California's Great America Halloween Haunt 2017: Mazes Recap

California's Great America, Santa Clara, CA

So... remember how a couple of months ago, we sent our intern over to California's Great America to check out their Halloween Haunt event?  Yeah, well, he managed to not screw up enough that we were intrigued too, so a month ago, we made a trip up north as well to experience CGA's Halloween Haunt for the first time.  This was the ten year anniversary of their event, and it was interesting to explore and see how the Bay Area's largest haunt compared to its sister park and inspiration, Knott's Scary Farm. 

Today's update focuses on the eight mazes and five Skeleton Key Rooms offered at this year's Haunt up north.  Such a line-up certainly provided a good quantity of haunted attractions, and as we discovered, there were some great experiences within the group--mazes that were definitely competitive with the line-up at Scary Farm this year.  But we also found some mazes that were at a "Knott's ten years ago" level, which--while perfectly respectable and still enjoyable--were a noticeable notch down from the premiere level.

Want to know more, or just browse through eye candy?  Read on...

Skeleton Key Rooms

We'll get the Skeleton Key Rooms out of the way first.  Those from Southern California remember that prior to this year, over the past couple of years, Knott's Scary Farm had offered Skeleton Key Rooms as separate, bonus, upcharge mini-mazes for guests who purchased the Fright Lane front-of-line pass that included the Skeleton Key.  These were unique and creative, but they were capacity issues for Knott's, and they were removed this year in favor of having those specialities incorporated directly into the mazes and presented in a more egalitarian manner.

Well, CGA didn't get that memo, so it had Skeleton Key rooms this year.  And actually, they were mostly not bad!  Some were certainly better than others, but our two favorite rooms were actually extremely well done and entertaining, while our #3 was a fun mini-escape room that we solved relatively quickly but still appreciated.  Even our fourth favorite at least carried the advantage of operating speedily, mitigating long line issues at least there, and only one Skeleton Key room turned out to be significantly disappointing.

Backwoods

New for this year was Backwoods, a story of a swamp area resort where the locals seem to retain a thirst for violence and blood and a bit of human flesh.  For Knott's fans, this felt like a mix of Blood Bayou and Slaughterhouse.  Located inside a large building behind Gold Striker, Backwoods created a convincing set that felt distinctly swamp-like, and the theming was pretty solid.  The lighting was somewhat dark--making photos challenging--but the ambiance certainly felt tense as guests made their way through this wilderness heath. 

 Guests are greeted by a friendly resort assistant, but they're warned of the risk in heading out to enjoy the nature outside.

Guests are greeted by a friendly resort assistant, but they're warned of the risk in heading out to enjoy the nature outside.

Unfortunately, the talent did not meet the expectations raised by the quality of theming.  Mostly, the issue lay in the actual lack of talent.  In our trips, we passed through multiple instances of empty rooms or positions--absences too frequent to be explained by luck of the draw and break periods.  The talent that did appear was fine--nothing memorable, but still putting in effort.  Bt there simply wasn't enough of them.  It was a bit disappointing, given that this was a new maze this year.

 The ambiance was top notch in this maze.  The sets were literally built over water, reinforcing the marshy environment.

The ambiance was top notch in this maze.  The sets were literally built over water, reinforcing the marshy environment.

 The biggest shame was the numerous empty rooms.

The biggest shame was the numerous empty rooms.

Roadkill Roadhouse

Almost next door to Backwoods was Roadkill Roadhouse, a maze that pretty much was Slaughterhouse.  "You kill it, we grill it!" the cannibalistic restaurant proclaimed, and interior was a carnage-filled murder fest full of body parts and depraved fiends and a whole lot of red lighting.  A shorter maze than some of the others, Roadkill Roadhouse ultimately ended up a middle-of-the-road maze--not unforgettable, but not bad either.

 Yee haw, it's grillin' time!!  Or baking?

Yee haw, it's grillin' time!!  Or baking?

 This roadhouse certainly wouldn't mind helping out with a bite or three.

This roadhouse certainly wouldn't mind helping out with a bite or three.

Chaos House

The other new maze for 2017, unfortunately, proved to be the biggest disappointment of the night.  The first sign of trouble came from the line itself.  Though we had the Fright Lane with Skeleton Key and could skip the line, we noticed that standby was exceptionally long--to the point where the staff didn't even punch our Fright Lane card on our first visit (unlike Knott's Scary Farm, the Fright Lane only allows for one front of line use per maze, not unlimited use).  Were we to have waited the hour+ time that the queue was running, we would have been sorely angered by the resulting maze.

 The entry facade of Chaos House was actually pretty impressive and highly atmospheric.

