The Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA
We took a look at the mazes at Dark Harbor yesterday, and today's it's onto the rest! Dark Harbor doesn't have specifically themed scare zones. Instead, everything is just sort of one haunted midway, with various additional amenities scattered about. Food stands, bar, merchandise, and plenty of show options abound, and one of the nice things about Dark Harbor is how it offers a good amount of entertainment for those who don't care for the mazes or want to wait in line for them. Shall we explore more? (Wait, Explore More is something else we'll get to in a couple of weeks...)
Opening and R.I.P. Lounge
Once upon a time, guests used to enter Dark Harbor through a gauntlet of fogged out and dimly lit shipping containers filled with monsters lurking to scare the crap out of and also partially deafen guests. It was actually one of the coolest and most unique entrances I've ever seen, but unfortunately, these days, guests have a more standard filter around the backside of the village marketplace area and into the main midway, where plenty of street monsters and characters abound. The monsters are fun to watch as they interact with the crowd, and that's after an entertaining hype session from the Captain, the Ringmaster, and Chef to rile the crowd up.
On opening night, press and media were invited up to the R.I.P. Lounge, overlooking the carnival grounds. Like last year, guests can indulge in Mexican cuisine (burritos instead of tacos this year; I though the taco bar was better last year) plus a relatively well stocked bar--all included in the lounge upcharge. It's a nice space to unwind a little bit, though, and it offers a pretty cool perspective.
Streets and Midway
The Queen Mary icons have largely been relocated back into their respective mazes this year, rather than roam the streets--with the exception of The Captain, the Ringmaster, and the Voodoo Priestess, who are part of the entertainment. I wish the icons could be out and about, but alas, that was a decision.
Fortunately, there are plenty of familiar street monsters to harass guests. Sliders, creeps, and creatures all prowl about, and they were pretty active in the scaring department when we visited on opening night.
There are also the usual assortment of other upcharges at Dark Harbor this year (though fortunately, the incredibly disappointing Hex Paintballing experience has been repealed):
- The Chef's Meat Locker is an ice bar that is $18 for admission but comes with several included vodka shots.
- The Creepy Cabanas are rentable spaces that allow for table-side alcohol service a place ot lounge.
- The Panic! 4D attraction on board the ship is the same as last year's offering, but it's actually not bad. Cheesy fun, with the usual startle gimmicks included, but probably the best Dark Harbor upcharge attraction that's been offered.
- Guests can have their fortune read at the Fortune Reader.
The reorganized Dark Harbor grounds has done a pretty nice job of spreading out the various stage areas and giving them ample space for audiences without taking guests either too far from mazes or overlapping them. A look at the event map shows a plethora of shows scattered across several stages throughout the grounds. There are fire breathers, contortionists, aerialists, puppet shows, the Ringmaster's own stand-up act, magic acts, and more. It's actually pretty impressive, and though there's nothing on the level of grand stage show, the entertainment offerings are diverse and pretty interesting and can provide an enjoyable time to practically people of any interest.
Highly featured at Queen Mary are the Dark Harbor sliders, and when they're not terrorizing guests on the midway, they also perform in a choreographed "Slider Olympics" style show twice a night. This year, the show features more of a theatrical and story-driven organization, sort of similar to what Decayed Brigade unveiled at Midsummer Scream and Scare L.A. The gist of the Queen Mary show sees the sliders assembled to put together their usual display of sliding tricks and athleticism, but the lone excluded slider, MUTE, keeps injecting himself into the show, much to the other monsters' chagrin. It's a bit silly, but it offers a nice unifying role to keep the show running relatively concisely. On opening night, there were a few moments that seemed to drag just a bit, but even between shows, the sliders were making adjustments, and overall, the presentation was much more refined than in previous years.
It's a great development, because the organization gives a higher air of showmanship to the show and makes it feel more professional. The sliders at Dark Harbor are pretty talented themselves, and despite the inter-haunt competition from a marketing standpoint, the Dark Harbor sliders share a camaraderie with those at Knott's Scary Farm--the the point that they held a joint show last year called Sliders Unite, and will be doing the same twice this season, on Wednesdays, October 25 and November 1.
Dark Harbor continues to offer a fun, spontaneous-feeling haunted carnival setting with plenty of entertainment options for guests who are not in line or going through mazes. The street monsters are pretty fun, and while there isn't any particular scare zone theme that unifies things (I guess general freak show carnival), the vibe is pretty enjoyable, with monsters wandering around everywhere on the hunt for victims and scares. The quality of the theming isn't going to have the same cohesive immersion that Knott's Scary Farm has, but given the fact that Dark Harbor is a temporary event staged on temporary grounds (a parking lot), this is not as much of a problem for me (compared to the mazes, which--even though they're also temporary--are at least competing with like constraints at other parks, but the other parks provide higher quality settings).
Logistically, the event still suffers from a dearth of time-consuming inefficiencies. The lines can be very, very long, and unlike at Halloween Horror Nights, where there might be justification that the payoff is Hollywood-quality maze sets (albeit with those repetitive scares that I keep harping upon), the lines at Dark Harbor do not yield as visual quality that is quite as high. I will say, however, that in my experiences, the talent present has been pretty energetic, and even when they don't actually scare me, they're putting forth effort and at least projecting some sort of character or psychology work. I will always recommend that guests at Dark Harbor purchase a front of the line pass. It's not that expensive compared to most other haunts, and it is worth the extra cost. And if guests time their regular ticket purchases with a promotional sale, they can always buy a regular ticket in advance and then upgrade on site to capture the savings of whatever online coupon code happens to be active at the moment.
Parking has also notoriously been horrendous, as those who do not arrive early suffer through time-wasting congestion. This is not the fault of the Dark Harbor talent or designers. The infrastructure simply does not exist on site to accommodate all the guests this haunt now attracts. And starting on-site premium parking at $40/vehicle was a pretty poor way of trying to reduce traffic and deter guests from parking on site--especially since it wasn't really advertised.
Fortunately, after an online outcry, the event organizers have lowered parking back down. For parking, Dark Harbor is offering three parking options this year:
- General parking is located at the Long Beach Court House for $15 a vehicle.
- General parking is also located at the Aquarium of the Pacific Parking Structure for $3/hour or $16 per vehicle.
- Premium parking is limited and available onsite at the Queen Mary for $20 per vehicle.
General parking guests can hop on the free shuttle bus for complimentary rides to Dark Harbor from 4 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., or board the free Dark Harbor Express boat at Dock 4, operated by Aqua Link open 6 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Just show Dark Harbor ticket upon boarding.
Ultimately, although I've harped on a number of things at Dark Harbor in this review, they are more general observations needed to improve the event in the future to help it compete with the other major haunts in the area. I know that there have been plenty of guests in the past who've suffered poor experiences because of how the event was run. It would be a shame for all the hard work the talent and designers and event team put in to be wasted by an increasingly disappointed clientele. Hence, the hopefully constructive criticism.
That said, Dark Harbor is still plenty of fun. It remains a favorite haunted attraction that I'll revisit yearly. With all the sales it offers, the event is also one of the great deals during Halloween season, and one of the few that runs past Halloween (slightly past--to Día de los Muertos). Halloween and November 1st are also traditionally fun and unique experiences, because guests are allowed to dress up at the event on those evenings as well, providing quite a festive atmosphere.
So, as you can see, through the mixed bag, there are a lot of great positives Dark Harbor can offer. For the Halloween fan looking to expand past Knott's and Universal, this oceanside haunt in Long Beach is a great first step toward the rest of the great haunts in Southern California!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.