Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2016 a Grand Mix of Mazes, Monsters, and Boozy Mayhem

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016There may be no place on Earth more storied than the Queen Mary when it comes to legends of paranormal activity. The massive ship now rests permanently moored in Long Beach, California, where she hosts visitors from around the world – they come to gawk at the titanic ship of yesteryear, to shop, to enjoy fine dining experiences, and they come to stay overnight in one of the cabins, as the Queen Mary was converted into a hotel in 1972 (the number of guest rooms and amenities on the ship have grown vastly since then). People also flock to the Queen Mary for much darker reasons. Paranormal investigations are on-going within the creaking hull of the ship, within her cavernous bowels, and in every narrow crawlspace – some of which haven’t been explored for years. Considered a virtual hotbed of ghostly activity, it is only fitting that the Queen Mary is home to one of the largest Halloween events in the world. Dark Harbor 2016 marked the 7th season for event, which grows in scale and popularity here in Southern California each year.

Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2016 featured 6 mazes, oodles of roaming monsters and iconic characters, a themed paintball gallery, a swings ride from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, a 4-D theater attraction, a sideshow/lounge attraction, and more bars than you could visit in a trip. Dark Harbor is a major event, and is packed so full of things to do and see, it’s just about impossible to get it all done in one night anymore; for this reason, fans can buy a Dark Harbor Season Pass, which is something most of the Halloween events here in SoCal offer now. The sheer amount of live entertainment featured at Dark Harbor is impressive; by far, the most abundant and varied of all the other large-scale haunts here in the Southland.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

One thing that is not abundant at Dark Harbor is parking. In fact, on busy nights, the parking situation at the Queen Mary can be downright nasty; so much so, that the team behind the event urged attendees to arrive early or get there using alternate methods during their panel presentation at last year’s Midsummer Scream Halloween Festival in Long Beach. There are several factors contributing to the challenges that Dark Harbor faces with parking each year, including the rising popularity of the event itself. Situated on a peninsula, the Queen Mary already has limited space for parking. During Dark Harbor, visitors share the parking lot with guests staying aboard the ship or visiting for other reasons, as well as passengers of Carnival Cruise Lines, which has now taken over the dome that housed two mazes, and Dark Harbor’s makeup/wardrobe operations.

Your best bet, if you don’t plan on arriving and chilling early outside of Dark Harbor, is to utilize satellite parking or use a carpooling service/public transit to get to the event with as little hassle as possible. In years past, it’s been our suggestion and practice to arrive early and enjoy some drinks aboard the Queen Mary in the Observation Bar, or eating at one of the restaurants. Unfortunately, management has decided that unless you buy a General Admission ticket to Queen Mary ($30), you may not access the bar/restaurants on the ship; we found this out the hard way when we were denied access and were told we’d have to spend $30 to come aboard in order to buy drinks that are already expensive in the Observation Bar. This doesn’t sit well with us, and hasn’t always been the policy at Queen Mary. In fact, it seems seriously backward for an attraction that is dependent on visitor dollars to turn away locals or guests coming early to events such as Dark Harbor who want to spend money beforehand. Forcing locals to buy a $30 General Admission ticket to simply come aboard the ship is extremely poor judgment, in my opinion. Rather than drop a few bills on rounds of drinks before Dark Harbor, we simply walked away from the ship with a bad taste in our mouths and opted to stand around for an hour talking to friends in the parking lot. In short, Queen Mary lost revenue by trying to force our hands in this case. I digress; this isn’t anything that has anything to do with Dark Harbor or the creative team directly – it’s just a warning to fans and admonishment toward Queen Mary’s new owners/upper management when it comes to guests arriving early for this event.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

Dark Harbor is probably the most well-balanced major attraction event during Halloween in SoCal when it comes to mazes and entertainment. Everywhere you turn, you can find live talent of some kind – shows and performances of all types, which guests really seem to appreciate. In recent years, we have seen show offerings from both Knott’s and Universal decline during Halloween. Queen Mary, on the other hand, has really expanded its lineup of shows and performances throughout the entire Dark Harbor venue, which helps crowd dispersement and creates more variety for guests who want more than just mazes. Whether it’s magic or self-mutilation, there’s something for everyone when it comes to the shows at Dark Harbor. Kudos to the creative team for recognizing the importance of, and investing in live entertainment for this event.

