Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Knott's Scary Farm 2013 house-by-house review with biggest hits in classic experiences at this year's Halloween Haunt

After a visiting the famed Knott's Berry Farm Halloween Haunt - best known as Knott's Scary Farm - a few years ago, I decided to make a return to give it another shot. And fortunately, all of my worst fears of duplicating that disappointment dissipated within minutes of the event beginning, leaving behind a night of nothing but enjoyable entertainment.

It's been decades since Knott's Berry Farm first pioneered what has turned into today's typical theme park Halloween event. Though they didn't invent haunted houses, Knott's did tie them together with energetic street performers and spooky stage shows to create what ultimately become known as Knott's Scary Farm. Years later, Knott's still thrives, packing in big crowds while developing interesting new ideas not seen in any other park, separating this particular Halloween event from the rest.

We already took a brief look at Knott's offerings this year from opening night, but below are my personal thoughts and opinions on each of this year's haunted houses, shows, and other experiences, including extensive video throughout.


Each haunted house, scare zone, and show is categorized reviewed below into one or more of the following categories: SCREAMER (scare-filled), GUT BUSTER (comedy-packed), EYE POPPER (visually-stunning), and/or MIND BLOWER (overall best in show). And in the case of a complete dud, I refer to it as a GRAVE DIGGER.



Knott's presents and impressive lineup of mazes with more than any other theme park around. Quantity does not always guarantee quality and Knott's does retain many of its walk-through haunted attractions for 2-3 year cycles. But since I hadn't been there since 2010, everything was new to me this year. In fact, even the shows were all new to me as rain had ruined much of the evening I was there. So this was indeed a completely fresh start.

I have no connection to the nostalgia many southern California residents possess for Knott's Berry Farm, as I hadn't ever been there until that 2010 visit. This time my only memories were poor ones, so I went in with the high hopes of something better - and I was rewarded. I purchased a front-of-the-line pass to ensure I saw everything, including the new Skeleton Key rooms, all of which are reviewed below.

On with the rankings


RANKING: Eye Popper, Mind Blower

REVIEW: I'm a sucker for classic Halloween experiences and Trick or Treat practically perfects the concept. My absolute favorite part of this maze is at the very beginning, just outside its creepy house facade. Guests actually have a chance to ring the doorbell before stepping inside, a wonderful tribute to the maze's namesake tradition. Immediately inside, a staircase of Jack-O-Lanterns make it clear that this house embodies Halloween in its most basic form. Trick or Treat takes guests through gorgeous scenes that feel like a real house, haunted by all sorts of ghouls. The scares are clever, often coupled with special effects, particularly in the maze's grand finale - a moment worth stopping for. If there's anything wrong with this maze, it's that it's far too dark to see all the intricate details that decorate its halls.


RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer

REVIEW: Harry Houdini has never been more scary as inside this new Knott's maze, basing each room around bizarre versions of classic magic tricks. The outside features a great use of projection mapping, creating feats of magic on the building itself. The maze begins surprisingly creepy with a room of creatures in strait jackets, followed by a series of gruesome tricks inspired by Houdini himself. Guests are made to follow in Houdini's footsteps through many of his most famous tricks, such as escaping from watery depths - while water streams from overhead in what may be the wettest scene I've ever seen in a theme park haunted house. And it seems all of the haunted houses of Knott's Scary Farm end with a bang, this one featuring Houdini himself high overhead.

Black Magic is one of the five Skeleton Key haunted houses, a new feature for 2013 that adds an extra room at the beginning of each of those mazes in a much more intimate setting. This particular Skeleton Key room is the most unique of the bunch, gathering a small group to sit around a seance table while a psychic summons the angry spirit of Houdini, loaded with special effects. It's a surprisingly long mini-show that's a wonderful change from the endless lines of people that flow through the maze itself and it sets up the story nicely. (It's worth noting that no video or photos are allowed inside the Skeleton Key rooms.)


RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer, Gut Buster

REVIEW: A clever take on the classic Pinocchio story, this maze gets all twisted up as actors seem to pop out from every dark corner - or sometimes even surprising in plain sight. There's a bit of humor mixed in with with scares in this Pinocchio retelling, offering an overall enjoyable experience. And actors seem to be free to roam, following up on their own scares by literally following guests around, or playing off of each other throughout. The large animatronic figure near the end of the maze has been at Knott's for a few years, fitting in better than ever in this experience.


RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: Having been through two other Edgar Allan Poe-inspired haunted houses in the last few years (at Universal Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa), I was pleased to see a modern take on his tales, following a killer that has drawn inspiration from Poe in plotting his crimes. There are immediate comparisons to be drawn to the TV show "The Following" starring Kevin Bacon, though Knott's insists they came up with this idea before ever learning of that show. True or not, I'm not a fan of the show but I did thoroughly enjoy this maze, particularly its grand finale that, if timed right, features a big surprise moment with a tremendous amount of actors suddenly descending on unsuspecting guests inside. There's a lot of variety in each of the scenes and most are actually recognizable as specific Poe tales, though reworked in a contemporary setting. And it's a very long maze, but never dull or repetitive, interesting from beginning to end.


RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: This maze features surprisingly big, open spaces, taking guests through a believable western town and even into nearby mines. There are gruff western types roaming each scene, though none are particularly scary. While not terrifying, this maze is quite entertaining as there are great actors fully embracing their roles, even talking with guests to keep them immersed the environment. This maze's Skeleton Key room also presents an incredibly long scene featuring several actors who are quick to improvise with guests to keep it lively and quite humorous, though ending with a bang.


RANKING: Eye Popper, Gut Buster

REVIEW: This maze has been around in various forms for quite a few years and yet it still seems to be entertaining. There's just something enjoyable about the dark humor of humans being barbecued. Yum. As the name suggests, it's quite a gory house with lots of startles but the comedy holds up well too. The Skeleton Key room presents an opportunity to see first hand just what goes into the BBQ sauceand it's not pretty. For its age, Slaughterhouse has held up well.


RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: A recycled concept from the past, Dominion of the Damned feels rather old. It has some really nice original artwork throughout the maze and a clever concept of repeating scenes, one fairly normal followed by an alternate version that's over-the-top. But for the most part this maze never quite hits, with flat textures and angled walls winding through a series of uninteresting vampires. Even its finale fails to impress. Its Skeleton Key room is actually better than the rest of the experience, with a big startle scare leading it off.


RANKING: Grave Digger

REVIEW: This haunted house is described as the junkyard of Knott's Scary Farm, where old props go to die. It's a hodge podge of concepts that barely fit together amidst a theme and story that never come across clearly, even after the Skeleton Key room explains it - easily the weakest of the five of such experiences. The concept of including video monitors throughout the maze showing guests wandering through is distracting more than anything and while there are a few decent startles, the overall flow leaves much to be desired. This maze's saving grace is its actors, who are definitely in it for the scare, doing their best to compensate for an otherwise lackluster experience.


RANKING: Grave Digger

REVIEW: A carnival fun house gone horribly wrong, Mirror Mirror attempts to be novel by pulsing small groups of guests into a haunted house that is literally a maze of nothing but mirrors and actors wearing gold masks. The challenge is for guests to find a way out, which is fun on its own, but fails as a Halloween experience. After a few minutes, the lights begin to strobe and flicker which makes it just a little bit spookier, but mostly just frustrating. I managed to find my way out fairly quickly by going against the crowd flow, then hung around afterward to see how long it took for someone to make it out behind me. Several minutes later, I gave up waiting as no one else emerged. It's a tough maze to get through, but not because it's ever scary.


RANKING: Grave Digger

REVIEW: This haunted house simply made no sense to me. I was confused as to what I was looking at throughout, never able to get a firm grasp on what any particular scene was supposed to be. There's a bit of a demonic element to it, I suppose, but it's never clear. I was amused when an actor jumped across a doorway right in front of me, a startle I wasn't expecting. But beyond that, I was not entertained. Moreover, for some reason, the staff of this house was insistent that I not record any video, despite Knott's having no such restrictions. But don't worry, you're not missing much.


