REVIEW: Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2013

Permanently moored in Long Beach, California, the Queen Mary is one of Southern California’s top tourist attractions. Once a mighty sailing ship, the Queen Mary is now a museum, hotel, events and dining destination that sees many thousands of visitors each year. During October, the legendary vessel takes on a very sinister persona; the Queen and its surrounding area become Dark Harbor, one of the largest Halloween events in the world. Theme Park Adventure had not paid a visit since 2010. Dark Harbor employs several TPAers and is operated by personal friends of ours in the industry, so when we began filling up our 2013 calendar for the haunt season, Dark Harbor was absolutely at the top of our list!

The Queen Mary is easily the most unique setting I have ever seen for a haunted attraction. With three of the event’s six mazes located on the famous ship, mostly in areas not normally open to the public, Dark Harbor’s environment is real and so, the event already has one up on its competition simply because of where and what it is. With dim lighting and tight corridors, simply venturing into the bowels of the Queen Mary is spooky enough; throw in ghastly scenes and props along with lurking monsters and you have the recipe for success.

DARK_HARBOR_2013_4702Yet, it wasn’t always that way. Back in the day, Dark Harbor went by another name – Shipwreck. And in many regards, it was just that. I can remember visiting Shipwreck and walking away with a raging headache due to all of the thrash metal that was played at tooth-shattering decibels throughout the ship as well as outlying mazes, which completely ruined the experience and natural creepy ambiance of the event. Thankfully, those in charge of Dark Harbor these days aren’t making that same amateur mistake with their soundscapes; instead, the mazes aboard the ship (and off) have thematically strong music and effects to compliment what’s going on story-wise.

The one thing I was surprised to find when we returned to Dark Harbor this year, was that all three of the mazes on the ship – Hellfire, Submerged and Containment – remained intact in theme and name since 2010. They featured some new scenes and props, but the themes and names have not changed; that’s a long time for a major haunt’s mazes to remain the same. A few cities over in Buena Park, Knott’s Scary Farm typically changes 1/3 of its maze designs each season to keep the event fresh for returning visitors, since these types of attractions are primarily targeting locals. Don’t get me wrong – the mazes on the ship and the talent that fills them are fine; however, change is necessary when keeping a long-running event such as Dark Harbor relevant and cutting edge. We’d love to see all of the mazes on the ship re-designed next year; honestly, Deadrise, Circus and Village of the Damned which are off of the ship can go another season without change. If the folks running Dark Harbor would focus on the ship and its mazes, we’d be really happy campers.

DARK_HARBOR_2013_4841As mentioned, the talent in all of the mazes this year at Dark Harbor really seemed to be on their game and very enthusiastic about what they were doing. Never did we encounter someone that wasn’t active or not trying to frighten us. In fact, when we visited Dark Harbor in 2010, we came away with the same impression – that the talent was really working it and did an excellent job. That is exactly what we found again in 2013. I have to give huge kudos to David Wally, who has been in charge of all talent – mazes and streets – since 2010, and most recently at his side, Bre Combs. The retention of talent at Dark Harbor is very high from season to season, and after seeing how strong the crew was this year, it’s apparent to us that this is no coincidence. If an event has passionate and extremely talented leadership, it trickles down throughout its cast and in the case of Dark Harbor, there is no doubt in our minds that David and Bre are absolutely outstanding at what they do with this haunt each season. They should be very proud of their entire team, because they were fantastic in all areas this year.

