REVIEW: LA Haunted Hayride 2013

Theme Park Adventure has had the privilege of watching the LA Haunted Hayride grow over the past five years from a startup haunt way out in the boonies of the Santa Monica Mountains at the King Gillette Ranch, to one of Los Angeles’ top haunted attractions that is on our Must-See list each Halloween. The LA Haunted Hayride has evolved into a unique night out – not merely a hayride, but an entire event complete with carnival, multiple attractions, entertainment and hordes of monsters roaming and interacting with guests at every turn!

Located in the Old Zoo portion of Griffith Park, the LA Haunted Hayride is a sprawling mix of frightening and elaborate scenes, a spooky carnival (complete with a skeletal horse-laden Scary Go-Round that spins backward to the delight of riders), crafts, a mirror maze and more! This season, since the theme of the Hayride was Based on Actual Events, paranormal investigators took to a stage and shared their chilling tales as hundreds of guests listened and shuddered as they were shown images and briefed on the hair-raising details of various hauntings.

LA_HAYRIDE_2013_3421Food is also served at the LA Haunted Hayride – and if you didn’t know, you might be surprised to learn that it’s all vegan. Every last bit of it. For the record, I’m not vegan. Johanna isn’t vegan. And in all honesty, I think that the LA Haunted Hayride should offer a wide variety of food trucks to fit everyone’s personal likes and choices. However, it’s the choice of Ten Thirty One Productions and Melissa Carbone, who runs the company; her sandbox, her decision. And at the end of the day – we did try some of the food and if I hadn’t known it was vegan ahead of time, I would have never known, to be honest. I had the nachos, and they were perfectly fine. The food has always been decent at this event; this year, I will say that it was the best so far – bringing in a gourmet vegan team to make the food was a smart move and judging by the constant line of guests buying food, it was successful for everyone involved.

In addition to the carnival this year, which was loaded with roaming monsters, the LA Hayride added a Witch Hanging, which we literally stumbled on while we were shooting footage for our 2013 video. A large group of people was gathered around a gallows listening to a man shouting about the virtues of goodness. I started shooting video and what unfolded over the next couple of minutes was a damn good little show! A witch was brought up to the gallows, where she growled and screamed at the crowd as she was condemned to Hell for her wicked ways. The crowd loved it, TPA loved it, and I couldn’t help but think of the Witch Hanging at Knott’s Scary Farm in the early 1970s; it was pretty much playing out right here, in front of us! The show itself was very simple and lo-fi; however, the crowd got into it and it worked beautifully several times a night. This is exactly the type of extras that haunt fans love to come across when visiting large-scale attractions each Halloween; the Devil is in the details – or in this case, a witch! Bravo!

LA_HAYRIDE_2013_3405The In Between is the “dark maze” at the LA Haunted Hayride. Here, guests are split up into small groups and sent packing into a pitch dark maze, one person holding a small lantern that pulses a red light every few seconds. The irony is that the flashing light not only makes it harder for your eyes to get accustomed to the dark, it acts as a beacon to monsters waiting for you in the darkness! In Between is a long, really cool maze that also features an outside portion that is loaded with monsters and other nasty surprises before sending you back into the darkness for more blind terror! Theme Park Adventure has been in many “dark” mazes before, and this one is our favorite, without question; it’s a creative mix of scary fun, great monsters and we really like the outdoor portion of the experience as well; a great twist on a widely-used concept. If you attend the LA Haunted Hayride, a journey through the In Between is a must to make your night complete!

A fantastic addition this year to the LA Haunted Hayride offerings was a large photo op area that was called Death Row. Inside a tent, guests could access numerous free sets loaded with bloody props and devices of death and torture to take their own pictures and video. This is something that people love, and a feature that most haunted attractions completely don’t offer, which is a huge mistake in our opinion. Guests take pictures. Guests love photo ops. This was a perfect extra this year, and the high volume of guest traffic inside is proof that it worked well. The only suggestion we’d make is that the LA Haunted Hayride logo be prominent in each scene, so that when the images are posted, tweeted and shared, so is the logo – free marketing going viral!

LA_HAYRIDE_2013_3513Of course, the main attraction at the LA Haunted Hayride is – can you guess? The hayride! A vast, very expensive undertaking, the hayride is the core of this attraction, featuring huge, elaborate sets, many talented actors, awesome props, and really great make-up. If you’re not familiar with how a hayride haunt works (if you live on the West Coast, chances are you may not), here’s the gist of the operation: Guests board large flatbeds filled with hay that are typically pulled by tractors (as they are in the case of the LAHH) through darkness past macabre scenes as monsters torment them from all sides. Guests ride huddled together, completely exposed and vulnerable to the ghosts and ghouls that lurk just inches away from the slow-moving flatbed. This type of haunt is very common in areas of the United States where folks have large farms or corn fields. Here in Los Angeles however, having one of these attractions smack in the middle of the city is a great treat each Halloween – and the sheer number of visitors to the LA Haunted Hayride stands as a testament to the unique niche it’s filled with fans of all types!