One of the entertainment venues at Dark Harbor 2016 we enjoyed was found inside the Sideshow, a $5 up-charge attraction filled with strange characters, mini haunt experiences and humorous gags. The Sideshow stage featured a wide variety of acts throughout the night, with ample seating/standing space and a dedicated bar to serve patrons hanging out there. The entire footprint of Sideshow changed in 2016, as it swapped places with the Deadrise maze to improve guest flow. While Sideshow itself was fun and fine (the content hasn’t changed much in the past few years, so we kind of just walk through to get to the bar at the end), the “private” stage and bar area wasn’t as strong as it was in 2015. It was perhaps too large of a space to feel really “private” or exclusive, and the placement of the actual bar itself was awkwardly far from the stage, and was poorly lit; we honestly had to walk over and ask if they were open. The acts were fun and entertaining, and we enjoyed just hanging out and chatting with friends while we were there. We did miss the intimacy of 2015’s Sideshow bar, and hope that the powers that be will improve on this portion of Dark Harbor in 2017.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016While on the topic of bars, it’s no secret that Queen Mary doesn’t shy away from making booze very readily available at all of its events, Dark Harbor included. On one hand, many people feel this is a recipe for disaster since some guests simply can’t control themselves; Instant Asshat – just add alcohol, you know? While drunk guests are a very real and very valid concern at any haunt, I am torn on this personally. I enjoy having booze available to enjoy with friends at haunts socially. And I also feel that if someone absolutely wants booze at an event like Dark Harbor, they’re going to find a way to have it – or simply come to the event intoxicated already. Dark Harbor embraces its alcohol options, and they openly tout it. In fact, they increased the availability of adult beverages for 2016, making it one of their presentation talking points at Midsummer Scream. I do think that there need to be well-defined safeguards in place that make it extremely challenging for people to have too much booze in these cases, such as wristbands that get punched with each purchase, with a 3-drink cap for the night; something that sets a limit that people can enjoy but not become a disaster with. In all fairness, we haven’t heard more complaints from Dark Harbor employees about drunk guest problems than other events that have – or don’t have – booze for sale. The prices are pretty steep at Dark Harbor for alcohol (and to be fair – booze at just about every Southland attraction is over-priced year-round, with Knott’s and Universal in the lead); to have enough to get drunk, you have to drop a decent chunk of cash, which is probably a decent deterrent for the majority of guests.

One of the best perks at Dark Harbor is its VIP package. Last year, it was $99 per guest and included admission to the event, Fast Fright (front of line) Pass, 2 drink tickets, and all-night access to the exclusive RIP Lounge, which overlooks the entire outdoor section of Dark Harbor. In the RIP Lounge, guests have their own dedicated bar, as well as limitless eats such as pork sliders or soft tacos. On slower nights, those enjoying the RIP Lounge often have it almost all to themselves – a really fantastic deal that doesn’t cost a lot, all things considered. All of the major Halloween events here in SoCal offer some sort of VIP ticket option (with the exception of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, which hasn’t offered a VIP ticket for the past couple of years now, surprisingly); Dark Harbor’s is by far, the best value. You pay about $100, and that covers your admission, gets your front of line bypass to everything, buys you 2 drinks, and gives you access to unlimited food; when you break it down, that’s a really great deal – one we highly recommend to anyone and everyone.

