REVIEW: Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2014

Queen Mary's Dark HarborThe fog has rolled in to Long Beach, and once again, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor has opened its sinister gates to the public for a season of thrills, chills, and haunting experiences!

Last year, we fell in love with Dark Harbor’s offerings; if you haven’t read our 2013 review, definitely check it out, because much of it still rings true and applies to this year’s event!

Dark Harbor is a unique, large-scale haunt event in that it is set in and around the Queen Mary, which is a top tourist destination here in Southern California, less than an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, and minutes away from Orange County. Half of the event’s mazes take place on the famous ship, which give them an already-spooky and authentic environment that set them apart from any other attraction in the world, let alone here in the Southland.

Recently, Dark Harbor’s theme has been that of a ghostly circus that has rolled into town, led by the flamboyant and evil Ringmaster, who presides over the Queen Mary event each October. It’s a fantastic overlay, and the fact that Dark Harbor has its own IPs that the public now recognize and love – a total win for everyone associated with the event! Let’s dig into the gory details, shall we?

Editor’s Note: The following review, images and video contains spoilers from Dark Harbor 2014. If you plan on attending the event and don’t want to know about it beforehand, we suggest bookmarking this page and returning to it once you’ve visited Dark Harbor for yourself.

SHOWS & ENTERTAINMENT

Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor doesn’t have a large production show at the venue as other theme park-style attractions do. Rather, fans are treated to a wide variety of smaller offerings, including bizarre sideshow-type acts, magic, sliders, and a Dark Harbor character introduction moment on the main stage.

Truth be told, we were so busy on opening night trying to take it all in, we didn’t get to see too much of the live entertainment at Dark Harbor this year. However, the event does offer a ridiculously affordable Season Pass, which allows you to return as much as you’d like throughout the 2014 run. This is something that most theme park and large-scale haunts are doing these days, which makes it much easier for fans to enjoy everything without stressing about time during a one-night shot.

Main Stage Cast Show – This is the most important of the Dark Harbor shows for new and returning guests alike to check out, because it delves into the main characters that make up the infamous spirits of the event. Hosted by The Ringmaster, this show introduces each character one at a time and recounts their individual tales as to their origins and in Queen Mary's Dark Harborsome cases, their untimely deaths.

I’m going to start by saying we liked last year’s version of this particular show better. Maybe because the concept was new to us then. Perhaps because the stage was set up differently. It could have even been the delivery of the narration (there are two individuals who play The Ringmaster – while they are both excellent, last year’s show that we saw was hosted by the “main” actress, and this year’s was presided over by her stand-in, giving it a slightly different tone). There were definitely sound issues such as speaker volume and “dead zones”, as well as someone at one point talking loudly over a hot mic; these things happen of course, but the fact that they happened during the show on opening night didn’t help our perception. That said, it’s still something that should be seen by everyone, as it is a wonderful history lesson on the ghosts of the Queen Mary and a perfect introduction to the 2014 main characters, many of whom are featured in their own mazes at Dark Harbor including Graceful Gale, the Voodoo Priestess, and Samuel the Savage. This character intro is really great in that it gives visitors a better understanding of what the event is all about, and it adds a fantastic facet of story telling and depth to the characters that might be lost in the mix otherwise. We highly recommend checking it out!

Dark Harbor Sliders – While we didn’t see the show this year, we are very familiar with it, and did see it last season (many of the same crew is back for 2014). This is a high-energy exhibition of sliding talent at the Queen Mary, and audiences love it. Sliding is a form of scaring that originated at Knott’s Scary Farm in the early ’90s, and has spread to many haunts around the globe since, including Dark Harbor.

Set to loud music, you’ll see the Dark Harbor Sliders performing nightly in Slider Alley, as they strut their stuff. It’s extremely physical and demanding focus-wise what these monsters do, putting their bodies through a tremendous amount of stress during the event. Sliding can elicit laughs, fantastic surprise scares, and ultimately adds a kinetic energy to Dark Harbor that has to be seen to be believed and appreciated! Kudos to the team – we saw many of them sliding around the event this year, and they are truly world-class!

