Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Terror Tuesday, an alliterative weekday name I just made up to provide a flimsy excuse for today’s update. We’re back at Knott’s Scary Farm, following up on yesterday’s General Recap, to take an in-depth look at the 9 mazes that make up Scary Farm’s line-up this year, plus a quick jaunt on the Log Ride’s Halloween Hootenanny overlay. (Reviews on Scary Farm’s shows and scare zones come later this week.)
Truth be told, today’s update is also an excuse to just post eye candy and Haunt maze porn. Knott’s has done such a great job really upping the quality of their mazes over the past several years that I felt compelled to really do them photographic justice. I can definitely remember the days when only half or even a lesser percentage of Knott’s mazes approached the quality that even the less spectacular mazes reach today. And it’s been a treat to see the park really up its set quality and complexity in response to local competition—both from big name theme park haunts and from cutting edge, independent haunts!
We’ll also be providing our assessment of the haunted attractions based on our visits this past weekend.
Naturally, the reviews and photos below contain a lot of Scary Farm spoilers, so if you don’t want to have any idea of what a maze looks like, then you should probably just skip this update. If you don’t care about some but want to stay spoiler-free on others, then just look for the larger text at the start of each maze and scroll on.
And finally, some of the images below contain simulated graphic gore and violent images. This would most definitely not be the most safe for work update, unless you work somewhere cool, I suppose.
Trick Or Treat: Lights Out
Haunt’s longest-running maze returned for its sixth (and perhaps final?) year, once again utilizing the Gantom Torch programmable flashlights for a different and dark twist to a beloved maze. Trick Or Treat: Lights Out provided largely the same layout and experience as last year, taking guests through the Green Witch’s sinister abode. That didn’t stop crowds from packing the line for this maze, extending its wait to up to 2-1/2 hours on Saturday evening.
A large part of this is due to the maze’s lower capacity. It’s small to begin with, so it physically cannot fit as many people per hour as other mazes housed in larger storage buildings. But it is also limited by how many Gantom Torches can be distributed at once. Thus, it is highly recommended to do Trick or Treat first, right at park opening, or grab a Fright Lane to skip the lines.
All of that said, I personally had a wonderfully creepy time during my run through this maze. When it isn’t crammed with guests and flowing like a haunted conga line, Trick Or Treat can exude some major creepiness, and such was the vibe as I found myself walking through all by myself. The flashlights played a great part in setting tone and amplifying suspense through the progression of the house, and given the time to properly absord the ambiance without a rush, Trick Or Treat showed that it was still as good as ever.
The only catch was that outside of beginning- or end-of-night lulls, the busy waits meant that such unrushed experiences were likely relatively rare through the rest of the evening.
One of two new mazes (both located backstage by Ghostrider), The Depths was Jon Cooke’s new contribute to this year’s Scary Farm. Though Mr. Cooke left his position as Knott’s maze designer this past spring, he retained a consulting role that allowed him to nonetheless work on the design of a maze for Scary Farm this year. As a result, The Depths was one of the more anticipated attractions, if only for the shear reason that Cooke was attached to it, and like Pixar during its early run, anything from “Johnny Plague” was pretty much gold.
Well, this year might have been a Cars moment. The Depths, while still a solid maze, did not seem to quite measure up to the epic grandeur and cohesive brilliance of past classic Cooke mazes like Paranormal Inc or Dark Ride. The maze spent much of its time building steadily increasing tension, leading up to a finale that—while definitely spectacular—couldn’t quite overcome the inaction of a noticeable portion of the rest of the maze.
Make no mistake—there were some wonderful scenes in The Depths. The sprawling swamp in the middle of the course brought to mind the grand final room of Dark Ride last year—a sudden decompression that strikes a moment of awe. (It also made me wonder if it could have been a subtle ode to the building’s previous maze occupant, Voodoo, which also featured a swamp setting.) And the final scene involving a face to face encounter with the Kraken is monumental—amplified even more so by the full-on rocking ship that guests navigate through before encountering an aquatic pirate bearing a rather strong resemblance to a certain famous squiddy cinematic villain.
However, much of the maze also felt uneventful, particularly the progression through the mines and caverns. There was talent present, and even a cute animatronic or two. But there wasn’t much that happened during these segments.
