Old Zoo, Griffith Park, Los Angeles, CA
We’re not ones to pat ourselves on the back much around here, but if we’re going to be candid, you probably have Westcoaster to thank if you’ve seen a noticeable improvement in the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor and the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride the past two years. You see, two years ago, when we reviewed Dark Harbor, we noted that while the event was still fun and enjoyable, it seemed to have grown a little stagnant, with themes and ideas becoming reused, and it would be great if the event producers could redouble their efforts on maze design and execution, especially when Dark Harbor’s competitors were growing their mazes in sophistication and complexity.
Well, clearly, the Dark Harbor producers were reading this blog and absolutely no other blog out of all the sites out on the interwebs, because they promptly hired a newly-minted free agent Jon Cooke and his company, Plague Productions, to take over design concepts and spearhead production. What resulted was a smash success last year, as reinvented mazes and improved quality helped propel Dark Harbor to its finest year yet!
Last year, we also visited the L.A. Haunted Hayride for the first time in several years. And even though it was celebrating its 10th anniversary, our experience still left us feeling a bit underwhelmed, feeling like there were missed opportunities that the event could have taken advantage of. We even wrote, “We’d love to see more original content in the upcoming years, especially in a highly competitive Southern California haunt market that practically demands something new every year.”
So what did the L.A. Haunted Hayride do? Well, with its new owners, 13th Floor Entertainment Group, the attraction promptly went out… and hired Jon Cooke and his company, Plague Productions, to take over design concepts and spearhead production.
The result is an entirely rebuilt, reimagined Haunted Hayride attraction with a new and original cohesive storyline and supporting mazes that bring a fresh, invigorating feel to the haunt. This year has been a transformative year for the event, as Plague Productions has come in and reconstructed every set from the ground up. Although the format, location, and general layout of attractions remains generally the same, the L.A. Haunted Hayride has been reborn into a new, top tier haunted attraction that combines the right amount of serious scares and campy fun to create a production that can now boast to be among the best in Southern California! Follow along to see how this amazing metamorphosis has played out at one of L.A.’s now more venerable haunts!
Welcome to Midnight Falls
Guests entering the Old Zoo area of Griffith Park this fall will step foot into the town of Midnight Falls, shifting back to the year 1985, and find themselves on the even of the town’s famous Halloween Festival. The 80’s are all the rage right now, with shows like Stranger Things and trends like synth music and denim and sequins and fanny packs sparking interest in the decade of MJ and Madonna. But setting the storyline in the middle of the older millennial decade also serves to establish the tone of the event—part gory, part playful, and geared toward a sarcastic brand of scares.
Guests enter Midnight Falls under a luscious canopies of suspended jack-o-lanterns perched beyond a stone archway. After walking past the merchandise tent on the right and a big screen serving as a drive-in theater on the left, guests come upon a main open space, littered with the citizens of the town. They’re a who’s who of 80’s sitcom character tropes. A cheerleader and football jock pose in vanity, while their P.E. teacher keeps tabs on people’s fitness. A city councilman stumps for votes. An exterminator inspects the grounds. There’s even a Ms. Midnight Falls pageant queen, trailed by a geeky admirer who can’t help but gawk and express his infatuation. But these aren’t quiet normal characters. Each one bears at least a hint of a monstrous appearance, but they behave so casually as to make their appearances ironic. It’s the first sign that Midnight Falls isn’t quite what it seems.
The layout of Midnight Falls will be familiar to guests who have visited the L.A. Haunted Hayride before. To the left, stretching quite a length of switchbacks, is the queue for the actual haunted hayride attraction. To the right is a maze—two of them, actually, this year. Beyond that is a V.I.P. lounge, and some food trucks for guests who come hungry, not to mention the venerable old Scary-Go-Round reverse carousel.
To the far end on the right, a small stage hosts various entertainment acts throughout the night. A crooner was singing various ballads and toe tappers when we passed, flanked by a keyboardist. There is also a mini escape room available for a $5 upcharge. Guests have only a few minutes to solve the puzzle, but fortunately, the process to do so isn’t really that time consuming, especially for escape room veterans. We were able to get out within one minute.