RANKING: Grave Digger

REVIEW: Witch's Keep isn't exactly a haunted house, instead a Halloween overlay of the classic Calico Mine Ride - which is in desperate need of an update. The Halloween portions of this experience are rather embarrassing, with better decorations available at Party City. Fortunately, this ride is due to get a major upgrade soon, much like the park's log ride recently did (which looks fantastic, by the way). Hopefully it will get a Halloween facelift next year too.KNOTT'S SCARY FARM SCARE ZONES

REVIEW: The streets of Knott's Scary Farm are fun, though there aren't necessarily specific scare zones. There are themed characters in certain matching areas of the park, such as presumably undead western types in Ghost Town and hoards of evil clowns in the brighter, more carnival-like areas. The actors seem to have a lot of fun with what they do, not just aiming for scares (which they certainly do) but also providing interesting entertainment, actually performing specific characters instead of just general ghoulish beings. I frequently saw them band together to act out little scenes, though I was never able to tell how much of it was spur-of-the-moment versus pre-scripted.

And then there's fog street, a stretch that is so densely filled with fog that guests literally cannot see two feet in front of their faces. And, of course, it's filled with monsters ready to pounce. Now that's quite an experience. I'm surprised I didn't bump face first into someone after passing through there many times throughout the night.



There are more shows at Knott's Scary Farm than can possibly be seen in a single night, with a variety of entertainment in each one. They have an interesting mix of comedy, action, stunts, singing, dancing, acting, and even a few scares.


REVIEW: The most famous of the Knott's Halloween shows is "The Hanging," most often compared to Universal's annual Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure, though the Knott's show has been around for many more years. It's a pop culture roast that focuses largely on stunts and sight gags. Overall it was only okay for me, with far too many pre-recorded lines and predictable jokes. It's clear the performers are stunt men and women first, performers second, as the action sequences were among the best parts, loaded with blood bursts exploding from nearly every punch - a signature component of the show. The show's standout moment this year comes in its rather funny Disney parody, the only portion worth sharing in video below.



REVIEW: It's Elvira. In the flesh. And lots of it. Need I say more? Simply, Elvira is always amazing. Her presence is unique and delightful, a perfect PG-13 blend of everything that makes Halloween fun. Seeing her in person is easily a highlight of the entire night at Knott's Scary Farm. The show features decent dance numbers along with plenty of sexed up humor. The middle portion is a little odd as the audience watches Elvira take part in a series of horror movie parodies on a big video screen. More Elvira in person would have been nice, but given that she's in her '60s I'll cut her some slack. But she certainly doesn't look her age, with her presence just as big and commanding as it ever has been.



REVIEW: Knott's Mystery Lodge is put to fantastic use in this new show for 2013 featuring a classic Pepper's Ghost effect used perfectly. The story surrounds a child in an institution who doctors feel is a bit off, claiming to see people who aren't there. But it quickly becomes clear that there are indeed spirits present - one menacing ghost in particular, who has her sights on wreaking havoc on all who are part of the show, the audience included. Its ending is a wonderful surprise moment that sends the audience shrieking in terror.KNOTT'S SCARY FARM TIPS AND TRICKS

* Purchase Fright Lane (front-of-the-line) passes with Skeleton Key access. It's a brutally expensive add-on but well worth the price, not only offering unlimited quick admission to all the mazes but also providing bonus entertainment that's a lot more personal than just wandering through a maze.

* Beware the blood in The Hanging. Standing too close to the stage is a splash zone.

* Don't miss the Haunt museum, offering a great look at the history of the event.

* Visit Mirror Mirror early in the evening. If you don't have the Fright Lane pass, you'll end up waiting in an exceptionally long line for this experience as they only pulse in small groups of guests at a time.

* Get a boysenberry stuffed churro at The Churro Factory near The Hanging stage. You won't regret it.

* Still hungry on the way out? Hit up Pink's, open well past the late hours of the haunted event.KNOTT'S SCARY FARM 2013 CONTINUES ON SELECT NIGHTS FOR THE REST OF OCTOBER. YOU CAN BUY TICKETS NOW AND FIND MORE INFORMATION AT .

Check back soon for a behind-the-scenes, lights-on look at several of the newest mazes at Knott's Scary Farm as well as peek inside the costuming and make-up department!


(Photos by Ricky Brigante and Tyler Rowe)
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