Large-scale theme park Halloween events are commonplace here in Southern California. After all, this is where the haunted attraction industry was born; we expect our world-famous theme parks to step up at Halloween and put on a good show for the tens of thousands of tourists and locals that flood through their gates each night looking for intense scares and thrills. Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain has been one such event since it began in earnest in 1993; one year before Theme Park Adventure was founded. TPA actually visited the event a few years later, and then had not returned until this year, after nearly two decades. Why the huge gap in time since our last visit, and why now all of a sudden? It’s a really interesting subject; one that needs explanation to coincide with our 2014 review of Magic Mountain’s event.
Let’s call it like it is – when you say “Halloween in Southern California”, immediately the conversation shifts into high gear with mention of Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, Knott’s Scary Farm, and more recently, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor. Even Disneyland and SeaWorld, as well as LEGOLAND get in on the action, marketing their events toward families and small children. However, Six Flags Magic Mountain is often left out of the conversation, despite Fright Fest being a long-standing tradition and a really large-scale operation. Unfortunately, it’s really not on the radar of most fans. Before I get into the guts of what I think Magic Mountain’s challenges are, let’s review the event. Keep in mind, this year was literally the first time it an least 17 years – maybe longer – that Theme Park Adventure has been to Fright Fest; I have no history to base my review on. No measure of growth, really. For that reason alone, I am at a loss and unable to reflect on the mazes and such as deeply as I do other events that TPA has been attending for years. It’s not a lack of interest on our part; it’s simply a lack of history with this event.
Six Flags Magic Mountain doesn’t have one large stage production such as The Hanging at Knott’s Scary Farm or the Bill & Ted’s show that used to be part of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. However, this year, Magic Mountain did host a really fun dance/performance venue called VooDoo Nights. This high-energy production featured dancers, drummers and totally connected with the fans each night after sundown, very close to the park’s Full Throttle roller coaster area. While it’s not my type of thing to take in while visiting a Halloween event, there’s no denying that it was a nicely executed production and there were a lot of guests enjoying it. Fright Fest also offered smaller performance-based entertainment throughout the park, which is also important to mix things up a bit when it comes to Halloween events.
Guests coming hungry to the event were able to partake in the Fright Feast With the Willoughbys dining option; an all-you-can-eat buffet that featured many options, including really tasty boneless wings, salad, and pizza. During the meal, guests were terrorized by roaming monsters and entertained by magician Michael Turco, who many folks may recognize from America’s Got Talent. It was a fun, small-scale show that featured really good and smooth close-up magic tricks, and the monsters lurking in the aisles between diners were all fantastic! I’d recommend this dining option to anyone planning to attend Fright Fest 2015 – it’s good food in abundance, not too crowded, and then you can go out and enjoy the event on a full stomach for the rest of the night.
During a season unusually short on entertainment, it was great to see Magic Mountain step up and actually pour some money into VooDoo Nights and really create a very nicely activated space for its guests seeking something other than roaming monsters and mazes during the event. Kudos to them for doing so – it doesn’t take much, and adds a very important aspect to any theme park event that is a must. Great job to everyone involved – we spent some time watching the dancers and performers, and thought it was a really strong addition to the event; one that Magic Mountain will likely repeat in years to come, regardless of what name they give it. Voodoo was such a thing this year, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Magic Mountain distance themselves from that in 2015 and re-name the performance venue something new.
Fans may not be aware of this, but Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest has a lot of mazes to offer. A lot. In all, Fright Fest guests enjoyed 8 mazes during this year’s event. To put that in perspective (because we’re leveling the playing field here in this review/story), Knott’s Scary Farm had 8 plus the up-charge attraction Trapped: Lock & Key, as well as The Witch’s Keep overlay to the Mine Ride, and Special Ops: Infected attraction; Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights had 7 mazes, as well as Terror Tram; Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor had 6 mazes, plus two up-charge attractions – The Encounters Experience, and Freak Shows, the latter being like a mini maze itself. When set side-by-side with the other leaders in SoCal, Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest is right on par, which came as a surprise to us. The last time I was at Fright Fest, I believe there was only one maze or so. The event has grown so much, I didn’t know what to expect quality-wise, and so, I honestly set my expectations fairly low. I was very pleasantly surprised by what we found throughout the night – especially with the event’s newer maze offerings.
