Knott’s Scary Farm opened its 41st Halloween Haunt season this past weekend with a full line-up of shows and mazes to firghten and delight. The have unveiled 5 new mazes this year which really helps strengthen the value of this event.  Overall, it’s a fantastic year to experience the Knott’s Scary Farm Halloween Haunt.

If you plan on visiting Knott’s Halloween Haunt, and you should, here are our thoughts on the mazes to help you determine what you should do and what you can skip as you make your plans for this usually crowded event.  Here we tell you what works, what doesn’t and how we think it might be fixed. We’ll cover the excellent shows in an upcoming column.

The Witch’s Keep

The Calico Mine Train is once again inhabited by the Green Witch as The Witch’s Keep returns for 2013.  Last year Knott’s quietly kept this overlay under the radar, not even advertising it in the lineup.  But this year it has been promoted as a regular part of the event, and for good reason.

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The train ride begins and the story is told of the Green Witch, a woman who sought refuge in the mine after being chased out of Ghost Town.  Soon an evil presence lured her deeper into the mine and she discovered the source of all evil.  This attraction is not a ground breaking technological wonder.  Rather, it is a quaint and charming ride which is heavy on atmosphere and mood, and light on scare.

The Witch’s Keep is a classic experience which harkens back to the very first haunts in the park. Even the ghosts look like the original ones designed by John Waite (who worked on the Mine Train and Log Ride during the very first Haunts) for the original hauntings of the ride. We had the pleasure of riding this attraction with John Wait who was overwhelmed with emotion by the tribute to his early work.

If you are at Haunt, please don’t skip the Calico Mine Train’s wonderful Witch’s Keep.  It’s retro, it’s spooky, and it’s perfectly Halloween.

Delirium

This brilliant maze from the dark recesses of the mind of Daniel Miller (Haunt designer) is back to torment the masses once more.  Described as a nightmarish fever dream, Delirium plays on all of the savage phobias that people have.  Claustrophobia, insects, paranoia, aging, death and the occult are just some of the subjects that one encounters here.

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No major changes have been made to this maze from last year’s incarnation, but somehow the maze had a new energy about it.  The talent in this maze seem to have been perfectly cast and trained in their roles. Each of the three times that we went though the attraction, the entire cast was on mark and never missed an opportunity to startle.

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The longevity of Miller’s concept stems from the primary fears that he taps into so efficiently.  They are timeless specters in the back of everyone’s minds.  Miller not only exploits these fears, but twists the knife as well.  This is one of our favorites and we are glad to see that it has survived to return for another year – though, there are some damaged sets that will need to be repaired or replaced if it is to return once more next year.

Dominion of the Damned

Last year, the Knott’s team really tried to stretch their scope and concepts.  It was the 40th Haunt after all and people were expecting blue sky designs and sheer terror.  Based loosely on the concepts of vampire mazes of years past at Knott’s , the maze was primarily constructed in tones of gray.  The sets, most of the costumes, and all of the make up were in black and white.  The only real vibrant color was to come form the pops of red blood streaming from vampires and their victims. Sadly, when Dominion of the Dead was unveiled last year, it fell just short of expectations.  While stately and beautiful, the maze failed to deliver the consistent scares it should have.

However, this year the maze has been reworked and is now called Dominion of the Damned. How much has the maze changed?  A lot.  Gone are the strict rules of color and spooky scares.  This year the maze gets it right by ditching the whole, “You are visiting a museum” concept and puts you into the palatial home of a nasty bloodsucker.  Slow-moving, alluring, and dangerous, the vampires are scary.  What’s more, the scares start immediately instead of waiting until you are deep inside the attraction.

Dominion feels as if it is a brand new maze.  While they do try to keep to the pale aesthetic, the feel is less constrained, more organic and natural.  This redesign works well because it emphasizes what worked from last year and adds provocative new elements.  Nice job here, don’t miss this maze.

ENDGAMES: Warriors of the Apocalypse

Oh poor ENDGAMES, did you ever really have a chance to succeed?  Based on an original concept, Endgames tells the story of a future world gone mad.  It’s a world in which gladiator-like games are played by humans and mutants in a fight to the death for the entertainment of the twisted inhabitants of planet Earth.

