One of the biggest holiday events in Southern California is CHILL, held each year at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. We went this past weekend to check it out, and although Mother Nature decided it was time for some much-needed rain here in the Southland, we had a really fun time exploring everything offered at this year’s CHILL. The popular winter event takes place just off the ship, including the massive dome where Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose used to reside.
In years past, the largest component of CHILL was its Ice Kingdom attraction – a collection of very impressive ice sculptures, including a reproduction of the Queen Mary’s bow and several ice slides for guests to enjoy. The ice sculptures were featured at the event for the past 4 years, and so, management decided it was time to change things up – if guests are coming back each Christmas season to enjoy CHILL, it’s got to be kept fresh and evolving, otherwise interest will begin to fade. Change things up is exactly what they’ve done this year with the introduction of Alice in Winterland, a large-scale walk-through interactive attraction developed for Queen Mary by Mycotoo, a creative design firm in Los Angeles. TPAers may recall that Mycotoo also developed this year’s new maze, Aftermath 2: Chaos Rising, for Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest.
While it may be a fairly large leap from the world of Alice in Wonderland to the Christmas season, it works pretty nicely at CHILL. There has been just enough holiday magic mixed in with the classic tale and characters of Lewis Caroll’s beloved Alice tales to make it a legit theme for Queen Mary’s holiday extravaganza, which is carried both throughout the outdoor portion and indoor portion of the event. Everywhere you look, Alice in Wonderland creatures and decorations are sprinkled throughout traditional Christmas props such as large candy canes and colorful oversized ornaments.
Inside the dome, the main Alice in Winterland walk-through attraction exists, which is actually much larger in scale than we’d anticipated. We were pleasantly surprised by its size and the detail put into it by Mycotoo. In addition to being a great walk-through attraction, guests have the option to buy special RFID-enabled rabbit ears, or a top hat a la the Mad Hatter, which then trigger special features throughout the attraction, thanks to a cool RFID system that is in place; it’s a really neat plussing of an already-cool concept and environment.
The scenic pieces of the Alice in Winterland attraction at CHILL are Chinese lantern-style; thin, colorful material that’s illuminated from within. The result is pretty great and absolutely unique. Mycotoo designed each of the scenes; they are not off-the-shelf catalog pieces that Queen Mary simply purchased for the event. A lot of hard work and love went into this attraction, and our hats are off to the creative team as well as Queen Mary management for going for it. By the very nature of the lantern-style sets and pieces, this is probably a one-and-done situation, since they do not store well. The sheer size of some of the pieces would also be very expensive to keep packed away somewhere throughout the year. If you’re interested in seeing this attraction, see it this year – there are no guarantees of its return in 2017.
Special effects and charming design aside, there is fantastic live talent throughout the Alice walk-through as well. Characters such as the Mad Hatter, Alice, and Queen of Hearts interact with guests of all ages and are really into it, making suspension of disbelief extremely easy and enjoyable. Huge props to the talent in the walk-through, as well as around the entire event itself. Children were going nuts to play with the characters; it was incredibly engaging and fun to watch throughout the evening.
For older guests venturing through Winterland and CHILL in general, the event features many themed bars offering standard booze selections as well as really cool themed drinks and specialty cocktails! Our favorite location is just outside the Alice in Winterland walk-through; it’s the Magic Mushroom Martini Bar. Not only is there a large-size chess board outside for kids to play on, the inside is themed nicely as well. What’s more – guests buying their drinks in special RFID martini glasses are able to trigger special effects within the bar itself – a super cool touch to an already-neat environment!
As is the case with any special event at Queen Mary, there are plenty of bar locations throughout, making libations extremely accessible regardless of how crowded it may be – or how insatiably thirsty you are! Another very cool lounge is located outside the dome; it’s called Down The White Rabbit Watering Hole, and it’s definitely worth a look when you’re there.
In fact, all of the venue’s outdoor food/beverage locations are themed, just as they are during Dark Harbor. We like this detail very much, and applaud Queen Mary for going the extra step to make the entire environment a cohesive experience depending on the seasons. The only downside, is that the cost of food and beverages at Queen Mary at these stands is extremely high – fairground prices, really; so be ready for that and plan accordingly.