Before we touch on the mazes individually – because let’s face it, we know our TPAers are all about the mazes – I’d be remiss not to sing the praises of Dark Harbor’s talent, which is stellar year after year.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

Not only do all of the event’s scare actors embrace and become their characters completely across the board at Dark Harbor – the main walk-around characters are home-grown intellectual property personalities that are larger than life and absolutely fantastic. In fact, I’d say that Dark Harbor’s characters are just as well-known, if not more so, than the Green Witch or any of the other “regulars” at Knott’s Scary Farm, which is the original event that sparked all other theme park/attraction haunts. I’d say the “big three” at Dark Harbor are the Ringmaster, The Captain, and Graceful Gale, followed by other core characters such as Scary Mary and Samuel the Savage – original personalities and legends created for the event, some based loosely in the ship’s history, and all tied directly to various experiences found throughout the haunt. The entire lineup of main characters at Dark Harbor is stunning. In 2016, the Ringmaster was played by a new actor; while really good with his own style and completely creepy demeanor, we feel the spotlight has shifted from that character and now shines completely on The Captain and Graceful Gale. This powerhouse combo is both extremely haunting and hopelessly (or rather, eternally) romantic. Guests aren’t quite sure what the couple’s deal is – but there is a spark there when they gaze at each other that is undeniably awesome, and fans eat it up!

The truth of the matter is, The Captain and Graceful Gale are more than characters that are attracted to each other at Dark Harbor; in real life, they are husband and wife, Jennifer and Brad Hills. If you haven’t already, check out our exclusive video interview with them – they’re absolutely perfect together both on and off stage. As long as Queen Mary’s theme remains “Dark Harbor”, I would say these two main characters are even more important than the Ringmaster in the big scheme of things. The Captain – it’s his ship. And Gale – she’s his soulmate, quite literally in this case. Their chemistry goes well beyond makeup applications – and its is pure genius; a windfall for Queen Mary, honestly. These characters are real – as real as it gets, and we look forward to seeing them in action each and every season at Dark Harbor. They, like the rest of the talent that populates the event, are its strongest asset. It’s the people behind Dark Harbor that make it as successful as it has become. I hope that Queen Mary’s executives never lose sight of that.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

The biggest draw for me to most Halloween events are mazes. Mazes, mazes, mazes, mazes! Ever since I was a little kid, I adored haunted houses of all types. I never was afraid, I never get afraid – I just love the hell out of any kind of walk-through haunted attraction experience. I’d like to finish this year’s look at Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2016 with a very brief rundown of each maze, if you’ll allow me to go on a bit longer:

Intrepid was brand-new for 2016, and it introduced a new character to the Dark Harbor family, the Iron Master. This maze was located in the dome at Queen Mary, and told the story of the ship’s construction in the early 1930s under the direction of Scotsman Ivan Blackwood. According to legend, a mysterious locomotive pulled into the shipyard one night, and Blackwood climbed aboard to check it out – the train left, and the Scotsman simply vanished. Nearly 100 years later, Blackwood returned from his hellish journey into the unknown. Half man, half machine, the Iron Master has returned to claim his ship, the Queen Mary, and stake his claim on Dark Harbor, which creates a healthy bit of tension with The Captain.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

In a nutshell, Intrepid was a mixed bag. It started out very promising, with a really neat façade of the giant locomotive; a conductor would emerge and usher small groups into the train as the experience began. After passing through the steam train, guests wound up in the Scottish shipyard where Queen Mary was under construction; again, a pretty impressive visual, complete with the ship’s bow and hull being worked on as sparks showered down. Very quickly though, Intrepid went from very interesting to frustrating, and then disappointing.

One of the components in Intrepid was a split route – guests were separated once they arrived in the shipyard; some went upstairs to walk along scaffolding, and others walked along the ground of the facility. Having different routes was fine, although I think those who took the stairs got a much better view of the ship under construction and the shipyard below – something all guests likely would have enjoyed seeing. The major problem I had, came after descending from the upper level back to the construction site, where guests were forced to crawl through a large pipe for about 10 feet or so. Crawling in any maze isn’t my favorite activity, simply because I usually have video equipment with me – and the fact that I have bad knees that are super touchy when it comes to activities such as crawling or climbing. What really rubs me the wrong way – and this is something that Queen Mary has been guilty of in the past – is that we were made to crawl through the pipe on our knees with no padding on the ground. This is painful and uncomfortable. If you’re going to make people crawl on the ground or through something like a tunnel, pad the hell out of it. Honestly, it should be common sense; the Dark Harbor team definitely knows better. I was really disappointed by this, and was pretty shocked that it would be left unpadded for the duration of the event. Let’s say this together; it’s Design 101… If you make guests crawl, USE PADDING!