Bands and DJs – Dark Harbor hosts both live bands as well as DJs throughout the event’s run, adding a party-like atmosphere that both adults and teens seem to really like and get into. During the opening night, we were entertained by The Rhythm Coffin, a “monster rock-n-roll” group that is loud, entertaining, and well-known within the haunt community. Definitely give them a listen while enjoying some food or drink!

Queen Mary's Dark HarborAt the end of the night, all of Dark Harbor’s street monsters gather around and on the main stage, where they dance with guests and show off some moves of their own. It’s a club-like atmosphere that normally, I would tend to dislike at a haunt. However, it just works for Dark Harbor and its monsters. We love seeing the characters mingling and dancing with the event’s guests – it becomes one big party at the end of the night, leaving everyone smiling, with lots of picture opportunities, and with a generally really great vibe as people exit. Where the monsters get the energy at the end of each night to do this – especially the on-stage dance-offs – is beyond me. Whatever they’re having, I’ll take 20!

If you’re looking for the characters and haven’t had an opportunity through the night to get a photo with them, this is definitely your best chance! And a special moment (that hopefully, occurs every night because it’s simply badass to the core) at the very end comes when Graceful Gale and The Captain lock eyes as the crowd parts, disappearing into the night together hand-in-hand. So. Damned. Cool! A truly epic moment, so keep those cameras handy, folks!

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor

UP-CHARGE ATTRACTIONS

There are a variety of up-charge attractions and rides at Dark Harbor. An up-charge attraction is a facet of an event that requires an extra fee that isn’t covered by your main gate ticket admission. Parks often have up-charge attractions during Halloween. While the practice may appear to be a money grab, it’s usually done to “thin the herd” and give guests a better experience in a more intimate setting with usually a very small group of people. Popular up-charge haunt attractions this year include The Experiment at Busch Garden’s Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream, and Trapped at Knott’s Scary Farm. These attractions are usually time slot-based, as they tend to be more involved and lengthy than standard mazes or experiences, and so, there is no other way to get everyone in the park through – up-charge becomes a necessary means of qualification and capacity management.

There are two “rides” at Dark Harbor this year available to guests. One is a mechanical bull, which the event has dubbed “Wild, Bucking Monster Ride”; the other is a traditional spinning swings ride that’s been named “The Sinister Swings”. Of interesting note, the swings ride apparently comes from Michael Jackson’s fabled Neverland Ranch, which Dark Harbor plays up for guests.

The Encounters Experience – This is Dark Harbor’s first foray into a large-scale up-charge experience. The premise is that you have signed up to go on one of the ship’s famous ghost tours, which are offered to guests year-round. The Queen Mary is considered to be a very active hot spot for paranormal activity, and attracts thrill-seekers and researchers from around the world to Long Beach. Groups of 12 are put into tour time slots throughout the evening, and embark on a ghost hunt. Naturally, things go very wrong – and the group is witness to some sinister apparitions and aggressive haunting.

In concept, it’s brilliant and sounds absolutely terrifying. And it should be. This is where it’s going to sting a bit…

Encounters, as of opening night, needed a lot of work. So much, that I don’t know if it can be salvaged this season and taken seriously by fans, especially hard core haunt folks. Guests and media alike were less than thrilled by Encounters, so the initial damage is already done – it’ll be interesting to see how both Dark Harbor and Queen Mary approach tweaking this attraction to make it right – whether it be this season or for 2015. We know the creative team can work it out; in the end, it all boils down to money and bandwidth. Is the funding there, and does the Dark Harbor crew have the bandwidth to completely re-work the issues at hand, or is this going to be chalked up as a learning experience and re-done next year – or never again? Time will tell.

