The Haunted Trail Balboa Park: 2019 Review

Balboa Park, San Diego, CA

The October march continues on, and today, we're venturing into literal new territory with the start of coverage of some venerable haunts down in San Diego County! We've listed haunts from down south in our haunted attractions guides over the past few years, but we've never had a chance to visit them... until now.

This past Saturday was a SD haunting spree, as I paid a trip to San Diego's "Big Three" haunted attractions, spanning from Downtown all the way up to Del Mar Fairgrounds: the Haunted Trail Balboa Park, a new triple haunt created by the Haunted Hotel called Disturbance, and the Scream Zone at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. All three have been haunt season traditions for locals for many years (in the case of Disturbance, it's its predecessor, the Haunted Hotel in its Downtown location), and they hold the same type of emotional resonance as the "Big Four" of Knott's Scary Farm, Halloween Horror Nights, Fright Fest, and Dark Harbor do in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. All three also happen to be owned (or in the case of the Scream Zone, half-owned) by the same family operation, which means there are some common veins amongst the trio, even as they also differ in distinct ways.

The front of the ticket line at the Haunted Trail Balboa Park.

The front of the ticket line at the Haunted Trail Balboa Park.

My first stop was just northeast of Downtown, in beautiful Balboa Park, home to San Diego's museum district and a cultural hub. But in the fall, starting at the end of September, a mile-long parcel of the park turns utterly frightful after dark in the form of the Haunted Trail! Located just east of Sixth Ave., on the corner of Balboa Dr. and Juniper Rd., the Haunted Trail actually comprises two connected attractions: The eXperiment Maze and then the Haunted Trail itself. A ticket includes admission to both walk-through's.

I arrived right at event opening--7:00pm on weekends--as darkness was starting to set in. Parking was free, but it was exclusively street parking in the local neighborhood. First come, first serve, and I circled around a few times before parking a couple of blocks away. Already, upon approach, there were long lines filled with guests waiting to enter, as well as guests waiting just to buy tickets (cut your wait in half by purchasing online--highly recommended). A grand, arched entrance unfolded before us, with Gothic creatures spaced out like welcoming demons.

A ghoul welcomes guests in.

A ghoul welcomes guests in.

My host for this first part of the evening was Sue Harland, Vice President and Marketing Director for the ownership group that runs the Haunted Trail and Haunted Hotel. Greeting me with a warm smile, she proceeded show me around the cozy but bustling main ambiance area, where guests waited through switchbacks to enter the first half of the Haunted Trail experience.

A demon to pose with in the extended queue area inside.

A demon to pose with in the extended queue area inside.

The scene was a macabre menagerie, with monster cut-out photo ops, roving scareactors, an old black and white horror movie being projected onto a large screen overlooking the queue, and a couple of modest souvenir stands set up to see anything from candy and refreshments to "adult diapers to avoid embarrassment for when you pee your pants in the Haunted Trail!" There was a charming sense of homestyle love and passion in the ambiance. It wasn't a slick and polished commercial presentation like what places like Universal, Knott's, and the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride are offering these days. It was handmade and handbuilt and lovingly painted and sculpted with care. Think Knott's Scary Farm from ten years ago--still great theming and sets, just not quite cinematic grade.

After chatting briefly, I was brought to the front of the line (the perks of being media, though I had a tight schedule to adhere to!) to begin my jaunt.

Welcome to the Haunted Trail!

Welcome to the Haunted Trail!

The eXperiment Maze

The eXperiment Maze is a 3500 square foot blackout and strobe style maze incorporating several horror icon themes as well as a labyrinth section in the middle that can legitimately send guests in circles and into dead ends! Chucky, Freddy Kreuger, Michael Myers, and Jason lurk within, striking from hidden corners or while guests are distracted by the bright strobes or disorienting layout.

Chucky is one of several famous horror franchise icons to greet guests.

Chucky is one of several famous horror franchise icons to greet guests.

Theming is relatively light here, but it's okay. The path is dim, the strobes disconcerting, and the monsters all too eager to take advantage of guests' befuddlement. From the opening moments of the hilarious recorded safety spiel, this maze provided an entertaining study in haunt guest observation. I followed a group of school kids chaperoned by a couple of parents scream and jump their way through the layout, getting quite lost in the maze portion in particular. Stalked by a relentlessly mocking Freddy Krueger during this middle portion, the adolescents were sufficiently spooked enough that any startle in the later half had them quaking in their shoes.