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Unfortunately, this maze has never been able to really take off. While it had a sprawling layout when it was located in Camp Snoopy, even this abbreviated backstage version lacks the ability to terrify.  As guests wander through the post-apocalyptic halls, mutants, psychotic warriors and victims all try to terrorize.  But the effect is lost as the visitor’s role in the proceedings is never very clear.  Are we, as wanderers through this abrasive landscape, participants, victims, or mere observers?  Are we, as visitors, in danger or not? The freight factor is further watered down because many of the walls are made out of chain link fence, allowing you to see what’s coming up next.

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Nothing has been changed from last year.  Everything is exactly the same as it was when an attempt was made to distill the original concept down to enhance the element of danger.  The only kudos to be given here are to the cast that gamely tries to evoke a scare from visitors in a maze that makes it hard for them to do so.  It’s too bad that one can barely hear the actors over the loud death metal being played as the maze soundtrack. This isn’t a terrible maze, but it is the weakest in the lineup.

Trick or Treat

This visually stunning maze from designer Brooke Walters returns as a solid addition to the roster of haunted attractions at Knott’s Scary Farm this year.  Visitors begin their journey by ringing the doorbell to the spookiest house in the neighborhood, only to be pulled into the lair of the infamous Green Witch.  Entering the home, we pass a stairway of jack-o-lanterns filled with winking candles.  The quiet rhythmic toll of a grandfather clock is the only sound we hear until our first encounter with the Green Witch.

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This maze is mostly unchanged from its inaugural year but it has improved upon its rhythm and mood. The guest control has improved tremendously and they have really seemed to learn how to operate this experience.  Small groups of 10 or more are allowed in every 15 seconds, allowing for a nice buffer between groups.  This enhances the element of discovery inside the Green Witch’s home and enforces the feeling of being a scared child, out for an ill-fated night of trick or treating. It also allows the cast to prepare surprises for you.

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Praise should be lavished on Walters and her crew for creating this detailed maze with actual sets as well as for hiring the right actors and training them well.  The pacing has been vastly improved from the opening year and the final show scene, featuring a confrontation with the infamous Green one, finally punctuates the ending in a way that doesn’t bring the rest of the maze to a standstill.  Don’t skip this maze, it is one of the strongest at the Haunt.

Uncle Willy’s Slaughterhouse

The longest running maze at haunt, Uncle Willy’s Slaughterhouse comes back for an 8th year of delicious, smoke-flavored scares.  The story is simple enough.  We enter a roadside diner and discover that there is a far more sinister recipe to their delicious barbecue.  Last year this maze enjoyed a wonderful refresh that tightened up the storyline tremendously and crafted the maze to deliver non-stop scares.

The cast in this maze really rises to the occasion, playing up the creepy-as-heck southern yokles ready to offer you hospitality.  One minor qualm is the lack of scent cannons in this maze.  Seriously, how jarring would it be to smell savory barbecue and then suddenly have it morph into the smell of rotting flesh?  Nasty, right?  Another minor issue is the lack of visibility to the entrance of the maze.  This is a solid experience that shouldn’t be skipped.  However, aside from the employee holding an orange neon sign, you might miss it.   The maze is located directly across from the entrance to the Sierra SIdewinder roller coaster in Camp Snoopy.  Check it out.  It’s a whole lot of home cooked fun.

Mirror Mirror

This rather tiny little maze is a one trick pony, fortunately, it does that single trick very well.  It is a small, beautifully designed mirror maze that is very good at disorienting visitors with its symmetrical passageways and reflective surfaces.  Adding to the mix are a handful of actors dressed in vaguely steam punk costumes that have an all too frightening understanding of the layout.

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Guests are queued up and allowed to enter in groups of approximately 10.  We got lost in this maze.  It was actually a lot of fun.  But, the downside is that each group of ten is left inside the maze until they find their way out.  That means that the load cycle can be anywhere from 2 to 7 minutes.  Comparatively, this literal maze has a glacial throughput compared to other mazes at the event.

