Dark Harbor 2018: Streets, Entertainment, and Attractions

The Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA

Welcome… spooky citizens… to Dark Harbor… again…  After a look at this year’s reconfigured mazes at the Queen Mary’s annual Halloween event, today, we are checking out the rest of this haunted carnival, from the street monsters on the midway to the copious amounts of entertainment to the various bars and miscellaneous attractions. 

 The opening moment at Dark Harbor is always fun to behold.

The opening moment at Dark Harbor is always fun to behold.

This year, the mazes were the primary focus of design improvements.  Although the general ambiance received some attention, they appeared to be mostly minor.  As a result, the Dark Harbor environment retained the “haunted carnival” aesthetic that it has traditionally carried. 

Still, in large part to the skilled performers and monsters and the abundant shows rotating throughout the night, the vibe of the entire event was one of frightful fun.  The talent felt loose and at ease, exercising their scares professionally, but not in a way that took themselves too seriously.  Multiple stages spread across the venue provided constant [good] distractions, and the entertainment flowed in and out in a largely unscheduled format. 

 The Captain is the emcee.

The Captain is the emcee.

 He is naturally interrupted/joined by the Ringmaster.

He is naturally interrupted/joined by the Ringmaster.

The entire presentation felt like a spooky fair menagerie—in all the most enjoyable ways—yielding plenty of ways for guests to enjoy their evening.  Lets take a stroll along the Dark Harbor grounds to catch this year’s non-maze highlights!

 They ask the monsters on the other side if they’re ready, then open the gates and unleash the Dark Harbor horde onto the guests.

They ask the monsters on the other side if they’re ready, then open the gates and unleash the Dark Harbor horde onto the guests.

Queen Mary Streets

The parking lot between the village shops across the way from the Queen Mary and the ship itself once again plays host to the main “streets” area that surrounds the mazes of Dark Harbor.  After last year’s reconfiguration due to the loss of the Spruce Goose dome to the neighboring cruise line boarding, this year’s general layout of things remains roughly the same.  Entry brings guests through and around the village area before formally entering the gates of Dark Harbor, and once inside, a series of “neighborhoods” of sorts awaits.

 There is no shortage of clowns around Dark Harbor.

There is no shortage of clowns around Dark Harbor.

 Draven freaks out a guest with his whole “nail in a nostril” trick.

Draven freaks out a guest with his whole “nail in a nostril” trick.

Truthfully, though the Dark Harbor map will show differently named sections of the venue, like “Port” or the “Shipyard” or “Midway” or “Bayou” (plus three areas on the ship itself—”Nursery,” “Midship,” and “Galley”), the entire venue is one big scare zone. Unlike its “park haunt” competitors like Knott’s Scary Farm, Halloween Horror Nights, or Fright Fest, Dark Harbor lacks cohesively disparate scare zones, with their own readily distinguishable environments and theming. There certainly are props and decorations, and they loosely relate to the section in which they’re placed, but the effect never feels fully immersive. This is why I have compared Dark Harbor to a “haunted carnival” in the past. It really feels like a macabre version of a county fair come into town for a month plus and set up along loose themes but lacking different, enveloping environments. It’s the difference between an amusement park and a theme park.

 Theming at Dark Harbor is largely theatrical lighting and set props like this.

Theming at Dark Harbor is largely theatrical lighting and set props like this.

 This amusement park display was pretty cool, though.

This amusement park display was pretty cool, though.

This is okay, however. The truthful strength of the streets lies in the heart and energy of Dark Harbor’s many roaming street monsters, who abound with wicked enthusiasm and bursting personality. There are plenty of clowns, of course (again, that haunted carnival comparison), but also ghastly, monstrous creatures, mimes, a fortune teller, and souls returned from the dead. Some are sliders, others are not, but many of them are familiar faces from past years, who have earned their own fans and followers through their indelible performances.

 The very many characters of Dark Harbor.

The very many characters of Dark Harbor.

 Many of them sliders.

Many of them sliders.

 Like… a lot.

Like… a lot.

Plus, Dark Harbor has its event icons: The Captain, The Ringmaster, Scary Mary, Half-Hatch Henry, Samuel the Savage, The Ironmaster, Chef, Graceful Gale, and the Voodoo Priestess. When not found within their mazes (where applicable), they can be seen roaming the Dark Harbor grounds, intermixing within the queues, or stopping by one of Dark Harbor’s copious amounts of bars or VIP tents and cabanas. These characters have built up an emotional resonance and memorable connections with guests, as they have returned year after year. Recognizable identities and personalities,

 Graceful Gale, now out of the decommissioned Soul Mate, and thus roaming around freely.