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

The rest of the maze was largely made up of chain-linked fencing, which usually translates to one or two things: budget ran out, or there was a lot of space to fill up quickly and cheaply within the designated footprint. There were some show elements and props throughout, but most were kept behind fencing, away from guests; this made us spectators rather than participants in the moment. Our favorite visual in the entire maze was found in this section, ironically – one of the Queen Mary’s anchors being forged as molten metal poured into a huge mold just feet away; it was an obscure detail, but one that really clicked with us and sold the action of seeing a part of the ship being created all those years ago.

Like the Iron Master, many of the characters in Intrepid were half human, half machine, which gave the maze somewhat of a steampunk vibe as well. This worked best in the chain fence portion of the maze and made the most sense here, as these were the souls forced to build the ship for all eternity. Throughout the maze, the talent was good, with the stand-out performance usually going to the conductor of the steam train at the beginning.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016The frustration that we had with Intrepid, is that it’s obvious to us that there was a fantastic storyline and design intent in place. Beyond the first half of the maze, the detail really fell, to the point of us shaking our heads, confused by really simple scenic props and semi-sets randomly plopped down along the guest route. Most monsters stayed on the other side of the fencing, so we never really felt like we were in immediate “danger” at any time.

So… what happened with Intrepid? Obviously, the backstory and design intent was there; it was really rich and very cool, in concept. The physical manifestation of the concept – that was another story, with the entire experience being really disappointing to us. I have a theory that could be really wrong, or could carry some validity here; I honestly don’t know. Since Carnival now has control of the dome, that means that Intrepid – as well as Circus – have been displaced completely. It may be possible that the maze itself was designed to be “cheap” as far as installation goes, because the team knew 2016 would be a one-and-done for Intrepid. I mean, I honestly don’t know where it would fit this year if it returns – you can’t have the Queen Mary under construction as the real thing looms behind it in plain view. And to have it on the ship… that’s just way too meta and weird, right? If this is the case, I understand why Intrepid wasn’t terribly complex detail-wise. At the end of the day, I think Dark Harbor inherited a great new character in the Iron Master, whether or not the maze returns. Others we have spoken to loved Intrepid, so to each their own. We simply feel that it was by far, the weakest link in the Dark Harbor 2016 lineup.

Circus was the other maze located in the dome. While this particular attraction had some interesting components, it felt a bit odd experience-wise. Perhaps it was the really beat-up facade. Something tells me that Dark Harbor perhaps wasn’t planning on bringing Circus back for 2016 and at the last minute, found out that they were using the dome and scrambled to salvage pieces of Circus from previous years – the frontage included; that’s the only reason I can think of regarding its pretty ratty appearance. To that end, Circus’ beat-up-looking facade actually may have played into the creepy factor that automatically comes with a circus/clown theme, you know?

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

The main difference within the maze last year versus previous iterations, was a room at the beginning where guests found themselves surrounded by numbered doors. Members of the circus family taunted each of us, making groups choose which door to venture through. Some doors led to dead ends; others snaked back around to the same room. In the end, everyone passed through a doorway that led to the infamous ball pit that was introduced during Dark Harbor 2015. And yes, it was just as challenging to maneuver through the second time around!

