Scary Farm vs. Horror Nights vs. Dark Harbor

Edited: October 16, 2019, 9:02 AM

Having spent my 50th birthday weekend (October 11-14, 2019) in Southern California visiting the local theme park haunt events, it made me reflect on this question…if someone only had 1 day and could only attend 1 themed Halloween event in So Cal, which one would I recommend?

I visited Knott’s Scary Farm, Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, and Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor as I consider these the scariest of the Halloween events. Magic Mountain has their Fright Fest, but Six Flags usually can’t compete with the bigger names when it comes to mazes. And Disney is built for kids – so it’s just not so scary.

Thus, I started thinking of the following rating categories to make my decision between Knott’s, Universal, and the Queen Mary:
• Price
• Parking
• Ease of Entry
• Front of the Line Pass
• Scare Zones
• Maze Quality and Creativity
• Maze Scares
• Maze Effects and Props
• Maze Spookiness
• Rides
• Shows
• Overall Atmosphere


Universal has the steepest prices, especially if you want front of the line passes. Our tickets to Universal for the Unlimited Express Pass were $299 – a definite wallet breaker. And for this you get 10 mazes, 5 scare zones, 4 rides, and 1 show.

Dark Harbor was $40 – and upgrading to Evil Express was an additional $60 – so a lot of dough for 6 mazes and not much else but food booths and street performers.

Knott’s was $54 with an additional $86 for Fast and Fright Lane – which I felt was reasonable considering the 9 mazes, 4 scare zones, 3 shows, countless rides, and so much more. I’m giving this one to Knott’s for what you get for the price.

*Winner: Knott’s Scary Farm


Knott’s was $23 to park on the back grass – you’ll need a car wash afterwards, but it was quick and easy.

Universal was $27 to park in one of their parking garage high rises. It was relatively easy to get in and up (we were in the “E.T.” garage) – and a quick ride back down on the elevator to enter CityWalk.

Dark Harbor was an epic fail. $40 for parking – and 5 lanes merging into one. A complete cluster that was so badly organized and took forever to finally get to the parking space.

*Winner: Knott’s Scary Farm

Ease of Entry

Dark Harbor was a nightmare, and not in a good way. They only had 3 ticket booths and although we had purchased our entry on-line in advance, we had to wait in an incredibly slow ticket line to upgrade to Evil Express (which is absolutely necessary as the crowds were insane – on a Sunday night!). Then the entry to the “park” was a backed-up mish mash of people and switchbacks. Even with Evil Express we had to wait a while and later found out part of the problem was they did not have metal detectors so everyone had to be wanded. They separated the ‘men’ from the ‘women’ as the presumption was that women would have purses (and probably a female ‘wander’). When we finally got through security, we were able to work our way around to the entrance – but we had a bad taste in our mouth and anticipated a horrid event based on this experience (it wasn’t – it was surprisingly good).

Universal offered early entry for certain ticket holders, so we went through all the security and ticket booths at 6pm on Saturday night – an hour before park opening. It was a bit confusing figuring out where to go to work through the lines, but ultimately there were enough security lines and ticket booths that you were able to scoot through efficiently. The early entry was great as they gave you a wrist band that allowed you to swim upstream into the hoards of people leaving the park from their day visit. However, going through some of the mazes early meant many rooms were exposed to full or partial daylight, and that ruined some of the effects. I’d say the advantage of early entry was getting all the way down to the Lower Lot before the park officially opened.

Knott’s has a back entrance. I never knew this and accidentally stumbled across it as we were working our way through the heavy traffic around the park and discovered the back parking lot. It was so simple to get through – security check, ticket taker, wrist band – go! So – I’m giving this one to Knott’s because it has a second entrance in the back!

*Winner: Knott’s Scary Farm

Front of the Line Pass

No Southern California haunt event can be fully enjoyed without a “fast pass.” All 3 parks get points for their front of the line passes – good signage, and for the most part, the maximum was a 10 minute wait.

Universal’s Express pass was a business card size ticket that you had to show at each ride or maze entry point. I was always terrified I was going to lose it – and it was a bit clunky to have to show it, then show it again at each attraction.

Dark Harbor and Knott’s Scary Farm both gave you a wrist band – you just showed it at entry. At Knott’s the line monitors would sometimes make you twist your wrist in all different directions so they could see you had the proper night/pass – and it wasn’t an option for the Timber Mountain Log Ride as that wait never got below 60 minutes. Dark Harbor’s ‘Evil Express’ was bright pink. We just flashed our wrists and traipsed to the front of the line.