Graceful Gale, now out of the decommissioned Soul Mate, and thus roaming around freely.

 The Ringmaster is always a hoot.

The Ringmaster is always a hoot.

Walking through the streets of Dark Harbor, the best activity is to simply observe. Like the center of a furious carnival maelstrom whirling all around, a guest can find great entertainment in watching monsters sneak up and scare other guests who are distracted by the roving entertainers, just as other monsters stroll by deep in unique solo character acts or providing distractions with a prop.

 This mime being mimed.

This mime being mimed.

 Hilarious.

Hilarious.

Once again, this year, the streets shined with a high caliber and entertaining cast. Dark Harbor has built up a family of devoted workers, and their passion shines through in their frights and startles and interactions all around.

 Sparrow lurks behind the gates for fresh victims.

Sparrow lurks behind the gates for fresh victims.

 Evil and Rampage search out guests to terrorize.

Evil and Rampage search out guests to terrorize.

 The street monsters are all pretty great at Dark Harbor!

The street monsters are all pretty great at Dark Harbor!

Entertainment

Over the years, the shows at Dark Harbor have been both a constant shift and a shifting constant. Originally limited to one stage near the entrance when the Queen Mary Halloween event was first reincarnated as Dark Harbor, entertainment options have, over the years, multiplied to several stages scattered through the grounds, or moved into the queues of select mazes, or mixed with both options.

This year, the shows are once again delegated to select areas on the streets. There’s an aerial ring stage at the front of the Midway, a sideshow stage in viewing distance of Circus’ secret bar, the Pyre stage across from the Sinister Swings in the Bayou area near the back of the ship, and an unmarked but definitely used Slider Alley on the right side of the Midway a little bit after guests enter the main gates.

What’s wonderful (or frustrating, depending on your personality type and organizational obsessiveness) is Dark Harbor’s general lack of a show schedule. With the exception of two main fire shows at The Pyre stage ta 9:30 and 11:30 and two slider shows at Slider Alley at 9:00 and 11:00, all other shows rotate in and out organically, in strange and ever-moving clockwork that can’t necessarily follow a consistent structure but still manages to keep running.

There are hula hoop dancers, aerialists, marionette puppeteers, magicians, barrel drummers, and more. Their sets are often short—just a few minutes even—but they come on stage, perform, and then exit for another. And though there are stage breaks, the whole set-up often feels like a giant, bizarre open mic night. All ghouls invited! Just bring a talent. And it helps provided momentary breaks for guests and variety. Don’t like this show? Come back in five minutes and see a completely different type of performance. The stages are effectively in the round, so any guest can just cluster from any angle and take in the entertainment.

Other Attractions

In addition to the mazes and the shows, Dark Harbor features a few other attractions of note—some new and some returning.

The Sinister Swings—infamous from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch—return once again for an upcharge ride of $5. It’s your basic amusement park swing ride, but if you’re looking for your butt to be touched by something that Michael Jackson has touched (or if you like spinning around the in air), take a whirl on this!

The Panic! 4D Experience also returns, and also as a $5 upcharge. This extra-sensory film is the same as the version that’s been running the past few years, and features wind, buzzing, water, and poking effects to supplement a film that requires 3D glasses. It’s not bad for $5, and though the animation is hardly sophisticated, the first person flow through of a haunted Queen Mary littered with monsters and zombie and killer creatures has some cute and predictable startle scares and an absurd sort of horror that presses and presses. It’s fun entertainment at the end of the day and definitely Dark Harbor’s best unique upcharge attraction (way better than those couple of years when they did zombie paintballing, for example).

We mentioned in Tuesday’s update that several of the mazes (specifically, Circus, Deadrise, and B340) have secret bars (and Lullaby has a very not-secret bar integrated into its maze layout). There is also one other special hidden bar aboard the Queen Mary, in the same area as the waiting space for the Panic! 4D experience. It is only marked by an icon that appears in tiny size on the Dark Harbor map and on wooden tokens that Dark Harbor cast people can hand out. These serve as clues to all the secret bars—look for the symbol matching the token to locate the bar, then relinquish the token to a staff member to enter.