Chupacabra – This was actually one of my favorite mazes, and it’s not one of the event’s newer ones. Chupacabra is obviously themed to the mythical beast that reportedly roams the Mexican and South American landscape, sucking the blood from livestock in the night. In Magic Mountain’s take on the legend, the beast is terrorizing a local Dia de Los Muertos festival, and villagers are terrified. In addition to the Chupacabra, there are other nods to Mexican folklore sprinkled throughout the maze as well. The attraction featured some nice sets and decoration, as well as a fantastic crew of scareactors that really brought Chupacabra to life.
Total Darkness – As its name implies, Total Darkness was a maze that we experienced in the pitch black (well, almost pitch black) interior of the park’s Magic Moments Theater. The story behind this maze is that guests have entered an abandoned theater on the anniversary of its closure and end of its longest-running show. Unhappy spirits have risen to the occasion and are aggressive with anyone that dares to enter their sanctuary of sorrow. The problem with Total Darkness, is that guests were ushered into the building in small groups, and everyone had to hold firmly onto a rope while walking through this maze – kind of like taking walks around the block as kids in elementary school while holding onto a long jump rope. This is an okay idea until the leader of the group either pulls too hard, moves too quickly, or comes to a standstill. The jerky nature of everyone pulling on the rope at different speeds and from different positions was pretty distracting. Several times, I found myself simply letting go so I wouldn’t get rope burn or annoyed by the constant tug-of-war taking place the entire time. Going around corners? Forget it. My hand was pinched the first time as those in front of us pulled hard and tightly on the rope. Every time we came to a turn, I let go of the rope; no thanks. One more caveat regarding the rope – I started to ponder all of the people that had held the rope before me and all of those who would after me and my skin started to crawl. The moderate germophobe that I am, I couldn’t help but be more than aware the whole time of how grimy and nasty the rope must have been. I am quite sure a new one wasn’t provided for each group and I am willing to bet the ropes weren’t disinfected during the month-long event. That kind of thing makes my skin crawl and keeps me up at night. A neat idea on paper, sure; a really bad one upon execution for multiple reasons, in my opinion. Do away with the rope aspect, and Total Darkness would be much better if it’s brought back in 2015. Another issue Total Darkness had, was that it wasn’t usually totally dark. The theater it was housed in had some light within, so throughout the maze, we could see where we were going, and we could definitely look up at the illuminated ceiling, etc. In that sense, I never felt uncomfortable or disoriented. Granted, it was dark enough to be spooky and deliver some good scares along the way – but it definitely was not the greatest blackout maze I have ever been in (not my favorite type of maze anyway).
The Aftermath – Set within and throughout the old theater that once housed the Batman Stunt Show at Magic Mountain, The Aftermath was a sprawling maze that featured a post-apocalyptic theme, lots of props, and good ol’ fire pot explosions! What’s more, The Aftermath takes up a huge footprint, making it a very long experience, as well. As a long-time attendee of Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Scary Farm, I couldn’t help but have wave after wave of nostalgic deja vu, thinking back to the old Industrial Evil, Revenge of the Dead, and Metro Madness mazes that used to take up the Gasoline Alley and Wacky Soap Box Racers area of the park. It kind of felt like stepping back in time, and it was great fun!
The Aftermath was filled with lots of zombie-like monsters, and pulsed nicely so that groups didn’t really end up in much of a conga line situation. The sheer size of the maze kept everyone fairly spread out, and the ample walking kept the crowds thinned appropriately. The soundscape for Aftermath was absolutely adequate, and the talent was really enthusiastic and into their roles. We loved the unique experience that this maze offers Fright Fest guests, and absolutely hope that it continues to be a staple at the event until Magic Mountain does away with the theater or adds a new attraction or show in its place.