*Winner: Dark Harbor

Scare Zones

Dark Harbor really didn’t have ‘scare zones’ per se – but they did have wandering scare actors. They felt a bit like carnival performers at the fair. They were scaring people, and having fun, but it was sometimes challenging to pick them out from the crowd. However, we did love the painted man with the live rat on his shoulder – we squealed when he walked by and he stopped and put his rat in his hands for us to pet. She was adorable and appeared to appreciate the scratches.

Universal had wins with Christmas in Hell (technically the end of the Holidayz in Hell maze) and Spirits and Demons of the East (the four legged stilt walker was terrifying)! But they get the most points for what I would consider technically an 11th maze – All Hallow’s Evil down in the Metro Set area. It had a separate entrance and you had to wait in line to go through – it was very well done – including the famous ‘greenery’ monsters that blend into the ‘bushy’ walls. Toxxic Tunnel was unnecessary, and Fallen Angelz had an overuse of the chainsaws.

It’s hard to compete with Knott’s when it comes to Scare Zones since they have Ghost Town built in. With the fog piped in and the sets around you transporting you back to an abandoned western town – it’s chilling at every walk through. And The Hallow is always incredibly creepy – Camp Snoopy isn’t even recognizable. Carnevil is a bit overdone – we get it, clowns are scary – and Forsaken Lake was just dark, really dark. But Ghost Town is the Scare Zone of Scare Zones – so I have to tip my hat to Knott’s.

*Winner: Knott’s Scary Farm

Maze Quality and Creativity

This is a challenging category to judge as all 3 parks did quite well.

Dark Harbor’s Circus, Rogue, and Intrepid were all incredibly creative. Walking through the “ball pit” in Circus was ingenious – and the moving fun house floors, mirrors, and spinning tunnel all added to the experience. Rogue’s tilted floors and use of foam and water really made you feel like you were on a capsizing ship. And the train, graveyard, and moors were all excellent touches for the Scottish Intrepid. I was taken by surprise by Dark Harbor – I had low expectations and the Queen Mary came in way above the higher mark.

Knott’s has continued to up their game. All nine mazes were quite good – the new Origins was incredibly detailed as Robert referenced in his piece previously. And The Depths and Shadowlands I’d almost call “beautiful.” I loved the concept of Dark Ride – and Pumpkin Eater was downright creepy. Paranormal, Inc. and Wax Works really put on a show – and Special Ops: Infected was a vast improvement from when you ran through Camp Snoopy playing laser tag. Using the Mystery Lodge for this adventure was perfect.

Yet Universal – being a movie studio – really has an upper hand on the quality. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman was just gorgeous – so much incredible detail. And Stranger Things, although disappointing overall, really had some solid sets. The scare actor costumes in House of 1000 Corpses seemed like they were ripped directly from the movie. I had thought Holidayz in Hell would be my least favorite – boy was I wrong! It was so creative as you went through each holiday – I was highly impressed. And Us was like walking through the actual movie. I was blown away by the sets that looked just like what I saw on screen. And they did a great job casting the scare actors – who often looked like the actors in the film. It’s hard to beat Universal in quality and creativity.

I struggle with this one as I used to go to Knott’s Scary Farm in high school back in the mid-80’s. Seeing how much all of their mazes have increased in quality to compete with a movie studio astounds me. I have to give this category to Universal, but Knott’s is nipping at its heels.

*Winner: Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights

Maze Scares

Did I scream and run in all 3 parks? You bet. All three set up some really decent scares.

Dark Harbor gets points for some really creative scares. In Circus, I looked up at a grate above me, only to have a dead body land on the grate with a loud thud scaring the jeebies out of me. And their use of the laser light that blurs anything beyond it gave me some really solid starts in both Intrepid and B340. And how the scare actors in Rogue got into the places they were hiding, I’ll never know. Lots of great use of the dark in all of their mazes so the scare actors could stand right in front of you and you wouldn’t know it until they jumped in your face. (One scare actor heard me squeal, “I can’t see them!” and he then jumped forward and said, in a gravelly voice, “We can see you!!”)

