In the theme park haunt industry, Knott's Scary Farm is perhaps the most famous. Originating in 1973, this event predates all others, and to this day it remains the largest theme park haunt. The event features nine mazes, four scare zones, two shows, and four skeleton key rooms scattered around the park. While the park also used to feature haunted rides (and other events continue to do so), Knott's Scary Farm has discontinued this in order to put their resources into higher quality mazes and shows. Given how much there is to do at the event, I feel this is a wise choice.
Knott's Scary Farm has a three year cycle, meaning that if one visits every three years they will see virtually no repeat attractions. However, it means that if you visit every year you'll only see a handful of new things at each event. This, combined with the fact that it is an upcharge even to season pass holders, means that it is not an event I attend annually. My last visit was in 2014, and originally I wasn't planning to go this year. With the number of new features, however, and the fact that several friends were visiting the event, I decided it was worth joining them for the evening.
Admission to Knott's Scary Farm varies by night, but can be as low as $40 if purchased in advance (day of purchases are always $72). Knott's Berry Farm season passholders receive a $5 discount on admission if purchased in advance. The event operates Thursday to Sunday from late September through Halloween, with additional days occasionally available. Hours are 7 P.M. to 1 A.M. (2 A.M. on Friday and Saturday). In general, this event gets busier the closer you get to Halloween, with most Fridays and Saturdays in October typically selling out. Sundays tend to be busy but manageable, while Thursdays are usually light enough that multiple trips through mazes are possible without Fright Lane. Due to the threat of rain, however, crowds were light on the night of my visit (Sunday, October 16th) and were comparable to a typical Thursday night.
This year, I also decided to purchase Fright Lane, Knott's skip the line pass for mazes. This pass is $70 on top of admission (more on very crowded nights), but it grants nearly immediate access to every maze for as many times as you wish to go through them. Additionally, Fright Lane comes with a Skeleton Key, which grants one time access to four unique specialty haunt attractions called skeleton key rooms. These rooms provide a more intimate experience as only a small group participates at a time (4-8 guests) and they often have some type of interactive component.
Skeleton Key Rooms:
In previous years, skeleton key rooms were attached directly to the mazes at Knott's Scary Farm. This year, however, the rooms were removed from the mazes and became separate attractions. Due to the limited capacity, these rooms are only open to those who purchase Fright Lane, and they can still get waits of up to an hour. For this reason, I recommend doing all four rooms within the first two hours of the event. We were able to get into each room with no more than a 10 minute wait, but saw lengthy lines at a couple of them later in the evening.
As usual, reviews are listed in the order I experienced them, with a ranking following all reviews. Also, note that there are spoilers below.
Visions: Located in the Green Witch Museum, guests are given phantom finders (aka iPads with augmented reality programming) in order to investigate suspected paranormal activity in the area. After everyone in the group is given a device, you are set free to search the room. Markers have been placed on objects suspected to be haunted, and your device lets you see the spirits. Some are benign, while others are malevolent and trigger real-world effects. Eventually, your activities disturb the spirit of the Green Witch, who then materializes inside the museum. This room was reasonably scary, particularly when the Green Witch appears, but it also could be a variable experience depending on which of the augmented reality markers you find (you're given about three minutes to explore so you can only see 1/2 to 2/3 of them).
ZOZO: The most predictable of the skeleton key rooms, this room has the group attempting to communicate with spirits using a Ouija board. At first, everything seems to be going as planned, but then an evil spirit possesses the board. After spelling out its name, special effects occur throughout the room before everyone is plunged into darkness. When the lights come back on, ZOZO is standing on the table and attacks you before the lights go out again and he disappears. This was probably the least scary of the four rooms due to how predictable it was, but there is definitely a creepy factor associated with all the special effects.
Slasher: From the outside, this room just looks like a plain box. Inside, however, it resembles the hideout of a serial killer (think 1980s horror movie). After entering the room, narration tells the story of the Angel Maker Killer, then the action begins. During the story, there are moments where the room goes dark. When the light comes on, the killer will suddenly be standing beside someone, brandishing a knife. This continues, with several appearances of the killer in various sections of the room, before finally the killer's latest victim is revealed dangling just above guests. The killer then orders everyone into a box, which is actually a low passage guests have to make their way through to reach the exit. Of the four rooms, this was the scariest in my opinion, but that came at the expense of interactivity. The original pitch made it sound like guests actually had to escape from the killer, but instead it was more of a show.