It turns out there might be a good reason for the relative (I emphasis that word) dulled performance. The Depths had a particularly tricky Haunt build, and the result that opened this past weekend was actually incomplete, missing several story-telling elements and effects in addition to scenic treatments on the exterior that would have made the show building more than just a black box with an admittedly impressively cool looking lighthouse at the corner.
The most important missing element was an “elevator” that would function as a preshow (we all know how much Jon loves his preshows!) that set the baseline of the story and also serve as a pulsing mechanism to space apart the crowds. The elevator to the depths of the mines was completely absent on opening weekend.
Furthermore, there was a lot of missing tech pieces from The Depths, including the animatronic captain outside, a large scale waterfall feature in the Kraken room, projections for the Kraken’s pupils, and a few scare effects in the first half that could have made it less uneventful. Would these have been able to save the maze from its plodding first half? I’m not sure. It depends on how they would have been executed, and we may be able to find out next weekend, if these incomplete elements are finished for the rest of the run.
Preshows can be beneficial and detracting—an effective way to tell a story, but also a hold-up for a crowd eager to get on with the rest of the maze, plus a timing complication for line control. And while I could follow along the basic premise of a journey into a seaside cavern that uncovers a secret and mysterious cult of creatures worshipping a mythical beast, there were still elements of the maze that didn’t quite seem to follow that outline. Plus, there were moments where I noticed the length of the maze, which—as is the case with movies—indicates lulls that weaken the escapism.
All of that said, The Depths was still enjoyable for myself, although not all of us were quite as optimistic. It doesn’t hit the high that Cooke’s aforementioned top mazes reached. It’s probably more on a Shadowlands level—a creative and unique theme, some interesting execution, but ultimately not quite as action-packed as I personally would have preferred. But I’m interested in seeing if weekend two may bring some finishing of work that will change the maze experience…
For a [frequently dim but kind of creepy] walk-through of The Depths, check out the video below.
Right next door, in its usual spot in the Ghostrider backstage area, Paranormal Inc. once again thrilled guests with a chilling ghost-hunting-gone-wrong story at an infamous hospital.
This year is Paranormal Inc.’s fourth. Years 1-3 featured the exact same layout and progression, opting not to fix anything that wasn’t broken. But for year 4, Knott’s decided to redesign the ending of the maze to provide a new and thrilling finale and adjust the progression to better enforce the story of maze.
And what an ending it is! Pretty much everyone I spoke to seemed to rave about it, because it really did craft a more cohesive conclusion that tied back into Hayden Hill Hospital’s [fictitious] lore. After passing through the red vortex laser tunnel and squeezing through the black airbags—which functioned like a portal—guests found themselves in a hospital waiting room, back at Hayden Hill in its operational days. Continuing into a hallway allowed guests to see the facilities as a gateway to a dark and demonic alternate universe, and occasional lighting triggers in the hallway would reveal a hellish scene of torture and beastly figures beyond. It was a very impressive and cinematic gesture that foreshadowed guests’ own run-in with the demonic beast just before the maze ended—an altered version of the original finale.
As for the rest of the maze… the talent was absolutely brilliant through multiple visits. The monsters here are largely veterans of the maze and have great chemistry, utilizing their designed spaces to great aplomb to achieve maximal start and jump scares from unexpected locations. Walking through Paranormal Inc. felt very much like walking through a haunted hospital with all the spirits loose. It was incredibly enjoyable.
Looking for a video walk-through? Here’s video of this year’s Paranormal Inc, complete with new ending!
The other new maze at Scary Farm this year was the Gus Krueger-designed Dark Entities (or, as apparently everyone is calling it, some variation of Dark ‘n’ Titties), a modern take on a space maze featuring a doomed spacecraft (the Shard) and its encounter with a monstrous alien creature that overtakes the crew and turns them into hosts for its species.
The last time Knott’s did a maze with an alien theme, the results were somewhat cartoonish. They followed the traditional model of aliens invading Earth—more Mars Attacks than grave horror. But Dark Entities takes on a more horrific, gruesome tone, more akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien series, or equivalents.
The set design of the maze is very impressive—as touted at the Scary Farm Preview Event, the maze is basically lit by its own set pieces, not by theatrical lighting mounted above all the set construction. The walls form a gritty space ship ambiance, and the incorporation of animatronics and media effects provided an extra layer of immersion. I particularly enjoyed the K-2SO-esque droid that recurred through the maze—a medical robot who didn’t seem quite helpful in stopping this alien attack.