This bizarre and not-completely-natural ambiance becomes a most fitting harbinger for the experiences to come. The townspeople behave normally enough, not necessarily making any effort for hard scares, but there’s something just a bit off about the setting. Perhaps the Haunted Hayride will provide some clues…
The Haunted Hayride
Guests without any form of a front-of-line pass would do well to take on the hayride as early as possible, since its queue only grows as the evening wears on, and the waits can be toiling. But whereas in past year’s, the resulting experience might have been slightly underwhelming given the wait, this year’s transformed Hayride is a stellar hit.
The uptick in set quality is immediately evident from the beautiful, neon-clad radio station tower of Midnight Falls AM radio and the ruggedly stylish gas station and garage (Midsummer Scream guests may remember them from the show floor) that form the load rooms for the hayride itself. Simply from a visual and photogenic nature, the star attraction of the event already looks more lavish and refined.
This continues into the actual hayride itself, which progresses through a series of scenes showing the darker, hidden side of Midnight Falls, including sinister rituals, strange and frightening creatures, murder and mayhem in the woods, and a whole host of unsavory characters. Each scene features a dramatic reveal that elicits screams and gasps, and there’s a very cinematic feel to the whole experience.
From tone level, the Haunted Hayride navigates a fine balance between serious intensity a certain, sardonic level of campiness that creates an endearing experience. There may be werewolf-like creatures looking to render flesh from bone, but there’s also a hillbilly farmer arrogantly tasing demonic creatures (at least until he turns his back). A shaman may conjure life into hideous scarecrows, who come toward the wagon with unnerving intimacy, but there’s also the stereotypical couple making out in the woods, simply asking for something tragic to befall them.
Of course, vivid scenes are nothing without the scares, and a hayride presents the unique challenge of maintaining a scare after the initial shock, as monsters prowl and follow a vehicle. As we’ve scene on attractions such as Knott’s Scary Farm’s past Log Ride and Mine Ride overlays, a startle scare might be effective on its immediate target, but the rest of the ride often doesn’t get much beyond that initial pop-out. Fortunately, several creative scares have been worked into this year’s hayride experience involving props and angles that are not expected, with a cast that seems energetic and ferocious and works in misdirection to maintain the jumps.
Everything ends back near the loading point, but guests have one more obstacle to navigage—a sumptuous cemetery populated by vampiric creatures who hiss and growl and stalk guests as they nervously trudge past. In past years, the hayride has featured a mid-point offload and walk-through, but placing this at the end creates a much more efficient operational cycle. The result of all this: a fresh and enlivened hay ride that provides a robustly satisfying experience, and one that is definite worth the ticket!
One of three mazes at the Haunted Hayride (an increase from the two mazes of past years), Midnight Mortuary is actually a partnership between the event and—not Plague Productions—but rather Sinister Pointe! Yes, the veteran haunt design company helped build one of the three mazes at the event, and this one brings a spooky and insidious atmosphere to the complex where the dead of Midnight Falls are prepared for burial.
A walk through a mortuary sounds intimidating enough on its own, and Midnight Mortuary is full of unfriendly fiends looking to induce involuntary autopsies. The set design is gritty, detailed, and atmospheric, mixing in elements of a haunted house and a backwoods scene to lead guests on a gradual discovery of terror. Guests to past Sinister Pointe haunts might recognize a few familiar props and bits of theming—especially the grand finale, featuring a highlight from the Boogeyman Express in last year’s Scary Place.
Trick or Treat
Perennial favorite Trick or Treat has been reimagined this year by Plague Productions. The general concept is still the same: journey through this suburb of Midnight Falls on Halloween night and greet the residences of each home, who happen to be iconic horror characters of various lore. This year, Jon Cooke and his team have brought a darker town to the maze that still retains an inherent silliness that mirrors the 80’s style horror of the Haunted Hayride attraction.