Prey: The last room is tucked away in a corner of Camp Snoopy and is notably larger than the others. This room begins with a five minute preshow where a group of hillbillies explain the story: They don't like city folk, but have decided to capitalize on them when they come snooping around. They've created a hay maze full of dangerous hybrid (pronounced hay-bred) creatures and invite tourists to check them out. Everyone is then given a lantern and sent into a dark hay maze. Naturally, the lanterns are faulty and tend to go out at just the wrong moment. This attraction had a ton of potential, but unfortunately it is squandered by having a maze that is open to the sky and small enough it takes no more than a minute to solve. If this was put into a dark building and lengthened so that most guests will take three or four minutes to find their way out it would be a truly terrifying experience. As is, it is a fun attraction with some great acting, but just isn't as scary as it sounded on paper.
Skeleton Key Room Ranking:
Is a Skeleton Key worth it?
This is a question I'm sure people will ask, and I would say the following: It is absolutely worth checking out the skeleton key rooms if you purchase Fright Lane (except perhaps ZOZO), but it is not worth purchasing Fright Lane just to do the skeleton key rooms. In other words, you need to visit on a night that's busy enough that you'll get the full value of Fright Lane in order to justify the $70 cost, as the rooms are not worth that much by themselves. If, however, a Skeleton Key was sold separately that got one-time access to all four rooms for $30 or so, I would absolutely recommend it.
While Jacob Sundstrom wrote a solid overall review of Knot's Scary Farm on the front page last month, I'll still include my thoughts on this event's other elements. Not only do I like to be thorough, but I find that different people may have different opinions and more views are generally better.
In 2014, I considered Knott's to have mazes that were more impressive yet less scary than those found at SFMM's Fright Fest. However, Knott's has really stepped up their game and this year I wouldn't say there is a single maze at Knott's that was bad. Most contained at least a moderate number of scares, and the set design is generally as good as it has ever been. Yes, there were a few I didn't find particularly appealing, but none were something I would advise a first time visitor to skip.
Red Barn: I'm not a huge fan of gore-fest mazes, so I wasn't particularly excited about one themed to killer hillbillies. However, I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would. This maze probably had the weakest sets of the entire event, but it was right in the middle of the pack in other areas. Overall a good maze, but not a must do at this event.
Special Ops: Infected: Perhaps the most creative maze at the event, I found this one to far better than previous attempts at the concept. The idea is that the zombie apocalypse has happened and you're sent on a mission to save the city. Armed with a laser rifle, you are to shoot zombies and targets to fight your way through the hoards. While capacity is still an issue, almost everything else about this maze is in the upper tier, and the idea of shooting zombies adds a layer of interactivity not seen in most mazes. Since it is necessary to poke into dark spaces to find some of the zombies, I'd say this is one of the scariest mazes as well. Overall a very good and very fun maze that may not be for everyone but was a hit among my group.
The Gunslinger's Grave: A Blood Moon Rises: I really liked this maze in 2014, but this year I didn't enjoy it nearly as much. Whether that is because the maze has declined in quality or others have simply increased I do not know (probably a bit of both). This is one of the simpler mazes and is on the less scary side, but the theme fits Ghost Town perfectly. Due to this maze's location, it is generally not very crowded, so save this for after seeing the better mazes.
Shadow Lands: Not only is this the best maze of the event, it may be the best haunt maze I've seen. This maze is long, has some very impressive sets, does a great job with the storyline, and is one of the scariest as well. While the theme of a samurai searching for redemption in the afterlife is unconventional, it allows this maze to feel very different from the others, and at an event with so many that is a good thing. An absolute must-do for anyone visiting Knott's Scary Farm.
The Dead of Winter: Wendigo's Revenge: I never experienced the original version of this maze, but I wasn't a fan of the current version at all. The story (if there is one) is lost to what is essentially a gore-fest maze in a winter setting. I also thought this one was more gross than scary, and while there were a few neat animatronics the rest of the maze did little for me.
Paranormal Inc.: An outstanding maze that felt almost like the template for this year's Shadow Lands maze. The maze begins with an excellent pre-show about a paranormal investigation in an abandoned asylum, and then guests proceed through a labyrinth full of unique elements. While this maze did seem to focus more on mechanical effects than live actors they were all very effective. This is the other maze at the event I'd consider an absolute must-do for all visitors.
Tooth Fairy: While this maze is well done, I'm not a huge fan of it because it is yet another gore-fest. That said, this is a solid maze that takes a single concept and runs with it, and the maze does contain some unique elements, so I appreciate it for those. However, it is now on its third season and had the shortest line at the event, so I strongly suspect it won't be back next year.
Voodoo-Order of the Serpent: In my opinion, the most underrated maze at Scary Farm. While not the scariest or longest maze, this one does have one of the most creative sets (simulating a Louisiana bayou inside a soundstage) and is a great example of a top notch atmospheric maze. I did like the previous version slightly better as guests were able to pick their path, but the maze now feels longer and you see everything on one trip.
