Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2015 Review – A Shipload of Terrifying Fun!

Dark Harbor 2015_5262Compared to the other large-scale haunted attraction events in Southern California, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor is the new kid on the block. While there have been haunts hosted at the Queen Mary for quite some time, Dark Harbor and its very specific theme and character roster has only been there for 6 seasons. Aging like a fine wine, I’d have to say that 2015 was my favorite so far for Dark Harbor; it is maturing and coming into its own so nicely, that many fans are declaring it to be their favorite “theme park haunt” for numerous reasons.

The Queen Mary is, as I have said in the past, arguably the most unique setting for a large-scale haunt event anywhere in the world. With an established history of paranormal activity and ghoulish happenings, having some of Dark Harbor take place on the actual ship itself is worth the price of admission right off the bat. The more recent “dark carnival” element that has been added to the surrounding area – has been embraced and lauded by fans from far and near for the most part. The combination of haunted passenger ship and twisted carnival is so strange that it works – it works beautifully together, and is pulled off by an unparalleled cast of original characters; home-grown intellectual properties (IP) that have amassed huge popularity in just a few years; more so than any other haunt we’re familiar with here in Southern California.

Dark Harbor is a big event – there is so much content each season, that it’s very hard to take it all in on just one visit. They did offer a Dark Harbor Season Pass for a mere $50 or so this year – quite a steal for those fans attending multiple nights (except for the cost of parking, which is something we’ll get to shortly). There are also VIP and Front of Line options available for Dark Harbor, just as there are with most haunts these days; if done right with the knowledge that you’re not going to see every little thing, it is possible to cover the event adequately as a casual guest in one night. Just be aware that there are huge crowds to contend with, and queues can become dreadfully long – like Halloween Horror Nights status – on busy nights. Our advice – as is usually the case with any large-scale haunt event such as this – is to buy the most top-tier package you can, and spend time enjoying the night rather than waste it waiting in lines. The VIP package for Dark Harbor is always nice – comes with complimentary food, a private area to relax in, a couple drinks, and front of line access; this is always our suggested ticket buy for Dark Harbor. If you can’t afford that, then definitely a standard Front of Line ticket is what you should go for at the very least. But enough about ticket types – the event is over for another year, so worry about what you can afford later; let’s get on with the review!

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Dark Harbor 2015 was host to 6 mazes, all repeats from 2014 with the exception of Lullaby, which was this year’s new maze, located on the ship. Lullaby told the story of Scary Mary – a little girl who wasn’t very innocent – and met her end in the ship’s swimming pool decades ago. Looking for new playmates – permanent playmates – Mary roams the halls and bowels of the Queen Mary in search of her latest victim.

Any maze that is located on the ship has an automatic leg up on the rest as far as built-in creepy factor goes. Throughout the maze, we were taunted by multiple Mary characters – perhaps too many, as the novelty quickly wore thin, with a new Scary Mary at every turn, if not more. I would have preferred to find her victims in grotesque vignettes, only to catch a glimpse of Mary via shadow play or even just as giggling audio. At the end, the finale scene was the pool area – a space that is without doubt, one of the gnarliest settings at Dark Harbor. A lone Mary stood across the room – too far away to be frightening or intimidating; aside from a shimmering “water reflection” light on one wall of the area, there were no other effects in play, which I think was a huge missed opportunity. Don’t read too much into this – Lullaby isn’t a bad maze; I just would prefer to see things done a bit differently next season. If it were my sandbox, I would definitely show very little of Mary – and then at the end, as guests pass through the pool area, lay it on thick. There are large pillars in the room, that could easily hide two people each – who could then in turn, pop out and say, “Come play with me!” and then disappear, only to re-appear a moment later elsewhere in the pool area, from behind another pillar; make it seem that she is darting all over the room the same as any feisty spirit could and would to scare people. The second issue I would attack head-on is the use of effects in the pool area. For the last several years, this scene has always felt like it’s fairly light on any “wow” factor. Now, I don’t know what restrictions JJ Wickham, the event’s Creative Director, may have to deal with regarding what they can or can’t do with the pool or room in general – the ship’s owner may be fairly restrictive about it – but I’d do my best to give it lighting and audio effects that surpass anything seen previously in the maze up to that point. Lights flickering, mist in the pool with shadow projections, multiple layers of Mary giggling and laughing mixed with tormented adult screams – the works. In the case of Lullaby, I think of Mary as the shark in Jaws – you know it’s there, and when you finally do see it, it’s scary as hell – but the anticipation… that’s the real poop cramp-maker, you know? That all said, we did like Lullaby – and are happy to see one of Dark Harbor’s most iconic characters get a maze of her own!

