We first visited Queen Mary’s haunt offering (then called “Shipwreck”) back in 2000. Back then, we were impressed with the length of the mazes and the unique opportunities for scares, although the themes were all over the place (from yetis to mummies to vampires and ghouls). Being the crazed haunt fans we are, we went back every year, but each year we were a bit more disappointed than the last. And in 2008, after being harassed by security and after growing tired of the lazy monsters in Wal-Mart–quality rubber masks, we stopped going.
But this summer, we heard that Queen Mary was retooling their event. It got a new name: Dark Harbor, which had an impressive ring to it. It would have 5 new mazes, plus an entire back story to go along with it. Were we gonna go? Of course!
We attended on opening night, and we can easily say: this is no “Shipwreck.” There are no lazy monsters here. There are fewer rubber masks, and the ones that are used actually fit within the context of the maze. The mazes themselves have coherent themes, and they all tie together. I think this might be a first for any Southern California haunt, and that detail—tying the entire event together under the theme of a ship docked in the “harbor of the damned”—has brought with it a sense of place unlike any other haunt in the area, and perhaps anywhere.
Dark Harbor seeks to immerse you in the experience as soon as you walk in the gates. You literally enter the park by walking into a almost maze: a long tunnel of metal shipping containers filled with fog and eerie lighting. Monsters lurk in the corners, and it’s truly scary. Flames shoot out high above you, lighting everything up momentarily, like some kind of lightning from hell. (In fact, it’s called Hell’s Bell Tower.) And yeah, Universal is using gas flame effects as well, but Queen Mary’s is better. And within the industrial, harbor theme and with actual oil refineries just up the road, the effect is a perfect fit.
The five mazes include three on the ship and two on land. Here is our maze-by-maze review:
1. Village of the Damned (in the village): This maze takes you through several creepy interior sets, with some great suspense setups. We had some good scares in the first half of the maze. Unfortunately, the second half kind of fizzles out, taking you through a sort of jungle landscape that was devoid of the theming detail in the first half and also lacking monsters. This maze was really long; perhaps they should have shortened it and crammed more detail into less square footage. Still, some spooky props and sets impressed us.
Our rating: 2.5 skulls*
2. The Cage (in the dome): We fell IN LOVE with this maze. It’s got a very industrial feel, with lots of metal and mirrors and fences and hanging heads and jarring noises. Despite that poor description, the effects are great. In particular, the lighting in this maze is amazing. Every light setup enhances the scares in some way. The monsters in this maze have generic masks, but it actually works in here to increase the creepiness factor. We actually got lost in this maze. We’re not kidding–we were lost for about 3 minutes. We don’t want to give too much away about this one, and it’s hard to describe anyway. OUR TIP: Get there early and go straight to The Cage. It’s much better if the maze is empty.
Our rating: 4.5 skulls*
3. Containment (on the ship): The theme of this maze seems to be some kind of virus going around the ship, infecting seamen and passengers alike. There was some really “spirited” acting in this one, and some interesting makeup. We didn’t find it too scary, though.
Our rating: 3 skulls*
4. Hellfire (on the ship): The ship is on fire, the passengers are are crispy, and they’re begging for your help. Very similar to Containment in a lot of ways. There were some impressive lighting effects in this one, too (seriously, who’s in charge of the lighting at Dark Harbor? Please give them a raise). Some good scares and more actors giving it their all. Interesting, while we were waiting in line for this one, the ship’s fire alarm actually went off. Was that extreme theming, or just a coincidence? Hmm….
Our rating: 3 skulls*
5. Submerged (on the ship): First the ship was on fire, and now it’s sinking! Water pours in as you walk through this maze. Victims are drowning and trying to claw their way out of the ship. A few well-placed animatronics scared us silly. A tricycle wheels into view out of nowhere (definitely one of the most eerie things I’ve ever seen in a haunt). This maze takes you through the pool room (allegedly haunted IRL), which even more fun lighting effects in the pool itself. We found ourselves screaming like crazy in this maze. Maybe we just hit the scares at the right time, but we loved it.
Our rating: 4 skulls*
In addition to the mazes and the elaborate entrance, there’s also The Barricades, which is a scare zone like no other. Most scare zones in theme parks are based around a preestablished path: you pass through them on your way to or from mazes. The Barricades, on the other hand, is a detour in itself. The entrance is built of slatted wood, which against the fog and some well-placed lighting just screams Halloween. And when you enter, you’re immediately surrounded by steampunk-style zombie/ghouls who do a pretty good job scaring you. And unlike scare zones where you walk in one direction, The Barricades is set up as an entire scare area, with intermittent walls of pallet wood preventing you from easily finding your way out. It’s almost like a mini-maze, and the entire thing is lit by the same shooting flames that greet you as you enter. We spent a lot of time in The Barricades, just hanging out and enjoying the atmosphere and watching others get scared.
Finally, we should also mention the well-planned “Mariner’s Bar” outdoor booze area, with several stands serving all kinds of drinks (we recommend the spiced rum runner). The centerpiece is a gruesome ocean shrine (yes, even the bar is well themed!). There’s a stage for local bands to play, and there are several comfortable lounge areas to sit in, with the type of seating and tables you’d expect to find in a club rather than a haunt. The overall feel is pretty sophisticated—a long way from the cheesy DJ parties that used to happen on the ship.
Overall, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor seriously impressed us this year. In fact, we were pretty shocked at the complete turn-around Queen Mary has made. Paul Haught, Director of Events at the Queen Mary, indicated that they have a 3-year plan to expand and improve on the haunt. We can’t wait to see what they come up with next year. Honestly, it will be hard to top what we saw this past Friday. We highly recommend you check it out.
Overall Dark Harbor 2010 rating: 4 skulls*
Dark Harbor is open October 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31 from 7:00 p.m. until midnight. As always, we recommend going earlier in the month (opening night had very light crowds, but we know it will get busier the closer it gets to Halloween). Tickets are $35 ($55 for the Fast Fright Pass).
*Skulls rate on a scale of 1 to 5. (Note that only one haunt has ever achieved a perfect score of 5: The Haunted Vineyard.)