Trick or Treat: The classic haunted house maze that has lasted five seasons already, this is the most classically Halloween of all the offerings. Unfortunately, the maze is easily the shortest at the event (and is the only one I'd say is too short) and is quite simple compared to most other offerings, but it is still popular and more effective than some of the larger mazes. I think Knott's Scary Farm should always have a haunted house maze, but it's probably time to retire this particular attraction for something more grand.
1. Shadow Lands
2. Special Ops: Infected
3. Paranormal, Inc.
4. Voodoo-Order of the Serpent
5. Tooth Fairy
6. Red Barn
7. The Gunslinger's Grave: A Blood Moon Rises
8. Trick or Treat
9. The Dead of Winter: Wendigo's Revenge
Knott's Scary Farm has four scare zones: Ghost Town Streets, Fiesta de los Muertos, Carnevil, and The Hollow (new for 2016). Together, these four zones cover the entire theme park. Of the four, Ghost Town is easily the best, with both the most involved scare actors and the spookiest atmosphere. There is even a section so filled with fog that visibility is no more than five feet. Fiesta de los Muertos and the Hollow are both good scare zones with decent actors, but they are more open and less populated. Lastly, Carnevil is the weakest of the four as it is extremely spread out and too light for the actors to truly hide.
While the event used to feature numerous live entertainment options, this has been reduced to just two major performances in the past couple years. Every year, Elvira performs inside the main theater, and this year's show, Elvira's Danse Macabre, is one of the better productions. The show features Elvira's jokes and commentary mixed with several dance numbers and is a great way to get off your feet for a half hour or so. Knott's Scary Farm's other show is The Hanging, a tradition since the early days of Scary Farm. Playing three times nightly, the show makes fun of political and pop culture trends from the past year before culminating in the execution of that year's worst offender. Quality is always variable, but this year's show hit more than missed. That said, the ending was very disappointing and there were quite a few things left out to focus more on superheroes and Donald Trump.
This year's edition of Knott's Scary Farm was very good and a significant improvement from what I experienced in 2014. While I'm not a huge fan of the increased number of gore-fest mazes, I really enjoyed everything else at the event and would absolutely recommend it to any haunt fans. In fact, I would say that anyone who is a serious haunt fan needs to do Knott's Scary Farm at least once. It is the original theme park Halloween event after all, and to this day it remains one of the best.
Which So Cal event should you visit?
While it may be a little late this year, it is not too early to start thinking about next year. Even though I've only visited two of the events, among my group of four we had experience with five different So Cal events. Everyone is different, and not everyone is going to find the same appeal at every event, so picking the right one is important. Based on conversations and my own experience, here is what I would say...
-If you are a haunt novice, want to do mainly rides with some haunted attractions, or are on a tight budget, pick Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Not only is this the cheapest of the events (particularly for Six Flags passholders), it is also the least intense and is a good trial event for those curious about haunts but not ready to attend a dedicated haunt. This event does have some quality mazes (the top tier Fright Fest mazes are on par with an upper-middle tier Scary Farm maze) and enough attractions to fill an evening, but it is not overwhelming and you can escape the haunt activities if they become too much. Additionally, this event is less crowded than others so there is usually time for rides as well (especially if you arrive early).
-If you are a fan of scary movies and/or TV shows and want to see attractions based on your favorite horror IP, or if you only really care about mazes, pick Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. This event was said to have the best mazes in general and also rotates most of them annually, ensuring the experience will be different every year. It also is the only event with heavy IP usage. However, I was told that most of the non-maze haunt attractions were very disappointing, and this event doesn't have as many mazes as others. It is also the most expensive and most crowded haunt event.
-If you want the scariest event you can find, avoid the theme parks entirely and instead go to Queen Mary's Dark Harbor. This event is set up like the theme park events, but is smaller and more intimate. While I haven't visited it (planning to go next year), I was told this is a more intense event with top quality talent and outstanding mazes. There are also things here that will never be seen in a theme park due to liability issues. Now, it isn't the scariest Halloween attraction in So Cal, but for a whole event and not a single attraction it is probably the best option.
-If you want the best overall event, go with Knott's Scary Farm. Knott's is one of the most balanced theme parks, and their Halloween event is also one of the most balanced events. Scary Farm offers just the right amount of attractions for a night of fright without offering so much that you'll miss out on stuff, and crowds are generally reasonable if you avoid Friday or Saturday nights (on those nights, Fright Lane will be your friend). This event also has a lot of history behind it and is often the one willing to try new things. Honestly, other than being a little less scary than it could be, I can't find much criticism of the event.
-If the idea of being stalked by monsters and spirits makes you want to run away screaming, or if you have children under middle school age, Mickey's Halloween Party at Disneyland is the place for you. Seriously, I saw people who were clearly terrified and not having a good time at Scary Farm, so if you don't want to be scared you should opt for the not scary event. Also, most theme parks recommend 13+ for their events, and while those slightly under that age may be able to handle it the events are not good places for young children.
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