It should also be said that every individual that we encountered at Dark Harbor playing Scary Mary was freaking badass – never once did we say, “That girl could have done better.” Never once. They were all phenomenal at all times, and deserve to be recognized.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise this year came in the Circus maze, home to the Ringmaster and her greasepaint-covered minions. This wasn’t the first year for Circus, which was located in the dome that once housed the Spruce Goose airplane. It was however, the best it’s ever been, thanks in large part to a crazy ball pit room placed in the heart of the maze. That’s right – a ball pit. A big one. On opening night, the large plastic balls in this room were waist-high, making it very hard to walk without falling; guests basically had to swim their way through the room – all the while, being menaced by clowns who were waiting and watching, just their heads and necks emerging from the ball pit. I personally have never seen this done in a maze before – and have to give JJ props for getting this approved; while it was awesome fun and a hell of a shock to come upon, it was absolutely a line killer, backing up even the VIP/Fast Fright queue almost an hour on busy nights. Capacity issue aside, it was freaking brilliant – and everyone ended up talking about it. By the end of the run, the ball pit was much easier to maneuver and the amount of balls had decreased greatly – because they were everywhere at Dark Harbor! Some were even found in the bowels of the ship itself! Kind of a headache for the crew – but damn, it was definitely some crazy fun! This was the final year for Circus, so if you missed it, you missed your shot at the infamous Dark Harbor ball bit! Those of you who did attend this year will definitely never forget it! Fun stuff!

Another maze at Dark Harbor that deserves honorable mention is Deadrise, a wrecked WWII escort ship filled with the ghosts of its ill-fated crew. Deadrise was really great this year, featuring a lot of live pyro effects, as well as big water “explosions” that normally, we’d not be huge fans of. However, considering most of Halloween 2015 felt like summertime, and the fact that the big water bursts that would rain down on guests passing through the twisted wreck totally fit in with the story – we actually liked the wet element a great deal! This particular maze is located outside, which means it’s one of the only attractions at Dark Harbor that isn’t prone to being hotter than Hell due to the balmy Southern California nights we experience here during October. I’ve often said that if I were to be a maze monster at Dark Harbor, I’d want to be in Deadrise, no question; it’s open-air, and much more environmentally comfortable that the other mazes found at the event. The crew of Deadrise was really on point this season, delivering scares left and right, as well as from above – the team of monsters manning the exit of the maze put on a hell of a show each night scaring the living shit out of people non-stop as they emerged through the fog-choked finale. Huge props to all involved with Deadrise!

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The returning mazes all looked the same or better than last year’s versions, with Voodoo probably being the strongest of the bunch – the design of that maze in particular is really good, even if the theme is a bit out of whack with the overall story of Dark Harbor.

One thing we did notice opening night that was quickly discontinued this year, was big time pulsing of groups into the mazes with show moments at the beginning of each one. While compelling story-wise and definitely fun for the experience, I was concerned immediately that each maze having a show stop at the beginning would significantly destroy any capacity numbers Dark Harbor hoped to hit, and would back up the wait times even more than they already get on busy nights, making for a less-than-stellar guest experience. From what I understand, those show beat moments vanished pretty quickly, and the standard kinda-sorta pulsing resumed. Unfortunately, with any haunt attraction this scale, the dreaded conga line happens on crowded nights, as mazes get backed up; it happens at Dark Harbor, and just about everywhere else. The good news – and we give huge props to the Queen Mary and Dark Harbor team – is that after last year’s oven-like conditions in the mazes, we did notice several fans installed near open portholes, attempting to blow some cooler air into the interior of the ship. It proved to help – and we really like that there were strides made to ease the heat for the sake of employees and guests.