The entry facade of Chaos House was actually pretty impressive and highly atmospheric.

Chaos House had one trick: strobes, and it used them to almost seizure-inducing frequency.  The idea was not terrible--provide complete disorientation to make the scares that much more potent.  Unfortunately, the scares pretty much never came.  In both times we walked through, we counted a total of four monsters each time, which was honestly a little appalling.  We could not figure out why a maze of this ultimately disappointing caliber would garner such a long wait.  And the scare attempts that did occur rarely seemed to take advantage of the actual maze design.  With all the patterning on the walls, it would have been fantastic to have monsters dressed in matching patterns who could pop out in plain sight for a startle.  Hiding behind the glare of the lasers and spotlights would have also been effective.  Unfortunately, those features were never really utilized for scares, and we ended up feeling that Chaos House was a case of all build-up and no pay-off.

 But inside, rare was there a monster sighting.  Instead, it was pretty much all strobes, all the time.

But inside, rare was there a monster sighting.  Instead, it was pretty much all strobes, all the time.

Wax Museum: Chamber of Horrors

Fortunately, the mazes weren't all lackluster.  In fact, Wax Museum: Chamber of Horrors, ended up being our favorite maze and the one we considered to be the best done overall.  The story was fun and unique: enter a wax museum where some of the characters have come to life--and have murderous intent!  And the scares were all pretty redundant: everyone utilized the statue scare.

 We were highly amused to find that the Black Magic facade from Knott's Scary Farm had made its way up north and been repackaged.

We were highly amused to find that the Black Magic facade from Knott's Scary Farm had made its way up north and been repackaged.

However, what made this maze a true gem was how the one trick pony gimmick was executed.  The talent in this maze was absolutely top notch, expertly playing their statue scares to perfection.  Time and time again, figures popped out for effective startles, and it became a very fun game to try to figure out which character was a mannequin and which was live.  Often times, it was near impossible to tell until they made their move to scare, and we loved every bit of it!

 Inside, a host of characters real and fake were on hand to greet guests.

Inside, a host of characters real and fake were on hand to greet guests.

 Every scene had one or two actors, and the fun game was to guess which figure was alive, breathing, and ready to scare.

Every scene had one or two actors, and the fun game was to guess which figure was alive, breathing, and ready to scare.

Wax Museum also provided the most photogenic maze of the night, with fantastic lighting and highly detailed theming and figures.  The premise was quite brilliant, and the screams throughout the house proved that even though this maze had the same type of scare repeatedly, the varied manner in which the scare was performed kept guests on their toes and the maze experience thoroughly thrilling!

 The length of this maze was also pretty impressive, especially given how detailed the maze became.

The length of this maze was also pretty impressive, especially given how detailed the maze became.

Zombie High

Located in the way back of the park, past Psycho Mouse and the chairlift and tucked away practically in a backstage area, Zombie High provided another highlight of Great America's Halloween Haunt.  The theme itself was relatively mundane enough: zombies take over a high school.  It's nothing terribly original--just an undead version of the classic Scary Farm maze, Hatchet High. 

 Zombie High was a place where good grades were the last thing on most people's minds!

Zombie High was a place where good grades were the last thing on most people's minds!

But once again, the difference maker in this maze was the talent.  They were, quite frankly, a well trained and highly effective group that worked together and took advantage of the maze's design elements to catch guests by the most surprise.  Each of the monsters we encountered were rather engaging, and they never broke character. 

 The maze was crawling with talent.

The maze was crawling with talent.

 With monsters everywhere (the opposite of some the conditions at certain other mazes), Zombie High featured plenty of adrenaline.

With monsters everywhere (the opposite of some the conditions at certain other mazes), Zombie High featured plenty of adrenaline.

The pinnacle of the maze came at the end, as guests stumbled into an auditorium space, blinded by a bright spotlight shining directly into their faces.  All of a sudden, a mass would fly out of the light, streaking straight toward a guest's head.  At the last moment, the bungee monster would veer just to the side, missing the guest by inches, but inflicting a most visceral flinch and scare.  This scare was perfectly timed and exceptionally synchronized, and it got me personally twice!  Suffice to say, Zombie High received high [bite] marks from us!

 This bungee scare actor was absolutely flawless in terrorizing blinded and unsuspecting guests.

This bungee scare actor was absolutely flawless in terrorizing blinded and unsuspecting guests.

Toy Factory

The maze with the song that you could never get out of your head again was located over by The Grizzly, making it a fitting neighbor, as both attractions provided experiences that might make one want to bash his brains out to end it all.  The loud, blaring theme song really was an ear worm!  Emanating throughout the maze, it provided an ironic cute, children's song sounding melody that contrasted with the disturbing imagery of toys gone bad that was present throughout the actual maze itself.