Knott’s continues to do a great job with their scares. Paranormal, Inc. gets top marks for their extreme and creepy scares and surprises. *Spoiler Alert* The woman coming out on the ceiling track in the beginning sent me running into the maze. Shadowlands elicited the most screams from me – left and right, they jumped out at me and sent me 3 feet into the air yelping. And Pumpkin Eater was so creepy, no matter where they jumped out you just wanted to run. However, Dark Ride disappointed as the maze got so backed up, you were almost bored.

Universal seemed to have the best orchestrated scares. Stranger Things and Ghostbusters get negative points for overusing the same scare over and over. The Devil Dogs and Slimer were repeated so often it became a joke. But of all things, one of the first mazes we entered sent me down to the ground crawling to get away – Killer Klowns from Outer Space. They knew exactly when to jump out and frighten you and I was surprised that such a silly concept could elicit such screams from me. Creepshow produced some excellent scares – and there were several instances of scare actors pretending to be robots – and you believed it – until they jumped out at you. Us and Pandora’s Box produced the best double scares. They knew exactly when to either jump from both sides, or scare from one side, then an immediate follow up from the other. And Pandora’s Box had a great scare where you’re convinced that one of the skeletons on either side of you was a scare actor – only to unfortunately find out the scare actor is the third character you don’t see, sending you to the ground screaming.

*Winner: Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights

Maze Effects and Props

You have to give “props” to the Queen Mary for their use of the actual ship. We could not believe 3 of the mazes were in the bowels of the ship, and this created such an added, almost ‘real’ experience. You ended in large areas of the ship with lots of equipment and mechanicals. And one maze had you crossing a bridge high above a vast cavern on the boat – it was a complete wow. As mentioned before, Intrepid’s use of lasers was amazing, and Rogue’s use of fog and water really added to the experience. Although Dark Harbor seriously blew me away – it’s challenging for them to really compete with Knott’s and Universal.

I would expect Universal to win this category – but they didn’t. I had read Robert’s article mentioning the ending of the Ghostbusters maze with the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man – it seemed puny to what I had seen before at Knott’s. Nothing was really big and grandeur at Universal. Although the props were very realistic – I felt they never used ingenuity when it came to the effects.

And this is the category where Knott’s surprised me. The Depths, on its own, wowed me so much I couldn’t believe I was at Knott’s Berry Farm. They had a huge room where you were supposedly “in the water” which was just a sea of laser lights blinding you from looking below the surface. The giant sea creature at the end was amazing. Origins featured a giant hand – and the final scene with the witch on a ceiling track so she could fly around. And Paranormal, Inc. totally had me at “hello.” Their use of ceiling tracks and scares was just amazing. I saw more investment in more grandiose sets at Knott’s than I did at Universal.

*Winner: Knott’s Scary Farm

Maze Spookiness

You’d expect Universal Studios to deliver the spooky – but they just didn’t cut it. Pandora’s Box and Creepshow were definitely the most eerie of the mazes. The Walking Dead (which is a year-round attraction) was a complete disappointment – I miss the old walk through with the werewolves and Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Killer Klowns, Ghostbusters, House of 1000 Corpses, Holidayz in Hell, and Stranger Things just weren’t spooky.

Knott’s surprised me with the spooky in Shadowlands. I screamed more in that maze than any other. And they definitely get points for Pumpkin Eater (completely eerie through and through) and Paranormal, Inc. gave me the jitters throughout the entire maze. I was literally shaken coming out of that experience.

But Dark Harbor truly delivered the spooky. Feast – one of the 3 mazes onboard ship – had such an eerie vibe, I was completely terrified. There was a sense of foreboding going through this ‘maze.’ What was going to happen next? And my friend was forced to crawl through a separate area (the ‘oven?’ or ‘dishwasher?’) while we watched him through the glass. You’d see the different areas of the ship as you passed through and you thought, “there’s history here…things happened….” Plus the rust, wear, and general ‘old’ look upped the creepy. Intrepid and B340 delivered such darkness that you just had to ‘feel’ your way through uneven floors and tight passages. It was so creepy! And although Lullaby was one of the worst mazes of all 3 parks, it still brought the spooky in the bowels of the ship. For the mazes both off ship and on, Dark Harbor delivered the spooky.

*Winner: Dark Harbor


Well – Dark Harbor can’t really compete here. They have Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch ‘swing ride’ and that’s about it. We enjoyed the experience on the swings, but I have to say I’m a bigger guy – and that thing hugged my hips like a vice – so if you’re any bigger than me, you won’t fit.

