It’s that time of year again where your local theme parks are taken over by scare actors, spooky props, and guests trying to earn a buck sleeping in coffins. Halloween time is upon us, and while Walt Disney World started celebrating back in August(?), most regional parks’ witching hours don’t start until the last weekend of September. Living near Washington, DC, I’m within 2 hours of three different theme parks that host Halloween events…
Six Flags America Fright Fest
I was invited to attend a media event previewing some of the Fright Fest attractions at the Maryland park. As with most Six Flags parks, the regular rides and attractions operate normally during the daytime hours, along with additional seasonal attractions for the kids like a hayride, trick or treat trail, and costume contest. However, when dusk approaches, The Awakening begins, literally. The show, Awakening, introduces guests to the creatures that will inhabit the park as Fright Fest begins, and is a surprisingly intense and chaotic experience. During Fright Fest, Six Flags America features four scare zones and three theatrical shows that are included with a daily admission. The media preview featured all three shows, though the Midway Massacre stunt shows was only presented in a shortened preview version. The locally produced and staffed stunt show is always a highlight of any day at Six Flags with the seasonal versions always very popular. This year’s stunt show is set around a carnival gone wrong that finds the freaks taking over the show. Flesh is a singing/dancing show staged in the Crazy Horse Saloon that features one of the most talented male dancers I think I’ve ever seen in a theme park production. The show’s soundtrack may lack originality, but provides a good diversion, especially if you can plan your dinner around a showtime. Cursed 2 After Dark is a sequel to last year’s production with a Broadway-caliber cast. However, the “After Dark” version that features an unnecessary amount of foul language (a “clean” version of the show is performed during daytime hours) and an exceedingly long runtime detract from the overall quality of the production and cast. Media were told that the show producers recognized that the length of the show was an issue, and were working to tighten it in future performances.
The park also features 6 haunted attractions (mazes, haunted houses, or whatever term you prefer). These require an additional cost, though Six Flags allow guests to save by purchasing unlimited daily passes and season passes for the haunted attractions. The media were given an opportunity to tour Total Damnation, which is framed around series of 10 torture chambers. My experience through this attraction was nothing out of the ordinary, and in line with most other mazes/haunted houses I’ve experienced elsewhere. I’ve never quite understood the need for Six Flags to make these upcharge attractions, but my run through Total Damnation didn’t necessarily make me want to open my wallet for this or any of the other haunted attractions at the park.
Six Flags America has also announced that they are participating in the Coffin Challenge that was initiated at Six Flags St. Louis. Guests will have the opportunity to earn $300 if they can stay in a coffin for 30 straight hours. The coffins are only closed from the waist down, so during park hours, participants will be in full view of park guests passing by. However, unlike Six Flags St. Louis, Six Flags America has added a “no technology” requirement for participants that prevents them from using cell phones, game systems, smart watches, and other electronic devices while in the coffin (participants can use technology during designated restroom and dining breaks). It’s a clever promotion, and much like at St. Louis, I expect Six Flags America to have far more guests wanting to participate than they can accommodate.
Six Flags America Fright Fest runs Saturdays and Sundays (and select Fridays) from now until October 28, 2018.
While I did not attend a media event for the Doswell, VA park, I did visit as a regular park guest to experience all of the Halloween Haunt attractions. There’s not a lot new this year for Kings Dominion’s event, but it still stands as one of the best Halloween attractions in the Mid-Atlantic. The park features 8 mazes (though I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Tollway Terror, the Halloween overlay of the antique cars, as a maze), 5 scare zones, and 3 musical-based shows.
There is one new maze for 2018, but it’s not really that new. Condemned is a re-imagining of the former Darkside Manor maze located in the Action Theater. From what I could tell, Condemned is virtually identical to its predecessor. However, instead of the maze being lit with theatrical lighting and effects, guests are given mini flashlights to guide the way. It’s a clever concept in theory, providing an extra level of fear and terror of the unknowns lurking in the shadows, but in reality, I found myself disappointed to see one of the most detailed mazes in the park shrouded in darkness. I liked the idea of the flashlights, but it probably would have been better executed in a completely new maze. At the end, I felt sorry for all the hard work and artistry that went into creating the details within the maze that will go unnoticed by guests pointing their flashlights at the ground. The other mazes were all solid with Blood on the Bayou and Trick or Treat being the highlights for me. Blood on the Bayou features a section of wooden boardwalk that helps to intensify the theme and allows for scares to occur from all directions. I really appreciate when designers find ways to stimulate all of the senses in a haunted attraction. Trick or Treat has some highly detailed rooms that will lure you to linger, but well-timed witches and goblins are effective at keeping you running towards the exit. The maze also features some rooms that appear to be 2-stories, with scare elements up high to engage guests that are not solely focused on the ground or the person in front of them. I once again tried the unique Blackout maze, which is housed in almost complete darkness. I actually had to go through twice because for some reason they allowed a person on a scooter to ride through the maze with their lights on. It was interesting to go through being able to see the shape of the corridors and where the scare actors lurk, but even going through a second time, the knowledge gained through the partially lighted walk through of the maze kind of ruined the effect. Cornstalkers and Zombie High are again strong entries, while Lockdown was rather forgettable. Tollway Terror seemed much better than it has been in the past, but I might chalk that up to getting a near perfect run through the attraction as my past experiences have resulted in at least 2 or 3 of the scenes completely unmanned when I’ve driven through.
