Halloween Review: Fresh Energy at Six Flags Fright Fest

September 25, 2022, 5:40 PM · Six Flags Magic Mountain this year has given its Fright Fest a new haunted house, a pair of new scare zones, and some fresh entertainment options. Those refreshed options imbued an event that remains a little rough around the edges with some fresh energy.

Magic Mountain competes in one of the most crowded Halloween theme park environs in the United States; you won’t hear many excitedly tell their friends they’re going to Fright Fest to kick off spooky season. Six Flags does itself little favors with a pricing structure that favors pass holders and no one else. A Haunted Attractions pass costs $25-30 depending on the night, but you still need to buy a general admission ticket. That will run you between $115-125 if buying from the Six Flags website.

That is, it will not surprise you, substantially more than a Knott’s Scary Farm or a Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights ticket. And that’s a shame, because while the creative crew at Fright Fest puts on a fine show, it’s not quite at the level of their better-heeled brethren.

Operations within the maze are disorganized; Six Flags does not utilize the hooded guest control employees that have become ubiquitous at other events. It can make for confusing meandering through their haunted houses. That, combined with actors who at times meander through the halls without a clear sense of direction remind you what separates Knott’s and Universal from the rest of the pack.

But, more than any other year at Fright Fest, those problems felt eminently fixable. The themed environments were strong enough to immerse guests. There were usually enough actors in the haunted houses to feel like Six Flags’ long run into austerity hasn’t touched Fright Fest just yet. And if the price point hurt attendance, it didn’t show on Saturday night; walkways were crowded, no doubt drawing from the park’s season pass base. It appeared most rides were running, including Tatsu which has suffered from long periods of downtime this summer.

With only six mazes, you shouldn’t have much of a problem hitting all of them if you show up at opening — but here’s a rundown on what to expect. The first three mazes are nestled in what is now a backstage area behind the Full Throttle Sports Bar — if you’re really old, are back where Flashback used to be.

Truth or Dare

New for 2022, Truth or Dare didn’t open until 9:45pm on Saturday due to technical issues. This Saw-meets-WandaVision maze clearly has some ideas to play with, but I don’t think we got the best version of it. We walked through multiple empty rooms with unused props that hinted at a Jigsaw-torments-his-victims vibe that never truly developed.

Instead, Six Flags put its energy behind a few acrobatic-based scares throughout the house. Knott’s has used similar techniques over the past five years with middling results. Beyond grabbing for theatricality, having someone float past you on wires often reduces the immersion in a themed environment. Despite missing some early scare opportunities, and my thoughts on stagehands run amok, going through this house as one big group was fun, and if they’re able to continue to do that throughout the season, I think it’ll be a hit.

Vault 666: Unlocked

My favorite house of the night featured some long walks through well-dressed sets, giving actors lots of places to hide among props and other periphery. This returning house will be familiar to haunt veterans in style, but its construction into an existing building gives the journey some texture. As with many houses in this vein, we’re walking through a series of spooky rooms before eventually we get to something vaguely cult-like. How far we’ve come since the 1980s!

Condemned — Forever Damned

A gross-out house, not far removed from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scarecrow houses of yore. Six Flags is more willing to force its guests into ducking under barriers, squeezing through airbags and other, ah, contact points than Universal. Knott’s has shown a greater willingness for these sorts of high-contact devices over the years, but there were moments when Fright Fest, for better and for worse, felt like a large-scale home haunt. This house really captured that.

A long walk around the perimeter of the park takes you to Apocalypse, which shrouds the fourth house of the night.

Aftermath 2: Chaos Rising

Chaos reigns in this zombie-themed, open-air walkthrough attraction. The opening set piece was spectacular and features a ball of fire repurposed from the wooden coaster next door. But poorly communicated directions can make it difficult to know where you’re supposed to go next, often leaving the task of direction giving to the zombies who are supposed to be mangling your flesh. This could be solved with a few non-zombie actors in the field — or, again, some guest control employees.

The final two houses sit atop the hill between Ninja and Superman: Escape From Krypton. The good news? Few tread here, so expect shorter waits as a result. These houses are also longer in the tooth than their front of the park brethren, which might affect their waits.

Sewer of Souls

A throwback to the days of 3D-over-everything, Sewer of Souls offers a disorienting journey through a toxic dump. Your tolerance for 3D glasses will dictate how badly you want to toddle through this house — you’ll also have to suffer through a pair of ginormous airbags to reach your final destination. This is not for the claustrophobic.

Willoughby's Resurrected

If Magic Mountain has a legacy in the haunt game, it’s Willoughby's. There have been updates, tweaks, and upgrades to the house over the years, perhaps most notably an over-reliance on screens in some areas of the house. Once the screens featuring creepy little girl and spooky boy started showing up at local haunts, they started to feel badly out of place at theme park Halloween events. But, I digress! Willoughby's is a classic haunted mansion built into yet another unused building at the top of the hill. While that's problematic for the daytime park, it's delightful to have so many houses stuffed into old buildings, eschewing the switchbacks and tents of other events.

We also checked out the Spirit With the Spirits buffet ahead of the opening of the haunted houses. For $59.99, you get a buffet that includes chicken fingers, sausages, mac n' cheese, meatballs, pulled pork, baked beans, salad, two dessert options and a drink ticket.

My partner and I tried a mocktail that was effectively a sprite with grenadine and a cocktail that included vodka, cranberry, lemon juice and grenadine. We got to keep the plastic cups, though given Six Flags’ loose article policy, this ended up as more of a burden than a blessing.

