The spectacular Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor returns this Halloween season to scare up more fun by the sea. Last year, Dark Harbor introduced characters inspired by actual hauntings that have occurred on the ship. Graceful Gale, Scary Mary, Half-Hatch Henry, Samuel the Savage, and the Captain were all a logical addition to the lore of Dark Harbor. As with years past, the team behind the event has not rested on their laurels creatively. They wanted to advance the story of the event. So, what sort of changes did they make for the 2013 season?
Enter a new lead character, The Ringmaster, played with unbridled glee by actress Peggy Magee. She is a jaunty, English lion tamer whose exploits can be found throughout the central area of Dark Harbor. Despite her gapping neck wound, this gregarious circus performer is unaware that her life has ended and the spotlight has long since been turned off. The Ringmaster brought the circus to town and with her, all of the freaks, ghosts and monsters one could ever ask for.
Arriving at Dark Harbor guests are put through the usual paces required by modern-day trappings. the long queue, the security check points and bag search, all part of the arrival process. But this year another key element in conjunction with the entrance has been changed from years past. Missing is the long entry through foggy tunnels that sort of acted as an overture to the scares. Now, just after security, a group photo op is offered and then guests are released into the village area of the event.
Passing under a new archway, the Captain stands on a platform above, welcoming all who care to enjoy his special brand of entertainment. The change in vibe is immediately apparent. Ghost-like mimes and tattered ballerinas prance about as if in slow motion. advancing into the main thoroughfare we see a massive tower for zip-lining, a spinning monkey cage carnival ride in the distance ($5.00 a ride), and beyond that, the majestic Queen Mary herself, once again providing the backdrop for this maudlin maritime festival.
This is an old-school circus. Massive, rusted, black and white shipping crates are stacked one on top of the other and strewn with warm popcorn lights. 1920′s period costume ghosts and ghouls trot around, engaging guests. In the center of the main cross roads sits a single ring circus performance stage where the rotating bands keep the music going at full blast. It is also here, that The Ringmaster, along with the other ethereal inhabitants of the Dark Harbor, occasionally gather to tell their tale of the ghostly circus and the ship that brought them here.
Of course the highlight of the events are the haunted mazes. There is one brand new maze this year, The Circus. Last year’s new maze, Deadrise, has been revamped, along with The Village (formerly Village of the Damned). In addition, all three mazes on the ship, Hellfire, Submerged, and Containment have been altered or refreshed. And, to heighten the circus feeling of the event, they have added a Freakshow area.
The Circus is a new maze that takes up residence in the old Spruce Goose Dome. Sorry to say that our personal favorite maze, The Cage, is no more. Fortunately The Circus is a solid spook house with plenty of disorienting homages to that once great experience.
We enter The Circus through the mouth of a large vintage-style clown and into a claustrophobia tunnel. You know the kind, where the walls are inflated and you have to squeeze through the passage between them? Those not into invasive elements in mazes need not apply. The vintage circus vibe is played to the hilt here with great effect. Wandering thorough the ramshackle tent, tones of red and ochre patchwork create a meandering path past trapeze artists, mimes, marionettes and even a few old-time clowns.
There really isn’t anything that we found issue with in this maze. It is a solid experience that is consistent in tone and execution.
The actors in this maze really hit the right tone here between mysterious and scary. Everything is off-kilter and supplies a sense of magical unease, if you will.
Once again, the former Queen Mary shopping village is the setting for another trip into the whacked out back-woods town of The Village. Formerly known as The Village of the Damned, The Village takes guests through the humble abodes of the inhabitants of a town gone mad. This year guests enter from a new spot, a fishing shack that faces the Dome.
From here we begin our descent into foggy madness. Monsters leer and dart as you go further into the maze, creating an instant sense of anxiety. Set pieces featuring mutant monsters and practical stunts are triggered along the way too adding to the cheesy charm. The design team seems to have a lot of fun reinventing this maze every year as the path is, once again, altered. The experience still hits the same absurd notes and is again a lot of fun. It is also, by far, the longest maze at Dark Harbor with a walking time of approximately 10-15 minutes.
While the cast is strong here, there are a few standouts. The mayor in the Hawaiian shirt at the beginning of the maze was an absolute treat. Funny and engaging with the crowd, he had a down-home, Florida creepiness that set the perfect tone for the maze that followed. There was also a WONDERFUL actress in the Barbecue scene that had me screaming and laughing any time she beckoned guests with her shrill tone. “You want some barbecue?!?! Well come on down honey, it’s like the Price is Right up in here.” Just awesome.
This wonderful, J.J. Wickam maze returns for a second year in the same space, but with a vastly improved layout and pace. Entering the busted hull of a massive ship we wander through the wreckage of an ill-fated voyage. Along the way the ghostly crew relentlessly invites the living to join them in the netherworld.