Queen Mary's Dark HarborThe first thing guests do when they arrive at the Encounters waiting area is sign a waiver. Naturally, this puts everyone on edge – and we wondered just how intense it would be, considering the growing number of “extreme haunts” here on the West Coast. The waiting area is a plain holding space with rows of seats and a staff behind a counter. Granted, this is supposed to be a “normal” experience, however, everyone there knows they’re in for a terror tour – so I’d like to see the lights dimmed and the mood immediately change as soon as you enter the reception space. A quiet, more sinister mood upon arrival as people wait might get them to chill out a bit and begin to clearly set the stage with fear and dreadful anticipation of what’s to come.

As our group gathered and began the descent into the ship’s guts, it was clear that they were a loud, rowdy bunch. Dark Harbor promotes and sells a lot of booze, so this is going to be something that the Encounters team will need to accept and roll with for the duration of the event. I could tell several times that our guide was dying to shout, “QUIET!” I know I sure as hell wanted to! My gut on this, is that if you set the tone to somber and haunting immediately in the waiting area, and then keep that enforced by staff whispering or asking guests to quiet themselves ahead of time in respect of the spirits and those who have lost their lives in spots to be visited – you might get the upper hand in altering peoples’ moods. Maybe. Maybe.

For the next 20 minutes or so, our group was made to descend very dark stairs and crawl on our hands and knees (and then shimmy on our stomachs) through an increasingly-narrower tunnel, as we encountered several more ghouls along the way. Several of the members of our group were of the… fluffy type. They had great difficulty (and honest embarrassment) getting through the dark tunnel portion of the tour. I had my camera equipment with me in a backpack. The tour guide should have warned people that the crawlspace not only would become uncomfortably tight, but that our equipment might not be safe in doing so. As the tunnel got smaller, I could feel my backpack (and its contents) scraping the top of the tube; no bueno. The tube had no padding, either – making it very uncomfortable on one’s knees. I’d recommend axing this element completely. No one wants to get dirty slithering like a snake through a tiny tube, and you all but eliminate any older guests that may have difficulty with this type of activity, or people with physical limitations or challenges (some aren’t as apparently disabled as sitting in a wheelchair).

One of the members of the group does get “abducted” and is removed from the group; our particular gathering had the liquor-induced giggles, so the entire experience of being separated didn’t seem to phase anyone – just laughter and insincere, “buh-byes” from friends. It was clear that no one was taking the moment seriously. We did meet up with our departed group member a bit later on; what he experienced while being alone, I have no idea.

Queen Mary's Dark HarborI don’t want to ramble on about each scene or element. Suffice it to say, Encounters was no more frightening than being walked through the bowels of the ship during a regular tour, with a few people in costumes hanging out along the way. There are a few cool moments; or at least potentially cool moments – but due to light leaks from adjacent areas, it was never pitch black, and so, the effects were always ruined. I almost felt embarrassed for the Encounters team – like a parent watching his kid struggle to pull of magic tricks in a school talent show. At a major attraction such as Dark Harbor, people shouldn’t have to feel that way at all.

The spookiest part of the Encounters experience was traveling through the ship’s propeller box, which is freaky under normal circumstances anyway! It felt like an awkward add-on, rather than a strong, climactic portion of the tour, and like most of the other areas chosen for this experience, it was ultimately vastly under-utilized and wasted.

Of course, things change, get tweaked and ultimately – either are completely fixed or scrapped all together. This review is posting half-way through Dark Harbor’s run, so we honestly don’t know what changes have occurred. Hopefully for the event’s sake, there have been improvements. If you create an up-charge attraction at your haunt, the last thing you ever want are guests feeling ripped off when they exit; that will put a serious tarnish on everything else that is positive and good about the rest of your production.

Freak Shows – This was the surprise of the event for us! A complete 180-degrees difference from Encounters, the Dark Harbor Freak Shows is another up-charge attraction that is only $5 per person, and is worth every penny!

