Dark Harbor 2017: Mazes

The Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA

Boo-urns, everyone! How's your Halloween season coming along?  Hitting any spoopy places?  Getting your spooks on?  Creepin' around?

Well, we're going to keep rolling with our Halloween season with a visit to one of our traditional favorites, Dark Harbor, over at the Queen Mary.  We've been attending this event ever since the first year of its rebrand from the previously lackluster "Shipwreck" and have had a blast every year we've gone.  Today, we take a look at this year's maze line-up, which has been newly expanded to seven with the addition of a fourth maze on board the ship!  How did everything stack up?  Well, read on and see!


This year's new maze introduces a new icon for the event, Chef, a cannibalistic cook who can't wait to serve YOU for dinner.  Apparently, once upon a time, Chef worked aboard the Queen Mary and--along with his bloodthirsty and loyal crew--prepared the finest and most delectable meals... out of people.  When "the normies" found out, they were not a fan, so they threw him into the oven and scorched him to death for his crimes.  Presumably, they did not go the extra ironic mile and eat him afterwards.  But maybe they should have, because Chef returned with his line cooks and a hungry vengeance, and he's now out to serve up all sorts of meals made of people!

Because of both a fourth maze on the ship and site reconfigurations that removed the Spruce Goose Dome from availability, the Dark Harbor grounds has undergone some reshuffling this year, and more attractions have been pushed west.  The entrance to Feast resides at the far west end of the ship, near the bow, and as a consequence, guests who want to reach the maze must navigate a somewhat absurd amount of steps.  In fact, Feast could be called STAIRS: The Maze, and it wouldn't be unreasonable.

The cardio challenges out of the way, the maze itself was fun and sort of absurd, but without the punch that some of Dark Harbor's more classic mazes have had over the years.  Guests passed by a "hidden" (but not actually; it was literally part of the maze layout) bar before beginning their trip in earnest.  With the a cannibal theme, the maze was pretty much what one might expect--murderous waiters, knife-wielding cooks, and lots and lots of human body parts.  A highlight of the maze involved having to crawl through a "duct," only to wind up in a large broiler, before crawling out.  This provided some claustrophobic discomfort and a fun scare or two.  Going through the heavily air conditioned "meat locker" room was also a welcome moment--on board the stuffy ship, it was probably the most comfortable part of any maze!  Overall, Feast was simply fine.  Not bad, not amazing.  Visually photogenic, and the general gore-fest one would expect.  And through our two trips through, it could have probably used a few more talent. Those who were there did a nice job of being bloodthirsty and antsy for human flesh.  I left the maze entertained but not overly impressed.


Meanwhile, next door on the boat, Lullaby continued its trend of providing solid entertainment in the form of seemingly infinite Scary Mary's prowling the ship.  When it debuted a couple of years ago, Lullaby drew rave reviews from us for its fantastic interaction between Mary and guest and how the Mary's passed along the story to each other.  One of our favorite moments in Dark Harbor history was witnessing a group of Mary's exiting the maze (on break) greeting a group coming in, and exchanging greetings.  "Hi, Mary." 'Hi, Mary!"  Singsong, as if everything was daffodils and pixie dust.  Last year seemed a bit dampened, but the spirit (pun intended) was back this year, as all the Scary Mary's were in fine, sarcastic, innocently murderous form.  

The maze layout was largely the same, with minor tweaks here and there.  It actually felt a little longer.  One disappointment was a rerouting that prevented guests from walking by the infamous pool where the real Queen Mary passenger drowned and ultimately inspired the legend of Scary Mary.  Instead, there was a plexiglass opening that allowed guests to glimpse the pool.  It would be great if guests could once again walk by the pool, lit up in creepy show lighting and fog wafting through, the way they could in the first year of the original iteration of this maze--Submerged.  Still, we had a lot of fun in Lullaby and considered this one of the top mazes of the night.


