looked upon as the mainstay of Haunt, a fun little maze in addition to the other mazes that will come and go thru the years. Look at it this way—get in a Time Machine (just hear me out here), and return to Knott’s 50 years from now. The park would be entirely different, but I bet the Log Ride and The Mine Ride would still exist. And that’s how I see “Trick or treat”, the solid rock representing all of the haunts for years to come.

    Anyways, kudows again !

  2. Dennis says:

    Great Article and Videos! Greetings from Germany 🙂

  3. Rick West Rick West says:

    Thank you! Greetings back from Los Angeles! Come visit for Halloween some time – you will love it here!

    Rick

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