Last season, Dark Harbor presented its Freak Shows individually; guests would line up and pick and choose which “mini haunted attraction” feature to experience, as they were each built into shipping containers. Lines were long, and we did a couple; it was a solid Queen Mary's Dark Harboraddition to Dark Harbor and a fun way for guests to experience a little extra spookiness during their trip. This year, Dark Harbor combined those attractions into one walk-through, and for a flat fee, you get to see all of them at once and not have to wait in more than one queue (the queue by the way, it really cool – packed with oddities and curious artifacts to keep guests entertained during the wait). Freak Shows includes peek-ins at bizarre creatures and characters, and some really cool mini attractions. My personal favorite is the White Ghost – a stupidly simple concept with a fantastic thrill factor; a completely fogged-out space flooded by bright white light, and a couple wandering “sheet ghosts” that appear right next to you and then vanish as you try to find the way out! It’s awesome and I’d incorporate this in any haunted attraction, it’s so effective! Love the White Ghost!

Fitting in perfectly with the overall circus theme of Dark Harbor, Freak Shows is the one up-charge attraction that everyone must include in their visit. It’s funny, creepy, and very nicely done; bravo to the team on this one – this is a winner through and through, and one of our favorite aspects of the entire 2014 event!

MAZES

As is the case with most major haunted attractions, one of the biggest draws to Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor are its mazes. With three located on the famous ship itself, one in the iconic dome that once housed the Spruce Goose, and two others outside, Dark Harbor is one of the largest maze-centric events each Halloween here in Southern California.

I can remember back – way back – in the day, to some of Queen Mary’s earliest Halloween events and maze endeavors. It’s safe to say, that Dark Harbor has come bigger and better than others’ first attempts, and the creative folks now at the helm know what they’re doing. That said, there are some logistical issues with the ship that ironically, make it a very challenging environment for something like a maze. The biggest challenge is ventilation. While the ship has small portholes, which are all kept open, temperatures Queen Mary's Dark Harborclimb inside the hull structure, making it a virtual oven for guests and more concerning, the men and women working for hours each night inside. On opening weekend, temperatures here in California were nearly 100 degrees as the sun set in Long Beach. Inside the ship, talent and guests were literally baking – it’s hard as hell to really get into a maze experience when you’re dripping sweat and the air is warm that you’re breathing in; it’s gross, but it’s a factor here in SoCal, unfortunately. Obviously the weather is out of Dark Harbor’s control. However, what we would suggest is discussing ventilation with Queen Mary for next year. Here in Los Angeles, sound stages and production buildings for film and television are kept ventilated and cool with portable air conditioners pumping in huge amounts of cold air when temperatures soar outside. It’s effective and it’s a proven method of keeping people happy and more importantly, safe as they work. Dark Harbor would only need these portable units for the first couple weeks of operation; there might initially be a decent cost involved, but at some point, someone has to ask what the comfort and safety of guests and crew is worth and look into this type of relief. Our hearts go out to the folks working in the ship when it is stifling hot; what amazing troopers with incredible enthusiasm and loyalty to their haunt family! Utmost kudos to each of you!

Another issue that Dark Harbor’s creators have to contend with is the infrastructure of the ship; there are stairs all over the place. A lot of them. Narrow and steep. On several occasions, guests are asked to either climb or descend dark stairways, sometimes with monsters lurking nearby. It’s a potential trip hazard, and one that I’m sure, Dark Harbor’s designers have to grapple with each season. What we would love to see implemented in each of these cases is glow-in-the-dark tape strips indicating each of the individual stairs; they could be activated constantly and brightly by a nearby black light. It’s not as scary as the darkness, but it’s far less frightening than having guests tumble down the stairwell while experiencing the haunt!

Structural and temperature dilemmas aside, we really enjoy the mazes at Dark Harbor and had time to check them all out this season multiple times. We found each full of really enthusiastic talent, some great visuals, and yes – spooky moments at every turn; this is definitely a place for you if you’re into mazes.

Circus – Fueling the overall theme of Dark Harbor, Circus is the maze located within the massive dome next to the Queen Mary. Home to the event’s iconic Ringmaster character, Circus is a standard theme that incorporates clowns, a confusing mirror maze, colorful-yet-creepy set design, and a cast of characters that make for some bizarre and spooky big top fun.