Following the ball pit was a fairly large room that was pretty much pitch-black. Guests had to make their way through the darkness with their hands out in front of them, feeling their way. Unfortunately, the maze was installed with hanging props in that dark section – some of which were hard-surfaced; those of us wearing glasses weren’t exactly amused by that choice after getting smacked in the face by severed heads, etc. when walking into them blindly. Ouch, and no fun.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

The rest of the Circus maze was fine – demented clowns, strange characters, and some truly cool old-school funhouse-style gags, including sliding floor sections. We were spoiled in 2015, when the Ringmaster led the way for us through the attraction. The talent throughout Circus was very good – many of them having worked the same maze with the same team for multiple years (always a plus for haunts). By far, the folks working Circus were its strongest asset, giving an otherwise tired maze genuine excitement and legitimacy. Will this maze make another comeback this year? I highly doubt it – but time will tell. The bigger question is, if Circus goes away… is the Ringmaster character far behind?

Moving onto the ship, each of the three mazes located there were returning attractions, each with modifications to their layouts and overall design. The biggest changes came to Soulmate, the maze that tells the tale of Graceful Gale and her bloodthirsty quest to create the perfect man. Essentially, Soulmate was flipped around and routed in the opposite direction from years past, with a completely new beginning that featured the Queen Mary’s propeller observation room – an already-creepy space that allows guests to peer down into the still water at one of the ships massive propellers. This was an instant hit with guests, as they stood clutching the sides with white knuckles as they looked down into the depths. Here, people also encountered a very human Gale, who took very quickly to gentlemen as they passed, often walking and talking to them… ultimately sizing them up (literally) before saying she’d see them later. It was a weird flashback bit that totally worked, so I give Dark Harbor huge props for taking the maze in that direction and really landing a great experience. The overall content of Soulmate remained the same, offering ghostly encounters with the sensual spirit and a few brushes with severed body parts and the like along the way. Overall, we felt that Soulmate was really well done, and that the new additions and route through part of the ship gave it new life… a new skin, if you will.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

B340 was also on the ship, featuring probably the coolest layout of the three mazes located directly on the liner. The fact that guests visiting B340 traverse a gantry spanning the ship’s cavernous boiler room makes this maze extremely exciting and interesting to me personally; even more so when the gantry “collapses” as folks walk across! The only wish we come away each year from B340 is that more special effects/projections would be added to the massive boiler room space – it’s begging for something outrageous and amazing. Years ago, there was a great projection mapping effect that made it look like the interior of the space was on fire; it was really cool, and we always hope that Queen Mary will go back to that concept and really do it up with proper projectors. Done correctly, the boiler room could be one of Southern California’s greatest haunt visuals. We always wait and hope someone will run with it, but it always feels a bit anti-climactic, truthfully. The rest of the maze tells the strange story of Samuel the Savage with odd imagery and extremely gory sets. I think that B340 is perhaps a bit too abstract in design for most guests to get what’s going on or what the story is. That doesn’t impede the scares however, as they come fast and furious from all angles as people walk down narrow corridors and shockingly steep stairways. This is a very dark maze, both figuratively and literally. I just wish the story of Samuel was more clearly relayed to guests venturing through the maze. In the end, I’d say that B340 is a mixed bag – some of it is hands-down rad, while other aspects of it are more confusing and troublesome, story-wise. Queen Mary would really need to overhaul this particular attraction to re-work the storytelling aspect of it, which probably won’t happen. Sam is an “incidental character” at Dark Harbor; not one of the mains, and thus, probably not a likely candidate for a major maze retooling. At some point, maybe sooner than later, Dark Harbor will feature another character in that space. If for no other reason, we definitely recommend B340 because of the awesome boiler room moment; that’s pure gold – and scary as hell!

Aside from Ringmaster, The Captain, and Graceful Gale, one other character that’s been depicted for years at Dark Harbor seems to be gaining in popularity each season: Scary Mary. The star of the third maze on the ship, Lullaby, the child spirit has become extremely iconic at the event and beyond. Lullaby features a large footprint within the Queen Mary that includes one of the most famous – and haunted – spots on the ship, the First Class Swimming Pool. Looking for people to “play” with, Scary Mary lurks around each dark corner, popping out of small spaces and tormenting guests as they brave their way through darkened corridors, past toys and playthings, and ultimately, come face-to-face with the lost child, who drowned in the First Class Swimming Pool so many years ago.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

New to Lullaby in 2016 was a split-path component toward the end of the maze; guests were made to choose one of two hallways to enter, each leading to the pool area and into the clutches of Scary Mary herself. We felt that the talent in Lullaby was absolutely fantastic and always on point, making for an extremely enjoyable attraction full of great scares and character interactions.