Toyz of Terror 3D – Ah, the ever-present “z” twist to a name! Even more fitting is the use of 3D as well, making this the “cliche maze” at Fright Fest – at least when listing my personal likes and dislikes when it comes to haunted attractions. I’m pretty much over clown mazes, definitely am over 3D mazes, and never have liked the idea of spelling anything with a “z” on the end to give it an “edgy twist”.
That said, Toyz of Terror was a really well-executed maze with really good talent throughout that worked their rooms and environments very nicely. The graffiti-like artwork that tends to accompany this type of maze was well done and the paint techniques employed by the designers of this attraction worked really well with the 3D glasses effect. Guests seemed to totally enjoy the maze, screaming and laughing all the way through to the exit. With the general public’s reaction in mind, I’d say that Toyz of Terror, which is a freaky trip through a defunct toy factory, works well in the scheme of things at Fright Fest. And as 3D mazes go, it was actually one of the best I have seen in a few years. This one is definitely worth visitors’ time, should it return in 2015. If not, please don’t feel the need to replace it with a new 3D maze; there is no need, especially after seeing the level of maze production Magic Mountain is taking their attractions to.
Willoughbys Resurrected – Remember when I said that almost 20 years ago, Fright Fest had maybe one major maze when I visited the event for the first time? This was it. Back then, it was called Willoughbys Mansion, I believe. I was surprised to learn back in August during the Fright Fest Media Preview that this theme and maze was still going strong at Magic Mountain; talk about a cornerstone! In fact, not only has Magic Mountain kept the whole Willoughbys story around – they have expanded on it, adding a second maze to the area and creating recurring characters to haunt Fright Fest specific to that story.
Willoughbys Resurrected (and all previous iterations of the maze in this location) is located each year in what used to be the park’s Magic Pagoda walk-through attraction. That is what sparked my interest in the mid-’90s and was the reason I actually attended the event back then; it was the only way to walk through that old attraction then, and now. Sadly, all of the visible remnants of Magic Pagoda are gone; when I went in the ’90s, there were still several gags left and being used for Fright Fest. While all visible traces of the old attraction are gone, it’s still cool knowing that we’re able to walk through the space at least once a year during the park’s Halloween event.
Due to being indoors, Willoughbys Resurrected is in fantastic condition, featuring many pretty elaborate sets and rooms, along with nice show lighting and sound. This is definitely the grandfather of the Fright Fest mazes, and it was great to see that after all these years, it’s held up so nicely and is honestly an anchor piece to the annual event! Great cast, great flow, and all-around, one of the best mazes Fright Fest has to offer!
The Willoughbys Garden – Playing off of the Willoughbys legend, this secondary maze high atop Samurai Summit was new this year. More of a labyrinth than a “haunted house”, the Garden used strobe lighting, dim show lights and mostly blend-in scareactors lurking in the dense foliage. There seemed to be some moderate disappointment with fans that we heard talking about this particular maze, and I would have to agree that while it was one of the new mazes for 2014, it could have and should have been a bit stronger in content.
I think there is a lot of room for refinement and growth when it comes to this maze; that’s the good news here. The idea is solid enough to work off of, and I love that Magic Mountain has created its own intellectual property with the Willoughbys story line (creepy family history and ancestors now haunting new generations). Any time a park can do that, I am all for it, as it adds to the richness of the event.
For 2015, I would love to see this particular maze revisited with more special effects, more characters besides “bush monsters” and really play up the lurking horrors that one might expect to find in a labyrinthine garden. I know they can do it if they want – let’s just hope they feel the same about this maze and it’s future course at Fright Fest!
Red’s Revenge – This! This! This was the biggest new maze of 2014, and during the media preview this past summer, Magic Mountain made it very clear that they were going all-in with this particular attraction with a bigger budget, better design, and an overall more aggressive approach than any other maze in the event’s history. And you know what? They did it. Red’s Revenge is a semi-cliche theme of Red Riding Hood exacting her revenge on the Big Bad Wolf and the villagers who refused to help when she was chased and attacked by the creature while on her way to visit her grandmother.