Queen Mary's Dark HarborOne of the coolest aspects of Circus is its aforementioned mirror maze. Usually a capacity-killer, the mirror maze is small enough that it throws wandering guests for a short and confusing loop as they find their way through, before becoming a throughput issue. It’s disorienting, well put together, and just large enough to get the desired effect without destroying guest flow. Throw in an odd character or two, and it’s beautiful! Bravo!

The rest of the maze is what you’d expect – various rooms filled with “back of house” circus props – a spinning wheel for a blade throwing demonstration, crates, and a dressing room are some examples of areas that guests pass through as they visit Circus. The middle of the maze features a large area under the tent, where visitors are assaulted from all sides (and from behind false pictures on the walls). This is the maze’s signature room, and imagery of The Ringmaster is everywhere; lucky folks may even have an encounter with the sinister character herself as they pass through!

At the end of the attraction, guests must traverse a long series of sliding square floor panels; this is really neat and also somewhat surprising to me that Dark Harbor includes this element. On one hand, it brings back my early childhood memories of exploring fun houses at local carnivals and fairs. On the other, as a designer, the inherent risk of guests twisting ankles, falling, or worse completely freaks me out when it comes to this specific gag. I pondered it a lot last year when we experienced it; and I find myself doing the same this year as well. To avoid risk, simply step on the planks between the squares and bound out of this tricky dilemma safe and sound!

Circus is a fun maze; it’s not a great maze, but it definitely adds to the overall story that is Dark Harbor! It’s not terribly long, and the talent within absolutely does a great job, ensuring this maze packs a really decent punch and doesn’t clown around!

Deadrise – Our favorite maze from Dark Harbor 2013 returns this season and is still really strong in all ways. Deadrise tells the story of a World War II military ship that aided the Queen Mary (known as The Grey Ghost during wartime) during her trans-Atlantic voyages. The legend goes that the escort ship was destroyed, and it sank to the bottom of the ocean, forever trapping its shattered hull – and lost crew members – in a watery grave. The ship itself has been called back into duty by The Captain of Dark Harbor, and rises from the depths each Halloween! It’s a simple, really fun concept that Dark Harbor executes very well.

Queen Mary's Dark HarborLocated outside, Deadrise has to be one of the favorite mazes for talent to work, as it is mostly uncovered, keeping it cool or even cold at night, with nothing but fresh air. I know if I worked the event, Deadrise is where I would want to be positioned!

Deadrise features a huge facade of the ship’s hull, with pyro exploding from its exterior every few seconds, sending balls of bright, hot flame into the night sky above. These giant bursts of fire cast really dramatic, harsh shadows throughout the interior of the maze below, creating a very tense, disorienting experience for guests traveling through the attraction.

The talent throughout the maze take advantage of darkened corners, large props such as oil drums and bent metal, and fog-filled hallways to scare the hell out of visitors. There are plenty of pop-out scares, as well as really eerie moments such as one crew member crushed and cut in half that lunges out at people as they pass the gruesome scene.

Sound plays an important role in Deadrise to keep guests on edge. An echoing, haunting soundtrack is underscored by jarring, loud noises that come from talent hitting the metal interior and props throughout the wreckage, as well as large triggered effects such as rolling oil barrels crashing into one another just inches away from guests. The added noise of the fire bursts overhead give this maze a very unique soundscape that remains one of our favorite experiences at Dark Harbor.

Deadrise features solid scares, a great and unique design, a strong environment, and an ill-fated crew that truly gets the story they’re telling and the role their playing in the grand scheme of Dark Harbor! Kudos to all involved!

Submerged – Another returning maze this season that has been part of the Dark Harbor lineup for years now is Submerged. Belonging thematically to one of the event’s central characters, Scary Mary, Submerged takes guests below the decks of the Queen Mary into water-flooded compartments and dark, damp corridors filled with rust, skeletal remains of crew members trapped for decades, and lurking, waterlogged horrors.