As said earlier, the theme of the 2013 Hayride was Based on Actual Events. A large portion of the Hayride this year was based on real and fictional killers, in a very dark and tongue-in-cheek manner, as you will see in our video. Notorious types such as Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy were depicted in a ghoulish Christmas scene, while other “actual” events such as a Satanic church and deliberately blazed Catholic Orphanage, Sisters of the Burning Heart. Along the 20 to 25-minute ride, there are other spooks and oddities waiting as well, including massive “living” trees and Cenobite-like creatures. While many of the characters were lost in translation to guests, and certainly lost on younger fans, the execution of each scene was fantastic. Even if people didn’t get who the characters were supposed to be, it didn’t matter in the end – because the journey was exciting, spooky and absolutely in-your-face the whole way. What could have been done to better inform guests of each scene or the various killers encountered along the way? Perhaps monitors along the queue playing old news footage, or newly-produced “documentary footage” on each of the individuals or events depicted along the route. A more on the nose approach may have been to have large screens set up between each scene, with footage or images projected of the “actual events” – that may have helped guests put two and two together so that the theme was more prominent throughout. However, in the end it didn’t matter; people came for a haunted attraction experience and they got one in full.

LA_HAYRIDE_2013_3588There has already been controversy surrounding the inclusion of real-life killers in the Hayride this year. One poster online said in relation to the John Wayne Gacy character: “You don’t make light of real murders. He took it too far with jokes about boys under floor boards. This happened less than 40 years ago, have some respect!”

Halloween attractions have always poked fun at the macabre; this is nothing new, nor is it something outlandish or shocking. Attractions and shows at Halloween very often take on very dark or “taboo” subject matters either in literal or tongue-in-cheek ways. Of course no one is condoning what John Wayne Gacy or anyone else depicted did. In our opinion, it’s not “too soon” or detrimental to the LA Haunted Hayride’s reputation. If anything, it got people out of their comfort zone and caused some discussion. If some folks were truly offended, well, they need to understand that Halloween is a time when most subjects are fair game and you accept that by attending events and attractions during the season. Other people just bellyache to be self-righteous; City Hall at Disneyland constantly gets someone complaining that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride ends in Hell, and that attraction has been around since 1955!

Melissa Carbone and her Creative Director Justin Meyer don’t shy away from controversy or worry about offending people. In fact, this year’s Haunted Hayride was as unapologetic and edgy as it’s ever been. The final sequence was an evil clown church, which began with a large billboard that read “DON’T GO TO CHURCH”, quote by Satan. It doesn’t get more edgy than that, and you bet that complaints came in to the team (although ironically, the origin of the actual billboard may have actually been a church or religious group). However, and this is my take on the subject, Halloween isn’t really a holiday for religious folks to go around being sensitive about. In America, the holiday isn’t about its Celtic or Pagan roots – it’s about the macabre, gratuitous sex and violence, scaring the crap out of people, haunted houses, and yes – offensive dark humor. You don’t have to go very far to find anything “offensive” or religiously compromising about Halloween in general. So coming to an event such as the LA Haunted Hayride and then being offended by its content because of your own personal beliefs or values – that’s as silly as it gets. Besides, if your religion is so delicate that you are moved to the point of complaining over a tongue-in-cheek billboard prop, then you need to question yourself why you’re so insecure and overtly sensitive to such things and why you’re attending such “worldly” event in the first place.

LA_HAYRIDE_2013_3606One of the most impressive aspects of the LA Haunted Hayride is that the attraction receives a brand new soundtrack each season, courtesy of the wildly talented Chris Thomas, a composer/musician based in Los Angeles. Chris’ score each year for the Hayride are epic, completely polished, and customized to fit every scene throughout the experience. Theme Park Adventure is a huge fan of Chris and his work, and think that Ten Thirty One Productions is fortunate and absolutely doing the right thing working with him each year to deliver their awesome soundtrack.

And that plays into the final part of the LA Haunted Hayride experience that we want to touch on in this review; the merchandise associated with the event. All too often, haunts – even large-scale ones – have no merchandise to offer its guests. And that is a huge wasted opportunity not only for some serious revenue, but for free year-round advertising as people wear T-shirts, use coffee mugs and use products in their everyday life that bear these logos. Coming from the themed entertainment industry, it always boggles my mind when haunt business models don’t include a lot of merch or branding. However, we come across that all the time in our travels each Halloween season. Melissa and her team gets it and when guests disembark from the hayride portion of the event, they all exit through the gift shop, literally. For purchase are shirts, hats, sweatpants, drink canteens and yes – even the official soundtrack CD of the event! The prices are average, the selection is freakin’ great and we love that guests can take home a part of the haunt with its soundtrack each year! Other haunt owners should take note - this is how it’s done, folks. Period.

Visiting the LA Haunted Hayride is an all-night affair; it’s a large production and just like you set a night aside for attractions such as Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, or Knott’s Scary Farm, time should be set aside so that you aren’t rushed or miss out on anything here. Guests visiting the LAHH should get there when the event opens and plan on spending several hours there taking it all in; it’s a fantastic group outing or date night!

LA_HAYRIDE_2013_3612All said, the LA Haunted Hayride is a fantastic, hugely creative event that is an asset to the Greater Los Angeles area and haunt scene here in Southern California. We have been with Melissa since the beginning five years ago, and plan on supporting her efforts at Ten Thirty One Productions long into the future. This team is on fire, they understand the task and industry at hand, they get the concept of back story and thematic elements and know the importance of keeping the event fresh each season for new and returning fans. Pound for pound, the LA Haunted Hayride is just as good as any Midwest hayride attraction – and it’r right here in our own backyard!

Are you a fan of the LA Haunted Hayride? Share your thoughts and own experiences below and discuss with other TPAers!

- Rick West

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