Cliche-sounding, perhaps. However, Red’s Revenge is one hell of stunning maze and an incredible addition to Fright Fest! The sets and scenes are on par with the biggest haunts in SoCal (or anywhere, for that matter), and we were completely blown away by all aspects of its production and execution. Fans were too – social media lit up with praise for this attraction, as people said it was something they’d expect to find at either Knott’s or Universal. That’s a major compliment to Magic Mountain; one that we know they’re very proud of. In speaking with several members of senior management at Magic Mountain during our visit to Fright Fest, I can tell you that they’re all aware of how gorgeous it is, and feel this is the direction that the event needs to continue moving in. I couldn’t agree more, and we were thrilled beyond all expectations by this high-end maze, from its wonderful design at every twist and turn, to its enthusiastic cast and crew, who knew they had the most rockin’ attraction at Fright Fest this year!
Red’s Revenge was one of our favorite surprises of Halloween 2014, and we cannot wait to see this particular maze mature and continue to grow as part of Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest offerings in 2015 and beyond. Bravo!
Vault 666 – Another of the new mazes introduced by Magic Mountain for its 2014 season, Vault 666 (you know, for kids!) is a bizarre maze that is kind of a modern-day take on the classic The Island of Dr. Moreau. Within the confines of a research facility, scientists are splicing human and animal genes together. Naturally, it goes very wrong, and guests are trapped inside, having to fend for themselves and find a way out of the building.
The confusion I have with this maze is the misalignment between name and theme. Had there been a scientific facility with a pagan, evil undertone or back story, then yes – I could go for the whole 666 reference. However, there’s nothing remotely “Satanic” about the theme or story line here – so I presume the park chose the name simply for shock value. I’d imagine some folks complained, considering people complain every day at Disneyland because Hell is referenced in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I think a more appropriate name for this maze would be The Vault. However, someone obviously wanted to go for the 666 thing, and there it is. Maybe in future iterations, we will see a sinister and ancient story line unfold? Perhaps? Please?
Vault 666 featured a lot of really nice visuals and solid scares. It was definitely a crowd-pleaser, and will likely be a Fright Fest staple for a few years to come. I can see it evolving, and growing. While not as elaborate as Red’s Revenge, this maze definitely feels new to the event, and was a definite step up in design and fabrication from the existing mazes. Besides the strange name, this was one of our favorites at Fright Fest 2014 and we look forward to visiting it again next season!
SCARE ZONES & MONSTERS
Theme Park Adventure is part of the core production team of ScareLA, an annual convention in Los Angeles that brings together fans and pros alike to celebrate Halloween and all that goes with it, from haunted attractions to makeup and crafts. We created a panel presentation for our 2014 convention called “Making Monsters”. It was groundbreaking, in that it featured the makeup operations heads from four of Southern California’s largest haunted attraction events – Knott’s Scary Farm, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, and Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest. It was the first time these parks and attractions had come together in unity on one stage to represent the haunt community as a family, rather than corporate competitors; it was extremely gratifying to me as a producer at ScareLA, and the fans absolutely loved this unprecedented moment.
Scott Ramp was the gentleman representing Fright Fest during our panel, and it was because of his and his team’s infectious enthusiasm that I took a closer look at them – and Fright Fest – as TPA, as well as a ScareLA creator. It had been nearly two decades since I personally had visited Fright Fest. After getting to know Scott better, and after I was completely blown away by the supremacy of his makeup work, the course was set for me to visit Magic Mountain’s Halloween event this past season. Scott can absolutely be credited with bringing TPA back to Fright Fest after all this time, and I am so glad that he did; it became one of the highlights of Halloween 2014!