The maze begins with a one-two punch, bringing guests directly into the infamous swimming pool area of the ship – one of the most renowned hot spots of paranormal activity on the Queen Mary. This is where we encounter Scary Mary herself, as she calls out to guests from one of the staircases leading to the pool. We love having access to such a historically significant location, but feel that Dark Harbor should really play it up more – add lighting effects, etc. to the pool. Make it a spectacle (it has been showcased much better in past years), and perhaps re-work the maze to make the pool the finale of Submerged, rather than the beginning; let’s face it – you can’t beat that kind of existing setting no matter what you fabricate for a maze. Scary Mary was great in the scene, but far enough away from guests (we wish she’d been closer) to not be terribly frightening. This would have been fine had she appeared numerous times throughout the maze, getting closer with each apparition before coming face-to-face with terrified guests in a climactic moment. That isn’t the case however, so our encounter with Scary Mary left us wanting more from and of this character as opposed to random ghouls lurking in the darkness of the ship.

Queen Mary's Dark HarborSubmerged takes visitors through some really interesting areas, and the environment is punctuated by an eerie soundtrack that is both haunting and to me, rather sad when considering the glory of the ship’s past and all the lives she touched. I’ve often said this of Dark Harbor and will say it again, no doubt: the Queen Mary is a world-class attraction and environment that is so unique that by default, it offers an environment that no one else can come close to replicating. This is a strength, and should be used to Dark Harbor’s advantage at all times.

Again, the temperature in Submerged was fairly nasty, as it was very warm and humid, due to water elements used throughout the maze. This is one of the attractions at Dark Harbor that could and would benefit greatly from piped-in air conditioning on hot days before the season truly turns here in Southern California.

We’d love to see a complete re-working of this maze in 2015. We love the Scary Mary character and absolutely think that she should remain – but it’s been years now, and Submerged is in danger of becoming all wet if it continues for another season. Here’s hoping for Scary Mary in an all-new environment next Halloween!

Soulmate – This is one of the new mazes for Dark Harbor’s 2014 season; I’ll come right out and say this is also our favorite Dark Harbor maze this year as well!

Soulmate is located on the ship itself, and features the character Graceful Gale. The story of Gale is an ugly, violent, and ultimately, a sad one: luring would-be suitors into her dark domain, Gale allows her minion to capture and destroy each victim, using skin, bone, and limbs to put together what she’s searched for endlessly aboard the ship… her perfect man. Soulmate takes guests into a dark, surreal environment that is both terrifying and grand by way of elaborate set details and fantastic storytelling.

Of course, the bigger picture that Dark Harbor paints is that Graceful Gale and The Captain actually are bound together in an eternal romance. In that respect, the maze’s story is a bit out of whack – although, one could justify it by saying it’s kind of a flashback of sorts, explaining what Gale is, and what evils her character is capable of that brings us current.

Ranging from old school regal and elaborate settings to gritty, raw scenes of carnage in a matter of feet, Soulmate is disturbing and never really settles on one “look” or style throughout the experience. The talent varies greatly too in character, from ghostly crew members from Queen Mary’s past, to grotesque, wandering ghouls with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. In the end, guests wind up at a masquerade ball aboard the luxurious Queen Mary, and come face-to-face with Graceful Gale, as she glides along a ballroom dance floor, flirting with possible companions as she casts her deadly gaze on passersby before swirling past in search of her next victim.

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor

Soulmate’s talent needs to be commended, because when we visited, this was the single hottest maze at Dark Harbor. Literally. I don’t know if it was the way the sun hits the ship, the way the hull is built or what – all I know is that it was no less than 100 degrees inside the maze each time we went through, which temperature-wise, was beyond miserable. It may seem like I’m pounding the drum a lot about the heat inside these mazes, but I’m telling you – there isn’t enough praise we can give to the men and women working this event for enduring that aspect of the job. If you’ve ever attempted to work a haunted attraction, you know how physically demanding it is; add 100+ degree temperatures to that mix, and you have yourself one hell of a challenge. Amazing job by those in suits, and ballroom gowns wandering the haunted, heated halls of the ship in this maze!