Critique does merit mention to the cast of this maze, however. This weekend, they still seemed to be in the settling in stage, and often, their scare tactics were either rudimentary or easy to expect. They’ll get better, but it was a noticeable difference, because the maze aesthetics were so surprisingly nice. It was also a noticeable difference compared to the more polished casts of mazes like Paranormal Inc and Dark Ride, which their timing and control of their maze environment down in a more masterful manner.
Oddly enough, Dark Entities enjoyed one of the shorter waits through a lot of the weekend. This may have something to do with its entrance, which is located on the backside of the storage buildings backstage, facing the Knott’s South Parking Lot. Placing it in this corner maximizes queue length, but it also sets the End Of The Line Sign Holder someone out of direct site for many guests filtering through the area. Unless they are coming directly from the exit of The Depths, it’s easy to miss the entrance to Dark Entities!
Regardless, the maze itself proved to be a nice hit, and the promise it brings bodes well for future versions of this attraction as well!
Here’s a walk-through of the Dark Entities maze. It gets dark in some places, due to omission of on-camera lighting.
Special Ops: Infected
Also entering its fourth year, this maze by Mystery Lodge was the other massive line gatherer over the weekend. Like Trick Or Treat, the major factor had to do something guests had to use in this maze—the “laser tag” guns. With a limited supply and a requirement to pulse small groups through the layout one zone at a time, Infected was a long wait in excess of an hour through most of the evening. But hey, hunting zombies is still pretty fun. And guest seemed to enjoy the video game nature of this attraction.
Not much has changed in Infected’s layout over its past four years as a standalone maze. This year, however, did see a change in the finale scene here, as cadets rushed into the sewer plant, only to discover a monstrous, almost alien-like creature towering over and confronting them. This large animatronic was a cool addition, and it even had a target to shoot at to score higher points. Other than that, Infected was the same as in prior years. If one finds “zombie laser tag” to be entertaining, this is a can’t-miss maze. But for those who don’t care about shooting at monsters, other attractions are available.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see this become a new maze next year, though, not necessarily because of age, but to replace it with a higher capacity maze that can cut the lines down.
Indulge in a first person POV style video through Special Ops: Infected here!
The Red Barn
Whereas some of the other mazes, like Paranormal Inc. and Special Ops: Infected, had small segments redesigned, The Red Barn underwent a more in-depth reconfiguration of both its layout and its story.
This Gus Krueger and Daniel Miller collaboration originally focused more on a murderous backwoods family that feasts on human victims. But this year, the storyline has embraced the cultish nature of the Red Barn’s patriarch a little more, and the maze is different because of it.
Unfortunately, while other mazes’ changes have enhanced their appeal and given them new freshness, The Red Barn’s new layout and theme seemed to make it more of a generic maze that stood in greater contrast to the rest of the line-up because of their embrace of innovative inspirations. There was certainly plenty of blood and gore, and even a bit of salaciousness with one particular scene, but the execution (pun intended) felt pretty straightforward and standard—the type that would commonly grace Haunt ten years ago, but which maze and story design have moved past now.
On the plus side, the finale provided a high adrenaline rush to unsuspecting guests, and I did find it amusing to watch. The use of a certain horror park prop that is more frequently associated with Halloween Horror Nights rather than Knott’s Scary Farm intensified the scares, and some guests certainly ended up sprinting out of the maze in terror!
The single best maze of the weekend in our opinion was Dark Ride, Jon Cooke’s instant classic from last year. Everything that people raved about this maze last year was in full effect opening weekend. The layout remained unchanged, because why mess with a proven successful formula? Once again, guests were forced to saunter through an abandoned carnival ride, discovering a murderous group of carnies in the process.
The scenes of Dark Ride were outright exquisite—lovely sets lit very dramatically, as a haunted house carnival ride would be. And the cast was something else. These fantastic monsters had their timing and interjections in mid-season form, providing plenty of well-executed jump scares and entertainingly unstable interactions that would be reminiscent of former carnival workers who have gained a taste for blood.
And with strangely short lines compared to most other mazes, Dark Ride was also one of the best time values on opening weekend. Wait less time for a better product? Yeah, Dark Ride gave guests that. And we loved every bit of it!