Fright Fest features multiple scare zones, where monsters lurk and lunge at guests in the foggy darkness throughout the park. In total, Fright Fest 2014 featured seven very different scare zones. The scare zones this past season at Fright Fest included: Ravenstitch, which featured really neat humanoid ravens and menacing scarecrows; Demon’s Door, which serves as the gateway portal into Fright Fest, where demons and devils were on the prowl looking to claim their first guests each night; Nightmares – A Twisted Fantasy, which featured monsters made up in special black light costumes and makeup that would change between “white light” conditions and ultraviolet black light – something we have never seen in a scare zone anywhere before; Zombie Xing, which featured well, zombies, snarling and lunging from the fog at unsuspecting guests; City Under Siege, where comic book-like villains terrorize guests throughout the DC Universe section of Magic Mountain; Exile Hill, which plays off of the event’s evergreen property, Willoughby’s Haunted Mansion; and The Wastelands, a post-apocalyptic nightmare of militaristic robots and bloodthirsty barbarians that sets the stage for the park’s largest maze, The Aftermath.
Most of Fright Fest’s scare zones are fairly contained and don’t take up a lot of space, compared to similar zones at Universal and Knott’s. And, most of the Fright Fest scare zones have a fraction of the show lighting and/or props as their competition; these are areas we would love to see Magic Mountain invest in to really bulk up their individual themes. Where Fright Fest excels and dominates, is in its world-class makeup design for the monsters that populate its scare zones. What we witnessed this year at Fright Fest were some of the most stunning makeup applications we’ve ever seen at any haunted attraction in Theme Park Adventure’s 20-year history. The hidden gem of Fright Fest is its army of monsters and creatures created by Scott and his team nightly that could absolutely be camera-ready for a film production any time. The level of artistic detail that Scott (the owner of The Scream Team) and his team brings to the table is mind-blowing and cannot be underlined enough by us or anyone else covering the event as media. To be clear – for fans to be able to check out these elaborate prosthetics and makeups, it’s worth the price of admission alone to Fright Fest; you won’t be disappointed, and an entire evening could be spent simply gawking at monsters, watching them do their thing in all their glory.
The monsters in the scare zones seem mostly comfortable in their roles. We could definitely tell the vets from the newcomers, and their skills ranged from fantastic scare tactics and long-range sliding techniques, to more elementary in-your-face “RAWR!” moments, which are less thrilling visually and audibly, but do elicit screams just the same.
Scott Ramp started at Fright Fest overseeing makeup in 1993, and has created some of the industry’s most notable styles and looks, including the infamous clown duo Heckles & Twitch, with their trademark elongated chins and noses, with protruding foreheads. From the Joker-esque characters prowling DC Universe to the really unusual and amazing raven-humanoids of Ravenstitch, haunt fans are in for a barrage of visual delights at Fright Fest.
Magic Mountain’s talent is fantastic, their makeup is world-class, and they are absolutely on par with any other haunted attraction event in SoCal – most definitely comparable to the theme park and tourist attraction haunts, by all means. Huge props to the men and women that are the monsters of Fright Fest – and major kudos to the talented men and women of Scott’s team that make them up each night for the event! Astounding work!
REFLECTION AND COMMENTARY
As stated several times, this year marked the first time that Theme Park Adventure has been to Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest in nearly 20 years. We’ve always known about it, and over the years, the event has featured some very popular intellectual properties such as Alice Cooper. We grew up with Magic Mountain, and we love the park itself. So why when we visit so many haunts each Halloween season, hasn’t Fright Fest been part of the regular lineup?
Despite being a major piece of SoCal’s theme park/amusement history, Magic Mountain has always faded into the background when it comes to Halloween and its Fright Fest event. The corporation’s advertising of the event is generally weak (although this year, it was a bit more aggressive), and the fact that guests can pay to get in to Magic Mountain in the daytime, and then stay in the park as it becomes Fright Fest is a real challenge.
Let me explain how it works: Guests can buy a day ticket to Magic Mountain and enjoy all of the family-friendly Halloween daytime events that the park has to offer, as well as its rides and attractions. When darkness falls, the park switches over into scary mode, and Fright Fest begins. Guests wishing to experience the mazes at Fright Fest simply purchase a wristband (I believe it was about $20 this year), and they can have unlimited access to those specific attractions. However, if they don’t buy the wristbands, guests can still stay and enjoy the scare zones, entertainment and ambiance of Fright Fest at no extra cost. In speaking with Magic Mountain’s management and listening to other Six Flags teams discuss their own Fright Fest events, it’s very clear that the company as a whole feels that allowing guests to stay in the park for one price with the option to buy maze wristbands is a tremendous deal and great value. That is their ultra-firm position, and they are sticking to it without any signs of dissension in the ranks.
