Theme parks have been raising a ruckus about anniversaries since the Disneyland Tencennial in 1965; and speaking of ten year milestones, the Halloween Haunt at California’s Great America hits that mark this very year with all new Scare Zones, a new show, two new mazes and, perhaps most exciting, the restoration of The Demon to its proper glory!

Friday the park hosted a media event for the 2017 premier night. There is an opening ceremony every night of Haunt, so let’s start with that. The Witch that normally kicks off the Night was conveniently blocked by a column on the Columbia Carousel, so we’ll pick it up with the entrance of His Unholy Evilness, The Demon

Replacing the entertaining Academy of Villains show after a two year run is Ed Alonzo’s Psycho Circus of Magic and Mayhem. Ed Alonzo previously appeared on the hit television series Saved By The Bell. I would expand upon that, but the previous sentence contains the entirety of my knowledge about the hit television series Saved By The Bell.

Ed also appeared at the first Great America Haunt before doing an expanded show at Knotts Scary Farm. He’s now returned with that spectacle, and we were provided a reserved section for the first show of the Psycho Circus, which was actually a technical rehearsal and not open to the public, so a few “turn the music up a bit there” moments, but still an entertaining 20 minutes with music, dancers, and illusions that generally centered upon the inexplicable disappearance/reappearance of someone. The were boxes that produced women and a ticket booth that sent them away, knives “thrown” at strategically positioned balloons, the frightening journey of a swallowed balloon “sword” with humor that would never fly in a Mouse operated enterprise, plus a Volkswagen convertible driven by a duck. All said, it’s a fun addition to the entertainment offerings.

It was nice to get it out of the way early and not have to worry about being there at a specific time later, the very situation that had prevented me from making it to the Blood Drums last year. Therefore we made a point of getting cameras in position for the beats of dread this time around. It’s more spectacle than serious threat to the legend of Kieth Moon, but they stay on the beat and lots of “don’t try this at home” moments; how can you not love it?

Last year’s bruhaha over Fear VR and the hasty conversion of the Insanitarium maze to Dead and Breakfast was an unfortunate series of events, but time allows us to move on, and the space normally occupied by the Rue Le Dodge bumper cars (and site of Haunt’s one. lone maze a decade ago) now features the all new Chaos House, where the core concept of Mirror Mirror, a maze from the past, has now been expanded into an epileptic’s nightmare of strobe lights, mirrors, lasers, fences, designs of disorientation and purveyors of fear. I don’t know if you’ve ever considered the number of attempted exposures required to get a photograph in an environment lit solely by strobe lights; but if this had been done with a film camera, these would be the most expensive photographs I ever produced.

The other new maze, Backwoods, replaces the 3D Dia de Los Muertos,
and Great America provided us an opportunity to take a look with the lights on before it opened to the public. In this maze, reminiscent of Voodoo at Knott’s Scary Farm, the Backwoods Resort hunting lodge has been overrun with werewolves menacing staff and guests alike. Housed in the old iMax building, the spacious interior combines with a setting that includes walking on decks over water, lights and sound in a convincing version of the outside while being inside where weather isn’t an issue.

Then the lights go down and it looks like this.

Many of us are aware that fairy tales were often a bit more Grimm than animated versions featuring doe eyed cute chicks, and the point is driven home in Feary Tales, one of three new Scare Zones.

The people have spoken, freaked out by those clowns, so hold my hand tight as we pierce Jester Town.

The Demon is not confined to his tracks, and the final Scare Zone, Underworld Alley, sets the stage for an experience that I thought would never be more than a treasured memory. Although we never glimpsed Himself, many of His loyal disciples wandered about as a new theme song pulsated from numerous speakers.

Personally, your humble narrator is overtly excited to see the investment Cedar Fair is making with a park that had always been an underachiever in my eyes from the first visit in 1981. Yet even then there was a clear highlight to the day, and it was in the form of an Arrow looping coaster christened The Demon. And it wasn’t just the fact that The Demon was my first coaster with more than two inversions (note to 6 Flags Over Georgia: you will never convince me that people go upside down more than twice on Mind Bender). After immediately dropping into a dark hole filled with snarling growls of the coaster’s namesake, the train ascended the lift hill turned, and plunged into two vertical loops before entering a tunnel where colorful lights spiraled towards me before exiting into a pair of corkscrews, one of which passed through a skull shaped rock with a blood red waterfall. Yowza! By the time I was a park photographer in 1986 the tunnel was dark. Other effects followed with their own vanishing acts, each likely run until a breakdown never addressed. Sure, unlike the Batterhorn where I stooped feeling like my head would collide with the cavern ceilings after a few rides, to this day I feel like a concussion is imminent every single time The Demon spirals into that skull. Y’all have figured out where all this is inevitably going by now, right? Yowza, indeed!

Wellza, it’s not quite the same. The empty sockets of the many light bulbs in the tunnel are clearly illuminated by the concert type lighting found there now, as well as at the ride’s start, but the addition of a fireball before entering Skull Rock is an equitable compensation.

Overall, the state of the Haunt is solid after 10 years. Like similar events, the early days are the least heavily attended. The flip side is one must wait longer for darkness, and even those horrid jesters aren’t so horrifying in daylight. The settings in the mazes are all detailed, and the performers are all involved and engaging. for this first night, however, many outside locations had the kind of technical rehearsal feel of the Psycho Circus. The most perplexing for me was a more brightly lit environment than in year’s past, but even the queue for Chaos House was in full white light.

It was particularly noticeable with the bleeding of lumens from shops and eateries, but also incongruous elements like white spotlights illuminating Patriot, as well as the scare zones lacking the atmosphere, and fog, that brings a sense of dread. The cool firepots still line the park’s signature fountain, and they are using a bit of projection here and there, but hopefully this component is still a work in progress.

Returning mazes include CornStalkers (that seems to be the one most likely to be plussed a little every year), Madame Marie’s Massacre Manor, Roadkill Roadhouse, Toy Factory, Wax Museum Chamber of Horrors and Zombie High. The Nytewalkers still stalk Celebration Plaza at regular intervals with an all new show, while the Sideshow has relocated to the 50s Gazebo, the site of the park’s karaoke show during the day. Beginning September 30, the Great Pumpkin Fest will provide an alternative for the more timid theme park guests during those daylight hours with a standard ticket. Fright Fest requires a separate ticket, but is included for all Great America Gold or Cedar Fair Platinum Passholders. Five additional Skeleton Key rooms are available exclusively for guests who purchase the line skipping Fright Lane pass. The Great Pumpkin Fest runs Saturday and Sunday Through October 29, although the park will be closed during the day October 22 due to a San Francisco 49ers football game at the adjacent Levi’s Stadium. Haunt happens every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through October 29; the park will not be open Halloween. My attention now turns north to Fright Fest at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and curiosity about what is new for me to discover, but that will be something for next weekend, on another Day By The Bay.