One of the components we found just about every large-scale haunt to be lacking this year was entertainment. Parks that have thousands of guests each night had only one or two shows, creating a very lop-sided experience for their guests. Dark Harbor on the other hand, has so much entertainment – from strolling performers and magicians, to stage shows and slider exhibitions – that it’s just about impossible to see everything in one visit. That is impressive, and that is absolutely something we wish the other big events would take notice of; sure, people want mazes and roaming monsters – but they want variety too – shows, pop-up entertainment – something different added to the mix. Dark Harbor has nailed it with strange and fun performances throughout the venue – making it the most entertainment-rich large-scale Halloween event here in Southern California. While I’m not a huge fan of theme park entertainment, I say the same thing regarding these events every year – you must include shows and entertainment to balance/round out the overall experience. Dark Harbor gets that and executes it all very nicely year in and year out; props to the team for getting that.

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The subject of entertainment rolls nicely into the next topic, which was one of our favorite components to this year’s Dark Harbor event – the Side Show of Freaks & Oddities, including the Big Top Bar, which was located in the middle of the attraction! Guests had to pay a nominal fee to get into the Side Show, which features a cool collection of mini experiences/interactions and haunts. In the center of it all, was a small stage that hosted live entertainment all night, as well as the bar, which served several craft cocktails and anything else the friendly bartenders could whip up! This was a truly fun spot, offering a bit of reprieve from the often large crowds of Dark Harbor. We sincerely hope to see the Big Top Bar return in 2016!

The one thing that was new this year that didn’t work well, was The Curse of Anubis Paintball Adventure. Set up as a “traveling exhibition” of Egyptian artifacts, which actually did fit into the whole bizarre circus theme of Dark Harbor (better in fact, than Voodoo), this up-charge attraction was basically a live shooting gallery with guests firing paintball guns at props and a couple “mummies” staggering around. The problem is, the load-in process was painfully slow, and as is the case with all paintball attractions – there are so many people firing guns at the same things, the payoff is very minimal and it becomes boring very quickly. The capacity for this attraction was super low too, creating a really nasty wait time for those in line. I would venture to say that based on what we observed, The Curse of Anubis wasn’t the strongest link this year at Dark Harbor; if it returns next year, I’ll be very surprised.

Another head-scratcher is something that needs to be addressed. Pricing for Dark Harbor is all over the place – it goes up and down, depending on the day of the season you opt to visit. This is in tune with several large-scale haunts here in Southern California, and I get that. What I don’t get is how Dark Harbor tickets can be lower than $25, considering the value of the event; on certain nights, with various promotions, we noted tickets for the event as low as $12 – eight bucks less than what parking cost. On the surface, this seems like a hell of a deal – and it is. In fact, it’s too much of a good deal. Let me explain:

Dark Harbor isn’t new. It’s been around long enough now that it’s a proven, highly-successful large-scale haunt here in a very challenging market. It sits squarely on par with the major theme park haunt events in California, and has an incredibly large and loyal fan base. Putting your gate at $12 any night completely undermines and devaluates the entire Dark Harbor 2015_5395event; to the public, it says, “Our product is only worth $12; if you wait and pay more, you’re a chump.” Dark Harbor may not intend to send that message – but it’s received that way loud and clear, I assure you. When stand-alone haunts here in the same market are charging between $20 and $30, there’s something seriously wrong with Queen Mary’s gate being anything less than $25 or $30 on its slowest nights. There’s some strong psychology at play in this situation as well. If you put Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights and Dark Harbor next to each other and list their prices at $60 and $15 respectively, what event do you think people will see as the biggest and best? Forget about maze count, etc. If someone says a major Halloween event is $60 and then another is $15, you’re going to automatically gravitate toward the $60 event because obviously it’s much better because the cost is that much more; drastically more, actually. It doesn’t matter if we know as fans that each event offers just about the same amount of bang for the buck – most people don’t think that deeply about it. They simply see two Halloween events and know that Universal’s has to be the best because of the huge price difference. That’s the message that Queen Mary sends every time they devalue themselves at the gate.