Can’t get enough? Take a virtual “ride” of Dark Ride here!
Back for its third year, Shadowlands provided some tweaks to its front end before navigating the rest of its layout in the same manner as in previous years. This year, the pre-show was completely removed, allowing guests to enter the maze immediately. The dual paths from year 1 were combined into a single route, similar to last year, taking guests through an eerie Japanese forest, through a bathhouse with supernatural creatures, and through dark corridors and haunted spaces.
Shadowlands has always been more of an ambiance maze to me than an active scare maze. It certainly has startles but this bushido-inspired maze has frequently focused more on its visuals and its imaginative inspiration. It’s a solid maze but not heart-capturing.
This year felt more of the same—a solid, well done maze that landed in the middle of the pack of similarly solid, well done mazes that couldn’t quite distinguish itself above others like Dark Ride and Paranormal Inc. did. But perhaps it’s a testament to the rising standards that something like Shadowlands can make such high quality seem routine, forcing reviews to mince particulars to determine level of performance.
It should also be noted that this year, guests exiting Shadowlands were routed along the railroad tracks to the crossing over at the boundary between Fiesta Village and Boardwalk. Previously, guests simply came back the way they entered, winding up at the restrooms near Xcelerator’s entrance.
Last but certainly not least among the mazes, we had Pumpkin Eater, the Daniel Miller-designed maze from last year that sort of tied into The Hollow in terms of mythology and aesthetics. This maze, too, promised a revised ending, and while the arrangement of the decorations and orientation of the exit path was indeed a little different, by and large, things were the same as last year.
Well, theming, at least. Because in a happy surprise, Pumpkin Eater ended up being chock full of highest density of monsters that I’ve seen in a while. And they brought their A-games to play! Timing of scares was frequent and lively, and even though the maze did catch a little bit of haunted line syndrome at times, the number of monsters present allowed for some surprises anyway.
We weren’t expecting Pumpkin Eater to maintain its place in our rankings this year, but it actually might have even gone up from last year. Kudos to everyone involved in this maze for a most appreciated surprise!
Log Ride: Halloween Hootenanny
In non-maze but-still-Halloween-attraction news, the Log Ride once again took on a Halloween flavor, with the return of the Halloween Hootenanny to Calico’s logging mountain. There were zero monsters along the route when we rode on opening weekend. And truthfully, that is probably better.
Aside from the OSHA concerns that have always been something to deal with, the startle scares on the Log Ride have never seemed particularly efficient. Sometimes, a monster’s timing would be off and miss the log completely. Other times, a monster might choose not to scare. In any event, the Halloween-themed Log Ride frequently ended up a little disappointing to those looking for actual thrills and chills, so it was better to keep the ride in its daytime, family-friendly version rather than go for something enhanced but more complicated.
The overall quality across the board in this year’s line-up is arguably the highest Knott’s Scary Farm has ever had. Our favorites were Dark Ride and Paranormal Inc, which we felt clearly performed above the crowd in terms of both maze design, talent energy, and scares. At the bottom of our rankings this time was Red Barn, which unfortunately felt muddled and ordinary admist a roster of very innovative and creative mazes. The rest? Well, they were all very competitive with each other, and we very well could have placed them in different preferred orders on each different visit.
Of course, it’s important to recognize that reviewing mazes can be majorly subjective and dependent on luck of a draw. Someone who had an incredible experience in one maze may be followed by someone who happens to hit all the lulls and doesn’t face any scares or interaction, or perhaps happens to be walking through during a more major cast break. And of course, there are also the biases of the person. Something that was interesting and fun to me may have been pointless and unacceptable to Jim, or vice versa.
That being said, we tried to do multiple runs through when we could to get a more uniform assessment.
Ultimately, even with some of the technical and build issues, the mazes this year were pretty darn solid. Only a minority of them tackle traditional horror scenes, and variety and uniqueness of the nine provide a comprehensive set of experiences that no other haunt can boast. The Log Ride, too, is a whimsical, fun, and family-friendly overlay that captures the warmer spirit of Halloween.
All in all, guests who go to Knott’s Scary Farm this year will have plenty of terrific attractions to keep them occupied all night. Whether it be via the mazes, the Log Ride, or even the other park rides that are open during the event, Knott’s has another winning season ahead of it. So head on down to the farm this weekend and go check out what lurks behind the veil!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.