Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA
After a one day hiatus, are you ready for more spoopy? This past Thursday, the last of the "Big 4" major Southern California haunted attractions opened, as the Queen Mary's Dark Harbor threw forth its gates and unleashed its horde menagerie of monsters and freaks and novelties upon the eager public. Celebrating its 10th year of operation this season, this now-beloved haunted event presented six mazes--including the brand-new Rogue--plus its usual assortment of sideshow characters, roaming street monsters, sliders, a variety of live entertainment shows, and general haunted carnival brand of entertainment.
Expectations were high this year for Dark Harbor to continue its upward trend showcased last year when Jon Cooke was enlisted as lead designer and brought the might of his Plague Productions to help transform and revitalize the event. With a new maze that promised new and unique effects, plus the milestone anniversary looming over the event, all signs pointed to more excitement for the 2019 season.
Somewhat unfortunately, what did transpire on opening night was more of a mixed bag and dampened the momentum that the previous season had brought. If anything symbolized this the greatest, it was the new maze, Rogue, which had its highlight moments but also featured an inconsistent progression in both storytelling, set design, and talent interaction.
Rogue tells the real life story of the Grey Ghost--as the Queen Mary was called during its World War II service transporting Allied troops across the Atlantic--during one fateful night when a powerful and relentless storm nearly capsized the ship. Had the vessel overturned, the calamitous loss of life may have turned the tide of the war. Fortunately, the Captain (a younger, alive version) was able to keep the ship upright--but not without a lot of drama and cacophony.
During Midsummer Scream, the Dark Harbor design team promised that Rogue would utilize creative design elements and technology to simulate the show of waves crashing over the ship and uneven walking surfaces to convey the tiling and listing of the boat. And where this was actually established in the quarter of the maze where it occurred, the effect was, indeed, exciting and impressive. Unfortunately, the remainder of the maze felt like a rehash of the predecessor maze, Deadrise, but with less opportunities for scares and more alarmist shouting to escape the ship before it was doomed. It seemed like a missed opportunity to utilize more video projections and craft framed stage elements to broadcast more of the ocean turbulence or perhaps even dredge up creatures and terrors from the sea arising as a result of the storm--especially considering that a miniature dome was built to house a majority of the maze, providing an open canvas. A sudsy finale also brought to question exactly how the story was meant to wrap up... were guests washing ashore, perhaps literally, or did this symbolize something else?
As underwhelming as Rogue was, mazes like Intrepid and Circus continued their strong runs from 2018.
Intrepid returned with much of the same layout and sequence as before, but with subtle enhancements on the second half of its layout to more coherently narrate its descent into the ghostly bogs of the Scottish moors. The talent was robust and engaging throughout, and the excellent visuals that Plague Productions brought to the maze the year before remained dazzling.
Meanwhile, crowd-favorite Circus provided yet another season of chaotic, wild, carnival revelry. This is the most fun maze of Dark Harbor, bolstered by the strength of a committed and almost spastic cast that drags guests into the creepy, yet prankish world of carnies. Familiar segments like the ball pit room and the spinning tunnel and sliding tracks were present, and there was even a fun finale transplanted from Deadrise. It all resulted in the kind of maze that put a smile on one's face, regardless of how scary one actually found it.
On the ship, B-340 presented an improved experience and actual complete story compared to last year by actually providing a second half. Guests from last year may recall the reworked story incorporating film noir elements into a retelling of Samuel the Savage and his contributions to the most grotesque and hideous murders in the ship's history. The maze plunged into Samuel's backstory, rigid Puritanical upbringing, and his descent into madness but unfortunately seemed to run out of steam just after the halfway point. This year, Samuel's demons were out in greater force, lathering the air with their lethal suggestions and whispers of depravity.
The other two ship mazes, Feast and Lullaby, did not fare as well in the theming and storytelling department.
Lullaby was surprisingly sparse and disappointing in its scenic design. This was particularly disheartening, given that the maze was offering a new "prequel" sort of storyline covering Mary in life up to her actual drowning death. And though the climactic scene featuring an "underwater" walk-through did create a pretty cool effect, the rest of the maze felt mostly barren. Fortunately, the incredible work of the maze scareactors salvaged what might have been an otherwise sub-par maze and brought a whimsically sadistic tinge to the walkthrough. With Mary's toying with guests, popping out of dark shadows, beckoning to play, and being generally unhinged, Lullaby showed that the strength of a haunted maze lies more with the talent than it does with its surroundings.