Another fact that may come across as elitist, but is simply the way it is – if you offer up your event at $12 vs. $30, you’re going to attract a really rough crowd from Long Beach and the surrounding communities. Sell yourselves out at $12, and you’d better brace for a $12 crowd. I don’t care what Queen Mary’s psychology behind their price point is – they attract the wrong crowd when they do this, and the monsters and crew on the ground have to take the brunt of it. Ask any monster/talent if they’d rather have a $60 crowd or a $12 crowd; I bet you already can guess the resounding answer across the board. I assure you – fans and enthusiastic guests also would prefer a $60 crowd (although that doesn’t weed out all of the jerks – it certainly is a great first defense, however).

And I get it – lowering the gate brings people in droves. A “sell-out” crowd on nights that normally would be slower. But Queen Mary needs to ask itself what its worth is. Guests often choose “off” nights so they can enjoy the event without throngs of people to contend with. Suddenly, those folks who planned are completely screwed by hour-plus waits for each maze and their experience is undermined by the $12 folks that came on a whim to drink and hang out with friends – not really caring about the event itself. This issue is a very serious and real one that Queen Mary needs to soul-search and think about. Do they want to be the best of the best, or do they want to cater to a ghetto crowd that is drawn to the $12 gate price (really, at that point, you should just let people in free and let them spend their $12 on another beer or hot dog in the venue)? There’s a point when the worth of your event and the comfort of your fans and staff has to come before making a quick buck or touting “another sold-out night!” Remember – popular events will sell out regularly even at $60; anyone can “sell-out”. Queen Mary needs to decide what its legacy is going to be and stay the course.

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The last pricing issue that is problematic is one that is actually out of Dark Harbor’s control – the $20 parking fee. Parking at the Queen Mary is already problematic; when you add a very hefty fee to it, people get downright nasty about it. When your parking fee is more than your event’s gate price – people become really irritated and feel that they’ve been gouged, setting their experience off on the wrong foot from the get-go. In fact, the one negative that we heard all season long about Queen Mary was the high price of parking and the fact that its ill-prepared to handle traffic when it arrives, some people waiting an hour in their cars just to get in to the parking lot. That’s no bueno, and it’s my personal feeling that Queen Mary needs to rethink its approach to parking both logistically and price-wise. If I’m a guest with a $15-$20 ticket and get slapped with a $20 parking fee right off the bat, I’m coming into the event pissed off already. It’s not good business. However, the hows and whys of all of the event’s pricing are complicated and not simple. I will stand by my statement however, that I think the entire pricing array should be revisited for 2016 and some serious changes made to reflect the overall quality and worth of Dark Harbor. Why do I feel so strongly about this issue? Because we love Dark Harbor, have the utmost respect for the cast and crew, and feel it is worth much more than $12. It’s the real deal; a destination event, not a second-thought impulse buy. It deserves more than that.