Universal had 4 rides open. Transformers is amazing and ups the Florida Spiderman experience. Revenge of the Mummy is good, but pales to its Orlando counterpart. The Simpson’s is always hilarious. And the upgrade to “Jurassic World” was phenomenal. The “aquarium” in the beginning was mind-blowing – and the whole ride felt different. But – they didn’t open Harry Potter. Why!? It’s perfect for Halloween and would help disperse the crowds. Universal ultimately has only 4 rides to supplement the mazes (and honestly, they don’t have much more than that for regular operations).

Knott’s goes all out – mazes AND rides. We rode Hangtime, and it was my first time, and I was completely shocked by how great an experience it provided. Ghostrider’s re-track was a rush. And the Calico Mine Ride is still an enjoyable experience. We sadly missed the Timber Mountain Log Ride due to its absence from ‘Fast Lane,’ – yet almost all of Knott’s rides were open including Xcelerator, Supreme Scream, and Montezooma’s Revenge (Pony Express was down since the night before and we were told would take a week to fix). Knott’s clearly has the advantage here.

*Winner: Knott’s Scary Farm


This one is a no-brainer. Dark Harbor has some random performers (think: hanging from silks or twirling fire torches) but it can’t compete with Universal or Knott’s. They had an upcharge “Panic” experience – essentially a 4D animated monster movie where they poked your back and blew air and water on you, a la Shrek 4D and It’s Tough to Be a Bug. It was fun - but hardly worth the extra $$.

Universal has Jabbawockeez – and that’s it.

Knott’s has ‘Puppet Up.’ After reading Robert’s recommendation, we made sure to attend the show. The auditorium, sadly, was only half full. But the show was gut-busting hilarious! I could not believe how fast the actors could improv. And the inappropriate paths they went down had everyone in stitches. Don’t miss it. Add to this The Hanging, an always hilarious skewer of pop culture (odd that this survived, but Bill & Ted at Universal died), and Conjurers, and you have yourself an overfull plate. We needed a second night at Knott’s – there was so much to do, we couldn’t do it all.

*Winner: Knott’s Scary Farm

Overall Atmosphere

Universal Studios Hollywood is at a disadvantage. They are so spread out between the Upper and Lower lots – plus the Metro area and the Tram area. It’s all buildings, escalators, and tunnels. None of which contribute to a ‘spooky’ atmosphere. And even if you want to return to a particular maze, the distance is a dealbreaker. They had their Scare Zones – but they were in well-lit areas with avenues that really couldn’t hide their day purposes. Universal is the least atmospheric of the bunch.

Dark Harbor tries to up the atmosphere – but you end up with ‘crazy carnival’ and way too many bars (This event seems all about drinking…everywhere…even half way through the mazes – which is a bit of a turn off). It’s such a mish-mash, it’s like attending a carnival or fair in a small community. It’s just a mess.

But then Knott’s comes in – dimming the lights, and delivering an overall fright-tastic experience. Walk by Big Foot Rapids and you might feel uneasy. Wander through Ghost Town and hope that a monster doesn’t’ jump at you from the fog. Travel through The Hollow and feel the eeriness as you stare into lighted pumpkins and scare actors scream by you. Knott’s ‘non use’ of lighting, and the general layout and structure, gives it the edge for overall atmosphere. The whole park is just eerie – and walking around the park is an attraction unto itself.

*Winner: Knott’s Scary Farm

So…after all this, I will say that all 3 events are worth it. Dark Harbor was celebrating its 10 year anniversary, and from what I’ve read, they’ve vastly improved the event over the years. Universal continues their quality efforts – owning so much IP and having great set construction leads to a very solid experience. And they do have the most mazes – although quite spread out across the property. Knott’s holds the crown for the “oldest” and the “originator” – yet quality has not always been on their side. Yet seeing Knott’s over the last 40 years (I think it’s the 46th anniversary of the event) learn and evolve has been amazing. They limited their mazes to 9 (I remember a year with 11) in favor of quality over quantity. And they know how to create an overall experience that never breaks character. I only miss the 1st and 3rd years of Trapped, which was a phenomenal experience (the 2nd year was a bit of a fail).

So…to answer my original question - if you only could choose one, what would it be? You can’t go wrong with any of them. But looking at the overall categories from scares to experiences to cost to convenience I ended up choosing the place that I didn’t have enough time to complete in one night and wished we had a whole second night to explore. So little time, and so many scary experiences.

Thus – only one night? KNOTT'S SCARY FARM is your destination!!

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