DARK_HARBOR_2013_4781While I am pouring on the love for the Dark Harbor talent, I want to bring up the street monsters and special characters at the event as well this year. Every street monster we encountered was on it, and we watched a tremendous group of sliders doing their thing as well, which is always a welcome sight at any haunt. The signature characters of the event, including The Captain and The Ringmaster, were simply stunning. Not only were their costumes and makeup superb, they were those characters and never once let down their guard or broke, even for a second. More than that – I have it on good authority that The Ringmaster never broke character; before, during, or even after her shift. She arrived each night in character and stayed that way. Unreal. Beyond badass, folks! Each evening, Dark Harbor featured a character introduction show on a small stage in the carnival section of the event. I will forever kick myself that I didn’t have our video camera ready (we shot late in the evening, after people had started going home), because what played out over the course of maybe 10 minutes or so, was the most genius, well done character introduction I have ever seen at a haunt. Each monster was brought on stage, and The Ringmaster recited their entire histories – histories that were actually rooted in reality and the history of Queen Mary! As a writer, this special show literally made me giddy and was my single most favorite moment of Halloween 2013, out of the 30 haunts we visited. A huge wave of kudos to everyone involved in that little spectacle – if it happens again next year, I promise to post the show in its entirety as a special feature for next year’s Dark Harbor review. It has to become an annual tradition – it was absolutely perfect.

My final thought regarding The Ringmaster and The Captain is that Dark Harbor has created the first marketable IPs that actually work for a haunt here in California. That hasn’t happened for a long time. Knott’s attempted with its Overlord character a few years ago, and its Green Witch character really hasn’t been as strong as it could be. Other haunts have their stand-out characters, but nothing comes close to how polished and creatively well-rounded Queen Mary’s are now. Hopefully, The Ringmaster sticks around for quite a while – she is tremendous and I feel that Dark Harbor has absolutely knocked it out of the park; I know I proudly wear my shirt bearing all of the event’s characters!

DARK_HARBOR_2013_4799Deadrise was our favorite maze at Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor this year. Themed as a ship that has been blown to pieces by ignited oil barrels only to be called back into service from its watery grave by The Captain, Deadrise was a masterful design filled with pyro effects, fantastic talent and some really great sets and props. The fact that Deadrise was the only maze built outdoors at Dark Harbor made it both pleasantly cool as we walked through, and I’m sure, the most coveted maze to have a position in at the event. Every other maze at Dark Harbor can and does get very warm if it’s a balmy October evening. The fireball explosions coming from above as guests walked through Deadrise splashed shadows across its interior and made shadows dance violently unlike I’ve ever seen before in a maze. Every aspect of Deadrise was very impressive – again, another huge win for Dark Harbor.

Within the carnival midway were a series of “Freak Show” mini-attractions. Built within shipping containers, each attraction was different and for a small upcharge fee, guests could participate in different experiences, from quick maze scares to silly banter with a charred skeleton! My favorite was The White Ghost. Inside the container, fog was pumped in nice and dense. The interior was illuminated by very bright white lighting, blinding us the same way using your high beams while driving in dense fog does. At one point, we were so blinded, we couldn’t see our hands two feet in front of us. And that is when the White Ghost came; darting in and around wandering guests looking for the exit, a sheet-covered “White Ghost” would randomly pop up right in front of our faces! It was freaking brilliant! And just like that, the White Ghost would vanish. So. Damn. Good.

DARK_HARBOR_2013_4898The Freak Show mini attractions were a small upcharge fee, which I categorically dislike at any theme park or attraction. However, when you have something that simply cannot keep up with the capacity your event draws, upcharging for it is a necessary evil that keeps the lines manageable and everyone happy, while siphoning off some of the big crowds for a little while. In the case of Dark Harbor, we thought this was not only acceptable, it was great! $5 got you into just as many mini attractions; a totally affordable no-brainer that we highly recommend to everyone if Queen Mary brings these back in 2014!

Attention to detail was everywhere at Dark Harbor this year. Even the food stands and vendors re-named their locations to match the Halloween theme. Seriously – we were so impressed by even that small touch that probably 75% of the guests didn’t think about. This goes to show that the people running the show at Dark Harbor these days are really on top of it all.

DARK_HARBOR_2013_4926From really fantastic mazes, to world-class street monsters and live show performers (loved the magic show – as did the rest of the crowd), a robust offering of event merchandise, to great “carnival” eats, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor had it all in 2013. Theme Park Adventure could not have been more pleasantly surprised by all of the new things we found in Long Beach this year, and we cannot wait to return in 2014 and spend even more time with this brilliant cast and crew of monsters, misfits and ghosts of the past!

Did you attend Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor this year? Share your own thoughts and opinions with other TPAers below!

– Rick West

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