Simple and effective, the eXperiment Maze wasn't overly scary on any complicated level, but it brought an appropriate level of fun terror for a family setting. And once guests were out of the final scene, they had a few minutes to recover, as the end of the maze functioned as an intermediate queue for the main attraction, the Haunted Trail itself.

The end of the eXperiment Maze is also the start of the Haunted Trail en proper.

The end of the eXperiment Maze is also the start of the Haunted Trail en proper.

The Haunted Trail

Just like haunted hayrides, there aren't a lot of haunted trails on the West Coast--at least not in metropolitan areas. L.A. and OC, for all of their countless haunts, really only have one well known instance--the [Insert Your Monicker This Year] Trail at Coffin Creek. So just on its own area novelty, the Haunted Trail in Balboa Park stands in notoriety for its extensive experience.

But this is more than just a spooky hike in the woods. Balboa Park's Haunted Trail is a multi-theme haunted house unwound and stretched out along a more linear course--and set outdoors. There is an eclectic but familiar mix of intellectual properties and traditional Halloween themes through this mile-long walk, and they change from year to year, with certain portions fo the trail being replaced by new sets each season.

This year,  Us  gets an appearance with this familiar facade.

This year, Us gets an appearance with this familiar facade.

On the IP level, this year's Haunted Trail almost feels like San Diego's take on Halloween Horror Nights. There's a Stranger Things scene, a set from Us, plus segments devoted to films It and Shawshank Redemption (I never considered that much of horror, but I suppose being in a prison and seeing the atrocities the Warden got away with was horrifying), and even the Netflix thriller, Birdbox.

A jack-o-lantern hollow is one of several areas not patterned after IP’s.

A jack-o-lantern hollow is one of several areas not patterned after IP’s.

Along the way, there are also more traditional motifs like a cemetery, clown circus, pumpkin monster patch, and killer hillbilly fields. Each featured their own sets, with architecture and ambiance crafting different types of terror environments. Perhaps my favorite was the haunted nursery and Ghoul Bus, where disturbingly creepy, oversized toddlers ran rampant with shakers and snarls. The bus--frontlit with strobing pulses--presented an unending sea of statue scares. And the imagery might be enough for any child-hesitant millennial to swear off having kids period!

There’s gotta be a cemetery on a haunted trail. Gotta!

There’s gotta be a cemetery on a haunted trail. Gotta!

And perhaps the most terrifying thing of all… babies.

And perhaps the most terrifying thing of all… babies.

The first half of the trail saw numerous scenes packed together, hardly giving guests time to breathe through their screams, but midway through the trail, things started to open up a little bit. A water effect in the cemetery reinforced the Horror Nights parallels, as did some chainsaw-wielding fiends on the back half, but the foray through various scenes and themes kept the interest level high throughout the second half. By the time I emerged from the end of the trail, I was a good 5-10 minute walk back to the entrance of the whole attraction, but what a fun and creative trek it had been!

The Haunted Trail may be all over the face with its themes, similar to a passionate home haunt that mixes various spooky icons into one attraction, but that's part of the charm and appeal. It's a whole season's worth of haunted attractions rolled into one, with an army of monsters lurking around each corner to help accent each subject. Those scareactors maintain energy throughout the maze, with ebbs and flows structured through the experience to allow for recovery time and mitigate startle scare overload.

The trail is much more of an organic experience than a fancy, effects-laden haunt that might rely on synchronization with audio and visual effects. There's an old school prioritization of the scare, accented by the atmosphere and furnishings. All in all, it makes for a thrilling 30-40 minute experience--one that makes the wait worth it, even on busy nights when said wait can run an hour or two!

Cut your wait down and buy tickets in advance!

Cut your wait down and buy tickets in advance!

The Haunted Trail continues its run on Thursday through Sunday nights into November 2nd. Tickets are available online in three different options:

  • General Admission, which is first come, first serve whenever you get into line

  • Timed Ticket, which reserves a time and results in a reduced wait compared to GA--no more than half an hour or one hour at most, and is available for Friday and Saturday nights

  • VIP Admission which provides "Fast Pass" admission to the front of the line for the shortest wait

Do buy tickets in advance, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, lest a wait in the ticket line be added on top of the actual maze and trail queues.

The Haunted Trail has been a popular Halloween hit with San Diego for years, and it's no surprise why. The Trail itself provides a "horror's greatest hits" catalogue that is sure to thrill guests of all sorts of spooky fandoms, and the eXperiment Maze is a fitting amuse bouche for what's to come. It's definitely worth the stop--even if for non-local haunt fans!

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