The Voodoo Nights show, taking place on the Full Throttle stage, seems to be the largest entertainment offering of the event. I walked past The Rising, which takes place by the fountain at the front of the park, multiple times throughout the night and never saw anything beyond classic scare zone trappings.

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Replies (6)

September 27, 2022 at 9:31 AM

We went to Fright Fest at SFA this past Sunday, and agree that it seems like SF is trying a bit harder to put on a better Halloween event this year. We never pay the upcharge for the mazes (there are a total of 4 at SFA this year), but while the scare zones were a bit smaller, they were far more detailed than in years past.

A couple of notes...

It is still pretty early in the season, and the weather was not the greatest on Sunday with a line of storms that hit around 5 PM (but later cleared for a mild evening), but the park appeared to be struggling with staffing. Not only were scare actors few and far between in the scare zones (there were ZERO present in the "Hellblock 6" scare zone in the back of Gotham City the 3 times we walked through), but another sign of staffing challenges was that almost all of the park's restaurants closed at 7 PM or earlier, and entertainment staff were appearing in multiple shows across various venues around the park.

The entertainment was pretty good this year focusing on magic and side-show style performances (in lieu of theater-style and song/dance performances), led by Las Vegas-based Aaron Raditz. I've always felt that SFA doesn't get it's due for putting on great entertainment (particularly their long-running stunt show), and the performances this year are solid.

There were TONS of security personnel and county police throughout the park, and an exceptionally large contingent at the entrance gate, where skirmishes have broken out in the past.

I agree with Jake here that SF has designed their Halloween event for pass holders with their pricing structure. Daily admission to SFA isn't as expensive as SFMM, but it's still pretty cost prohibitive to pay just to enter the park and then pay an additional charge (more than half the price of admission) just to go through the 4 mazes. Also, I just don't have faith that I would get my money's worth for the maze upcharge, because I simply don't trust SF to pull off appealing mazes. I also feel bad for the scare actors in the mazes where there is not a constant flow of guests due to the upcharge that results in just a few groups of people walking through the mazes at a time.

I think SF needs to either include all of the Halloween attractions in the cost of admission like other regional parks or make Fright Fest a hard-ticket event like HHN (the former probably makes more sense).

September 27, 2022 at 10:22 AM

There were certainly fewer actors in mazes than you'll see at Horror Nights or Knott's Scary Farm, but there are also fewer people pulsing through houses than either of those events, so Six Flags gets away with it. To your point, the scare zones (with the exception of the D.C. Universe zone) were often under staffed.

My hunch is the overarching strategy is to boost attendance in lean months — if they can make some extra money by selling an additional ticket to pass holders, all the better. Finding other ways to monetize the event, like the Spirit With the Spirits event, is all part of the package. Six Flags might be able to get away with a hard ticket event in other metros, but I think it would be a hard sell when competing in Southern California.

Have you been to Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg? I'm curious how that event is doing.

September 27, 2022 at 12:16 PM

We haven't been to HOS yet this season, so I can't comment on that event which has a lot of new mazes and scare zones this year.

I would agree that SF's strategy here is to find ways to get guests through the gates during leaner times and to spend a bit more than they normally would to offset the costs, but it also seems like SF is recalibrating their seasonal events (rumored to be ditching Holiday in the Park at most locations) at the same time they're reworking their Season Pass/Membership programs.

Also, I can tell you as a someone who worked as a scare actor before, it's depressing to spend a shift in a maze when only a handful of groups walk through over the course of an hour or 2. Not only do you spend inordinate amounts of time sitting around bored to death in often uncomfortable costumes and makeup, but because all of the actors are waiting for people to come through, the guests get immune to the scares by the end of the maze because they've been jumped by every actor in the house. It was always a better experience for both the actors and the guests if there's a constant flow that forces actors in close proximity to trade off or work together to share the load. It also gives actors more opportunities to experiment with their roles and lines on live guests to see what works best. When only a few dozen guests go through a maze in an evening, you just don't get much feedback or extra chances to try different things.

I distinctly recall the finale to the maze I worked that involved a sequence of classic monsters with well-designed sets. Guests would walk across a small wooden bridge where "Swamp Thing" would chase them towards a barn where Leatherface would be hiding and fire up a chainsaw to chase guests further along to some crates where a Wolfman would provide the final scare and chase guests to the exit. Those 3 actors had to work together to get the maximum impact, but if any one of them were too eager (because they were waiting 5-10 minutes between groups), the timing would always be off, and it just didn't work.

September 27, 2022 at 1:53 PM

I think that's a great point, re: the proper flow of guests in a haunted attraction. Not only because of the guest experience, but because of what you can teach the actors in the attractions. One thing I've been impressed with year after year at Horror Nights in Hollywood is the great opportunities the event gives its actors to scare guests.

They're put in locations where they can move pull off repeatable scares over and over again without burning out, something that seems more challenging at Knott's and certainly Six Flags, where you'll routinely see actors wandering around the house looking for something to do.

September 27, 2022 at 2:11 PM

@Jacob - The other thing HHN does so well is to design mazes that allow actors to move to different positions without having to change costume or go through makeup. Actors can play the same or similar role in a completely different scene, preventing that "burn-out", though the repetitiveness of HHN scares (and the sound and lighting effect queues) probably means actors can't stay positioned for more than 30 minutes at a time (unless they're a specialty performer).

September 27, 2022 at 3:28 PM

I think that's where good management of actors during the event becomes crucial to prevent burnout. That is, theoretically, easier at a large event like Horror Nights where you should have a programmatic rotation scheduled. But you're right, having repetitive scares, even with a little room to maneuver, makes it easier for actors to burn out throughout the course of an evening.

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