 "Here we are in the toy factory..."

"Here we are in the toy factory..."

Toy Factory represented the fun and sardonic spirit of Haunt that fans have long enjoyed.  There was a host of monsters to start guests, of course.  But the theming and little gags were pretty fun to take note of.  From Angry Angry Hippo to the Kill A Bear Workshop, Toy Factory didn't hesitate to twist commonly cute identifications (and skirt the fine line of potential copyright infringement!).  And the monsters in this maze seemed particularly adept at slipping out from behind a blind corner and nailing guests with a quick stomp and lunge, catching them off guard. 

Though the song did drive us crazy in the way It's A Small World does, we did enjoy the maze a lot.  And though this maze is one of the oldest in CGA Haunt's line-up, it shows no signs of slowing down!

 This was the best thing ever...

This was the best thing ever...

 It's always wonderful to find monsters willing and able to do a creepy back bend.

It's always wonderful to find monsters willing and able to do a creepy back bend.

CornStalkers

Another maze that might be familiar to Southern California haunt fans, CornStalkers was an outright Scary Farm import, stretching out and around the roller coaster, Demon, and providing a sojourn through murderous farmers and spooky cornstalks.  The maze was surprisingly longer than expected, arching past Demon and continuing into the footprint of The Grizzly.  The outdoor setting certainly helped CornStalkers, and the monsters were definitely showing some great energy. 

Our main critique lay in the design and concept of the maze itself--a concept without progression of story.  This was one of the mazes that felt like Knott's ten years ago (and almost literally, it was!), so while what was there was nicely executed, we were hoping to see more.  That's not to say that this was not a solid maze--it was.  But it wasn't more than that.

 The flamethrowers of the distant Demon: Reignighted gave CornStalkers an apocalyptic feel at times.

The flamethrowers of the distant Demon: Reignighted gave CornStalkers an apocalyptic feel at times.

 The talent was pretty active throughout and generally engaging.

The talent was pretty active throughout and generally engaging.

Madame Marie's Massacre Manor

Finally, we had MMMM, a maze that effectively took on a haunted house / voodoo house theme.  Locating this maze was initially tricky on the map, since it was right at the isthmus of the park, and we weren't sure if it was entered through the Demon side or the water park side of the park loop.  It didn't help that construction on Railblazer obscured the route and maze building itself. 

 Guests entered into a room of colorful voodoo.

Guests entered into a room of colorful voodoo.

Once we resolved the wayfinding difficulties, however, we found a beautiful but dark maze that had plenty of high moments, but also a lot of listless monsters who seemed more content to just stare and be creepy than behave with more aggressive or intimidating scares.  In Knott's analogies, it felt a bit like 13 Axe Murder Manor mixed with Lore of the Vampire, with a bit of Voodoo thrown in.  And though the visual trip through was quite lovely, we couldn't help but think that the maze could have used a little more energy. 

 Wandering throughout the manor unearthed dark a deadly secrets.

Wandering throughout the manor unearthed dark a deadly secrets.

Ultimately, the Halloween Haunt at California's Great America is a strong haunted attraction line-up that mostly suffers from a lack of sophistication within the evolution of haunt operations.  There just hasn't quite been the type of full commitment culture up north that has existed at Knott's Scary Farm for decades.  As mentioned earlier, this is only their tenth year of the event, so there's certainly a steep curve that Scary Farm established that this sister park must overcome.  There also hasn't been enough time for a Haunt culture to seep in, allowing those who grew up on the event to bequeath a new generation with love and appreciation for the event. 

But if we seem a little harsh, understand that it's only when placing this in comparison to a standard like Knott's Scary Farm (which is not unreasonable, given both parks' ownership by Cedar Fair).  Compared to the average haunt, CGA's Halloween Haunt is pretty fantastic and quite in-depth. 

To get even better, though, we feel that CGA could benefit from idea swaps with the other parks within the chain, especially analyzing the type of work Knott's is doing with its renewed commitment to quality and innovation and comprehensive storytelling in its recent Haunt mazes.  It used to be that a maze could simply be based off a loose theme and concept and simply reference a basic story.  But these days, the best mazes place guests as active participants in the story and intentionally advance the storyline itself.  And that's an area of sophistication that Great America can hopefully head toward in the future.

Ultimately, we appreciated the maze experiences at NorCal Haunt.  And to wrap up our last bit of 2017 Halloween season coverage, this weekend, we'll finish off CGA's Halloween Haunt and look at its scare zones and entertainment line-up!  We're almost at the end...

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.