Feast, however, started off solidly, but went downhill. Literally! While the first half provided the same template of a cannibalistic culinary crew, the latter took guests on a descent into the bowels of the Queen Mary. This was billed as a boundary-pushing move for Dark Harbor, as it would allow guests to venture into areas of the ship never before accessed (at least for Dark Harbor guests). In execution, however, there was minimal theming and talent during this downward path, and only a little bit of theatrical lighting to set the mood. Most of this simply consisted of a way to access one of the event's many hidden bars. As a result, Feast left a poor taste in our mouths.
Fortunately, spending time in the general midway area of Dark Harbor helped cleanse our palates. The variety of street monsters meandering throughout were a delight to observe and sometimes interact with. Their style of odd and scary circus-like shenanigans was thoroughly entertaining and provided many screams into the night. These talented actors embraced their weird and twisted sides, making each meeting just a little bit unnerving for anyone unsure of exactly how much of this was an act versus real life.
The other continuing plus of Dark Harbor was the entertainment line-up. Though not advertised on anything we could find (a show schedule of at least the major events was missing last year too and would be really helpful), this included the spectacular fire shows presented by the Voodoo Priestess (or Mambo Cécile, as she'll be called when she relocates to Orlando's new Dark Horizons haunt), a variety of vaudeville and comedy acts on side stages, and the notorious slider show by the Queen Mary sliders. Watching the monsters of Dark Harbor jump and weave and duck their way through a series of stunts and tricks in a medley of coordinated anarchy was an exciting thrill, and it's great to see these types of performances get more recognition and spotlight.
We would be remiss not to point out some recurring issues that continue to plague Dark Harbor as an event--though not all of them fall under the control of the event organizers.
This year's food line-up continued to be a rehash of typical fair food cuisine, but unfortunately, we did not find them to be of any notable quality, and we did find them to be overpriced. In addition, the ever-expanding focus on and proliferation of alcoholic establishments seems to have once again taken the attention and effort away from the mazes, which seemed scantier overall compared to recent years. We understand that secret bars (and not-so-secret) bars make for great advertising lines, and alcohol sales definitely make a lot of profit. But they become problematic at a haunted attraction when they start taking away from the actual haunted house type experience. They also increase the chance of drunken guest behavior--something that has plagued big haunts like Halloween Horror Nights Orlando in the past--which can lead to poor guest experiences for the remaining, non-plastered crowd.
Another surprising continuation from last year is the narrow exit path out of the event. Last year, I pointed out that the exit gates were about 2 or 3 feet wide for the entirety of the egressing public at the end of the night--a huge fire hazard should any emergency occur that caused panic. That seems to be the case this year, except that the opening is 4 feet wide extended across the sidewalk path beside the parking lot. While there are emergency exits elsewhere using wide vehicular gates, they rely on staff personnel to unlock them, and that seems like a shocking liability that I'm surprised Dark Harbor's legal team does not object to.
The other ghostly elephant in the room remains the parking situation at Dark Harbor, and this is one that the event producers do not have any control of, short of relocating entirely. The Queen Mary has incredibly poor parking infrastructure, which means that on pretty much most nights, parking on site anytime after 7:00pm, when Dark Harbor opens, will be a nightmare. To that end, we highly recommend that guests either arrive an hour before opening if they wish to park on site, or (preferably) park off site in Downtown Long Beach and either take a Dark Harbor shuttle, hail an Uber or Lyft, try the water ferry, or even just walk over to Dark Harbor. It will be cheaper and less time consuming, and it will make the event much less of a headache to start off the night.
To those who go on peak nights such as Saturdays and most Fridays, we also recommend upgrading to a front-of-the-line pass. The queues for the mazes can grow to unconscionably long waits, especially on the lower capacity ship mazes, and upgrading on site (ideally after purchasing a discount general admission ticket--there are always sales and promotions for Dark Harbor tickets throughout the year, including on any Friday the 13th) will make the trip that much more enjoyable by taking the grueling waits more out of the equation.
Overall, Dark Harbor remains an enjoyable event, and if this review has seemed harsher than past years', it's borne out of a love and concern for the event and a desire to encourage it to be the best it can be. Dark Harbor occupies the unique position of being situated on an actual haunted site (if you believe that sort of thing) and can utilize so many natural advantages as the result of its Queen Mary association. We just want the event to fulfill its potential and take that next step in upping its haunt experience and sophistication to keep up with its big haunt rivals, who themselves have also been expanding their games over the past several years.
Perhaps this year was impacted by the team's divided attention on creating and establishing Dark Horizon in Orlando. We're willing to give a pass for that. Dark Harbor is still a great Halloween event. We just want to see it grow and advance to be even better.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.