There is a lot of entertainment to be had at CHILL – from singers to strolling characters and other performances throughout the evening. Of course, Santa is waiting to meet and greet folks of all ages in his own in Claus Cottage. The only catch here, is that personal photos are not permitted – guests meeting Santa must be prepared to purchase a photo taken by event staff. I’m not a huge fan of this, especially in the day and age when everyone takes selfies and has fantastic photo and video capabilities of their own in-hand on their own telephones. In sharp contrast to the cool RFID tech in play at the event, as well as the nice Snapchat filter you can access at the event, making guests pay for printed photos seems really out of place; sure, you get a digital download of the image – but still, in what’s nearly 2017, asking guests to shell out cash for pictures with Santa or any character just seems way behind the times. It’s my opinion that Queen Mary would get much more eyes and many more guests excited about meeting Santa if they could use their own phones and then choose from really cool filters or social media goodies to share on Facebook, Instagram, etc. for all to see. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t have to cost anything to meet Santa at a Christmas event, in my opinion.
Guests at CHILL may also participate in a 6-lane ice slide, and for a $15 up-charge, can also enjoy ice skating on the event’s rink outside, as the massive ship – decked-out in its own holiday lighting – looms in the background. There is also a carousel, face painting, storytelling, gingerbread house making, Christmas stocking making, a bounce house for very small children, and other activities on the ship (access to the Queen Mary is included with general CHILL admission) such as a special holiday 4-D Theater experience. Many of these activities are up-charge; perhaps too many for our liking. In general, people don’t like to feel like they’re being nickel-and-dimed when attending theme parks and related attractions; this is one of the reason’s theme parks gave up on their ticketing systems and adopted pay-one-price admission. I think that CHILL is challenged to make a lot of money to off-set the costs of the event (which is only to be expected); I am not sure so many up-charges everywhere you turn is the answer. I would rather pay a higher gate price and have more included in my ticket than have to pay for something every step of the way; that takes the fun out of it very quickly – especially for guests with kids, because what child isn’t going to want to do everything at CHILL? I think what we have here is an extremely well-executed holiday event that is forced to up-charge many things by the ship’s management/ownership to make a certain target profit each season. It’s the classic challenge of putting on a really great show and then having to balance it with the needs and expectations/demands of upper management and operations. There are good CHILL ticket deals out there online – I highly recommend you do your homework and find out what is most cost-effective for you before you head to Long Beach. Planning ahead will make your experience much more enjoyable, and you’ll know what to expect with no unpleasant surprises.
We love the Queen Mary, regardless of time of year. It’s a Southern California treasure, and the events hosted there are usually extremely well-done and absolutely worth visiting; Dark Harbor and CHILL are at the top of that list for us, always. There are some fantastic dining options aboard the ship, as well as the Observation Bar, which is a fantastic spot for a few cocktails with friends or on a date night.
CHILL has continued to evolve very nicely over the years. On the horizon, is a change coming to the Queen Mary property that is definitely on our radar, as it impacts both Dark Harbor and CHILL. Carnival Cruise Line already uses half of the dome on property (as well as a chunk of the parking lot for its passengers’ cars). Come 2017, Carnival will take over the entire dome – which leads to the question of what impact that has for the Queen Mary’s seasonal events that we all love so much. The ramifications could be pretty significant. As was demonstrated when we visited CHILL this year, when it rains, pretty much everything outside shuts down and moves indoors – where the larger attractions are. Next year, everything will need to be outside, which could mean major changes/challenges coming for the Queen Mary’s Christmas and Halloween events. We wait and hope like everyone else – it would be a shame to see either CHILL or Dark Harbor suffer because of the loss of the dome to Carnival.
Huge kudos to all of our friends and peers that have brought CHILL 2016 to life! It’s truly unique and absolutely enchanting for guests of all ages. The Alice in Winterland theme works very well, in our opinion, and is a nice change this year. If you’re within driving distance, or will be visiting Southern California this Holiday Season, CHILL should definitely be on your list of things to do. It’s become a tradition for us; we feel very lucky to have such a cool attraction in our back yard to enjoy each season with family and friends alike.
- Rick West