The experience is confusing, fun, and a little scary.  That being said the line for this attraction gets absurdly long, rendering it skippable unless you have the front-of-the-line, FrightLane passes.  Those, of course, cost extra.  So, essentially, unless you get there right at opening, or have the FrightLane ticket, skip this maze.  It’s fun, but not ‘two hour wait’ fun.

Gunslinger’s Grave

This new maze by up and coming designer Gus Krueger is a western themed attraction telling the story of vengeance in the old west.  As visitors approach the charred ruins of a western homestead we know that  this isn’t your typical western.  It seems that a humble gunslinger had exposed the town’s corrupt sheriff and was targeted by said sheriff and his posse.  What follows is a bloody tale of revenge in the old west.

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When we had a chance to discuss the concept with Krueger we raised our concerns as to why this maze would be something scary.  His response was that this was the old west without the safety net supplied by the normal, rose-colored view offered just a few feet away. This would be the sick, gritty, realistic version of the west that nobody ever talks about.  The danger in the maze would come from the lawless bandits that were still running amuck, threatening all who were unlucky enough to still be alive.  The idea reminded me of being in the center of an agitated mound of red ants.  Chaos reigns as danger, murder and death have all been sent into overdrive.

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Does the idea work? Basically, yes it does.  Gus and his team lend a dirty realism to the normally sanitized Ghost Town mythology.  We can honestly say that while we were not scared, we did see plenty of guests who were. The talent really engaged the visitors.  The outlaws populating the bloodied shanties and homesteads were in-your-face and nonstop.  The element of fear was coming from a disturbing invasion of privacy.

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The concept was even further achieved by the immersive set pieces and sense of place created by Krueger’s inventive design.  Creaky planks of wood are beneath ones feet when inside, but when venturing outside, gravel and dirt  on the ground offer the unmistakable sensation of being outside. Overall, Gunslinger’s Grave can be deemed a success.  While not “scary” this maze certainly creates a palpable sense of danger for those who wander into this mad world of corruption, outlaws, and gunslingers.  This is one that you should not miss.

Trapped: The New Experiment

Last year, Knott’s took a bold step in creating their first ever up charge maze experience.  Guests would pay $60 to enter in groups of 1-6 people.  They would also have to sign a waiver, cleverly written by Haunt veteran Jeff Tucker, in which they would consent to being touched, and would comply to the directions given them inside the maze.  The gimmick was that if, at any time the experience was too much for them, the visitors would utter the safety word, “Boysenberry” and would then be led out of the maze without a refund.  It was an exhilarating experience in that it was filled with the unknown, and a feeling of genuine risk. How would Knott’s top themselves?

This year, Knott’s presents Trapped: The New Experiment.  The new incarnation of this maze attempts to create a storyline that bookends the seemingly unrelated series of horrors that await guest.  Visitors are subjects in an experiment.  Scientists in white lab coats lead guests to the beginning of the maze and let them loose.  To tell you what happens next would be to remove any of the mystique that makes this maze so much fun, so we will simply say that what follows is highly entertaining.

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But the term sophomore slump was invented for a reason.  And this is one of them.  Trapped: The New Experiment suffers from comparison to last year’s incarnation.  The situations that guests are forced through are highly engaging, and very inventive.  But none of them seem to push the envelope like scenes from last year did.  There is no morgue, no Bloody Mary encounter, nothing that feeds on primal fears like death and the unknown.  What you will find is a series of puzzlers with a nasty patina.  Complaints aside, the maze is certainly worth $10 a person ($60 for groups up to 6 people)  to get into and is worth the price in our opinion.

Black Magic

Daniel Miller’s beautiful new maze, Black Magic, is probably the best maze this year at Knott’s Scary Farm.  It plays on the history of magician Harry Houdini and his fascination with the occult and the realms beyond.  Based on the real life account of Houdini, who was constantly trying to reach his deceased mother by way of psychics and mediums, the maze invites guests to visit a ghostly old theatre on Halloween night.  It is there that Houdini and his ghostly army of undead magicians, showgirls and artists are trying to lure visitors to the other side.