And this is where I think Magic Mountain has made a miscalculation regarding the perceived value of Fright Fest among fans. All of the major theme parks in California (including Disneyland) offer their Halloween decorations and family events during the day as part of guests’ paid admission. However, they all clear the parks and re-open as separately ticketed events when the sun goes down and they switch into Halloween high gear. I truly believe that if Magic Mountain were to suddenly start creating a separate ticket for Fright Fest, fans and casual guests alike would suddenly take notice and think, Ah! Magic Mountain is finally getting into the game with their own Halloween event! The truth of the matter is, they’ve been in the game for more than 20 years now – and it seems that hardly anyone knows – or cares. The perceived value of a separate ticket event such as a Halloween haunt is initiated by the fact that it’s “big enough to have its own admission”. Otherwise, people (including us) mistake Six Flags’ belief that they’re presenting a tremendous value to their guests as a park that doesn’t take Halloween seriously, and likely has really crappy mazes and monsters to offer. In the case of Magic Mountain, that couldn’t be more wrong.
The mazes, monsters and overall event that Magic Mountain produces for Fright Fest is absolutely world-class. And whether the company agrees with it or not, world-class Halloween events are presented as separate-ticketed entities, from Halloween Horror Nights to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. And people flock to those events, because whether they’ve been before or not, the fact that these are limited entry events that require a separate ticket mean that they are special – and that they’re something that’s important at Halloween.
If Fright Fest were to become a separately ticketed event, there’s no way to be 100% sure that we’d see a spike in interest or attendance. However, I can say that after covering haunts and events for 20 years now, the public tends to take pro haunts with special admission tickets much more seriously than all-inclusive pay-one-price events. Even though guests still have to buy wristbands at Magic Mountain to gain access to the mazes, that is completely overshadowed by the fact that people can pay one price in the morning, and stay all the way until park closing through the event. And that in itself drops the perceived value of Fright Fest to sad lows, typically under the radar and out of the interest range of people looking to pay good money for great Halloween thrills. Six Flags is missing the mark completely on this, and while I totally get where management is coming from as far as being a tremendous value goes, I believe it’s not working. It’s not working for them as a business, and it’s certainly hurting the credibility of the Fright Fest content and production, without a doubt.
It’s ironic that for a company that’s certainly had its share of financial challenges, they opt to stray from the proven norm here in the extremely competitive Halloween market in Southern California, selling themselves very short in the name of “guest value”. If Fright Fest were to become a separately ticketed Halloween event, not only would Magic Mountain place themselves on par with all of the other theme parks and attractions here, they’d likely also make more money in the process, as guests would shell out the cash for this special event, and a portion of the park’s daytime visitors (including season pass holders) would pay again to get back into the park for all of the festivities. That’s what I believe, and that’s what Fright Fest’s biggest problem is, in my opinion.
Should Fright Fest be on every haunt fan’s list of must-see attractions? Absolutely. We were extremely impressed – and admittedly, surprised – by the scale and quality of the event overall. The mazes are great, the monsters are awesome, and the fact that you can top off the night with a ride on Goliath or one of their other metal beasts just sweetens the deal. TPA fully supports Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest, and adores the work that Scott Ramp and his team does with the makeup design of its army of undead. We cannot wait to see what’s in store for the 2015 Halloween season at Magic Mountain, and hope that our TPAers will make an effort to get out to this event as well – it’s definitely an awesome night out with friends and loved ones!
A huge thank you to Scott Ramp first and foremost. If not for him, we’d have not visited Fright Fest this year. Thank you as well to Sue Carpenter and the rest of the Magic Mountain staff – everyone was so incredibly accommodating and friendly that it made the evening fly by without any hitch. It was wonderful spending time with various managers, and park representatives, all of them so enthusiastic and genuinely welcoming of TPA.
– Rick West