The layout of the maze has been improved dramatically. They have managed to tighten the larger spaces up, removing the large, barren spots. Now, instead of hitting a lull here and there, the maze is non-stop in its pacing and scares. This is Deadrise 2.0, a far more effective and concise walk-through experience that maximizes everything that worked from last year.
The Freak Shows
A new addition to the roster in the outdoor segment of Dark Harbor is an up-charge experience called The Freak Show. Five separate experiences that feature monsters like Headless Hannah, Human Crab, Sparky, The White Spirit and the Shadow Spirit await. Each experience begins the same for the separate freak shows. Guests are queued up outside and allowed to enter in small groups. The door is slammed behind you and then the crazy spooky fun begins and you must find your way out. In some cases this means a one-on-one encounter with the freak.
The Freak show experiences were nothing like we were expecting and we were surprised and delighted with them. What’s more, the term “up-charge”, while technically accurate, makes it sound expensive. It’s not. The Freak Show costs $2 for each show individually or $5 for all 5. Five bucks is a bargain to get to see all of the shows.
You” laugh, you’ll scream, you’ll see the egress. Get a ticket to the Freak Show. They are good fun.
Dark Harbor has resurrected all of the mazes that are staged on the Queen Mary herself. The first of which is Containment. Working your way through the actual portion of the ship that was used as the infirmary, Containment plays on fears of medical experiments and disease run a mock in the bowels of a tormented vessel. This is the only maze on the ship that has enjoyed a real reworking and it shows. Narrow passageways and darker corridors are the hallmark of the redesign and it is an improvement over the familiar layout of haunts past.
Another classic maze, Hellfire, returns to scare guests with the terrifying prospect of being burned alive. Set against the backdrop of the ship’s boiler rooms and engine rooms, the passages of this maze glow with the color of smoldering embers and charred crew. It’s understandable, but very unfortunate that this maze suffers from the very thing that made it so wonderful before.
The winding passages and tight corridors of the Queen Mary are a great place to set a haunt. The problem with it is that you really can’t change anything substantially in such a historic location. Thus the maze comes off feeling a little too familiar to the vetted Dark Harbor fan. Thankfully they have returned the spark effects to the amazing Boiler room scene. That is still a jaw-dropping moment in the maze that cannot be replicated anywhere. Don’t skip this maze, if for nothing else than for that one moment.
Okay, submerged, time to give up. The third and final maze onboard the ship, Submerged, is also one of the three original mazes that opened with the revitalized Dark Harbor in 2010. Submerged follows the exploits of those who have found a watery grave traveling on the Queen Mary, including one little girl who is said to haunt the pool area, Scary Mary.
It is unfortunate to report that this maze does not quite live up to its former incarnation. When we toured the attraction on opening night, something felt off. The watery set pieces along the route were functioning well enough, but there was little energy surrounding them. The cast only offered moderate performances during our trip through and it was a real shame to see that happen to a previously great maze.
The biggest disappointment was the watering down (so to speak) of the big special effects moment in this maze. the pathway winds its way through dank passages culminating in a trip through the historic First Class Pool area of the Queen Mary. In years past, the journey built up to a stunning climax in this ghostly, aquatic playground. Wild azure patterns danced on the mother of pearl ceiling as undulating fog obscured the bottom of the pool making it appear an endless, ghostly pool. Not this year. This time the maze ends with a depressing walk past an empty tiled pool. No special lighting, just the dim lit archways of an abandoned swimming hole. The rusted filter grate in the deep end was a particularly nice touch. We hope that they just weren’t done with this maze and that the special effects which make this maze and particularly the pool scene so special are still in the works.
Overall, the new theme at Dark Harbor works well. It is a mysterious kaleidoscope of shadows and fright. J.J. Wickam has achieved the impossible in creating a circus theme that feels fresh and interesting. There are some flies in the ointment though. The zip line ($15 a pop) is a little too modern looking, but it does add a kinetic energy to the atmosphere. The spinning monkey cage, a bright, brand new, LED lit ride feels strangely out of place. Then there are the fair food booths. They stand in stark contrast to the ghostly “Boardwalk Empire” feel that is being attempted. But there is enough good here to comfortably loose yourself in the illusion.
Talent director David Wally has amassed a wonderful ensemble of actors that help shoulder the weight of fleshing out the less convincing nooks of the themeing. They rise to the occasion, setting the mood, creating the scares, and keeping up the energy for thousands of nightly guests. The sliders are just as talented as their brethren at Knott’s and offer scares just as startling. Finally, enough cannot be said of Actress Peggy Magee as The Ringmaster. She is a mesmerizing mix of comedy, pathos, and horror. We hope she sticks around for a while.
Get out to Dark Harbor this year. It is a tightly situated, delightful little haunt that is expertly designed and wonderfully executed. And let’s face it, is there any better place to hold a Halloween event than one of the most famously haunted places in the country?