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Filled with beautiful imagery and stunning set design, Black Magic succeeds in creating a world of mystical dangers and whimsy.  As guests venture further into the depths of the ethereal theatre, the undead hordes mimic their roles on the stage and attempt to make you a part of the show.  For the most part, this maze remains consistent in tone and scares.  There really isn’t a dead spot, so to speak, in the entirety of the walk through. This is a must see attraction!

Pinocchio Unstrung

Another returning maze, Pinocchio, comes back strong.  It tells the story of a jilted puppet who, after being denied his wish to become a real boy by the Blue Fairy, has become a psychotic killer intent on stripping the skin from his victims and wearing them as suits.

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We really enjoyed the maze last year, and this year it is just as good.  The lighting and sound seem to have been fine tuned offering a more polished experience.  The whining cogs and joints of an old marionette figure play offer a aural background throughout the maze as the score comes in when needed.  The lighting is saturated and warm at times, while offering a cruel look at one of the more beloved characters in literature.

Unfortunately the talent here seemed a bit off on the three nights that we visited.  They weren’t bad, per se, but it felt as if they were still feeling things out with their surroundings. Major important scenes were often found unstaffed or with scares mistimed.  Give this maze another week or so and it will be on par with Black Magic as a not-to-miss maze.

Forevermore

Forevermore, a new maze, by designer Brooke Walters, is a high-concept haunted attraction that tells the story of a serial killer who is obsessed with the works of Edgar Allen Poe. But this murderer doesn’t kill people himself.  No, he drugs his victims and lures them into committing his crimes for him. As guests queue up, televisions along the line play what appears to be a channel playing the Roger Corman film, Mask of the Red Death.  Every so often the movie on the televisions is interrupted by a Breaking News “Live” report (featuring a straight laced Gus Krueger).  It seems that police have located the hideout of the Poe Killer, but his whereabouts are unknown.

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It is under this concept that guests are then released into the killer’s maze of terrors.  Throughout, there are horrifying scenes of torture and murder, each referencing the works of Edgar Allen Poe.  The Raven, Fall of the House of Usher, Telltale Heart, even Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether all make appearances with the scares coming from the Poe Killer’s unwilling, masked minions.

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This maze is very literate and entirely too smart for its own good. While visually wonderful, this maze suffers terribly under the weight of its concept.  It is a crucial error to passively set up important exposition in a loud queue. The same mistake was made with the Calico Mine Train overlay, Invasion Beneath, two years ago. It is a shame they didn’t take that lesson to heart. People in line at Haunt are already hyper-stimulated, conversing, texting on their smart phones, taking selfies etc.  They can’t be depended on to ingest exposition until they are forced to put everything away and enter the maze. The scenarios were certainly interesting, and at times grotesque and repulsive. On that level the maze works.  But there is just too much information to be asking visitors to be carrying through a maze in order to make sense of it all.

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One way to really fix this maze would be to populate the entry area leading to the killer’s hideout with bloodied newscasters, delivering carefully scripted lines, warning guests of the killer’s presence.  It would set up the sense of danger quickly and effectively, leaving guests to traverse the dangerous surroundings with an idea in mind of what to be afraid of. Regardless of these qualms, this is a pretty good maze worth more than a few scares.  Go see it.

So this year there is a nearly perfect lineup of wonderful mazes to enjoy.  Knott’s has really stepped up their game with scary and entertaining attractions.  What’s more, there are 11 that come with admission and only one that you have to pay extra for.  Not bad at all.  If you ask us, the best value for Halloween fun is down on the farm . . . Knott’s Scary Farm.

If you took part in the MiceChat Halloween Haunt meet on September 28th we would LOVE to hear from you.  Jump in and join the discussion here

There’s still a lot about Knott’s Haunt for us to share with you, as we haven’t told you anything about the shows yet, including the return of Elvira. We’ll be back shortly with part two of our Knott’s Scary Farm coverage.