The ship looms above you, silhouetted ominously against the autumn sky. A hellish maze of cargo containers topped with a tower that periodically spews flames into the air confuses and disorients you. You flee to the safety of the village, only to be cornered time and again by demons hungry for your flesh. Your only possible refuge is the ship - the Grey Ghost - and, once on board, you realize that there is no salvation to be had; there is only fire, water, disease and death. Welcome to the Queen Mary's Dark Harbor.
Your potential enjoyment of Long Beach's newest haunted attraction hinges on the following: Does the above description sound like an utter nightmare or a fun Friday night? If your answer is the latter, then you're bound to have a spooky good time at the Dark Harbor. Let me begin by saying that if you've never visited the Queen Mary, that's reason enough to buy your tickets now. The ship, with its Art Deco interiors and numerous ghost stories, is beautiful and eerie, and you'll have ample chance to explore once you're finished with the Halloween-specific mazes and attractions.
As mentioned, 2010 marks the very first incarnation of the Dark Harbor. There have been previous haunts on and around the Queen Mary (most recently known as the "Shipwreck" for Halloween), but this is their first attempt to create a completely immersive experience that incorporates everything this unique setting has to offer - not just the ship itself, but the harbor, village and even the massive dome that once housed the Spruce Goose. The Dark Harbor also seeks to set itself apart from other area haunts by creating an overarching storyline that links all of the mazes together, rather than simply throwing together a bunch of disparate Halloween tropes and calling it a night.
While I greatly admire this sentiment, it has to be said that some aspects of the Dark Harbor succeed better than others when it comes to sticking to themes. For instance, the three mazes onboard the ship address specific fears that many people have when it comes to sea travel, such as disease outbreaks, drowning and fire. Yet the whole "three she-demons" idea - while cool in theory - was a little hard to follow. (Basically, there is one demon who lords over the ship, one who commands the village and one who controls the ruined seaport as a whole.) How do these demons tie into the mazes themselves? I'm not entirely sure...but I have to say that momentary confusion did little to dim my enjoyment of the event as a whole. Here are my thoughts on each of the five individual mazes:
- Village of the Damned: I absolutely adored the setting for this maze, which takes place in the little Tudor village near the ship. It had a very Old World feel, which reminded me of the classic Universal monster movies, and many twists and turns to keep you on your toes. There was a good combination of monsters jumping out at you and tortured souls telling you frantically to "turn back now!" Perhaps not the strongest thematically, but in terms of ambiance, a definite winner.
- The Cage: This is the maze that takes place in the Spruce Goose dome, which truly must be seen to be believed in terms of size. (At several points during the maze, I thought to myself, "How are we not outside?!") The objective with the Cage was to scrap any attempts at theme and instead give visitors a more tactile and purely disorienting experience - think mirrors, optical illusions, colored lights and chain-link fences. Unfortunately, this was my least favorite maze of the night. However, I do think that this maze could be improved as the event continues to grow and the kinks are ironed out in the years to come. At this point, though, it simply left me wanting more - and eager to check out the next themed maze.
- Containment: One of the three onboard mazes, Containment is populated by the diseased, the demented and the undead. As you snake your way through the ship, you'll encounter madness, mutilation and mayhem as people reach out to you from hospital beds and chase you in their wheelchairs. I enjoyed this maze, but of the three on the ship, I found it to be the least frightening.
- Hellfire: Ah, now we're talking! When we attended on Friday, this maze - which imagines the deadly consequences of a fire on board the ship - was apparently a little too on point. While we were waiting in line, the fire alarms began to sound. At first we assumed it was all part of the show, but then we were evacuated from the area! I'm not sure whether there are supposed to be massive pyrotechnic effects in this maze - I got the impression that perhaps that was the case - but in any event, there weren't many flames by the time we went through. (I'm sure the special effects are back on track by now; after all, we went on opening night, so a few hiccups are to be expected.) Still, Hellfire was one of my favorites. If you have a fear of heights, as I do, there is a special thrill waiting for you near the end of the maze. Mwahaha.
- Submerged: My favorite! I loved this maze. It was the last one we went through, and in my opinion, the best of the night. What could be scarier than a sinking ship? I loved the dank feel of walking through the bowels of the ship as animatronics and water effects simulated various scenes of aquatic torment. Submerged also holds a special place in my heart because it takes you through the first class swimming pool, an area which is rumored to be one of the most haunted parts of the ship. I've been to the Queen Mary several times, but never managed to get myself into the pool area until now, and the creepy payoff was well worth it. The ghostly projections on the bottom of the empty pool are a nice touch.
The Queen Mary's Dark Harbor may not be the most sophisticated haunt in southern California just yet, but it's an excellent alternative for haunt enthusiasts who may be looking for a change from their standard Knott's/Universal October jaunt - and it's a deliciously spooky introduction to the ship itself. I predict that the Queen Mary will be providing serious competition for the Halloween big boys in no time.
The Dark Harbor takes place on weekends now through the end of October, from 7 PM to 12 midnight. Tickets are just $25 with a valid student ID, and during their "Sea Evil Savings Weekends" (Oct. 8-10 and 15-17) general admission will be lowered to $29. Parking is $10. For more information, visit the official website.
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary passes to review this event.