Located right next to Lullaby, B340 told the tale of Samuel the Savage, who went crazy while locked up in the Queen Mary one night and tore himself to shreds.  It's basically a maze about insanity, and in the past, it's been an excellent and gory maze!  Unfortunately, this year, it seemed as though B340 received the short end of the stick.  There was noticeably less talent here compared to the other mazes (even those mazes we felt were a bit light), and the layout itself felt shorter, with less moments and scenes.  There wasn't much new in any reworking of the maze, and overall, B340 unfortunately fell flat.  It may have been luck of the draw, but this felt noticeably subpar in comparison to the other mazes.


Fortunately, Soulmate--the fourth ship maze--provided a nice redeeming factor with a creepy and dark and twisted trek through the experience of the Queen Mary's most mysterious spirit.  Once again, guests started off their trip by walking past the propeller room, which is extremely creepy on its own.  After navigating the engine room and going up a set of stairs, they went through much of the same layout as last year.  Fortunately, the maze was well stocked in talent, and the timing and scares were pretty on point when we passed through twice.  It was fun to see some familiar faces working with their experience on the trip to find nooks and crannies from which to scare.


This was the new maze last year, and unfortunately, it wasn't that impressive.  The story of a haunted ship master executed through a steam train motif seemed odd, given that the Queen Mary is aquatic, and though the dual layout of the first half provided re-entry value, the maze as a whole just felt very lackluster.

This year, the maze was relocated out of the Spruce Goose Dome into the marketplace area of the Queen Mary grounds, partially occupying the space that used to house mazes like Voodoo Village and Village of the Damned.  Its story was also completely reconfigured into a bit of a transport narrative, bringing guests from the ship yards to the haunted Scottish highlands.  All of this was to mixed results.  The maze as a whole was noticeably better than last year, without a doubt.  However, it also felt very schizophrenic.  Without prior knowledge of the intent of the story, guests might question why there were three different themes blended into what maze, as though extra props were thrown up to pad the layout.  A train yard turned into Candles: The Maze (from the Voodoo Village maze a few years ago) turned into a swamp.  The maze made more sense after gaining some insight into the intended story, but that could definitely be lost among many guests.

Intrepid did feature one of the coolest rooms of all of Dark Harbor, and one of the most creatively used spaces I've seen in a maze.  The "green room" was a fog laden, laser-lit space that funneled guests into a space with seemingly no exits, and monsters lurking within the mist and under line of sight.  The ghouls in here made excellent use of the visual distractions to pop up and deliver some fantastic scares, and the disorientation made for an excellent sense of apprehension.  The only negative was that this tended to back up groups, but Dark Harbor also had staff positioned to help guide people out, if they had to linger too long.


The home of Half Hatchet Henry, Deadrise seems to get a layout makeover every year, but it's consistently been a strong performer, with veteran scare actors displaying fantastic timing with their startle scares out of the shadows, culminating in the utterly fantastic and very enjoyable, blinding, fogged out shipping container tunnel exiting the maze.

This year featured more of the expertly timed talent, but we noticed that the talent pool itself seemed awfully thin.  There were long stretches where we didn't encounter much of anything, which made for a bit of disappointment.  Given how good this maze could be and has been in previous years, we felt Deadrise underperformed a bit.  Whether this was an anomaly or not will hopefully sort itself out as the season progresses.

Deadrise is also the maze where I'll give the water warning for Dark Harbor.  There is a point in the maze that involves a water blast scare the launches water high into the air, drenching anyone unlucky enough to be nearby and under the spread.  Guests will recognize the area from all the water on the ground, and it still amazes me that Dark Harbor is able to get away with this potential slip hazard, since there are some floor surfaces that do become slippery.  I'm also displaying my bias against water effects, though.  To me, they add shock value but also a measured amount of annoyance.  But that's just me.  Overall, Deadrise was great where it had monsters, and teasing where it did not.