There’s less emphasis on the trick or treating in an attempt to keep guests flow expedient—although candy can be collected from one of the characters—but the maze itself is still a joy, partly because of the neat sets but mostly because of the fantastic scareactors in each scene of this very lengthy walkthrough. From the opening scene of gory Halloween trick or treating gone wrong to subsequent moments with caricatures of Frankestein, a killer clown, an alien, a catty and wined out Halloween mom, and more, each interaction brings fun and frights together in an exciting combo. Though they won’t get candy, guests can still ring doorbells at most residences to reveal a startle scare or rushed entry of some sort. And while some monsters take a more active jump scare approach, others are content to behave more absurdly or wildly.
It all concludes with a somewhat confusing “home haunt” named Devil’s Den—a hilarious reference to the fake name outside Knott’s Scary Farm’s Wax Works maze during construction that fooled at least one reporting blog site—that is really just an extended blackout maze with strobes and an inflated claustrophobia tunnel at the end.
Last but not least, we have Roadkill Ranch, located on the outskirts of town, in the area up the hill that has traditionally served as past Haunted Hayride’s actual blackout maze. Although we thought this to be the weakest of the trio, relatively speaking and only in comparison, compared to past maze iterations in this location, Roadkill Ranch was a breath of fresh, rotten air.
The maze carries a cannibalistic scene, with farmers and livestock beasts and plenty of gore (including a meat grinder literally labeled GORE). A series of switchbacks opens up to an airy backhalf, winding around scattered hay bales and a hanging body before returning back inside for the violent and bloodthirsty finale. The intensity really picks up as the maze approaches its climax, an epic and extremely strobe-filled encounter with a murderous psychotic wielding some sort of converted farm equipment of doom. It’s a thrilling high point to cap off a great maze.
(One thing I will mention—this event does make use of a lot of strobe effects throughout several attractions; as such, it is probably and unfortunately not recommended for those with strobe sensitivity to attend.)
The enlisting of Plague Productions for this year’s L.A Haunted Hayride has paid high dividends for the new 13th Floor Entertainment Group owners. Jon Cooke, Ted Daugherty, and their amazing and hardworking team have completely revamped and improved an event that had started to feel a little listless. They’ve done it with a focus on story and an emphasis on quality sets and creative scares, coupled with the joyful spirit of Halloween. They’ve also done it with an absolutely mind-boggling two week build time on site, which required the team to make most sets and props off site and erect everything at the Old Zoo over the course of a dozen plus sleepless nights.
What is most charming about this year’s L.A. Haunted Hayride is its throwback to the style of Halloween that is at once terrifying and fun. This year’s event celebrates the joy in the scare and in being scared. So while it does present vivid and bloody sets and offers intense moments of alarm, it balances that with an underlying nudge nudge sense of playfulness. The Haunted Hayride’s ultimate callback is its nostalgic sense of frights back in more innocent days, before life seemed so complicated. And when it comes to that goal, this year’s Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is a sterling success!
In the past, we’ve tempered our opinions of the event and even remarked that the cost for value is a little bit high. Not this year. The 2019 Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is undeniably one of the top haunts of the season, and we consider it a must-see for anyone who considers him or herself a haunt enthusiast. Just make sure to get there early (or choose an off-peak night), because it will get busy!
Addendum to the Review:
We didn’t comment much on the operations of this event, and we were spoiled by the VIP media treatment we received on opening night. But issues with long lies to enter, parking, the slowdown at metal detectors, and the lack of crowd organization appear to continue to plague the event. We’d be remiss to hope that these issues can be improved, because no matter how good the theming, production, and attractions are (and guests have generally consistently been high on the Plague Productions and Sinister Pointe elements), they can’t be appreciated if guests are too frustrated to even enter, or enter with a dark cloud looming from the poor experience just to get in. In the mean time, going on non-peak nights and heading over early are the best recommendations we can give to mitigate these concerns.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.