Now, let’s shift attention from the weakest link in the Dark Harbor operation to the strongest – its cast and crew. I’ve said this before and will say it again and again; we love the crew at this event – they truly are a family, and that pride and love of Dark Harbor is highly apparent. From “general” monsters in the mazes to the main characters such as Graceful Gale, the Captain and Ringmaster; the entire group is second to none. Other haunts here in Southern California have attempted to create their own “headline” characters, and all have been fairly unsuccessful for any prolonged duration of time. Dark Harbor however, has struck gold with its cast of main characters – and the guests love it. Creating one recognizable character is hard enough to do; Dark Harbor has multiple ghouls that are used on marketing material, merchandise, have their own mazes, and are completely the face of the event that are recognizable everywhere. It’s remarkable what’s happened with this team, and I’d be remiss not to throw out major props to David Wally, Bre Combs, Yola Charbel, Arroya Karrian and Holly Ahlborn, who direct, supervise and manage each and every one of the creepy crawlies that calls Dark Harbor home – they are obviously exceptional leaders, considering how close-knit this particular group of haunters has become. Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor is a well-oiled machine, and that is no happy coincidence; a lot of hard work and dedication comes from the top and trickles to every corner of the event and embraces each individual, creating an all-inclusive environment that is very special. Much love and respect to this team.

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I’ve noted on more than one occasion that I am usually not at all a fan of “theme park entertainment”, and that spills over into these large-scale haunts, as well. However, I do want to mention that Dark Harbor 2015 was home to two dear friends of ours that truly put on tremendous performances and wowed crowds ranging from 10 to 100+ during the event this year – acclaimed magician Jimmy H. as Mudd the Magnificent, and up-and-comer Scott Michael. These two guys rocked it hard throughout the 2015 Dark Harbor run, and had guests laughing, gasping, gagging and in the end, cheering – the perfect compliment to the event; if you missed their performances, you missed out! Hopefully, both of these gents return for 2016 – they’re a fantastic component to an already outstanding production.

A huge shout out to the Dark Harbor sliders, who demonstrate their skills exhibition-style nightly in an area of the event called “Slider Alley”. While other events have downplayed this incredibly athletic form of scare tactic in recent years (we’re looking at you, Knott’s – the birthplace of sliding), Queen Mary has embraced it and has even set aside specific show times in its program where hundreds of fans gather to watch the sliders do their thing. It’s exciting, it’s really fun to watch, and it’s a part of haunting that’s not going away – kudos to the Dark Harbor team for showcasing it; your guests love it!

Dark Harbor 2015_5238Finally – but certainly not “last” – one cannot give love and kudos to Dark Harbor without shining the spotlight directly on the event’s main character, the Ringmaster; bawdy, slick-tongued and diabolical, actor Peggy Magee is a force of nature in her own right, absolutely killing it as the event’s grand ambassador of mischief and mayhem. For the past several years, Peggy has become larger-than-life both at the event itself and at ScareLA, entertaining fans and truly elevating Dark Harbor’s profile, landing it directly on everyone’s Halloween bucket list while delivering a barrage of clever one-liners and off-the-cuff banter that is truly masterful. In the circus that is Dark Harbor, make no mistake – she is the heartbeat of this hellish menagerie and everyone that works with her and knows her adores her. Truly an asset to the event, Peggy and the rest of the men and women who make up the cast and crew of Dark Harbor cannot be commended enough – they work their asses off each night, and it shows.

A unique aspect of Dark Harbor is that the event encourages guests to wear costumes on Halloween night, as well as select “Dia de los Muertos” nights the event is open after October 31st. Dark Harbor invites fans to dress up on these select nights, and even hosts costume contests, rewarding fans for their participation and enthusiasm; this is unheard of here in California, where most haunts do not allow costumes of any type so that it’s immediately possible to see who’s a guest and who’s part of the staff.

Dark Harbor offers a variety of passes – including a season pass, which we assume will come back for its 2016 run. This is a great value, as is the VIP option – which comes with drinks, a private food and lounge space, and front of line access to most of the event’s attractions. When the time comes next summer to make your plans, refer to the Queen Mary website for the different ticketing options, and plan on attending more than once – there simply is too much to see everything in one evening. Each year, this event gets better and better. Sure, it has its kinks, but overall, Dark Harbor is one of our favorite Halloween stops each season, and we look forward to seeing this event continue to evolve in the years to come.

– Rick West

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