Finally, Circus.  Our favorite maze of the night.  As Jim put it: Circus... never change.  This twisted and zany home of the Ringmaster and clowns and all sorts of tricks was exceedingly entertaining.  Once again, they brought back the ball pit room--but guests had to be fortunate enough to be directed into the path that led to it.  Beyond that, Circus featured a typical medley of wacky scares and overly (and enjoyably) enthusiastic carnival creatures who were hilarious and scary. 

Circus also featured the actually-hidden bar within the maze layout.  Guests who came upon Zoltar the fortune teller might be allowed access into the bar, if they asked the correct questions.  The bar itself was an interesting little space decorated with theming elements from previous years' Freak Show upcharge experience, and it also provided a nice little respite from the hustle and bustle of the outside haunt.

Circus has been a perennial favorite, and despite its relocation out of the Spruce Goose Dome and onto the blacktop area, it hasn't missed a beat.  Circus has always been a fantastic maze when we've gone through, and we're glad it's still offering its fun, off the cuff ways.  

In looking at the mazes overall, while the level of theming generally works for what Dark Harbor presents, I'd like to see the detail and quality increase in the future.  Dark Harbor has always had a bit of a carnie function... sort of like a home haunt on a widespread and more elaborate scale.  Because of their smaller operations and budget, Dark Harbor has never paralleled the detail and intricacy of Universal or Knott's, which has largely been fine.  In the past, Dark Harbor's mazes were unique because guests were sequenced in via small groups, and it really felt like one was alone while going through, rather than lumped into a haunted line like Knott's or Universal get on busy nights.  This added to the creepiness and suspense of the experience and made for some truly epic startle scares when the conditions were right.

However, as Dark Harbor has become more and more popular (I think deservedly so, from prior reputation), the "alone factor" has reduced, and the mazes have become a little more crowded and backed up in order to mitigate the lines (which remain bountiful; I always recommend front of the line for Dark Harbor, since it isn't much of an upcharge compared to the other haunts).  And as places like Knott's and Universal and even Six Flags have upped their games with maze design, Dark Harbor's theming is now starting to feel a little more noticeably inadequate.  A lot of the props are items that could be purchased at a Halloween store, rather than custom designs or creative integrations into the ship or sets.  Plus, this year in particular, we noticed glaring details like very plainly visible speakers in numerous mazes that did not seem to even have been attempted to be hidden.  As a result, I can foresee a future in which Dark Harbor starts slipping in comparison to its SoCal "Big Four" brethren when it comes to overall quality.

Now, if that seems a little glum, I don't mean to be overly critical.  I've always enjoyed Dark Harbor and feel that it is still a great event.  As mazes like Circus, Lullaby, and Soulmate show, Dark Harbor can still offer some truly great experiences.  But recent new mazes have felt a little lacking compared to the mazes Dark Harbor introduced years before.  And while they do have moments that inspire awe and giddy frights (see: Intrepid's green room, the ball pit in Circus, Deadrise's shipping container finale), I'd love to see more of that innovative design throughout the mazes.  Though Dark Harbor is unlikely to match the level and intricacy of its more established fellow haunted attractions, it still needs to continue to improve to maintain a pace with the others.  And unfortunately, "more bars," while certainly fun, are not quite the answer.  (More staff inside the mazes--something we noticed this year, is a plus, to protect the talent.)  Upping the maze quantity this year was good for improving capacity.  Now lets see the theming follow!

We'll be back tomorrow with a look at Dark Harbor's streets and entertainment options, and some thoughts on the overall operations of the event, which has created some guest experience issues in recent years.  Things like the parking crisis aren't the fault of the maze designers or the talent (so don't take it out on them), but they have been issues.  Fortunately, the Queen Mary events staff do seem to be aware of the problems and trying solutions to fix them.

At the end of the day, Dark Harbor is still a top haunted attraction in Southern California.  I just want to see them make the moves to continue being so!

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