Our only wish (every year) for Lullaby, is that the climactic pool scene would be really over-the-top crazy, with a grand finale moment that would leave guests screaming, stunned, cheering, or all of the above. That’s never happened, to be honest; not for Lullaby or anything that has ever featured the pool. It may be a logistics issue or Queen Mary management saying not to mess with the space too much due to its historical importance. I don’t know exactly what the deal is, but the pool area always is pretty brightly-lit, there are no special effects in play, and guests see Scary Mary lingering along the walkway from a long distance off, usually. I understand why Dark Harbor doesn’t use fog machines on the ship in its mazes (I’m betting it has to do with the liner’s fire alarm system), but there’s no reason the lights in the pool area can’t be dimmed and a gnarly show moment be put into play. We really like Lullaby – we just will always wish for a total “Wow!” moment at the end.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

Heading back outside for the final maze, I’ve saved my favorite of Dark Harbor 2016 for the last – Deadrise. This has long been a staple of the event, the battered remains of a WWII escort ship that accompanied The Grey Ghost (Queen Mary’s wartime name when she was painted gray and used as a massive troop transport) filled with its doomed crew… or “sea men” as they often quip. This is a really great attraction that takes guests on a walk through the twisted metal ruins of a military vessel that has been blown to pieces. Live pyro lights up the night, and the metallic skeleton of Deadrise casts harsh shadows while illuminating the night with orange bursts of flame high above Dark Harbor.

One thing that drives us nuts about SoCal weather in October is that it’s usually hotter than hell at the beginning of the month, and can be super cold come the end, just four weeks later. When the evenings are warm or downright hot in Long Beach, Deadrise is the maze to enjoy, both as guests and event employees because it’s the only one completely outdoors! Definitely much better than the mazes on the ship, which can become virtual ovens filled with heated, trapped air during the day as temperatures outside soar.

One of the most infamous elements of Deadrise is a large water “explosion” moment, which is manually controlled by a tech sitting in a booth above the maze, waiting for guests to be in the “splash zone” of the gag. I am one that simply doesn’t like getting and being wet at theme parks, so while I am not a fan of said water, I do think it’s an interesting and amusing trick to have in Deadrise. It’s certainly fitting, given the theme, and I have to admit that I do love hearing girls scream about their hair or makeup getting wet after they’ve gone out of their way to make themselves up for a night at Dark Harbor.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 2016

Here is where we come to my absolute favorite thing to do at Dark Harbor. The exit of Deadrise features a shipping container filled with fog and mounted spotlights that virtually blind guests as they walk toward the exit. Monsters wait at the very end – usually on top of the container – and terrorize people as they emerge from the maze. It’s awesome to watch these guys in action, as they have it down to a science. Despite the large crowds that can gather to watch this grand finale at Deadrise, guests remain oblivious as to what awaits them, since the spotlights inside the container blind them until the last foot or so of the maze as they emerge into the night in front of bunches of laughing, clapping people.

And that’s it for our look back at Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2016! It’s one of our favorite events all Halloween season long, and we adore the incredible team that puts this on each year. We’ve seen Dark Harbor rise from the ashes of failed attempts at Halloween events before at Queen Mary, and become one of the premier productions of the season. Kudos to the entire Dark Harbor 2016 family and crew – your hard work is never lost on us, and we love the hell out of you guys, from the sliders to the make-up team, support staff to Steve Sheldon, Charity Hill, David F. Wally and everyone else that works their butts off to deliver a world-class event each and every time! Thank you all, and we’ll see you when the fog returns and the blood tide rises once again in Long Beach!

For more information and ticketing to all events, visit QueenMary.com.

  • Rick West

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Additional Media

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