Again, we really love the idea of mazes being character-centric, tying all of the stories of Dark Harbor into the history of the ship and the overall event itself. The look of Graceful Gale is haunting and beautiful to begin with. Huge props go to Christina Cofran and Jennifer Fregozo, who created Graceful Gale for Dark Harbor; people often forget that talented, creative folks actually design these iconic characters that become such an evergreen part of the entire experience.

Bravo to everyone involved in Soulmate. It’s a brilliantly-done maze featuring some really cool visuals and a fantastic central character. I’m sure this attraction will be part of Dark Harbor for another year or so, as well it should be!

B340 – Another of Dark Harbor’s new mazes for 2014, B340 is focused on one of the event’s core characters as well; Samuel the Savage. The story line is representative of his gradual descent into madness, from Catholic school (that’ll do it) to grizzly murders aboard the ship.

The story of Samuel the Savage is one of mental illness spiraling downward to the point where he goes on a murderous rampage on the Queen Mary, and once apprehended, is locked away in a room – B340. His body is found ripped apart shortly thereafter, leading to speculation over who committed such an act – or if Samuel was so savage that he indeed, was capable of destroying his own being in his final moments. It’s a strong premise for a maze theme; I just wish it had somehow been relayed stronger before experiencing B340. The character and his tale are introduced by The Ringmaster during the stage show a couple times per night. However, you can’t bank on the fact that people are going to see that or will already come to Dark Harbor knowing and understanding the background of each character. I do honestly think the key to this challenge is having flat screens in the maze queues (the waits get very long, so you do have a captive audience) that play a loop that describes and introduces each character and the corresponding legend surrounding them. At very least, large storyboards a la the La Llorona maze in 2011 and 2012 at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights in the queue that convey the story in some sort of written form – headlines, pictures… anything that gets the story across to guests waiting in line. We know that you have to hand-hold most people through an experience that is story-driven to get them to focus and understand it. I’d wager that most people going through B340 (as well as most of the other mazes at Dark Harbor) had no real idea of what the theme or story was really all about. And that’s a shame, because it’s a missed opportunity to really connect with one of the event’s central characters when guests do finally come face-to-face with him at the end of the maze in room B340.

Queen Mary's Dark HarborB340 is a strange visual trek aboard the Queen Mary, down tight corridors and up steep staircases. Throughout, the number “340” plays out – from chalk boards filled with “B340” to a section of the maze decorated with Salvador Dali-like melting clocks; of course, they are all displaying 3:40. Does it work? I’m not quite sure, because the visuals of the attraction are so odd and abstract. Without hammering away at the legend of Samuel the Savage, I’d say getting folks to understand fully what’s being shown to them as they progress through the maze is an uphill battle that is probably not going to be won this year. I believe the stranger the experience, the more critical it is to convey the basis/story in every way possible beforehand.

B340 is home to one of the Queen Mary’s most spooky locations – a cavernous boiler room that guests traverse by way of narrow gantry through the darkness. In past iterations of Dark Harbor, the space has been utilized really well; the best being in the 2010 version of Submerged that featured that particular location. As part of B340, the boiler room as a whole is vastly underwhelming. We’d love to see future tweaks to this maze include some heavy duty special effects in this scene, because the setting is already there, begging for a show moment.

Oddness aside, the talent was strong in this maze, and we were impressed by the unique and strange variety of scenes placed throughout, especially the addition of the Catholic school sequence; there’s something you don’t see every day in the bowels of the Queen Mary! B340 is almost there. It’s good this year, but with some finesse and a few tweaks here and there, it could very well be one of 2015’s strongest Dark Harbor mazes.

Voodoo Village – Without a doubt, “Voodoo” as a theme is definitely the hotness this year in Southern California. It’s the focus of one of Knott’s Scary Farm’s new attractions, a stage show/dance area at Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest, and a full-blown maze at Dark Harbor. It seems as though a few creatives watched American Horror Story last season!