Over in the Shipyard, next to the entrance of Intrepid, there’s also the Ice Cave ice bar, which features flavored vodka sampling for $9 per person. In comparison to the other offerings, we found this ice bar to be of low value. In addition to having a low capacity bar that effects a low moving line, the price for two relatively small tastings doesn’t really seem well worth it. Better to save that money and order a drink at any one of the countless actual bars found throughout the grounds.

Last year, I noted that Dark Harbor would do well to ramp up its production quality in order to maintain competition with its fellow big name haunts around Southern California. It seems that they have listened (not necessarily to me, of course) and responded impressively with a notable increase in investment and resources to enhance what I’ve typically found to be a very enjoyable event. The mazes were fantastic during our trip last Friday, and even the general atmosphere was very festive and merry (and scary… perhaps a scary sort of merry… scary merry?).

The event is still not without its flaws—some of them out of Dark Harbor control. Parking continues to be a severe hassle—especially on very busy nights, because of lack of capacity. Dark Harbor has made a much improved effort to both offer and advertise alternate transportation options, including off site parking closer to Downtown Long Beach and shuttle transfers to the Dark Harbor gates. Those still require extra time, but unless the Queen Mary invests in a parking structure on the property, Dark Harbor will continue to suffer through parking delays and headaches. Get there early to minimize these.

Time can also be a drag for guests who come to Dark Harbor without a front of line pass and spend much of the night queuing for the mazes. Opening Friday wasn’t quite so packed, but the worst waits I saw still drifted around the 90 minute mark (though others were also 45 and 30 minutes during the same time). Guests should know the waits can get lengthy.

The food selection does seem to be improving, growing more diversity. Ultimately, though, it is still fair food, at fair prices. Which means those looking to be more economical may want to consider early dinner before arriving, lest they face a surprise in their pocket book.

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Finally, my last and only major criticism from Friday’s visit concerns exiting. At the end of the night, guests naturally flood the gates after everything has closed, packing large crowds that are funneled through the exit path as they leave Dark Harbor after an evening of screams. Well, on our particular night, the exit bottleneck and subsequent extended funneling of crowds along a narrow sidewalk path constituted a risky setup that should very well qualify as a fire hazard.

Although there were “emergency exit gates” indicated, these appeared to be wide, vehicular-sized chainlink swing gates that weren’t truly qualified for emergency use—they’d have to have a staff member open then. Instead, guests had to filter through a narrow, three or four foot gap in the fencing, followed by a traverse of a four foot wide sidewalk bounded by barrier rails on one side (for protection against cars from the parking lot, and to prevent line jumpers looking for a shortcut to their vehicles) and the site walls of the village landscaping on the other. For the hundreds—perhaps thousands—of guests leaving the venue at the end of the night, this provided a very slow and frustrating manner of exit, and also a potentially unsafe condition. Should any emergency resulting in a panic break out the narrow pathway would surely result in guests trampling other guests. There are standards for egress with set in building regulations for good reason, and Dark Harbor’s implementation of its egress strategy did not seem responsibly thought out. Further frustrating the condition were the staff members insisting that all guests proceed along this route and refusing to allow any alternate directions for leaving.

I understand why the barriers were set up along this route, since it borders the driveway of the adjacent parking lot, and the walk is trying to separate pedestrians from vehicles in an orderly manner. But purely from the pedestrian flow side, I question the safety of such a configuration and wonder why a different path—perhaps even the old exit way closer to the ship and the water, might not have been used instead. It just seems risky and inefficient, and there has to be a better way to implement this.

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Overall, however, Dark Harbor has knocked it out of the park with their 2018 strong showing. This might very well be the best year of Dark Harbor ever—factoring in the maze detail and quality, the abundant entertainment line-up, the entertaining monsters, and general vibe of the scene. The critiques above are ways that I’d like to see Dark Harbor continue to improve, especially since I’m confident that another year of Jon Cooke direction will only further strengthen the mazes and their quality. That direction may also help the streets as well, pushing more distinguished ambiance across the different areas and better telling the story of the haunt.

Dark Harbor is definitely worth attending this year and is undeniably one of the top Southern California haunts for 2018. It runs select nights from now through Friday, November 2. Tickets are available online at the Queen Mary’s web site, as well as many third party discount ticketing agencies like Goldstar and the like. Go grab a friend, grab a ticket, and then grab a fright. Dark Harbor dazzles 2018’s autumn nights!

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