Kings Dominion’s Halloween shows are limited to the Eifel Tower stage, and are mostly musical based with the Blood Drums drawing the biggest crowds. I couldn’t help but compare the drumming ensemble to the crew from Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Monster Stop on Ripper Row. There’s nothing wrong with Blood Drums, but the precision, originality, and complexity is far below what the Williamsburg crew unleashes in just @ 3-5 minutes of solo time. The scare zones around the park are virtually unchanged, but the park has eliminated the Skeleton Key rooms that were exclusive to guests purchasing Fright Lane (front of the line pass). I had never been in the rooms, so I cannot comment on whether they were worth the diversion, or whether guests will care that they’re no longer available. The Ironworks scare zone is still unlike any other I’ve experience, and frankly I’m surprised other parks have not picked up on the popularity of Steam Punk as an overlay to a scare zone or haunted house. Kings Dominion Halloween Haunt runs Friday evenings along with Saturdays and Sundays through the end of October.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Howl-O-Scream returns to the Williamsburg, VA park celebrating its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, they have been highlighting some of the best and fan favorite mazes, scare zones, and icons in the event’s history. The park hosted a behind the scenes media event that I was unable to attend, so like Kings Dominion, my experiences and impression are from a visit as a regular park guest.
The Vault XX is a brand new house for 2018 that pays homage to attractions of years past. Guests who have been attending Howl-O-Scream since the beginning will notice a lot of familiar faces and props. The maze actually starts with guests walking down a hallway in a morgue with drawer doors labeled with past attractions. Once in the maze, guests venture through rooms themed to the likes of Catacombs, Scarlet’s Revenge, Carn-Evil, Bitten, Sea Dog Cemetery, Curse of Pompeii, and more. Those not familiar with the past imagery might find the house a bit disjointed, but it’s still well designed with lots of places for actors to hide in plain sight. However, the location in the former Drachen Fire station means that an early visit may not be as dark and spooky as some guests may prefer due to the daylight bleeding in through the structure. Another new house this year is Demented Dimensions located in the rear of the former Curse of DarKastle show building (all of the tracks and sets are completely gone now, allowing for the park to stage 2 haunted houses in the building much like what Universal does with its sound stages during HHN). There were a couple of cool rooms in this house, but in general, I felt it was a jumbled mess of an attraction. I was expecting to see a lot more optical illusions (there is one superb room with gridded walls lit with strobe lighting that was flat out mesmerizing), but most of the rooms seemed to be borrowed from other attractions with very little continuity between them. This might have worked as a greatest-hits type of attraction, but with The Vault XX already covering that territory, and doing it so much better, this new house seems really out of place. The final new house is Dystopia located within the Escape from Pompeii show building. Dystopia takes the place of Deadline, and replaces the Italian subway-themed maze with more of a post-apocalyptic veneer. Where Deadline told a complete story as guests strolled through crumbling subway tunnels, control rooms, storage rooms, restrooms, and even an incredibly convincing subway train set, Dystopia doesn't seem to have a sense of place, and as such the characters were very generic. Dystopia does feature more special effects than your standard house like Deadline and previous houses staged in this location, but I felt that the ending was really abrupt. The house does feature a course split where guests are directed by a scare actor to a room to the left or the right, but that single diversion was not enough for me to wait another 20-30 minutes for a second run. Frostbite, Lumberhacked, Circo Sinestro, and Cornered return to the lineup similar to previous incarnations. However, I do think the positioning of the new houses has caused an unnecessary consolidation of attractions near the back of the park. I understand the park not wanting to stage a house in the Battle for Eire queue given that the attraction is still in its first year of operation, but with no house in the Royal Palace Theater, it means that all of the houses are staged in either Italy or Germany (with 5 house entrances within @500 feet of each other between the Festhaus area and the former DarKastle building). This created a really crowded scene around the Festhaus that was rather tough to navigate during the peak of the evening.
BGW added one new scare zone to its lineup for 2018 called the Garden of Souls, which replaces the former pirate-themed scare zone in Italy. This new scare zone is themed around Dio de Los Meurtos (Day of the Dead), and made great use of black lighting to create striking highlights on the character costumes and props. The other clever addition for 2018 is the Scare Lab. Imagine if instead of being inside of a haunted house being scared by professional actors, you could control the scares as your friends and strangers walk by. That’s the concept behind the Scare Lab located near the Castle O’ Sullivan in Ireland. It’s conveniently combined with a bar (though they could probably use a second register so guests wanting just to scare people didn’t have to wait behind guests getting drinks) as behind the bartenders are a series of TV screens showing live night vision footage of various locations around the park and houses. Large game-show style buttons are positioned in front of each TV screen that allow guests to trigger effects to startle passersby, for a fee of course. It’s definitely a concept that I have never seen before, and was even entertaining for those not paying to control the scares.
Busch Gardens is still the gold standard for Halloween theme park events in the Mid-Atlantic region, but the other major parks are trying to close the gap. BGW definitely has the competition beat in terms of shows with Monster Stomp on Ripper Row almost worth the price of admission by itself, and Fiends and Night Beats a step of from your average regional theme park show quality.
While none of the Mid-Atlantic events reaches the intricacy and popularity of HHN (or even Howl-O-Scream in Tampa), they continue to get better with age. Happy haunting!!
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