Voodoo is a great theme, regardless. It’s mystical, spooky, and dark. You can do anything with it, from the surreal to the violent. This year, Dark Harbor’s largest maze is Voodoo Village, located in the outdoor “mall” area of the property.

The scenic elements in Voodoo are great, and the talent is fantastic – completely in character, whether they be practicing the religion, victims of the religion, or drunk Mardi Gras party girls having a good time in New Orleans! Everyone is totally in character, and that sells the maze completely.

As stated, the design of Voodoo Village is really good, with a lot of effort being spent on several larger portions of the maze, including a bayou setting complete with wooden plank bridges and tons of foliage. The only thing missing when we went through the maze with Queen Mary's Dark Harborcameras rolling, was a soundtrack. The music from the midway of Dark Harbor bleeds into the maze, which is seriously problematic in itself – an unfortunate issue that has no easy answer (and that sucks, because you’re immediately taken out of the moment of the maze as soon as music starts pounding away while you’re wandering through one of the multiple outside portions of the attraction). However, the lack of continuous loop in each of the maze’s zones – that’s a killer. There should be loud jazz music and drunken laughter backing up the party girls in the New Orleans alley sequence. Likewise, there should always be driving, drum-heavy or appropriate music/soundscapes playing throughout the maze. The moment your sound stops in any haunt unless it’s specifically designed to be completely silent (and that should be done in extremely rare cases). Loop that soundtrack, loop that soundtrack, loop that soundtrack. It’s imperative.

Voodoo Village came with the introduction of a brand new character to Dark Harbor for its 2014 season – The Voodoo Priestess. A new and very strong icon has been created character-wise for Dark Harbor; so much so, that she and The Ringmaster go head-to-head visibility-wise and play off of each other accordingly. It’s a really interesting dynamic, for sure. The Voodoo Priestess even has an attitude with The Captain, who promptly puts her in her place during the nightly Main Stage Cast Show. If this particular character remains as strong as she is this year, I imagine that Voodoo Village and its theme will be sticking around for a few years to come. We’re totally fine with that, as this year’s first pass is really well done and fun; it should only get better each season while it’s part of the event!

Huge props to the cast of Voodoo Village and the design team involved. Everyone did a great job, and continues to do so each night that Dark Harbor is open! What a winning new maze and theme!

It should be stated that for an extra dose of spooky fun (and a repeat visit in our case this year), Dark Harbor transforms itself into a huge Dia de los Muertos celebration during its November 1 and 2 final nights. Many of the monsters and main characters get a special sugar skull overlay, and there are celebratory moments noting the tradition throughout the event. We’re experiencing this for the first time; it sounds like the perfect way to celebrate Dia de los Muertos ourselves and close out the Halloween season in style with an amazing group of people! For information as well as a form for guests dressing in costume during Dark Harbor’s final weekend, please click here.

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And there you have it; Theme Park Adventure’s review of the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2014! This event has been getting better and better each Halloween, and is now a major contender in the Southern California market each season. It’s got the respect of its peers, and fans are coming from everywhere to experience all that it has to offer. Dark Harbor is definitely a must-see attraction that belongs on everyone’s haunt list. Between incredibly rich, original characters that have been created for the event, and the world-class setting of the Queen Mary, Dark Harbor is a unique, absolutely immersive and just plain fun event that we now look forward to each Halloween season.

Queen Mary's Dark HarborA huge thank you to Mark Entner and his team, David, Bre, JJ and everyone else; you guys are fantastic and we love your partnership. Christina and her makeup team that spend long hours making monsters – thank you for creating some of the best characters we’ve ever seen at a themed event; bravo to each of you! Peggy and the rest of the talent that lurks the midway or haunts the halls of the event’s attractions – you are Dark Harbor and we love you all! And everyone else – from parking attendants and ticket sales, to security, bartenders, food service folks – we appreciate the long, odd hours that you’re putting in to make this event happen!

You should all be very proud of your association with one of the best Halloween events anywhere – we cannot wait to witness your continued growth in the years to come, and we’ll be there with you every step of the way to document it for fans around the world to enjoy!

– Rick West

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